I first learned about love and mental illness when I met Ron 10 years ago, during my first psychiatric hospitalization. He had schizophrenia and had been around the block many times before, but it was my first experience on the patient side of the desk (I’m a mental health nurse). At a time when everyone else could only see my depressive illness, somehow Ron was able to see past the illness to my true self, the self that I thought I had lost. He served as an anchor of sorts to help me reconnect with myself, which played a significant role in my recovery. I would say that he was probably more instrumental in my recovery than any of my treatment providers.
In part because he had a good heart and in part because he struggled with mental illness himself, he accepted me completely and unconditionally. He just got it. It seemed like the more he saw my imperfections, the more perfect I became to him. I can’t even begin to describe how comforting it was to have this kind of connection, and how much more whole it made me feel.
That’s not to say there weren’t challenges. Besides schizophrenia, he struggled with addiction, and there were some problematic behaviours related to that. His mental illness was only partially controlled, and it was hard to watch him wrestle with his inner demons. At one point he attempted suicide by overdosing on my stash of psych meds that I’d been hoarding rather than taking. I felt tremendous guilt over that, and spent as many hours a day at his bedside as the ICU staff would allow. I tried to stay out of his psychiatric treatment, especially since I knew some of his treatment providers in a professional context, but it was heartbreaking to see him not getting the help I knew he deserved.
There was also stigma. I’m a nurse and very high functioning when well, and people didn’t always approve of my relationship (first romantic and later just friendship) with someone they saw as a schizophrenic addict. My parents didn’t approve, which caused a lot of tension. During one of my later hospitalizations a psychiatry resident, who read something in my old chart about my relationship with Ron, asked “why would you get involved in a relationship with a schizophrenic?”
Ron passed away 2 years ago from an accidental overdose on fentanyl-laced drugs. I miss him every day, but I always knew that the reality of being close to someone with serious mental illness was that I would quite possibly lose him prematurely. The lessons in love and mental illness that I learned from him are that I deserve someone who truly sees me and truly accepts me, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart for that. Maybe I will find another person like that and maybe I won’t, but I will not accept anything less.