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How I Fell in Love with a Schizophrenic

Monday, December 31, 2012

Note: See update at the end of the post.

I had a much different post planned for today, a great post (if I do say so myself) about how three groups of scientists, 60 years ago this year, wrote three papers on the same subject in the same issue of Nature. One of the three papers was only 843 words long; half the length of the others, and much better-written. It resulted in a Nobel Prize.

I am going to have to push that one off to tomorrow.

Yesterday, my true love, Sally, had a psychotic break and went into the (mental) hospital, where she'll probably be for the next two weeks. Today, I'm writing as a means of therapy. Therapy for me.

I knew going into this relationship that it would entail ups and downs, and hard work.

I've never been as "all-in" as in this relationship. I'll stick by Sally for as long as she'll have me. I'll stick by her no matter what.

Our meeting was the fluke of the century. I happened to be scrounging around on Craigslist one day looking for a furniture item. Sally happened to be on Craigslist looking for pet supplies. On a lark, I posted a personals ad, something I'd never done (on Craigslist). It was a short ad, maybe three or four sentences total. The heading was something goofy like "Intelligent guy looking for sharp gal."

Sally happened to see the ad, and responded to it. She was the only legit response I got. Altogether, I got 10 replies, 9 of them from come-on artists trying to get me to visit this or that website and enter a credit card number "for verification purposes."

This is as much of Sally as I can show
without triggering her paranoia.
I was skeptical of Sally's response, as honest and heartfelt as it sounded. For those of you reading this who live outside the U.S. and may not know what Craigslist.org is, it's a free-for-all of want ads ("classified ads" online) for anything and everything. But it's also a dangerous cesspool of scammers and criminal activity (everything from prostitution to sale of stolen goods) with a reputation to match. Want to buy a new refrigerator cheap? Craigslist. Expect to pay cash, ask no questions, and not know where the fridge came from. Want to buy a dog? Plenty for sale. Many kidnapped. Want to buy a boa constrictor or other illegal pet? Craigslist. Want to buy a white mouse to feed your boa? Craigslist. Always Craigslist.

The best way to sum up Craigslist is this: Think of it as an Internet version of Mos Eisley Spaceport. Remember Obi-Wan's famous line from Star Wars? "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious."

Sally and I met via Craigslist, the first time either of us had met anyone that way (or wanted to). We'd each been the OKCupid route, the Plenty of Fish route, and other routes. To no meaningful avail.

We laugh now when we tell friends how we met. It's with great pride that I tell people, in complete seriousness, that I met, and fell in love with, a schizophrenic on Craigslist.

As I was saying a second ago, I was skeptical of Sally's response to my ad (because one is justifiably skeptical of anything that comes into one's life via Craiglist). We corresponded briefly. Very briefly. I asked her in the first e-mail to send a phone number so I could talk to her immediately (my way of verifying that I wasn't dealing with a convincing scammer).

We spoke on July 1, 2011 for about ten minutes. The call ended with a promise of trying a longer phone call the next day.

The July 2 phone call turned out to be a revelation.

Sally told me straight out that she was on disability. I expected her to say she was in a wheelchair. Instead she said she had been deemed incurably schizophrenic by the Social Security Administration fifteen years earlier.

I listened as Sally explained that her particular variety of schizophrenia is actually called schizo-affective disorder, which is schizophrenia with an added twist. People with schizo-affective disorder show all the classical signs of schizophrenia (delusions, hallucinations, confused or irrational thoughts, a greater or lesser degree of paranoia, lack of interest in the world and other people, inability to act spontaneously, occasionally varying degrees of catatonia; and quite often, indifference to grooming or bathing), but instead of exhibiting the emotional "flatness" (lack of affect) that most schizophrenics evince, people with schizo-affective disorder have an accompanying mood disorder, most commonly bipolar disorder, or, as in Sally's case, major depression.

On top of that, Sally told me about having PTSD from a traumatic experience earlier in her life (details of which are not important here). She was still having intrusive thoughts as a result of the PTSD.

We had no trouble conversing on the phone. It seemed I was talking to a cogent enough individual. I asked what her medicines were and how she'd been doing of late. She listed the meds and told me that her major symptoms (delusions, hallucinations, confused thoughts) were under control but that she still had residual paranoia, intrusive thoughts, and depression. SSRIs like Zoloft and Prozac (which help only a minority of depression sufferers) had done little or no good for her.

I was exceedingly impressed with Sally's candor. After an hour on the phone I suggested we meet for coffee at 10:00 the next morning (July 3). She agreed.

We met face-to-face at Starbucks and had a delightful 45-minute talk. She looked just like her pictures. She sounded just like she did on the phone. She was charming and forthright; cheerful; well-dressed; a delight to behold, in every way. By the end of the conversation, we were asking each other about 4th-of-July plans. Neither of us had any. "Why don't we go out to dinner?" I suggested. And with that, we agreed on our first "real" date.

Our first date was lengthy and delightful. After Mexican food and an hour-long walk on the beach, I offered to take Sally home, if she wanted. She shocked the wits out of me by saying: "Why don't we go shoot a few rounds of pool?"

We went to Pete's (a ratty but convivial beach bar in Jacksonville) and played billiards while everyone else went outside to view the fireworks at the pier. Sally preferred to avoid the flashing pyrotechnics and loud noises, as I did; we stayed inside and took turns beating each other at 8-ball, in an otherwise empty bar. We smoked Salems. We drank Blue Moons. We talked of alien visitations and suicide attempts.

I think most guys, on a first date, upon hearing a young lady talk seriously about being visited by aliens, would probably find some reason to cut the evening short. I merely listened. Sally "knew" the alien visitation wasn't real. But it felt real enough to her when it happened. So I asked her to tell me about it in detail. And I listened, without passing judgment. She ultimately laughed the whole thing off, but I knew it was an important part of her reality. It had stayed with her. It was still real to her. Who was I to question her reality?

Sally told me what it had been like to discover that she was schizophrenic at age 22. It was a gradual process. She didn't know that the radios she was hearing weren't real, or that the songs she was listening to on the (real) radio weren't actually written specifically for her, with encoded messages in them. She didn't know that when both her parents happened to wear orange windbreakers on the same day, it didn't mean she would soon be going to jail. She didn't know that when a yellow car pulled in front of her on the road, it didn't mean there was danger ahead. She didn't know that numbers don't have "assigned colors" to them. She didn't know that when she was eating in a crowded restaurant, people weren't talking about her, or that passing helicopters weren't really spying on her.

One day, Sally's mother found her sitting on the edge of the bed, catatonic, unresponsive. Her mom wisely rushed her to the doctor. Sally was referred to a mental-rehab center (the closest thing we have these days to a "mental hospital"), where she was diagnosed as schizophrenic and put on strong medications, medications that (after several days) began to dissolve away Sally's most florid symptoms, which included the constant sound of doors slamming and the whop-whop-whop of helicopters overhead with Homeland Security agents spying on her.

She tells of waking up one morning in her hospital bed, astonished to find the room pin-drop quiet. No loud radios, no slamming doors, no helicopters, no voices of people "talking about her." Just silence.

For the first time in however many months (she doesn't recall how many), she actually heard the world as it is.

Her doctor told her the silence was the meds finally working. She asked what condition she was being medicated for (and asked for verification that she was, indeed, in a hospital of some kind). For days, she had been wondering where she was, and who all the strange people around her were. The doctor explained to her that she had schizophrenia.

A few weeks later, out of the hospital, her major symptoms under control, Sally (under her mother's guidance) applied to the U.S. government for disability. The Social Security Administration put her through a psychological exam. There was no doubt at all that she was schizo-affective, with residual symptoms of paranoia, intrusive thoughts, and major depression. The Social Security Administration put her on a disability pension.

As a disabled person (who can't work a normal job, because of the severity of her residual symptoms), Sally gets a monthly check for $661. That's it. That's all. No more. Here you go: $661 a month, now go take care of yourself.

Need I say, no one can live on $661 a month in the United States. That's the average monthly per-capita income in Gabon, and people have trouble living on that kind of money in Gabon. 

It's an outrage that a disabled person is expected to live independently on $661 a month.

It's the kind of thing that makes me ashamed of my own country.

As it happens, Sally got married in her early twenties. Her husband, an alcoholic musician, proved unable to take care of himself, let alone a wife. In an attempt to straighten himself out, her husband enlisted in the U.S. Army. After a year, he washed out. A couple years after that, he and Sally divorced.

Two abortions later, Sally had herself sterilized.

Then came the boyfriend who would take care of her (more successfully than the ex-husband) for six years. The boyfriend was a career Navy guy who was often at sea for months at a time. When he came home, he spent his time playing World of Warcraft. All of his time went to WoW. All of it. Even when Sally attempted suicide by taking a full bottle of Seroquil, he played WoW. In fact, he stepped over her dying body in the hallway in order to get back to WoW. Sally grabbed a cell phone just before passing out and dialed 911. The boyfriend spent the rest of the night explaining his negligence to the police.

When she recovered from the suicide attempt, Sally left Mr. World of Warcraft.

Three more suicide attempts would follow, in a space of four years.

Sally finally moved in with her aging (but healthy) father.

Nine months later, she and I met.

It's been over a year and a half now of seeing each other. On December 1, 2012, we rented a house in Jacksonville and moved in together. But after three weeks, Sally fell into a deep depression. Antidepressants (a wide variety of them) simply have not worked for her. Her depression isn't just biochemical. It's situational. She wants to be able to hold a job, but can't. She wants to be able to be independent, live on her own if she wants to, but can't. As much as she adores me, she's depressed to know she can never move out and live on her own, not even in theory. She can only move to her father's house again. But she doesn't want that.

I stay with her not only because I understand her problems and want to be there for her, but because I'm totally taken by her (a polite way of saying I'm madly in love with her) and have been since the day we met. She's truly a beautiful person inside and out. Guileless, straightforward, self-aware, good-hearted, open-minded, always truthful, always kind; the type of woman I've always wanted to meet and fall in love with. I could never say anything bad about her. (How could I? There's nothing bad to say.) I could never do anything but love her, and want to take care of her. And I want what we have to last forever.

I've told Sally many times, I never want to go on a first date ever again. I'll never be interested in another woman. I'll throw myself in front of a bus for her if she wants it. I'll run naked through the streets if she says to. (I pray she never becomes that crazy, of course.) There isn't anything I wouldn't do for Sally.

When I look at Sally, sometimes I feel sad. Sad for the thousands of schizophrenics alive in the U.S. today who have not gotten treatment; who sit homeless and disheveled on street corners in every major city in America, talking to themselves or raving at no one in particular, waiting for a caring passer-by to offer a few dollars to buy them the lunch the government won't buy them. Sad for the countless thousands of schizophrenics who were subjected to cold-water baths, spinning chairs, and other quack therapies in lunatic asylums a century ago. Sad for the thousands burned as witches in the middle ages.

I look at Sally with happiness, too. Happiness that she has gotten treatment. Happiness that, thanks to powerful new medicines, she has gotten a good part of her life back. Happiness that she has chosen to be with me.

I hope, when Sally comes out of the hospital in a week or two, she'll be a lot like the old Sally I met that fateful July day in 2011. And I hope we can laugh about aliens, and go back to fixing up the house, and maybe even shoot a round of pool or two now and then (minus the Blue Moons; we stopped drinking as of last September 19). We'll keep trying to find an antidepressant that works, and a work-at-home job that Sally can do to make extra money, so she can feel more independent. Fate willing, we'll build a life together.

No doubt there's a lot of hard work ahead, for both of us. But you know what? I never saw anything in this life that was worth a damn that didn't involve hard work. The idea is not to shun the hard work but to embrace it. Embrace it with both arms, squeeze it hard, and accept it, not with fateful resignation but with the sure knowledge that if you do embrace it, good things will come, eventually. The alternative, giving up, is unthinkable.

I'll never give up on Sally, as long as I breathe.


UPDATE: As of January 14, over 60,000 people from 144 countries have viewed this post. Sally is now out of the hospital and back to normal (or what passes for it). We were both amazed and humbled by the response to the blog. Partly as a therapy measure, I urged Sally to write a memoir, a book that gives the complete backstory to this post, which she is currently doing. If you would like to follow her progress on the memoir (working title: ALMOST NORMAL), please enter your e-mail address in the short form at the bottom of this page. You'll get one to two updates a month from us. No spam. Easy unsubscribe. No nonsense. We look forward to hearing from you!

NOTE: A Russian version of this post is available at http://homoveresapiens.ru/kak-ya-vlyubilsya-v-shizofrenika/ (thank you Natalia Stotskaya!).


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