My favorite movie is The Little Mermaid.
Apart from being the teensiest bit obsessed with its music and animation, I identify deeply with Ariel – her naïveté, her passions that no one around her understands, her love of blue-eyed brunette men. Not to mention her devotion to singing, and her red hair (okay, she’s the reason I have red hair).
But even I have to admit it’s an incredibly unrealistic film. Obviously, no one would let two teenagers get married after knowing each other for only three days, especially when any problems their marriage could potentially develop would (literally) send ripples through two kingdoms that cover, like, ninety percent of life on Earth. Even deeper and more troubling than the movie’s plot holes, though, are enormous philosophical problems with the premise of the film: because like every Disney cartoon, it ends with a happily ever after.
Spoiler alert: Ariel gets married when she’s 16. Assuming she lives “happily ever after,” she experiences all of her life’s turmoil before she’s even a legal adult. How many people (hint: zero) can say they figured life out when they were a teenager? Everything that happens to Ariel after her wedding scene, then, is her “ending”, which could last another 70 years (or whatever the lifespan was for Danish royalty in the 19th Century – look it up). As the credits roll on the movie, we the audience are supposed to infer that Ariel and Eric have no problems, want for nothing, and are spiritually fulfilled forever. This is based on one giant assumption: that neither princess nor prince ever experiences internal change.
And before you start to argue that I’m over-analyzing a children’s cartoon, please realize that I’m getting to a point that applies to reality. Growing up with several psychiatric disorders, I’ve always known there’s really no such thing as a happy ending, at least not for someone with a rapidly-cycling mood disorder like mine (rapidly-cycling means I jump among moods unusually quickly). How can a person be happy with the same life forever, when their wants, needs, and moods change, sometimes dramatically and on a daily basis? How can my ending be happy, when any good feeling I ever have comes with a healthy, empirically-based fear that it could turn to misery at any moment?
Although I’ve always understood that “happy endings” don’t exist for this reason, I’ve only recently begun to understand that “happy” isn’t even the only problematic word in that phrase. Lately I’ve been retooling my grasp of the word “ending” as it applies to life, and whether an ending can even exist or not (before the final ending that death brings about, of course). Ultimately, that’s one of the biggest concepts The Little Mermaid gets wrong: there’s no such thing as happily ever after; not just because no one is happy forever, but also because there’s no such thing as “ever after” at all.
One of the hardest lessons I’m learning as I transition to adulthood is that there’s no such thing as a “happy ending” or an “unhappy ending” in real life, because life doesn’t end until it ends. What I mean by that is, the last few weeks or months or even years of your life aren’t really the ending; they’re just more of the middle, and then you die. (Cheerful, right? Yet accurate.) There’s no such thing as a consistent equilibrium that lasts a lifetime, whether it’s an equilibrium of moods or careers or relationships, because your life is guaranteed to change. People will leave, and then they’ll come back or they won’t, and then they might leave again, or they’ll die. You’ll move houses. You’ll gain weight, and lose it again, and have to buy new clothes. None of these things can really define you, because they are constantly in flux. Your present, past, and future may seem like distinct and separate points in time, but really they all just qualify as the middle of your life.
This is an especially important concept where mental illness is involved. If you have a psychiatric disease, you might fight until you’re better, but then you might get bad again, so you fight harder and hopefully find more relief, and that’s the whole plan, that’s it. In fact, there’s never any predictable, permanent future where you’re okay. What if the last decade of your life is happy and symptom-free, but you get depressed again the day before you die? Did you have an “unhappy ending” because you relapsed in your final hours? This is exactly the problem with trying to define an “ending” to life, short of literal death; chances are, depending on the nature of your disease, you will always feel bad again, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel well in between and vice versa. So can you really say a life ended with happiness or unhappiness, when the two are constantly battling to take charge and it’s just a matter of time before they switch again?
I know how nihilistic and defeatist that sounds, but for the sake of not losing morale, it’s very important to understand that your life has no “ending” like in a Disney movie: as long you’re alive there’s just more “middle”, and things can always get worse. I spent three healthy years after my first bout of depression expecting that I would be cured forever. I thought I would never experience the horrors of that pain again. So when my disease came back at the young age of 18, as I probably should have realized it might, I was so unprepared that it ruined my life for years afterword – in fact, I still haven’t recovered. Had I accepted that there’s no such thing as “forever after”, and I will always be at risk to feel sick again, I may have been more prepared to deal with the return of my symptoms, and consequently felt less vulnerable to them.
Of course, if you’re mentally ill, the unhealthy (but perfectly understandable!) reaction to this philosophy of “happily never after” is to live in constant, debilitating fear that your disease is lurking right around every corner and will strike at any moment, even when you feel your best (a paranoia of which I’m a seasoned veteran). Striking the right balance between feeling terrified and feeling invulnerable means living your good moments as fully as you can, while maintaining a healthy amount of concern that you are always at some degree of risk for getting sick again.
It may not make much sense, a deeply unlucky grown woman with multiple mental disorders like me identifying with an impossibly skinny child who’s a princess twice, but maybe that’s why I love her so much – she’s like the version of me that got lucky, and found a happily ever after. But in reality, there is no cure for mania, or schizophrenia, or any personality disorder. Meds can stop working and therapy can be hard. Sometimes drinking is tempting, and sometimes sleep doesn’t come. The only constant in life is change – and unless you marry a prince and live in a castle by the sea, this moment is the only “ever after” you have.