I’m 30 years old, and for many years, the longest relationship I had to date was in middle school — it lasted six months.
I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at age 19. Schizoaffective disorder is thought to be a unique combination of schizophrenia and a mood disorder like bipolar, presenting with symptoms like difficulty communicating, episodes of depression, delusions, and even hallucinations. It presents differently from person to person, and there’s still a lot to be learned about it. Though it has negatively impacted my life in many ways, it’s been especially difficult to navigate in my social life.
Before the onset of my mental illness, I was outgoing and had a vibrant social life. While I also always struggled with ADHD, I had a lot of fun in high school. I was the captain of the high school football team and felt committed to my schoolwork. Nonetheless, schizoaffective disorder ultimately incapacitated me to the point where I couldn’t speak a coherent sentence, let alone carry on a conversation or complete routine day-to-day functions. The change was stark.
In my quest to recover my health and have a fuller life, I began talk therapy at age 25, and resolved to improve my cognitive abilities and start to define life goals. One of the goals that came up first was to be in a supportive relationship , and to one day have a family.
Casual Dating with Mental Illness
After two years of work on myself, I progressed to the point where I actually felt ready to “out myself out there” and go on dates. I had a full-time job and was saving money. I was 27 and still living at home which was a drawback, but my confidence was growing.
The first few dates I went on were fun and relatively laid-back. Deep down, though, I was drowning in insecurities. Because I had a reading disability, my job was an entry-level position in retail where I made very little money. I was dating a woman who managed a retirement home, and was more connected to her “career” than I was to my day-job. There were countless things I worried about.
That relationship only lasted about two months. It ended with a text message from her in which she said I was a “nice guy,” but didn’t think we were going to work out. A lot of this outcome, I think, had to do with my social ineptitude from psychosis, which often left me literally speechless, caught in my own world without an ability to express myself. In moments of psychosis, I would open my mouth to speak, but nothing would come out. She sometimes would ask if I was OK and needed help. I didn’t tell her what I was experiencing because I thought she would respond by leaving me. The stigma of mental illness is real, after all.
What Does Psychosis Look Like When Dating?
Psychosis trapped me in my mind and made it difficult for me to be in the moment and present in the room. People would be talking, but it was a struggle to process any information. When my girlfriend and I were dating, there would be many occasions when she’d be expecting an answer, but I hadn’t even mentally digested what she was saying in the first place. She would eventually say something like, “Hello, are you even listening?” I would tell her yes but couldn’t recall what she had said because I had not finished analyzing it.
My slow comprehension definitely made for some awkwardness and contributed to the relationship not working. At the time, I wanted to blame my inability to date on factors like an inadequate job, or living at home at age 27. In reality, I simply wasn’t mentally healthy enough to be engaging with other people romantically.
For the next year or so, I continued to work on my mental health in therapy with a focus on improving my social skills. I soon started dating a friend, and began my first long-distance relationship.
Still, I had a lot to learn. The thing I realized is that love and life are constantly evolving. I had to continue learning and improving my relationship skills to keep up with folks for whom dating came more naturally.
The Power of Honesty
Six months into the relationship, I decided to tell her about my illness.
“I have something I need to tell you,” I said.
She looked at me with concern, and I choked up. I was terrified that my diagnosis would end the relationship. I couldn’t speak much at all, so I pulled up my phone and showed her my website that contained my writing about my schizoaffective diagnosis.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“It’s my website,” I said in a barely audible voice. “I have schizoaffective disorder.” My breathing began to seize up and I became tense.
“You do?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. I felt like a train was going to run me over.
“Oh, OK. Well that doesn’t matter,” she said.
I laughed a little. “It doesn’t?” I asked.
“No, not at all,” she said. “We need to get you a beer. This is too much stress. Come on. I’ll drive.”
After this conversation, I felt more at ease. I started disclosing more insecurities. At times, I might have opened up too much. About a week later, the relationship ended, but ironically, I don’t quite think it had anything to do with my diagnosis.
Because of schizoaffective disorder, I never matured at the same rate as my peers. Because I was dealing with psychosis in my early-to-mid-20s, I had been isolated from others and hadn’t practiced having social interactions with people my own age . During those years, I had lost track of what was socially acceptable to say and what wasn’t. Sometimes I would try to make jokes that weren’t relevant to the conversation we were having. My sense of humor needed to catch up with my age.
The Education is Ongoing
Looking back, I realized that this longer-term, long-distance relationship with my friend was a step in the right direction. It was a failure that opened new doors. The experience gave me confidence in who I am, and affirmed for me that I need to keep progressing with my health and education on dating.
Since then, I’ve spent time dating intermittently but not being in any real relationships. Today, I’m now a manager at a local butcher, and I live out on my own. I feel more secure about who I am, although I still fixate on my inadequacies, just like anyone else — like the fact that I don’t make a lot of money.
Being in therapy, I am learning I also learned I had a lot of confusion as to what I wanted and identify more clearly what kind of relationship I’m looking for, and what kind of person I want to be. I’ve asked myself what love is and learned that, for me, love is aboutmaking sacrifices for the overall happiness of both people in the relationship. Mental illness or not, this is a commitment I’ve made as I continue to work on myself.
I may have schizoaffective disorder, but other people have challenges they deal with, too. It’s the imperfections that give us all value and define who we are.
For a while, I was looking for the perfect woman. A friend then told me, “None of us are right and none of us are wrong, some of us are just more right for each other than others.”
It’s true, and believing that requires that we accept ourselves more in the process. When I previously felt diffident in my ability to date and have a relationship, redefining what I was looking for gave me the strength I needed to accept myself and make changes in my life based on what supports my well-being. That, to me, is part of the foundation of finding real, sustainable love.