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Will you marry me (and my mental illness)?

Rebecca Chamaa

It isn’t surprising that the superstars within the schizophrenia community not only accomplish great things, they also enjoy fulfilling experiences, including cultivating relationships and, for some, life-long partnerships.

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Nobel Prize winner and mathematician John Nash spent much of his life in a relationship with Alicia Lardé Lopez-Harrison, including marriage, divorce, and later, remarriage all while living with paranoid schizophrenia. Elyn Saks, a successful writer, professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry at USC and UCSD, and diagnosed schizophrenic, has been married since 2001. Nash and Saks are so well known in the community because they are extraordinary. They aren’t only remarkable for managing to have careers and relationships while battling the symptoms of a severe mental illness, they are exceptional even without a diagnosis.

So, what about the rest of my community? Is it possible for us to live a fulfilling life with a partner of many years? I say, yes. Not only yes, but yes with an exclamation mark. I have paranoid schizophrenia, and I will celebrate twenty years with my husband this year. I am not at the top of my field, and other than a few awards through work and writing contests, I don’t consider myself within the camp of the exceptional. Like many people, I have symptoms of an illness that I live with every day; I have experienced episodes of psychosis during the past two decades, and my husband remains committed to the relationship. We are happy and plan to retire and spend more time together in the future. I don’t have a magic formula for finding a supportive partner who will ride the highs and lows of having a partner with a mental illness, but some things have worked for us.

After my husband and I got to know each other a bit, I opened up about my illness and let the choice for the relationship to end or to continue be one that he could make. He was hesitant at first, and honest about not knowing if he could handle becoming serious with someone with a mental illness. (To his credit, he knew nothing about mental illness when we met, and he decided to get to know me before making a decision.) In my opinion, that is the best that any of us can hope for, that someone we meet will give us the necessary time to show who we are and who we can be. By taking the time to get to know me, the seeds of love started to grow for both of us. As they did, my illness became a challenge we decided to endure together. Instead of tearing us apart, my illness helped us grow in the same direction. We have learned what it is like to live with and try to manage paranoid schizophrenia as a team. Time, treatment, and a commitment to each other have gotten us through the most difficult periods.

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