The last person I expected to give me relationship advice was the Lolita-glamorizing, cultural-appropriating Lana Del Rey. But as I sobbed while sitting on a bench outside Borough Hall in Brooklyn, she sang into my ears and explained exactly why I would never have a future with the person I loved, whose clinical depression had escalated to the point where he could hardly acknowledge my presence:
“It hurts to love you, but I still love you/ It's just the way I feel/ And I'd be lying if I kept hiding the fact that I can't deal/ And that I've been dying for something real.”
That “something real” had been so tangible when he “held me in his big arms/drunk and I am seeing stars,” when he texted me to tell me how grateful he was to have me in his life, when I met his entire family. But now “my rose garden dreams” had been “set on fire by fiends,” by forces outside both of our control. And neither of us could keep hiding the fact that we couldn’t deal.
I. “No more night, blue skies forever”
Initially, T’s mental illness actually brought us together. After our first date, I couldn’t wait to see him again and we made plans to quickly reunite. Hours before our second date, T texted me to cancel, apologizing profusely. He couldn’t leave his room, he told me. He “never would tell anyone else this, but since you’re a social worker and understand mental illness, I feel I can tell you. I have severe clinical depression. It gets so bad that I can’t move or think. I’m a vegetable. It scares me, and it’s like a monster that lives in my brain. I’m so sorry. I really want to see you again and I hope you can forgive me.”
I could. As he intuited, my background in social work and as someone living with acute Generalized Anxiety Disorder and a chronic physical illness called Interstitial Cystitis made me value his openness and bravery. My own illnesses make my body and mind often feel like my enemy, which made me empathize with his pain. I told him I understood, and that he could talk to me as much as he wanted, whenever he wanted, about his feelings. With the barrier he imagined his revelation would create torn down, we texted constantly while his depressive episode was too intense for him to function over the next week, both us of being vulnerable about our illnesses. We shared the same hatred of the capitalistic system that made both of us fear never being fulfilled while having to work within a world that wasn’t set up for people like us: people living with illnesses whose bodies and minds don’t allow us to always “produce”; dreamers who want to spend their days absorbing music, movies, books, and ideas instead of sitting in front of a computer all day. We were on the same page about everything from our taste in cult movies and music to our shared offbeat sense of humor. Despite the darkness he lived in, he brightened my life.
Over the next few months, we began spending most of our free time together, two broken people who found levity and hope in one another’s company. In one text message I still have saved via screenshot and can’t bring myself to delete, he said, “You are fantastic to me and I know it’s genuine from your heart. I’m so happy to have you in my life as long as you keep being true to yourself, open, and honest with me. You are a treasure.” The illness that made him self-destructively ruminative also made him more in tune with and honest about his feelings than anyone else I’d dated. T eventually revealed that he had been hospitalized in the past, and had received electroconvulsive therapy, which is reserved for the most severe depression cases, and that he currently felt no better than he had during this time. I didn’t care; he was an amazing person, not a diagnosis. T told me I made him happy, and I hoped that the happiness I brought him could scare away the “monster” that tormented him.
II. “A touch/From your real love/It's like heaven taking the place of something evil”
Lana Del Rey’s music was a constant presence in my relationship with T, initially in a joking way. T is twenty years my senior, and I would self-mockingly play him her many songs about dating older men, laughing as I sang to him, “They say I'm too young to love you/I don't know what I need.” “Love,” the first single from Lana Del Rey’s album Lust for Life, was released after we had been together for about two months. When I first heard her sing, “It doesn't matter if I'm not enough for the future or the things to come/'Cause I'm young and in love,” my heart burst. Her past albums had dwelled on darker themes, but this song hinted at finally finding peace and being able to envision a future. I too, was finally happy after years of loneliness, anxiety, and isolation. As I listened to this song, I could put a name to the unfamiliar feelings that had been growing in my heart over the past month: I loved him. I had finally found a romantic partner who made me feel valued for the first time, and whose personality — both his dark and light sides — I adored in turn.
In the album’s second single, “Lust For Life,” released soon after, Lana sang: “We're the masters of our own fate, we're the captains of our own souls.” Yet as we heeded her command to “take off all your clothes,” laughing at ourselves while disrobing to her words for being so literal, we were not the masters of our own fates or the captains of our own souls. The third presence in the room lurking in the background, the mental illness he called “the monster living inside my brain,” was the captain that would eventually steer us apart.
III. “There's something in the water, I can taste it turning sour”
I decided to tell T I loved him after we’d been dating for three months. He hadn’t yet said Those Three Words, but I felt confident that he loved me. Initially, it was T who made overt gestures that indicated he loved me. Just a few weeks into dating, he excitedly told me about changing his Facebook status to “in a relationship,” “for the first time ever, because you’re special enough to deserve that.” This felt significant because, at age 47, he’d been in many serious relationships. He quickly introduced me to his beloved mother and to most of his friends, and sent me frequent texts throughout the day saying things like, “I’m so glad you’re in my life, darling,” that melted my heart.
When I decided to tell T I loved him, he was having an especially rough day. He had applied to many jobs but heard back from none, and was convinced that he would never work again and was “worthless.” As I held him in my arms, I told him, “You are valued, and you are loved. I love you and value you, and you are worthy of that love.”
I waited a few beats to watch the expression on his face or wait for reciprocation. His face was blank. “I just said something kind of important,” I murmured after about a minute. “I know,” he said, “I’m just not there yet.” My heart stopped. “I care about you so much and I want to be able to say I love you, but I can’t love anyone with this illness. I can hardly even think because my brain isn’t functioning. You’re the most important person in my life…”
“But you don’t love me.”
“After everything we’ve been through together. After everything we’ve shared.”
“I’m not able to love anyone when I’m like this. I can’t even live with myself.”
My heart shattered. We had started planning a future together: We had set our couple’s Halloween costume as the Fleetwood Mac Rumours album cover and talked about watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg together next Valentine’s Day. He loved me deep down, I was convinced. Why did this illness have to get in the way of our future? Did it have to? No, I thought. Crushed as I was, I’d keep waiting for his head to clear and for him to realize he loved me. This wonderful human was trapped by but not defined by an illness. “My bird of paradise who never got to fly at night,‘cause [he] was caught up in the dens,” would get better and be able to fly eventually.
IV. “Real love, it's like feeling no fear when you're standing in the face of danger, 'cause you just want it so much”
By the time Lust for Life was released in late July, T and I had been together for six months. I continued to enjoy all the time I spent with him, but he had become increasingly distant, and both physically and psychologically sicker. After attempting to wean off one of his many medications, he went into such severe withdrawal that I had to feed him oatmeal from a spoon myself, his head on my lap, to make sure he ate. He became unable to leave his apartment; the loving texts vanished and instead I wouldn’t hear from him for twelve hours because he was too immobile to look at his phone. I’d panic that he was unsafe, and expended all my energy into making sure he was safe and cared for. I loved him, so I eventually became his nurse because I wanted to, not out of obligation or because he ever coerced me—in fact, he expressed guilt for the labor I was providing him while also battling my own mental and physical illnesses. Despite his worsening condition, he never ceased to be the kind, creative person I fell for, and still made me happy, but something had shifted. After six months, during which I was giving him all of my heart and my energy and nursing him to an extent that my friends found unwise, the fact that he still couldn’t say “I love you” began to hurt more and more. Tension between us grew as I suppressed my urge to ask, “Why not, still?”
When I finally listened to the full album Lust for Life, it was no longer the euphoric first two singles that resonated with me but the melancholic third track “13 Beaches,” the chorus of which I listened to as I sat on those steps sobbing outside Borough Hall. I hadn’t been able to name my feelings, but Lana Del Rey did precisely: the pain of loving someone who can’t love you in return. In the following song, “Cherry,” she sang, “Love, is it real love? It's like smiling when the firing squad's against you. And you just stay lined up.” I did feel exactly as though my heart was being shot at every moment that he didn’t say “I love you,” but I loved him so much that I couldn’t not nurse him and hope his brain would clear enough to be able to say he loved me. No matter how much distance his depression put between us, when Lana sang to her non-reciprocating lover in “13 Beaches” that “you can still find me/If you ask nicely…I’m camera-ready almost all the time.” I realized I was also in that deep: I loved him so much that I would do anything to stay together and always be “camera-ready” for him, “holding [him] in my arms without letting [him] fall” indefinitely even if he might never be capable of reciprocating. And it scared me that I was needy enough to go that far.
V. “My rose garden dreams, set on fire by fiends”
But I could no longer “keep hiding the fact that I can't deal.” As Lana sang in “Change,” “Something in the wind...blowing in” had “turned sour...it's bitter, I'm coughing, now it’s in my blood.” My friends told me I deserved someone who loved me as much as I loved him, and I explained that it wasn’t his fault, but I knew they were right. So I tried gently setting rules with T: “please text me once you’re awake so that I know you’re okay, because it scares me when I don’t hear from you all day knowing that you’re so sick. Since you said you think of me all the time but never tell me unless I’m with you, can you please tell me when you’re thinking of me throughout the day, because you never do any more, and I don’t feel valued?” He said he would, but he didn’t — he couldn’t. He was at the lowest physical and mental point I had ever seen him, and I spent my own therapy sessions brainstorming ways to get T inpatient treatment.
And then I snapped. T’s inability to move out of his bed — and his head — made him unable to give me an answer about whether or not he’d come to a friend’s performance with me until I asked one final time an hour before it started, although he’d promised to give me a prompt answer. When we left the event, I noticed that he hardly looked at me or acknowledged my presence while walking down the street, so I turned to him and impulsively asked, “It’s been six months now. I’ve given you my whole heart. Do you love me yet?” He looked with me with panic and said, “No.” ‘Will you ever love me?” “I don’t think I can,” he said. “You deserve to be loved. You are an amazing person. I just can’t be in love. I can hardly be a person while this thing takes over me.” Tears streamed down my face, and I told him he should go home. I was going away with family for the weekend, and we would meet back up on Sunday night for our regular Game of Thrones viewing.
What if I hadn’t spoken up? Could I still hide “the fact that I can’t deal”? I sobbed uncontrollably while I was away, lying on my bed and listening to “13 Beaches” repeatedly while avoiding my family so they wouldn’t see me so distraught. When I asked if he still wanted me to come over on Sunday night, he said he felt too depressed to have company. But I needed to talk to him; I needed to know if we were over, and I couldn’t wait another minute with my heart and mind racing with panic. He agreed to call me, and when he did, he confirmed my worst fears. He had realized he was unable to be in a relationship until his illness had abated, but he didn’t know if that would ever happen after two years with no symptom relief. He cared about me and called me his best friend, but he didn’t love me and probably never could, he said, a statement that made my heart drop into my stomach. All the plans we’d made for the future, and my sense of security and relief at finally not being alone, were ripped away from me. “My rose garden dreams, set on fire by fiends/And all my black beaches are ruined/My celluloid scenes are torn at the seams, and I fall to pieces.”
VI. “Out of the black, into the blue”
But more quickly than I expected, and yet again with the help of my unexpected guide, “I let go/And let [his] memory dance/In the ballroom of my mind.” For the next two weeks, I was outside NYC, at the beach with my father. Being in a peaceful space with no visual signifiers of T, in the company of someone who loved me, gave me the distance I needed to begin to recover. During these two weeks, I lay on the beach and listened constantly to the final song on Lust For Life, a song I had described to T weeks before as “a healing song.” I had played it for him as we lay in bed, hoping it would give him some peace. In “Get Free,” Lana Del Rey sings:
Finally, I'm crossing the threshold
From the ordinary world
To the reveal of my heart
Undoubtedly, that will for certain
Take the dead out of the sea
And the darkness from the arts…
Sometimes it feels like I've got a war in my mind
I wanna get off but I keep riding the ride
I never really noticed that I had to decide
To play someone's game or live my own life
And I now I do, I wanna move
Out of the black (out of the black)
Into the blue (into the blue)
With the lights off, I had gripped T’s hand tightly, hoping her message of moving from the black to the blue might move him as much as it had enchanted me. But now, I only had myself. When I lost the person I loved, who I couldn’t heal, I realized, “There's no more chasing rainbows/And hoping for an end to them/Their arches are illusions.” I had not wanted to accept that I could not have a future with someone who openly told me he could not envision any future for himself. Only with distance, and with Lana reminding me of the danger of chasing illusions, could I accept this truth and know I could let him go.
Eventually, I healed. My next semester of grad school started, and I thought of him less each day. “The colors used to lure you in/And put you in a trance,” but no longer did. With the space to rest and reflect, “gone [was] the burden/of the crowding way of being/That comes from energies combined.” Although I had to be pushed off the ride to get off it, I finally landed securely. I will always care for T, and I will always resent that his illness got in the way of a future we could’ve shared, but as someone with my own mental health struggles, I cannot let this cloud the fact that he is a wonderful human despite the ways in which his illness sometimes made me feel undervalued. When we broke up, I asked him to promise to text me weekly updates on his mental health, since I had invested too much into it, and cared about him too much, not to know whether or not he was okay. He eagerly agreed, but didn’t follow through. And that’s okay. I have moments of missing him, missing the future we lost, but I’m okay. When I hear “Love,” sometimes I get teary-eyed and remember how it felt to relate to it, and sometimes I think about maybe feeling this way with someone else in the future. Because there is a future for both T and I, even if it isn’t together. Out of the black, into the blue.
Top photo: "Lust for Life" music video still
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Zoey P. is a native New Yorker, clinical social work student, and freelance writer with an academic background in literary and film criticism. As a social worker, she believes the arts are a powerful source of healing and empowerment. Her main writing interests are in music, film, cultural studies, mental health, and queer and feminist theory, and her favorite Lana Del Rey song is "Gods and Monsters."