Reclaiming Ourselves in Recovery

  • The term "illness identity" was coined to refer to how individuals diagnosed with mental health conditions define themselves by their illness and its symptoms.


    The New York Times recently featured an article written by a woman diagnosed with bipolar about how she faced the loss of her self in private and no psychiatrist or therapist ever talked about this significant turnaround in treatment with her.


    I submit we can reclaim ourselves in recovery and that we must talk about how we feel about the loss of our old self with our treatment team.


    I've thought about this often and long before the article was published in the newspaper.  I've come to the realization that the hyper-elated me was a manifestation of SZ.  As the breakdown happened, I was so energized it seemed I could walk from New York City to California in 10 minutes.

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    Separating ourselves from our illnesses is the first order of the day when we receive a diagnosis and pills and little else to send us on our way to cope with the new challenges.


    Early on, I ran 100 miles in the opposite direction because I wanted to prove I was normal; I didn't want to have schizophrenia and be "crazy" like the others I met.  I lived for awhile in a residence in a dangerous apartment complex where crack vials littered the hallways.


    I dared dream of having a life worth living not the life presented to me as someone with schizophrenia.  I didn't want to collect a government disability check the rest of my life.


    After a three-month drug holiday that failed, I went back on the medication and had to grapple with the truth: the illness wouldn't go away on its own, the medication would only keep the symptoms at bay.


    I spent 7 years working in the gray flannel insurance field chained to desks in cubicle hell.  It wasn't until I began work in a creative field as a librarian that my recovery took off.  I was 35 in 2000 and I started to reclaim my old self: the cheerful, creative, gregarious Chris.


    Always: I refused to label myself as a schizophrenic.  I was able to convince another woman to stop doing this too.  All too often, a significant number of us experience residual symptoms.  Yet that's no excuse for illness identity.

    How does each of us reclaim ourselves in recovery?


    First of all: we dare to dream and then we set SMART goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-sensitive.  We strive to do our best every day knowing that our best will change from day to day.


    We enlist people we trust to act as partners in our treatment team to help us recover.  We develop a support network of family, friends and for those of us that want: romantic partners.


    Our recovery takes off when we see our psychiatrists and other providers as allies not adversaries.  It takes off when we accept that the diagnosis is a tool to get the right treatment not a label.  Schizophrenia IS NOT a label.


    Language is power.  We can use words to our advantage.  We can tell others we're "diagnosed with" or "living with" SZ instead of calling ourselves schizophrenics.  We can talk about our struggles in human terms that others can relate to.


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    I have some specific ideas about how each of us can reclaim ourselves.

    We can join Toastmasters and practice doing public speaking to get the confidence to speak out and express ourselves.


    We can do the ordinary things that people with so-called normal lives do: attend school, work at paid employment, engage in relationships.


    We can do the things that we're passionate about that bring us joy.


    In doing these things: each of us will find our voice.  Isn't that the goal in recovery: to have a voice.  We can speak our mind and not just medicate it.


    Express yourself.  See how it goes.  The International Women's Writing Guild or IWWG asks everyone who joins: Who Are You? The new members' responses are posted in the guild's newsletter.


    Who am I?  I'm a cook, athlete, writer, librarian, motivational speaker and humanitarian.  I'm a woman who used to be a girl that danced on the edge of life.


    I'm the one and only Chris just like you're the one and only you.


    I submit there's a person inside each of us waiting to get out.  You can nurture yourself first and only then can begin to advocate for other people next if you so choose.


    My life was forever changed one night in 1987.  I doubt the goal is to go back to the way things were before.  Your life will be different: it will be a changed life.  Yet it can be magnificent in ways you couldn't imagine before you had your breakdown.


    Most of us aren't grateful for our good fortune at the moment in time when we experience it.  We live on auto-pilot and take things for granted.  Our fall from whatever grace we had reminds us of how beautiful our lives were.


    The goal after getting a diagnosis is to move forward because if you're not moving forward you'll remain stuck.  The breakdown is a signal that things weren't working.


    How does any of us know the life we used to lead was the greatest it could be?  I urge you to be hopeful that your life can be ever better afterwards than it was before.


    I've decided to use the word *magnificent* to describe this kind of new life. 


    That's because the door that closed on the past was supposed to be shut.  Another door is opening for us and it takes courage to walk out that door into our new lives.


    Reclaiming ourselves in recovery IS possible even though no one talks about this out loud.


    I dare to talk about this because when we choose recovery we open this new door.  Who we become on the other side can be a better and improved version of ourselves.


    The key is to keep striving to do new things and to do a little better every day.  Risking change to grow as a person will enable the true you to shine.


    Who are you?


    I'd love to hear your comments on this topic.

Published On: May 19, 2013