Richard, age 65
An Ivy League graduate, married, and by age 30 Richard's life took an unexpected path when he had what was then called a psychotic break. He was hearing and reinterpreting things, like thinking the sound of the refrigerator running meant something, or what a person was saying wasn't what Richard actually heard. Sometimes the meanings were reinterpreted positively; on a bad day, negatively. He was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder with bipolar. Today, at times, he still struggles. When delusions occur, everything seems as real to him as to you. Imagine the frustration?
In the past, some friends and family were embarrassed, which made Richard feel ashamed, sad, and have low self-esteem. The reality is that life isn't easy. Over the years, he's been suicidal many times, came close twice, but never actually attempted. “Resignedly, I'm not going to die.”
Richard and Monica have been married for forty years. She was honest when I asked her how difficult it's been. “It's been very difficult. We were even separated for a year. But Richard's good days can be so good, the Richard I fell in love with.”
When asked what his mental illness feels like to him, he said, “The color red. Red for love. And red for anger.” There is a duality to his life. And just like red represents two very different emotions, it also serves as an analogy for Richard's experiences.
Day treatment was very helpful early on, in addition to taking medication regularly, which he still takes. Over the years, Richard has been open about his illness, which he attributes to saving many friendships and relationships. Richard's message to those with a mental illness: “Surviving as a married person is possible. A family, a child; you can flourish and cope. Even with mental illness, you can have good experiences. Life is not all misery. You can love people and be loved.”
For others without mental illness, Richard hopes you can see the endurance. “We are survivors. We are the people dressed in white who have gone through the period of trial.” He hopes you can admire someone who has survived and coped. And identify in some small way.
Monica said, “I wish people would understand. If someone has a cancer diagnosis, they get support from everyone. People don't understand the respect that someone should get for enduring this.” Richard echoed her statement: “The stigma is still so real. We're just people with an illness. We often feel so worthless, and that's why it's doubly important that mental illness is understood.”
“Treat me as a person, not as an illness or diagnosis. Someone who loves and has loved, not a sick person. See beyond the illness.”