Single female writer, 31. GSOH, schizophrenic. WLTM similar: The online dating site aimed at adults with mental health concerns
Erica Camus believes she may find true love using the online agency
When my single friends give a character assassination of a former flame, there's one phrase I hear a lot: 'They turned out to be a psycho . . .'
Of course I understand the sentiment, but the words make me prickle, as the same could possibly be said of me. You see, eight years ago, at the age of 23, I was diagnosed with paranoid psychosis.
That definition has now been scrapped (psychiatric texts are constantly in review, as medical understanding of mental health grows) and officially I now suffer from paranoid schizophrenia.
I take medication every day to control my condition, and to all
intents you would never know unless I told you. It's a bit like
diabetes: if I keep taking the tablets, I'm fine. But if I don't I get
Life, on the whole, is fairly normal. I am a freelance
writer, having worked since school in newspapers. I have friends who
know about my diagnosis, and some colleagues who presumably don't
(although these days if you Google my name, you find the articles I have
written about my mental health). But being schizophrenic has
complicated my romantic life.
For a start, there is the casual
prejudice of terms such as 'psycho' and 'mental' being bandied around
when cracking dating jokes with friends.
I'm not completely
humourless about it, but it does confirm there still are, and probably
always will be, ingrained prejudices about those, such as me, with
mental health issues.
I have also had more direct problems. Since
my diagnosis, I've had two long-term relationships, one for three
years, and one after that for nine months.
Both thought that as I
seemed so normal I couldn't possibly need to take medication, and
perhaps the doctors were wrong. They persuaded me to stop taking my
tablets and, of course, I quickly became unwell. The second time, I
ended up in hospital.
I started to suffer symptoms of psychosis – paranoid thoughts, and obsessions – in 2001. I had moved to London from Staffordshire, where I grew up, aged 18 to attend Middlesex University, where I studied fashion design. At the time I was an intern at a Fleet Street newspaper.
I believed the songs on the radio were specifically about me, and that my friends were plotting to set me up to look as if I'd committed robberies. I kept most of these worries to myself, and really only suffered a true breakdown two years later when I was between jobs and had more time to obsess over whether the police were coming to break down my doors. I became completely withdrawn, never leaving my flat.
I confided in my parents about my fears and they took me to see a GP, who then referred me to a psychiatrist. At the time I believed my thoughts were perfectly rational, and it was only after I started taking medication that I saw differently.
But that is the thing about mental illness. Sometimes it's hard to believe it is real yourself, let alone expect others to understand.
NoLonger Lonely.com's U.S. owner, Jim Leftwich, started the site after finding himself in a similar situation to Erica
So you can imagine my interest when I came across NoLonger Lonely.com, a dating website especially for adults with mental health concerns. I'd used dating sites such as match.com so this sounded like a great idea.
The website's U.S. owner, Jim Leftwich, started the site after finding himself in a similar situation to me.
'I think there is a relief in getting to know someone when both parties are open about their psychiatric issues,' he says.
'I would not say it's better, but rather a case-by-case thing. There is a broad spectrum of severity of illness. The site has been a slow build since 2004 but we've had at least 30 marriages now.'
Sue Baker, of Time to Change, a UK organisation that aims to tackle mental health stigma, believes websites such as his are a good idea.
'I don't think anyone should have to shut themselves off from meaningful relationships outside of mental health, but it's great that there's such a sense of community out there,' she says.
'With many mental health online forums there is a fantastic solidarity among peers. In such a relationship, where the couple share experience, it allows people to really know how to support each other during a crisis.'
With this in mind, I signed up. As with all dating websites, you create a personal profile that other users can see, detailing interests and hobbies alongside a couple of paragraphs describing yourself and what you are looking for in a potential partner. You can also include photos.
The only difference to all the other sites is that there is a tick-box menu to indicate your mental health diagnosis. As most people have fun, kooky usernames, I opt for Pea_Nutty.
Within a few minutes, Mike gets in touch. He looks very handsome and athletic – just my type. He has bipolar disorder, which is a type of mental illness characterised by periods of extreme restlessness or mania, followed by depression.
After a few days exchanging emails, he seems an intelligent, funny bloke and we decide to meet. We're both based in the Midlands and I offer to travel to his home town of Nottingham, which isn't too far. He wants to take me to the local castle and show me the statue of Robin Hood. I wonder if he could be my very own modern-day hero.
And so the day arrives. As with any online dating – schizophrenic or not – there are always a few moments before meeting when you worry that the pictures won't be accurate. But I recognise Mike immediately as the attractive man in his photos. What a relief.
We head to a bar for coffee. Neither of us should drink alcohol on medication, as it can hinder the effectiveness (although we confess to a drink now and then). Sober but happy, we hit it off straight away and talk about our past experiences.
Mike comments on how nice it feels that he can be so open on a date. This is the first one he's been on using the site and, like me, he has never had a partner with a mental illness. But our conversations do seem to centre on mental health issues, and campaigning work we have been involved in.
Ultimately, there's no spark – it was a bit like a conversation with my psychiatrist. I was a little disappointed. It seems this is the main drawback of dating someone else with a mental health problem.
As Professor Stephen Palmer, director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at City University London, says: 'The downside (of a relationship between two individuals with a diagnosis) is that sometimes you have to be resilient to support a friend with mental health issues and if you are feeling negative yourself, it can be a challenge.'
However, I speak to Jonathan and Mo, who met on NoLongerLonely. com two years ago and have been together ever since.
Mo says: 'It's nice to meet someone who understands my illness but it's more than that. He's older and I feel protected by him. 'Yes, there's a mutual understanding, but our mental health is a small part of the relationship.'
So I keep my profile, but vow not to rule out more conventional outlets.
I believe in love, and I'm still holding out. And suddenly, schizophrenia doesn't seem so lonely.