Love, Romance, and Valentine’s Day With A Mental Illness

Today, February 14, is Valentine’s Day.  I know for some people it’s a reason to buy gifts, go out for dinners, and be romantic.  Others are more depressed about not being in a romantic relationship and feeling left out.  But since it is a day the world at large takes some time and makes efforts to reflect on the value of romantic love, it is a good an opportunity as any to reflect back on my experiences with romance, dating, and love as a man with schizophrenia.

I am currently unmarried and not in a romantic relationship of any kind.  At this point in my life I am content and happy with this setup.  This wasn’t always the case though.  As a teenage male, I had deeper feelings than many people and often showed my emotions more than many people thought appropriate, especially for a boy.  When I was ten years old I broke down crying over a girl I was sweet on who publicly turned me down.  It made matters worse in that it was at a school sponsored event attended by my parents.  Both my parents made it a point to tell me off in public for crying and being emotional.  They told me off again when we got home that night.  I never forgot that.  It was also the first time in my life I got my heart broken over a girl.  Of course it wasn’t the last.  Fortunately it did begin to steel my resolve in that yes it hurts getting rejected and shamed in public, but I survived and became stronger because of it.

I had my heart broke again a couple more times in early puberty by being rejected by girls I was interested in spending time with over the next two years.  Didn’t sting as bad as the first one but they did make me more resilient with each rejection.

When I was thirteen, I met the girl who would ultimately become my best friend in high school.  We hung out a lot, spent time at each other’s houses, traded books and magazines like some kids traded baseball cards, played video games together, and generally did things that friends do together as teenagers.  She was home schooled until high school, so she didn’t have the same day to day experiences in junior high I did.  I was still being rejected by girls I liked over the next three years, but it got to where I just got numb to it and accepted it as a part of living.  Eventually after three years of friendship, I developed romantic feelings for her.  We went on several dates, nothing really more formal than just going to dances and the movies.  But we were never intimate or even affectionate besides the occasional hugs when one of us was feeling down and depressed.  We did kiss a few times.  As good as that felt, we both had an unspoken agreement that we wouldn’t pursue a romantic relationship.  We just valued the friendship too much.  It was a short term painful decision but one in the long term turned out to be a brilliant move.

She moved out of state when we were eighteen.  I went off to college at age nineteen a more hopeless romantic than ever even though my mental health problems were beginning.  I had a couple slight crushes on a couple girls in my freshman class.  So much so that I didn’t recognize that there were at least two other girls who were sweet on me.  I didn’t realize it at the time.  I thought they were just pleasant and decent people to everyone they met.  There was a third girl who came flat out and told me she had feelings for me that weren’t typical friendship but of a romantic nature.  But I just didn’t feel the same way.  So I explained to her as carefully, tactfully, and honestly as I could that I didn’t feel the same way.  And I refused to insult her by acting like I had feelings for her when I didn’t just so I could have a steady date.  Acting like you have feelings for someone when you don’t just to be in a relationship or not to hurt their feelings is actually a cruel thing to do, especially long term.  Turns out that one girl I had feelings for dated my best friend for a few weeks.  That put a damper on my feelings for her though I never forgot her.

Near the end of my freshman year, I met my college sweetheart and started my only really hardcore romantic relationship.  We had some great times, had some arguments (like all dating couples), broke up and got back together a couple times, over the course of the next two years.  I eventually decided to call off the dating relationship shortly before 9/11 because I could tell my mental illness wasn’t going well with the highs and lows of the dating relationship.  For the last three years of college I didn’t date at all.  I was polite and decent to everyone I met, had lots of acquaintances I could join study groups with or go to sporting events on campus, but I had only a handful of extremely close friends whom I could do and tell everything to.

After I graduated from college I went back home because, like many college graduates, I didn’t have a job lined up by the time I graduated.  I felt embarrassed by this at the time but I would eventually find out I wasn’t alone and this was the new normal.  After a few months of working a dead end job, I had enough of my childhood hometown.  I realized my career was going nowhere, all my old friends moved away, and I had no prospects for friends or a career in my location.  I also didn’t have enough money to move away on my own.  I talked to my parents about moving to a larger town.  I was immediately shot down because they wouldn’t help me if I didn’t have a job offer in another town.  And I previously had several job interviews where I was told they would have hired me if I was local.  Made me very angry.  I couldn’t relocate because I had no job and I was getting rejected for jobs because I didn’t live nearby.

Finally in February 2005, I lied to my parents about a job offer I had in a town that was only a couple hours away from them but had decent opportunities, a state university, and much better health care.  I convinced them to help me move and pay for the deposit on a small apartment.  It was a cheap place I could live in as I had a few months of living expenses saved up so I could find a job.  It was the first time in my entire life I lied for personal gain rather than protection or privacy reasons.  I felt guilty that it had to be that way at the time.  But I am so glad I did looking back on it years later.  Sometimes breaking the rules and disregarding authority has to be done to do the right thing.  Life isn’t as black and white and cut and dry as far too many people make it to be.

For the first couple weeks I was out several hours every day giving my resume and filling out applications to places that would pay me enough to meet my living expenses.  I also applied to the local college to take master’s degree classes.  I had three job offers and a new job within the first three weeks in my new town, compared to only one in my childhood hometown in the several months I was back home.  Location is key, my friends.  You can have all the qualifications there are, yet if you are in a location that doesn’t suit those skills, you have to relocate.  There are no two ways about it.

I still occasionally asked girls out but still got rejected.  I finally had a long distance relationship that went quite well for several months.  I surprised her by driving to her hometown on Valentine’s Day 2006.  I had just gotten offered a decent job after I lost my job at the college because of my bad grades, which were because of my mental illness really beating me up.  The surprise was on me because she had to work a double shift that day.  I had to wait several hours before she got home.  Fortunately her mother took pity on me and kept me company until she got off work.  That was a whirlwind of a relationship.  We called it off that summer because we could tell it would never evolve into a marriage.  We just had different priorities, values, and interests to make a marriage work.  It stung at the time but I’m glad it ended before we got married.

In 2008 I qualified for disability insurance.  I had my safety net finally.  My life settled down and I didn’t have the highs and lows I did in previous years.  I also came to the conclusion I was better off without trying to date or be in a relationship.  I am definitely not anti marriage or anti love.  I just know with my mental illness, my personality, my values, etc. I would make a lousy boyfriend and husband.  I would make a lousy father too and I would feel guilty if I had children who became mentally ill because they inherited it from me.  As far as being lonely, that’s why I keep in contact with old friends and stay on good terms with family.  I have a much better relationship with my mother and father now in my late thirties than I ever did at any point in my life.  Like many children I regarded my parents like superheroes when I was six, clueless buffoons when I was twelve, would be fascist dictators at age seventeen I wanted to be free from, wise counsel and backups at age twenty eight, and now more like myself and close friends now that I am age thirty eight.  It’s been a long and strange journey these thirty eight years as a human and these twenty plus as being a man with mental illness.

Even though I have had a mental illness since my teenage years, and was eccentric my entire life, I was still interested in romance and the love of a good woman.  Sometimes I had that, many times I didn’t.  And as I have aged I have made my peace with what went on in the past.  I accept that I can’t change what went on.  I also wouldn’t change it if I had that power.  I am grateful for my experiences with romance, love, and dating while having a mental illness.  It taught me much about myself, mental illness, human nature, and life.  I wouldn’t trade any of it.  At this point in my life I am content to remain unattached.  I don’t know if this will always be the case and I don’t have to know.  I know not what tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, or even years from now will bring or how I will develop.  I’m just staying open to whatever happens and comes my way.

Why I Blog The Way I Do, Part 2

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This entry is a continuation of a previous entry, ‘Why I Blog The Way I Do, Part One‘.  In this post I’ll attempt to explain some more on why I include the things I do and why there are other things I don’t.

I admit I don’t include much scientific information simply because I am not a scientist by nature or training.  I have nothing against science.  I just don’t believe I’m familiar with it enough to explain the methods behind it.  I guess it might be in my personal makeup to accept that if I know something works just from my own personal experience, I don’t necessarily discount that if I don’t truly know how it works.  For someone with a science background, this might seem backwards as a scientist will want to know the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind the ‘effect’.  As I don’t have a strong background in science, I simply allow those who do to figure out the how and the why.  I am certainly grateful to those with scientific backgrounds who can easily find such things out.

A second topic I don’t get into is the politics of mental illness treatments/healthcare/etc.  This is not the blog for this.  Yes, I have my opinions like anyone else.  Politics, at least in my home country, has become nothing but divisive and contentious.  I don’t like the arguing and viciousness that goes on even in personal living, as I’ve outlined in my post ‘Arguing and My Schizophrenic Mind.’  It saddens me greatly that it is practically impossible anymore to  disagree with someone without the discussion turning personal and combative.  I certainly cannot follow a political discussion, even on topics near and dear to me.  I have enough division and contention going on in my schizophrenic mind.  I have no desire to have an external source add to it.

I also refuse to get into the whole discussion on whether to medicate or not.  All I can say is some people with a mental illness diagnosis can do well without anti-psychotic and anti-depressant medications.  Others, like myself, are unable to.  I know from personal experience that I can do well for awhile going meds free, but there will be serious problems after awhile if I try to make going med free permanently.  I am not enough of an expert to tell anyone whether or not they should medicate.  That is something that can be answered only a personal level from personal experience.

Going back to the subject of the science behind mental health treatments, I do know that new advances are being made quite often.  As I don’t have a scientific background, I am not qualified to comment on which ones will or will not lead to major breakthroughs in treatment options.  It is a possibility that medications may not be even needed for the treatment of mental illness for anyone if the right breakthroughs are made.  It certainly is exciting times we are in for these advances.

While I at least attempt to keep an open mind, there are simply some things I won’t comment on in this blog.  I don’t feel qualified enough to post on the details of scientific breakthroughs.  I don’t think I’m qualified to state whether or not someone should medicate or not as I am convinced that has to be a personal decision based on individual circumstances.  I won’t comment on any politics of mental health or anything else.  There are plenty of blogs that do that already.  I doubt that my not stating my political thoughts on anything will be missed.

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Seasonal Aspects of Mental Illness

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It’s been awhile since I last posted anything of my own doing on this blog.  For that I apologize.  Sadly, it has been a rougher last few weeks than normal.  Yet this was expected as late summer, especially the month of August and early September, have traditionally been the toughest times of year for flare ups of my mental illness.  There is in my case seasonal aspects to my mental illness problems.  Both times I committed myself to a mental health facility have been early in September after weeks of buildups of problems that usually began about late July.  After having these mental illness problems and seasonal flareups for going on seventeen years now, I have come to see that there are times of the year when my illness is often far worse than normal.

Even though I know and acknowledge that there is a seasonal aspect of my mental illness, I still haven’t pinned down an exact why it is in late summer.  Often, people with seasonal aspects of mental health problems tend to have their problems in the winter or during times of the year when they experienced at least personal tragedy.  I doubt in my case that my seasonal aspects are due to personal tragedy as people who have died that were personally close to me have almost without exception died in the winter months.  It could be that my seasonal problems have to do with weather as late summers in my home state of Nebraska are typically very hot, occasionally humid, and often suddenly changing.  I personally always enjoyed cooler weather as my favorite times of year are autumn and spring.  I don’t really mind winters that much except that I personally don’t like driving on snow packed and ice covered roads that are the norm in my part of the USA.  Regardless of my appreciation for the change of seasons, don’t sign me up for summers in Texas or winters in Minnesota.  I have college friends from both places and I’ve heard their ‘horror’ stories about the weather.

I no doubt have times of the year when my mental illness is worse than others.  Unlike many people, my problems are often in the summers instead of the winters.  I still haven’t figured out the why as to this.  I simply know after having these problems for at least seventeen years that there are trouble times in the course of the year.  I’ve come to understand this and plan accordingly.

 

Reflections on My College Years with a Mental Illness

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I currently live in a town that is home to a small state university.  School will be in session within the next two weeks once more.  As a result, several thousand college students will be coming back and this town will really come back to life from it’s annual summer hibernation.  Even though I graduated from ten years ago, and had a failed experiment that was grad school, I still enjoy seeing the college students returning and resuming what, for many Americans, has become a rite of passage into adulthood.  

 

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All of this has me remembering when I went through during these years, not only in college but also as my mental illness progressed and eventually stabilized into some predictable cycles.  When I started college in the fall of 1999 ( I know, practically the dark ages to kids now coming of age), the internet was still in it’s early stages and almost no students had lap top computers, let alone got laptops just for enrolling.  The iPod would still be a few years away, so we still carted around tons of music CDs.  The best parties, get togethers, etc. were always thrown by people who had massive stereo systems that had the capacity to change dozens of CDs without having to do it manually.  No quicker way to kill a party than having to change discs when the music ran out.  Like I said, it would be seen as the dark ages to kids just starting out now.

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One thing I did have even back in the late 90s and early 2000s that helped me  a great deal was the free use of my college’s counseling service.  I was in the early stages of what I would later find out was my mental illness when I grudgingly went to a counselor.  I had my mind full of the stereotyped visions of lying on a leather couch, confessing my darkest secrets to a Sigmund Freud look alike, looking a ink blot cards, and having to talk about my relationships with my family.  What I found was simply someone who would actually listen to my problems and issues. The good part was that, in college, no one really knew or even made an issue of me going to counseling.  At my counselor’s urging, I saw a psychiatrist to do some evaluations.  I also underwent complete physical evaluations, including a scan on my brain and brain waves to rule out anything physically causing those problems.  After all these evaluations, from which I missed quite a lot of classes, I was given a diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia.

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I didn’t consider a diagnosis to be devastating.  For me, it explained a lot of why I had problems socially and was going through what I was.  It was a confirmation that I wasn’t making these problems up to attract attention or just feeling sorry for myself.  Yes, it did put some of a damper on my social life, social activities, and did force me to give up my dream of going into medical research.  But, I still managed to graduate from college, have several friends, learn some things I wouldn’t have had to, or bothered to, otherwise.  I’m glad for the experiences of my college years.  I’m glad I made the friends I did.  I’m glad for the counseling services at my college.  I only hope that students who are going into college for the first time find their niche, make some good friends, seek out help if and when they need it, and come out ready to face the challenges we all face in adulthood.

Struggles at Work with a Mental Illness

 

            When I first came out of college and entered into the world of work, I was all gung-ho and thought I could do it all.  I didn’t think that even schizophrenia was going to slow me down, let alone be a major hurdle to holding full-time employment.  I was wrong.

            I quickly found out that I couldn’t do all that I thought I could do.  I couldn’t work the forty-hour weeks that full time demands.  I couldn’t concentrate for long periods of time, at least not for the first few years out of college.  I would freeze up and have panic attacks around large crowds of people, especially people I didn’t really know.  So reality came crashing back down on me.

            I drifted from one job to another for the first two or three years I was out of college before I decided that I needed to take some time off and do some serious soul searching.  I needed to reevaluate my job strategy and why I wasn’t able to hold my jobs for longer than a few months at a time.  I needed to figure out why I was alienating myself from my coworkers and my supervisors.  Then one day in the fall of 2007 it finally dawned in me; I was not being honest about my illness to my employers.

            Let me state that again, I was not being honest about my illness to my employers.  Thanks to such laws as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and such third party go betweens as Goodwill and Vocational Rehab, workers with disabilities have a much easier time in the work place than they did in the past.  But I was not taking advantage of these programs.  These programs will not do you any good either if you refuse to acknowledge your need for help.  These programs are there for you to use; use them.

            I found out the very hard way the best thing an employee could ever be is not intelligent, skilled at their job, or even have good people skills.  No, by far more important is honesty and integrity.  And I was not doing myself any service by telling my supervisors I could do jobs without accommodations that, according to the ADA I was within my rights to request if it was made known I had a disability, in all reality I could not.  I was not helping myself. 

            In short, because of my pride and being in denial as to how bad my mental illness really was, I was lying to my supervisors as to my work ability.  I was also lying to my coworkers.  I was lying to myself.  All because I refused to acknowledge that I needed help.  I was too proud to ask for it. 

            It took me three years of failed jobs and a lot of heartache to figure out that the best thing a person with mental illness that wants to work can do is be completely honest about their illness.  Tell the truth.  If you cannot perform a duty, let it be known right up front.  According to the ADA, an employer has to make “reasonable” accommodations for a job to allow someone with a disability to perform that job.  Employers cannot refuse to hire someone simply because of a mental illness; that is hiring discrimination and that’s illegal. 

            In my paranoid state, before I stabled out and had some good work experience, I was afraid my mental illness would be held against me in a work place.  Paranoia that comes with schizophrenia can be tricky like that sometimes.  Fortunately I had a third party in Goodwill as a go between for me to help me find my last job.  This job I held over four years.  As a result I have seen that my previous paranoia about my illness being held against me was just paranoia; it never materialized into anything real.

            If anything I have found my employers willing to work with me and help me out during the rough times that I have had.  I still have flare ups occasionally where I have to miss work for a day every now and then.  But my supervisors are more than willing to work with me because I have been honest and up front with them about my illness.  It also helps that I’m a good worker who shows up on time and doesn’t leave until it’s quitting time and makes an effort to be friendly with my coworkers even on my bad days.

            In closing, my struggles at work were largely due to my not being honest with my supervisors as to the extent of my illness.  Once I broke that trust, it was only a matter of time before I was looking for another job.  If you are mentally ill and looking for work, be totally honest with your supervisors.  It will pay off in the long run.  And they will often be accommodating.

Struggles With Mental Illness in College, Part 2

            In a previous blog entry, I wrote about my struggles during the first year and a half of college before I began treatment.  This entry will be about my struggles after my treatment began.  Just because I was under treatment didn’t mean my problems were over.

            During the last three years of my collegiate career, I never achieved the quality of grades I had during my first year of college.  I also changed over to a different major.  I originally started college as a pre-pharmacy student.  After a year and a half of struggling with my mental illness as well as my classes, my grades were bad enough that I wasn’t going to be getting into pharmacy school.  I needed a change.

            I switched to a business management major, which was a surprise to my family.  I had never taken any business classes in high school.  I didn’t have much of an aptitude for sales, and I was quite an introvert.  So to my family and friends the move didn’t make much sense.  But to me it made a great deal of sense.

            In my line of thinking at the time, I wanted to be able to be employable with a good job as soon as I graduated from college.  Even though I was really passionate about literature and history, I always figured I could read all the history books and classics of literature on my own time when I wasn’t studying for my business classes.  With my best friend being a history education student helping me out with history and classical literature books, which is exactly what I did.

            I admit with this “Dual Study Program” with my studying business classes officially by day and reading my classical literature and history books late at night and on the weekends, I didn’t have much time for outside socialization.  I had my small core group of friends, and I also made it a point to be friendly as possible to as many fellow students as possible.

            As the last three years of college went on I slowly picked up a few more friends and gradually went to more social activities.  There were a few music bands on campus that occasionally played weekend concerts that I went to.  They were pretty much cover bands that also played some of their own material.   I made a few friends with some of the band members through that.

            I also made a few friends through some of my business clubs like Students In Free Enterprise.  I also went to many of my college’s home baseball and basketball games.  I preferred the baseball games because of the more laid-back atmosphere of baseball and I had a few friends on the team.  I also made a few friends through games of softball, ultimate Frisbee, and flag football.  I wasn’t a fast runner but could be a vicious blocker.

            I bring all of this up to show that I was able to have the average college experience in spite of having a mental illness.  There were a few things I obviously couldn’t do, namely the drinking scene because of my medications.  But I wasn’t in college to drink and drug.  I was there to get a degree.

            I didn’t work during the school year because of the stress of going to school full time, having a mental illness, and having a job would have just been too much.  So I worked in the summers instead.  It also helped that I had a good academic scholarship based on my grades.  Even though I wasn’t getting straight A’s, I was still managing to do well.  And I was enjoying the college experience at the same time. 

            A strange thing happened during my last year of college, I became interested in writing.  I had been reading voraciously the previously two years, so I suppose that writing would only be the next logical step.

            All of the struggles, problems, victories, and defeats of five years of college came to a culmination on May 8, 2004.  That was the day I graduated from college.  Graduating from college meant that I had overcome the problems of mental illness and accomplished my life long goal of finishing college.

            While it’s been several years and I still haven’t found permanent employment in my major, I still won because I was able to finish college.  I thank God that I was able to finish in spite of my illness.  Finishing college by itself is hard enough.  Throwing a mental illness in the mix makes the degree of difficulty pretty steep.  I hope that by finishing college that perhaps someday I can encourage someone with a mental illness to reach for and achieve their dreams.