This last week, I have learned more life lessons than I have learned during the rest of my semester at college. These lessons cemented my future as a mental health advocate, but they did not come without pain. Throughout the entire experience, I drew strength from knowing that I eventually would be able to share this story with the hope of helping others going through similar ordeals.
Ryan and I met online, and we had an instant connection (no more cheesy puns, I promise). We had a lot in common, but I was hesitant to meet in person. I avoided a “real life” meeting for over a month, but over Thanksgiving break, we met at a coffee shop in my hometown in Maryland. We talked for hours. That same day, he met my dad and brother and we watched Clue together. We didn’t want to say goodbye, so we ended up going out for pizza and talking at the restaurant until it was closing.
We texted over the rest of break. We even arranged to go on more dates when I got back from Pittsburgh. We quickly decided that we wanted an exclusive relationship, and our feelings progressed rapidly. He was so funny and being around him made me feel happy.
I should probably mention that before meeting, I had confided in him about my bipolar disorder, and he confided in me that he had struggled with anxiety and depression in the past.
Last Sunday, we went to a Ravens game with his parents. The game was exciting to say the least, and his parents were very kind. But that evening, I noticed a change in Ryan’s mood. Things were rough. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that I was concerned.
The next evening after work, he told me he was having some troubling thoughts about ending his life and was experiencing some impulsive behavior. We made a plan that he would eat, try to get some rest, and we would discuss possibly going to the hospital in the morning.
The morning came, and I was more concerned. Our telephone conversations were brief and upsetting, and I went to the Residence Life Coordinator of our building and explained that I was scared for Ryan’s life. With guidance, I made the decision to call 911 even though Ryan had explicitly told me not to do so.
LIFE LESSON ONE: It is better to be hated by someone and for that person to be safe than for the alternative.
LIFE LESSON TWO: Police officers are trained professionals when it comes to these situations. I am a nineteen year old college student.
I met Ryan at the emergency room, and I helped him fill out paperwork. Waiting for hours to meet with a psychiatrist, I tried my best to comfort him. He had a previous negative experience at the hospital, and I knew he was afraid this would be a repeat. After meeting with the psychiatrist, I saw him struggle to make a decision. I did my best to encourage him to opt for inpatient treatment. Once the decision was made, I helped him get ready to go to the psych ward. I was so proud of him.
LIFE LESSON THREE: Admitting that you cannot care for someone is not defeat. It is allowing professionals to do their jobs.
While I waited for visiting hours to start, I called his mom and his work. It became clear that his family would not be a part of his treatment plan and that I would need to step in. I was his emergency contact. Remember, at this point we had been dating less than two weeks.
LIFE LESSON FOUR: We cannot get upset with adults who do not understand mental illness. Although it is frustrating, most people are doing the best that they can do.
Over the next couple days, I visited Ryan during visiting hours, got in touch with his teachers, got in touch with his work again, brought him books and clothing, and tried my best to be strong for him. I could see and hear him improving. He was smiling and funny again. It was hilarious to see him joking with the nurses and other patients. I was reminded of the Ryan I met at the coffee shop. Sometimes we would get frustrated with each other, but overall we remained supportive.
LIFE LESSON FIVE: It is important to learn how to differentiate between the person you care about and the mental illness. The mental illness can warp their words and actions beyond recognition, and it is critical that you try not to take it personally.
Yesterday, Ryan was released. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. I had cried so many tears. I didn’t study for my finals. One day all I ate was Gatorade and some cookies. I couldn’t sleep well. I forgot one of the most important lessons of all.
LIFE LESSON SIX: Take care of yourself first.
I still care about Ryan, and I want him to continue his path towards wellness. However, we are no longer together. I’m going to take the time now to care for myself, to heal. Even though this was a very difficult experience, I’m thankful for it. I have learned even more lessons than I have enumerated in this post. This chapter of my life may be over, but that does not dilute its significance.