ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Recovery is a Lifelong Endeavor

By Jack Bragen
Friday January 11, 2013 - 01:52:00 PM

When someone is correctly diagnosed with a major mental illness, the path of life is changed indelibly. The individual is on a path of either recognizing and dealing with his or her psychiatric illness, or being in denial and having a path of repeated disasters. Either way, an individual newly diagnosed with psychiatric illness does not usually have an easy destiny. 

While a person with mental illness is usually better off being medication compliant, some things other than pills that come with the package deal of a diagnosis need not be swallowed. 

For example, we should not believe people's assertions that we will be permanently disabled and unable to work. Many people with psychiatric conditions are able to work or be self-employed, and only the worst of counselors will advise a person that they can't work. We should not buy into the concept that we have less intellectual development than the counselors who are paid to help us. While there are counselors who know a lot, we should keep the thought that we have valuable life experiences. We can think and use our minds, and we should. We should not give up on being intelligent merely because we have a psychiatric diagnosis. 

We should not believe people's implications or assertions that we are a "sick person" or that we "are not in a healthy space." Some counselors will automatically judge us as "people with emotional problems," when the cause of our problems may actually be a malfunction in a part of the brain. These are two very different things. A person with mental illness can be psychiatrically ill but emotionally healthy. 

As persons with mental health diagnoses, our life paths may have some unanticipated twists and turns that we can not always avoid. We may be forced to live for a while on disability insurance or SSI. This does not automatically mean that we should throw in the towel regarding having prospects in our lives. 

We may reach a time in life that seems anti- or post- climactic. This is a state of uneventfulness that follows on the heels of a success. Happily ever after does not exist. Life offers repeated episodes of struggle, and that is what makes people's lives interesting. If we have a victory in life or a time of achieving something which is followed by a lull, we still have the option of trying to do more. 

Finding more clarity than we previously had is a valuable thing. For many people, reaching middle age brings a greater amount of wisdom. We may think, "If I only knew then the things I know now." Yet, this is actually a good, healthy point to reach. Of course you should know more in middle age than you knew in young adulthood-it comes with the territory. 

However, there are some who never reach that clarity of thought, whose minds remain clouded through repeated episodes of mental illness and repeated unhappy events. Still others remain mentally clouded through the use of illicit drugs and alcohol. 

My advice concerning illicit drugs and alcohol is that you should never take that first sip of alcohol, you should never take that first toke, and you should never get high on drugs to begin with. Once you try these substances for the first time, you have a very large chance of becoming permanently addicted, with all of the disagreeable baggage that goes with it. 

As we mature, we may realize the folly of being medication noncompliant. If we are medication compliant most of the time, we have a chance of learning from life's experiences. Failing to get the illness treated means that our mental equipment will be unusable, and we will not be able to benefit from life's lessons. 

As persons with disabilities, we often have little choice but to accept living with less of the things money can buy. And we may have to deal with a certain amount of disrespect when we are among mainstream, nondisabled people. Settling for less is a hard pill to swallow; it is a pill as bad tasting as a mouthful of medication. It would be nice to believe that we can have everything that others have if we just try hard enough, but that appears to be a pipedream. Therefore, it is necessary for persons with mental illness to get enjoyment from basic, simple, and nonmaterial things, such as a cup of tea, or a good book. It is very Zen to do this, and not the self absorbed version of Zen practiced by affluent people-this version of mindfulness comes from harsh necessity. 

The path of life for someone with mental illness is difficult-more so if we shrink away from the effort required to make a go of it. Recovery never ends; we are perpetually works in progress. We must not postpone getting some enjoyment while on this journey. To use a cliché, it's not about the destination, it is about the trip.