Finding a relationship when you struggle with mental health challenges can be hard for a host of different reasons. Depression, anxiety, addiction, and interpersonal struggles can make relationships very challenging. There is stigma attached to each of these conditions and many avoid contact and fail to see other great qualities that the sufferer brings to a relationship. For years I struggled with relationships, however, it wasn’t until I caught a “schizophrenia” that I was able to develop the emotional intelligence I needed to find and maintain a soul mate. Thank god for “schizophrenia!”
Like many of us who struggle with mental health challenges, I was starting out the game with some disadvantages. My family relations were strained. I moved away from home before I graduated high school and my room was converted to a study. I transitioned into college when a 25-year-old daughter of an alcoholic rescued me from the eating disorder unit upon which I had spent a significant portion of my senior year. I started living with her in the inner city, but was on a tight leash. I was not even able to have male friends. I survived the relationship for two years and then was in mourning. I lived alone in a roach-infested inner city apartment to hide my excessive binging and purging. I did not develop standard dating skills in college.
I was lucky to use a good GPA to land a job out of college that could pay my bills. Even with a professional job, my initial efforts to date were awkward and lacked discretion. Into each date I’d burst, willing to commit for an eternity with unconditional love.
I was in constant pursuit! Even so, I managed to quit binging and purging. I landed a second job and put myself through graduate school in the evenings and weekends. During that time, I had two stormy six-month relationships. Both left me because of my mood. I’d get depressed and need a lot of support. When the support wasn’t there the depression would get worse until they left. Getting dumped in this way was extremely painful.
In another sense, I was battling what had been labeled schizotypal personality disorder, depression, ADD, and dyslexia, and was forever trying to be well enough to marry a chronically normal woman and overcome these conditions. I listened to my PhD therapist without discretion. I didn’t know she told my parents that she didn’t think I was “college material.” She set my personal relationship goals for me as if she was a controlling parent. The depressions just meant it was time to change medications. And I was not to question the wisdom of the psychopharmacology professional.
Even with this mentality as guidance, “schizophrenia” did not take over my life right away. A year post graduate school, I decided to break away. I believed I could start over again and use the skills I had built on the East Coast to achieve success. I didn’t want to be attached to the stigma of the anorexic boy that haunted the halls of my private high school persistently tormenting me. I wanted to divorce all the six-degrees-of-separation people who whispered about me behind my back.
These hopes and dreams went swimmingly well in Seattle. I fell into a wonderful circle of support in the Quaker meeting, and in the Seattle Mountaineers I learned to snowshoe and bag off-trail peaks. I was constantly active, and I built a much stronger sense of support than I had on the east coast.
I immediately fell into relationships. I met a Thai woman, and it was the start of something powerful, but she was a survivor of domestic violence and I wasn’t passing her safety tests. I reacted to the confusion by finding the rat-race love of my life: her parents paid for her graduate school and she even had money to go to the car wash. That relationship only lasted six months — until she found out I took medication. Before she found out, it looked like my hopes and dreams were going to work out fine. Then depression set in.
That girlfriend left me at the same time I took a risky job amid the downtown politics of the local drug war. I started to work at a Section 8 housing authority where I thought I could make the most of my need for social change. There were, after all, many things that mattered to me apart from relationships. Three months later I entered a temporary relationship with a woman who was politically positioned to help me blow the roof off the power-brokers’ house. And that’s what we did! Two months after I left town, the housing authority lost control of the project and money was raised to improve services.
However, these risks took a toll that caused “schizophrenia” to take hold. In fact, I found the relationship scary. I wanted to experiment with going off my psychiatric medication. I was learning that my intuition was a better teacher than that therapist on the east coast — my intuition might save me from getting shanked. I had thought that college in the inner city had prepared me for this kind of reality, but now I was invested in this lifestyle in a different way. Now I could do something about the violence and chaos. Now I did things like leak news stories that made violence a real possibility if the wrong person found out.
When I was personally threatened and warned not to run, I split. So began my two-year period of “schizophrenia” during which I barely managed to stay housed and employed. Before I could make it to the Canadian border, I was accosted by police. Three days later, I got committed to a state hospital for three months. You see, I’d come to believe that the mafia was following me and that my family, who were relieved to have me hospitalized, were part of the conspiracy. I had evidence from my interactions with people in the hospital that supported a real conspiracy. Maybe my family was safer to blame. And they didn’t seem to care about the appalling conditions to which I was subjected.
Discharged to the streets, I took a Greyhound and landed a job and got an apartment until I ran out of medication.
When the medication wore off, I lost the job and found myself on a vision quest to avoid the control of the mafia. Everywhere I went I could see signs that I was being followed. I was not able to find work. I filled out thousands of applications. Professional work was out of the question. Ironically, the only non-professional job I could find was arranged by an aunt at an Italian delicatessen in the Bay Area.
After yet another move, I had to ride my bike ten miles and take BART for an hour to get to work. I would work an eight-and-a-half-hour shift and BART and bike home. It took me six months to get my mother to give me money for a car and another four months to establish enough rapport and safety at the deli to find another job. I couldn’t foresee that the process of having “schizophrenia” in this way was going to do me any good. So, I began to develop emotional regulation skills.
The first week I was five minutes late to work and they threatened to fire me. My immediate supervisors were nineteen and had cars and homes. I was the last to go on break. The kids I worked with would goof off, leaving the work for me, and tease me because I bought my sneakers at Walmart and didn’t have a plush new car like they did. Customers would complain that my shirt was wrinkly because I had to bike through the rainy season.
Now, this was a lot like my personal experience of junior high, but really it was the least of my worries. At the end of a long day I would find my apartment broken into, police search style. I would find my mailed work correspondence returned and opened despite complaints I left at the post office. I found residents I knew from the Section 8 housing complex in Seattle turning up at the BART station on my way to work with handcuffs and handmade “CIA” signs. I would find bike thieves at my bike lock. I would regularly find things moved around in my apartment and of course there were the many other signs of being followed on my way to work and back.
At work I paid for my food as I was supposed to, even though I barely made my rent. There were many incriminating thefts for which I was not responsible. There were lies made up and threats to fire me if I ever “got angry like that again.” And my parents constantly repeated that if I lost my job they could not afford to help me.
Thank goodness that there were sandwiches to be made, counters to be washed, garbage to be taken out, and excellent customer service to provide! I constantly strove to improve in these areas of job performance and this forced me to control my emotions. I was living on prayers with uncertainty that this would ever end. I learned to accept abuse that I hadn’t previously imagined to be possible in America.
Ten months in, I agreed to meet with a psychiatrist. When I finally admitted to him that I thought my co-workers at the deli were working for the CIA, he prescribed me 16 mg of Trilifon. I took half of that dose and slowly things got easier.
Two months later I got hired out of that little world of the Italian deli, but relationships were the farthest thing from my mind. I had a “no money, no honey” mentality. I worked seventy-hour weeks to make ends meet and maintain financial independence from my parents, who, throughout, had used my dependence to force me to see an Italian therapist I did not trust.
It took me three years to find someone to date. Money was not the only obstacle. I admit that dating someone when you have a history of “schizophrenia” is very hard. I figured that if people left me for something as common as depression, anyone hearing my story of psychosis would give me an immediate boot.
I didn’t fit in with the other therapists I worked around because of what I’d been through. Then I dated a transient roommate without a job. Because I was amazed she would give me a chance, I put up with abuse. The relationship lasted almost a year, but the breakup was mutual for the first time in my life.
When I was ready to date again, I knew better than to rush into things. I had established a steady job at an outpatient psychiatric unit with weekends off. With a sense of perspective, I reflected on relevant experiences. I learned with hindsight that there were some connections, like the connection I had with the Thai woman in Seattle, that were worth persistence. I learned to listen to my heart not the social judgement of an upper-class psychotherapist. I sought simultaneous surface relationships to keep my hope going so that I wouldn’t crush on anyone. I talked to myself so as not to react to rejection. Likewise, I would not instantly attach. And, most importantly, I wanted to find opportunities to bring mental health into the equation.
When I met the woman that would become my wife at a meet-up camping trip, I carefully heeded all my rules, but found that she was a lot like me. When we hiked together on that first day, I learned that she too struggled with learning disabilities. On the second date when she talked about having OCD, I trusted her more. Having mental health be part of the discussion was refreshing. I decided to reciprocate by sharing my struggles.
On our next contact, when she admitted she had told her therapist about my “schizophrenia,” I did not get mad. I peacefully finished her sentence.
I was right, her therapist had urged her to break up with me.
“I am not going to listen,” cried my wife.
It was true I had been scared when I started to sense those familiar sentiments, but I was confident. I had grown to believe that I could accept a possible rejection in stride. I had other options lined up. I now think this is a small example of the emotional intelligence skills that are necessary for good relationships to flourish. Thirteen years later we are both graced with those emotional intelligence skills in our daily interactions.
Me, I learned those skills working through my “psychosis” at the Italian deli. I think what is important about my story is not that I have been successful despite my experience with “psychosis,” it is that I have been successful because of what I learned during my “schizophrenia” journey.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.