By Daniel C. Hartman
Recovery according to the Appalachian Consulting Group is:
“…the process of gaining control over one’s life- and the direction one wants that life to go- on the other side of a psychiatric diagnosis all of the losses usually associated with that diagnosis.”
To break that down, this means to me, that we as persons with mental illness after a psychiatric diagnosis find ourselves on something that can best be described as a road. The highway that we are on after initial diagnosis is not the smoothest stretch of road. Not only can it be bumpy, it has many twists and turns. The markings are often misleading which may lead you back to the place you started.
Once you get a diagnosis from a provider that works, (and that often can take years) you can start finding your way forward. Yes, there will be potholes on the road. That is not just recovery that is life. Those potholes can be a number of things for us and we are looking for ways to avoid them. Most of the time we can, but sometimes we can’t.
Relapses are a way of life for many of us. Sometimes get turned around on the road, and even worse, we swerve off it sometimes and crash. What people without mental illness don’t understand is that even little things can be triggers to us. That does not mean we are weak, just different. Mental illness can best be described as a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
When it comes to genetics, our brains have been shown by science to be different than so-called “normal” brains. Be it a chemical imbalance, or difference in the structure of the brain itself, our brains just different. Again, that doesn’t mean that we are not capable of living a life that is fulfilling, it just means we just are on a different road than most people.
As far as environment factors go, people with mental illness often find ourselves seeking help after a trauma of some sort. That trauma may come in our teenage years after being bullied, or it may come in our Golden year after the death of a spouse. Mental illness has no age limit. We can find ourselves on the road to recovery when we are young, or old.
It is during our time on the road that we can come to an acceptance of who we are as a person. Like everything else, it doesn’t come easy. It is a time when we as persons with mental illnesses need to reflect on who we are, and what we want. We need to learn to advocate for ourselves, to speak out in our own voice. We need to learn to tell people YOUR story. Some of those people may be just starting out on the road, and they NEED to hear that someone else there alongside them. That make can make all the difference in the world to a new traveler on the road to recovery.
Who am I to tell you this? I am simply a man with a diagnosed mental illness. I denied that I had one for a long time. When I was diagnosed, I went off the medications that were supposed to help me find my way on the road. Sometimes those meds worked, and sometimes they didn’t. I had 13 psychiatrists in 20 years. Then one day, two years, one month, and 19 days ago, I crashed.
I am not an evangelical Christian, but if I was, I would say, I died and was “born again.” My “rebirth” involved my mental illness, the legal community, me temporarily losing my freedom, the support of family and friends, my faith, and a group called NAMI. All of these things have combined to make me the person I am at this time. I am a man who is far better than who he was not too long ago.
During my time at NAMI, I have seen great things. I have seen people who did not talk at the first I met them, slowly back to life. Now it is not just me who is sharing my recovery story. They are too. Yes, some of them get a little lost along the way sometimes, but they find solace knowing that others are on the same road as they are. OK, maybe is not the SAME road, but it is the road to recovery nonetheless. We are drivers on this road, not passengers. That means WE do have control over where the road will take us. As I have navigated the road I have discovered something about it though…
The recovery is just that, a road. It is not a destination. When you start down the road to recovery, you are ALWAYS in recovery. As you drive down the road, you can look at it in two ways: 1) you sit back and enjoy it, and 2) you can fear it.
Personally, I think the best way to navigate the road is a combination of both enjoying it, and knowing when to slow down. As Aerosmith sang in “Amazing:” “Life’s a highway, not a destination,” as is the road to recovery of which so many of us in NAMI will navigate each and every day for the rest of our lives.