A woman I recently met gave me food for thought when it comes to the definition of recovery related to mental illness and addiction. She expressed her frustration with the number of popular speakers who talk about their recovery as a distinct event in time. While she recognized that some people do experience an episode of remission as a result of finding the right medication, for example, she felt that it was at least as common for individuals to be forever changed by mental illness and wage a lifelong struggle with it. Her recovery involved small successes, setbacks and the drive to carry on through it all. She lamented that no one seemed to stand up and celebrate her kind of recovery.
It made me consider what recovery means. The dictionary definition, “a return to a normal state of health, mind or strength,” raises more questions than answers. What is normal? Does anyone who has experienced mental illness and addiction ever return to the person they were before they became ill? Even if we look like the same person on the outside, I believe that we are all transformed by our experiences. But, while there are some things that are lost, for many there is enormous self-growth and development that follows the adversity. There is a special kind of resilience and appreciation for those important moments of happiness, achievement, and endurance.
Recovery also suggests an end state. Yet, mental illness will remain with me throughout life. It may be a silent companion for years, but can return in the face of challenges, changes, or for no reason at all. If the possibilities of relapses or recurrences exist, by investing in the popular concept of recovery, I live with the constant threat of its loss. Not a very positive mindset. The term “recovery” simply doesn’t fit my situation, and I am sure I am not alone in this belief.
So if we cannot recover from mental illness, what can we do? I prefer, instead, to describe myself as living well with mental illness. Like the woman I had talked to, I recognize that even with medication, I can lose my mental balance. I can spend my time worrying about this possibility, or I can spend my energies doing everything I can to maintain my well-being – proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep, good support networks, and work that provides me with meaning and purpose. I try to avoid the future worries of “what if”s and the backward regrets of “if only”s in order to live and enjoy the present. I celebrate my small successes, even if I am the only one who sees them as such – the activities that help me live my best life are unique to me. And so, I choose to celebrate not my recovery from mental illness, but to stand up and cheer each day that I can express my best possible self by living well with mental illness.
I create Today as a celebration of my life. – Johnathan Lockwood Huie
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.