Recovery has only recently become a word used in relation to the experience of psychiatric symptoms. Those of us who experience psychiatric symptoms are commonly told that these symptoms are incurable, that we will have to live with them for the rest of our lives, that the medications, if they (health care professionals) can find the right ones or the right combination, may help, and that we will always have to take the medications. Many of us have even been told that these symptoms will worsen as we get older. Nothing about recovery was ever mentioned. Nothing about hope. Nothing about anything we can do to help ourselves. Nothing about empowerment. Nothing about wellness.
So what does recovery from a mental disorder look like?
You will recognize your own recovery when you start experiencing one or more of the following:
There is hope.
A vision of hope that includes no limits. That even when someone says to us, “You can’t do that because you’ve had or have those symptoms, dear!” – we know it’s not true. It is only when we feel and believe that we are fragile and out of control that we find it hard to move ahead. Those of us who experience psychiatric symptoms can and do get well. I (Mary Ellen) learned about hope from my mother. She was told she was incurably insane. She had wild, psychotic mood swings unremittingly for eight years. And then they went away. After that she worked very successfully as a dietitian in a large school lunch program and spent her retirement helping my brother raise seven children as a single parent and volunteering for a variety of church and community organizations.
We don’t need dire predictions about the course of our symptoms – something which no one else, regardless of their credentials can ever know. We need assistance, encouragement and support as we work to relieve these symptoms and get on with our lives. We need a caring environment without feeling the need to be taken care of.
Too many people have internalized the messages that there is no hope, that they are simply victims to their illness, and that the only relationships they can hope for are one-way and infantalizing. As people are introduced to communities and services that focus on recovery, relationships change to being more equal and supportive in both directions. As we feel valued for the help we can offer as well as receive, our self-definitions are expanded. We try out new behaviors with each other, find ways in which we can take positive risks and find that we have more self-knowledge and more to offer than we were led to believe.
It’s up to each individual to take responsibility for their own wellness.
There is no one else who can do this for us. When our perspective changes from reaching out to be saved to one in which we work to heal ourselves and our relationships, the pace of our recovery increases dramatically.
Taking personal responsibility can be very difficult when symptoms are severe and persistent. In these cases, it is most helpful when our health care professionals and supporters work with us to find and take even the smallest steps to work our way out of this frightening situation.
Education is a process that must accompany us on this journey.
We search for sources of information that will help us to figure out what will work for us and the steps we need to take in our own behalf. Many of us would like health care professionals to play a key role in this educational process – directing us to helpful resources, setting up educational workshops and seminars, working with us to understand information, and helping us to find a course that resonates with our wishes and beliefs.
Each of us must advocate for ourselves to get what it is we want, need and deserve.
Often people who have experienced psychiatric symptoms have the mistaken belief that we have lost our rights as individuals. As a result, our rights are often violated, and these violations are consistently overlooked. Self-advocacy becomes much easier as we repair our self-esteem, so damaged by years of chronic instability, and come to understand that we are often as intelligent as anyone else, and always as worthwhile and unique, with special gifts to offer the world, and that we deserve all the very best that life has to offer. It is also much easier if we are supported by health care professionals, family members and supporters as we reach out to get our personal needs met.
All people grow through taking positive risks. We need to support people in:
- making life and treatment choices for themselves, no matter how different they look from traditional treatment,
- building their own crisis and treatment plans,
- having the ability to obtain all their records,
- accessing information around medication side effects,
- refusing any treatment (particularly those treatments that are potentially hazardous),
- choosing their own relationships and spiritual practices,
- being treated with dignity, respect and compassion, and,
- creating the life of their choice.