CHOICES: #0 - An Introduction

Robin Cunningham Health Guide

    Vincent Van Gogh, when a resident at the psychiatric asylum at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole wrote the following to his brother, Theo, in a now famous letter [Arles, c. 21 April 1889]:


    "As for me, you know well enough that I should not exactly have chosen madness if I had had a choice, . . . "


    I have met no one with schizophrenia who would disagree. Not one! This serious brain disorder can rob us of choices that others take for granted, choices we had come to regard as our birthright, and can force yet other choices upon us that often involve trading one form of agony for another.


    Yet, in many respects, it is the choices we make, and why we choose as we do, that ultimately define who we are. It may be a cliché, but I've found it true, that difficult choices can make us stronger and more resilient. I have also learned that our suffering can make us more understanding of others, perhaps more compassionate. In my view, the choices we are denied, and the agonizing choices that we are forced to make, in striving for recovery from schizophrenia, add dimensions to our personalities and insights into the human condition that others would covet if they only knew.

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    The fact that we have schizophrenia may also deprive others of choices they have taken for granted, and force other difficult choices upon them that they never envisioned. If we are fortunate, we have caring family and friends. Sometimes we forget that our illness can be devastating for them as well, especially if we do not realize we are ill, or if our schizophrenia turns out to be treatment resistant. This illness can rip healthy families apart and leave voids in the lives and hearts of family and friends.


    Making the right choices is at the very heart of recovery from schizophrenia. And we must make a great many of these along this difficult road. We did not choose to develop schizophrenia and cannot be held responsible for our misfortune. But many of the choices leading to recovery must be made by each of us alone. For these, we can only hold ourselves accountable.


    Nor can we blame our illness on others. They are no more responsible for our plight than we are. By the same token, we cannot be held responsible for the choices others make in response to our illness, unless we have deliberately forced one choice versus another upon them.


    The point of departure for the journey of recovery is our acceptance of the fact that we have a mental illness. Some of us, especially those who do not initially realize they are ill, need assistance in getting to that point. This usually requires the intervention of a provider [a mental health care professional] and sometimes the courts. Should they choose to undertake the challenge, family members and/or friends can provide valuable assistance in making our journey of recovery possible simply by getting us to the point of departure. Their advice along the way can also help make our journey successful.


    So what exactly is this mysterious "journey of recovery" that everyone is constantly babbling about? When we think of a journey, the first question that comes to mind is - What is the destination? We might reasonably assume that the destination of our journey of recovery is to be "cured" of our schizophrenia, much as one can be cured of bacterial pneumonia or strep throat through the use of antibiotics. But medical science has yet to develop such a cure for schizophrenia. In the absence of an outright cure, the "destination" of our journey of recovery is to continuously strive for a state of mind, body and soul that is as close to a cure a we can possibly be. It's like the old tale of the frog that with each leap gets halfway to the finish line. The frog will never reach the finish line, but if it perseveres it can get very close to it.


    I believe there are three major milestones along the way in our journey of recovery, each to be achieved in turn, each building on its predecessor. The first is functionality, which is the foundation for all that is to come. The second is wellness, and the third is fulfillment.


    The hallmark of functionality is stability, both in our own minds and in the assessments of others, even in the midst of both internal and external chaos. We will know we have achieved wellness when we are happy with ourselves; when we enjoy the benefits of self-respect. Fulfillment comes when we find ourselves able, in whatever capacity, to make a positive contribution to society, to be doing something that makes this a better world.

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    It is important to remember that the journey of recovery for each of us involves a unique route. The three milestones for any one of us may be placed at different points along the way for others. And the terrain we must transverse is often very different. What constitutes functionality, wellness, and fulfillment for any one of us may not be achievable by some and may not be sufficient for many others. The true measure of achievement is in comparing ourselves today with where we were in our journey yesterday.


    In addition to the milestones (functionality, wellness and fulfillment) that measure and confirm our progress, I believe there are stepping stones that enable us to move forward towards our milestones one step at a time. (Coping mechanisms can be thought of as stepping stones.) The landscape of our journey may be littered with stepping stones. The challenge for each of us is to choose the ones that are best for us, that keep us on our unique path to recovery.


    Today, we may be blessed with three travel aids: medications, therapy and support groups (including supportive families and friends). History has clearly shown that these can greatly increase the likelihood of a successful journey of recovery. Medications can significantly increase our capacity for functionality; therapy can enhance our ability to fully utilize this increased capacity; support groups (again, including family and friends) can give us the courage to undertake our journey of recovery, as well as help along the way.


    In the last analysis, one of the most important choices we can make is to stand up, look schizophrenia full in the face, and declare -


    "I will not let you define who I am or control what I do with my life."


    Each Monday over the ensuing weeks, in a new series of blogs from me, you will be hearing a lot about the journey of recovery, choices, milestones, stepping stones and travel aids. These accounts and related comments will be anecdotal and can only come from the perspective of my own journey of recovery because it is the only one I know first hand. I am not a provider, but I am a consumer and a family member, and as such, I can speak with experiential authority.


    Please add your voice to the discussion. Tell me what think about my blogs, or tell other participants about your own experiences, or suggest a topic for discussion. We are all unique and your perspective will add greatly to our dialogue. We can learn from each other. You can make a comment or post a blog anonymously. If there is anything you would like to say to me in private, you can do so at my e-mail address here at SchizophreniaConnection:


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    * * *


    To get the ball rolling, I have already posted the first blog in this series. It is my recollection of what first got me headed towards the point of departure for my journey of recovery, i.e. the first installment in the story of how I eventually came to accept the fact that I have schizophrenia.


    I hope to hear from you.


Published On: September 23, 2007