While it would be great if recovery from mental illness meant that the illness would disappear and never return, for many of us living with mental illness the reality is that it’s just not going to go away. That means adapting the concept of recovery to fit with our own individual realities.
Earlier in the course of my depressive illness, I was able to achieve full remission between episodes. That was the idea of recovery that I held onto, confident that I’d be able to achieve it again even if it was a slow and difficult process.
Since then, though, my illness has become treatment-resistant. It’s been 3 1/2 years since I was last in full remission. That old definition of recovery is no longer serving me, so I was faced with a choice: keep hanging onto that notion of recovery for dear life, or redefine it so that it became more useful for me.
It was hard to let go of the old idea of recovery, because it required a shift of identities. No longer could I distinguish a sick and a well self; there was just myself who was sick.
The upside, though, of shifting perspective is that it’s a lot more empowering to be able to conceptualize recovery in a way that works for me. Recovery is now less of an endpoint and more an ongoing journey. It’s about finding meaning and purpose in new ways rather than getting back what I lost.
Now, even though my illness is present in my everyday life, I can shape how I approach each day to move as much as I can in a recovery direction.
That’s what recovery is for me. In these excerpts from my new book Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis, some of the book’s contributors share what recovery means for them.
“I think recovery means different things to different people. I used to hate the term. I’m not an alcoholic or drug addict. But treatment is a sort of recovery, even if there is no end in sight. In the beginning I thought recovery means you can come to the final destination of being recovered. I now understand that for me, as far as I believe, that is not the case. I will forever be in ‘recovery’, but I really prefer the term ‘treatment’. You will never ‘recover’ from a mental illness. You will always be in treatment though.” — Phyllis, bipolar II disorder
“Full recovery for me would mean to accept myself as a physically flawed human who is worthy of love regardless of her looks or size. I have never truly believed that and most likely will not, given my age (late 50s).” — Paula, anorexia nervosa
“I don’t think my brain will be symptom-free as the likes of calorie counting become hardwired and I still struggle with control issues and perfectionism at times, but I’ve been free of physical bulimia in the years since. Recovery for me has meant working on self-compassion, coping strategies, and healing, which is a continual work-in-progress for myself as it is for most of us as perfectly imperfect human beings.” — Caz, bulimia nervosa
“ For me, recovery from ADD means being able to finish everyday tasks without my brain fighting against me the whole time. I just want the ability to fight back, instead of giving in to distractions.
I don’t consider all my symptoms of ADD necessarily bad. Of course, it’s affected my life in big ways when it comes to education and even work… But I know I’ll always be fighting. As long as I have a fighting chance, I’m happy.” — Casey, ADHD
“When I look back on my life, especially how far I’ve come the past 11 years, I am astonished at the difference. I was once completely debilitated by flashbacks, triggers, hypervigilance, and almost total mistrust in the world. With a lot of hard work, therapy, acceptance, and understanding my illness, I have been learned to live, not just survive. I don’t know if I will always have symptoms that I need to manage, but continued growth and change to me is a life-long pursuit and all part of the recovery process.” — Alexis Rose, PTSD
I think it’s important to share our recovery stories as well as our illness stories. It’s easy to get discouraged, but by sharing our stories we can help to lift each other up.