Man starts dating website for mentally ill to help fight loneliness & stigma
Story by Rebecca White · Photos by Elizabeth D. Herman
It’s been ten years since James Leftwich first created No Longer Lonely, a dating website exclusively for people with mental illnesses. Leftwich spoke with me about the challenges of running the site and about why he believes forming loving relationships should be recommended more frequently than pills.
Why did you create No Longer Lonely?
It was one of those things where I looked for something and it didn’t exist. I thought, this is a really logical thing. This should exist. People with mental illness tend to band together. It’s kind of an unsympathetic world.
How did No Longer Lonely start?
Around 2004 it was underway but it wasn’t as big as it is now. A dating site is something that has a critical mass where it’s not very effective until you get a certain amount of people. I’m still facing that challenge but it’s a big world.
No Longer Lonely has chat rooms, forums, and places for people to post their art. Why did you design it like that?
I did model it after the major dating sites, but I added certain categories too, like housing options for Section 8 or ‘I live with my parents’ or ‘I live in a halfway house.’ I thought it was important to have a category for ‘Do you own your own transportation?’ because that can be a big deal among people that are mentally ill. Most of them don’t have their own car or anything like that so that makes a difference. The artwork—that’s an area that didn’t take off as much as I thought it would. There are a lot of talented people with mental illness that have great creative potential and I thought that would be an important way to let people connect and share on that level.
How many users does No Longer Lonely have?
I have over 30,000 users. A sizeable percentage of those probably haven’t been on the site for a while. I do occasional purges to get rid of older profiles. But who knows? That person might get a message and come back. The big stat is the amount of marriages that I’ve had with the site. And these are only the ones that I’ve been told of, but there’s been more than 30.
You must have a mental illness to be on the site. How does that work?
It’s difficult. I can’t biopsy everybody’s brain. But it’s actually been pretty good. I’ve had very few people that come on there as a joke or prey on the users, at least that I know of. I worry about that a lot. It’s a very vulnerable population. I’m very diligent about who’s on the site.
I actually got press on a site called cracked.com. It’s a jokey kind of site. They featured me as one of the most ill-advised dating sites on the web. All these jokes about, you know, ‘What does psycho 1 plus psycho 2 equal?’
Was it painful?
It wasn’t painful, it was just immature. But the ironic thing is that it gave me a lot of traffic. Every once in awhile you get someone whose user profile is “Batshit crazy” or something, or says, “I like to put heads in my freezer,” joke stuff like that. But that doesn’t happen often.
What are some of the mental illnesses that your users have?
I didn’t create the categories, it’s just what the major ones are: schizophrenia, schizoaffective, but I may have to remove that as an option. Bipolar, depression, anxiety. Another one that’s gone is Asperger’s. Asperger’s doesn’t exist anymore, now it’s an autism spectrum disorder. There really aren’t that many categories of mental illness. But I don’t think people identify themselves that much as, ‘I am that or this.’ I am somebody who struggles with [a psychiatric] diagnosis and I take medicine for it.
Do you mind saying what you’ve been diagnosed with?
I was diagnosed with what’s called schizoaffective disorder…it falls under a schizophrenia spectrum disorder…you’re blessed with both a psychotic disorder and a depressive disorder so it’s one of the more chronic diagnoses.
I was first hospitalized in 1992. That’s my only hospitalization, but I was there for about two months.
How old were you at this time?
Twenty-two. I’m forty-three now. That was the halfway point of my life. I hadn’t dated much and was really afraid of disclosing to women. I was much more inhibited and shy than I am now.
What exactly were you afraid of?
I think a lot of it was just a negative self-image. Once you’ve been branded with this illness you feel kind of like a reject, in a way. People tell you ‘Oh, don’t have big dreams. Play it safe. Just take your meds. Talk to your doctor’… so a lot of dreams kind of went by the wayside. I kind of felt like I had graduated to this specific little world of people that had mental illness. I wasn’t making any new friends that were not mentally ill at the time.
So all of your friends had mental illnesses?
Pretty much, yeah. I didn’t have many friends. It really is a tribe. This was kind of a transition period for me. I started working at a college library, which turned into a full-time position by 2004. I became the director of that library in 2007 and I’m still the director. I didn’t have much of a love life to speak of for quite some time. A lot of it was a fear of rejection, but a lot of it was this negative self-image thing that people without mental illness wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me.
Feeling worthy of love is something I really struggle with. I mean, I don’t like who I am when I’m depressed. I don’t like who I am when I get anxiety attacks, so why would I think that someone else would love that?
I’m the same way. When I turn inward, I don’t want to pollute people with what’s going on. I feel like I’m a bad person sometimes. There’s this part of me that thinks that life is supposed to be enjoyed, it’s this wonderful gift and everything, and yet I’m completely depressed so it’s like I’m a bad person for feeling that way. But there are certain levels. There’s stigma involved and everything, but once you put the word “schiz-“ in front of something, there’s a lack of education. People don’t know. People don’t understand what these things are.
What is schizoaffective disorder?
It’s a psychotic disorder. You have to have a psychotic break, which I did have. I imagined all sorts of crazy things. It could have been worse, but I was driving around with a big knife in my car thinking people were trying to kill me and that my parents were members of the Manson family and that the other members of the Manson family were hunting me down. I ran through a stoplight and a cop pulled me over and he said, “Are you alright sir?” and I said, “No, I’m not.” They put me in an ambulance and I went to a hospital. This was the summer of ’92. A psychotic break is a very intoxicating thing. I thought I was the most important person on earth, that all the newspapers were gonna write my story and everything, Peter Jennings would be talking about me at 6:30 on the evening news and stuff. And then I got to a hospital and it started to sink in that like, this is awful.
I still had psychotic features for several years after that, still thinking that all the stuff was true and everybody were idiots and they just didn’t believe me. When the mood disorder came around it was this crushing realization that, “Oh my god. I do have something pretty serious, here.”
That was around ’92. It was in 2003 that you started thinking about this website. Would it be fair to say that it took about ten years to say, “OK, look, I’ve got a handle on this. I want a girlfriend?”
Yeah. My initial impulse was thinking selfishly. I thought, “I’ll meet a girl this way.” But eventually it changed a lot. As of today I wouldn’t want a girlfriend that was seriously mentally ill.
No. I don’t think so. She would have to be very high-functioning.
On No Longer Lonely, do people have to say on their profile what mental illness they have?
Technically, yes. I think there is a way to bypass it, if you want. Every once in awhile I get, “I have autism” or “My daughter has this, do they qualify?” And often enough I usually err on the side of, if they’re struggling with something and they think they can benefit from this and maybe they can connect to these people, you know, I’m fine with that.
Do people tend to align themselves with others who have similar illnesses?
I don’t have numbers on that, but generally certain illnesses pair together better than others. A lot of people that are bipolar, if they’re high-functioning, they’re not gonna want somebody that’s schizophrenic and cant hold a job and has active delusions and things like that. Whereas, another person, even if their function is pretty high but they’re experiencing a lot of the same things as the other person, there could be a bond there.
After I was hospitalized, I went to a halfway kind of house. There certainly was a gradation. It’s kind of like in prison, where the child molesters are this and the rapists are that and the murderers are that. Same kind of thing, like, “Oh, he’s a ‘schiz’? I don’t want to hang out with him.”
That was the main thing of the site, to defeat the stigmas. By going on the site, you don’t have to worry about disclosing it to anybody. You’re not gonna get harassed for saying, “I have delusions.”
How important are relationships and love, do you think, for this community?
I think professionals in the field discount the importance of relationships. There’s this kind of P.C. version of things: ‘Listen to your doctor. Go to him regularly. Take your medication. Try to do something meaningful.’ And they leave out the most important parts like: ‘Bond with people. Connect with people that are experiencing the same thing as you.’ I think that’s equally as important as all those other things.
What are your feelings on treating mental illnesses?
First of all, I’m a little bit skeptical about the drugs they give people. I don’t think they work nearly as well as they advertise them to. There’s a great book called Anatomy of an Epidemic. Robert Whitaker shows that you need drugs in the short term to medicate somebody and bring them back to reality and stuff, but the long-term use of these things creates chronic conditions. It actually hooks more people.
Do you think that people with mental illnesses can only have a true bond with someone else who has a mental illness?
No, not necessarily. I started dating a girl pretty seriously. She didn’t have a mental illness. She didn’t know much about mental illness, but she accepted me. I remember the second time I brought her to my apartment I was like, ‘I’m so glad I don’t have to hide my pill bottles anymore.’ She looked at me kind of crazy, like ‘Why would you hide them from me?’ and I was like, ‘Wow, I guess there are people out there who are understanding.’
Are you still together?
No, we kinda’ broke up.
But you wouldn’t say it was because of your mental illness?
No, but I kinda’ thought in the back of my mind that if I’m with a woman who’s experienced similar things I can talk about it freely whenever I want. I can tell you a lot of people are really comforted by the fact that they can send a message to a girl: ‘Hey, I really liked your profile. I’m bipolar, too.’ You cannot do that, sidle up to someone at a bar and say, ‘Hey I have schizoaffective disorder.’ That doesn’t work.
Do you ever feel like you need to look out for some of your users?
Every once in awhile I will send an email to someone saying, ‘So and so told me you sounded despondent. I want to let you know that you’re not alone and that there are people here that can help you. Here’s a help line if you need it.’
30 marriages is very impressive. Where were most of the couples from?
I’d say definitely mostly in America. It’s funny. A lot of them started off as long-distance relationships. I think that people with mental illness are less demanding of a partner, generally. They’ve reached a point where they might connect with somebody and that’s good enough. I don’t need all the ‘I’m the smartest, the wealthiest, the best looking.’
What would you say to users to help them use the site better?
I usually say, you shouldn’t just wait around to see if somebody emails you. Pick someone you like and send them a message. I guarantee if you send a few, you’ll usually get a response. People on here are very nice. They’re very friendly. And you asked earlier if it’s a dating site or a community site. That’s something I’ve gone back and forth with over the years. There are people that have been on there for years and they use it as a supportive network, going back and forth, meeting up in the chat room. There’s a lot of regulars.
Story as seen on Narratively
Story by Rebecca White · Photos by Elizabeth D. Herman