ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Definition of "Recovery"

By Jack Bragen
Thursday October 18, 2012 - 05:02:00 PM

When we hear the word "recovery" we probably think of a state in which a disease is gone. For example, recovery from cancer implies that someone has gone through chemo, surgery, or perhaps radiation, and the tumor is gone-the person is cancer free. If someone has recovered from a case of the flu, we expect that the person no longer has flu symptoms, and that the flu virus in their system has been subdued by their immune system. 

However, for persons with mental illness, the recovery that we experience is more like establishing or reestablishing quality of life while the symptoms of mental illness may still be present. 

For a person with mental illness to be in recovery, they must no longer be guided by delusions or other symptoms even though delusions or other symptoms may continue. We may experience a day to day struggle against symptoms. For example, in addition to paranoid delusions, I have developed an anxiety disorder that includes phobias. If I were controlled by this, I would probably never leave the house. This would indicate that I was not recovered from my anxiety disorder. However, if I function in life despite the anxiety, I could be said to be "in recovery." 

Recovery for someone like me also includes responsibilities. (This is a separate issue from "taking responsibility" which is another important factor.) If I deal with most of my personal responsibilities, such as paying rent and utilities, buying food, cleaning up after myself, and keeping my appointments, it means that I am not a burden on other people. On the other hand, if I repeatedly create situations in which I must be "rescued" by family or by mental health professionals, it means that I am not truly independent and that I do not have a good grasp on adulthood. (There are exceptions. Most non-afflicted people, who we would assume are competent, need help at some point in their adult lives.) 

Taking the medication prescribed to treat mental illness is usually an essential part of being in recovery. However, if a psychiatrist is the mad hatter, and has you on medications that don't work or which create side effects that are unbearable, a person may sometimes need to replace their psychiatrist. There is nothing wrong with getting a second opinion if you believe your doctor is a bad apple. In general, you should not defy the orders of a psychiatrist before finding a competent replacement. 

Recovery, for someone with mental illness, is a state of being in which the illness isn't ruining the person's life. It is a state in which one is living as close to a "normal" existence as is practicable, allowing for the person's circumstances and limitations. 

Recovery is a personal thing, and it is different for each person. Some people with mental illness feel recovered when able to hold down a job. Others may feel recovered if they have not visited the psych ward for a year. Recovery for some could mean being able to feel peaceful and not in crisis; able to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee (decaf for some) without being agitated. Recovery for some is the ability to go to the store and buy a loaf of bread. For persons with mental illness, there is no strict definition for recovery. 

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