Wellbeing & Recovery

Finding Recovery in Spite of Mental Illness

Finding recovery in spit of mental illness - graphic of a person sprouting from a nut

While it would be great if recovery from mental illness meant that the illness would disappear and never return, for many of us living with mental illness the reality is that it’s just not going to go away. That means adapting the concept of recovery to fit with our own individual realities (or chucking aside the notion of recovery altogether, but I think adaptation is probably more helpful).

I’ve had a huge shift in my concept of recovery over the course of my illness. In the earlier years of my illness, depressive episodes were interspersed with periods of full remission. Sure, difficulties would pop up, but I had extended periods of being illness-free and life was good.  Recovery became synonymous with remission.

As my illness progressed, though, it became increasingly clear that conceptualizing recovery as remission was no longer serving me. It felt like an unrealistic target, and that wasn’t a good feeling. I tried to approach the issue with greater acceptance, and recognize that it’s more useful to me to conceptualize recovery as trying to live the most meaningful life that I can in spite of my illness.

It’s been a gradual shift, but I feel more empowered by reconceptualizing what recovery would look like. I’m fairly sure that my concept of recovery will continue to evolve over time, but that’s probably a good thing. After all, my illness isn’t static, so why should recovery be?

In these excerpts from my new book Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis, some of the book’s contributors share what recovery means for them.

I think recovery means different things to different people. I used to hate the term. I’m not an alcoholic or drug addict. But treatment is a sort of recovery, even if there is no end in sight. In the beginning I thought recovery means you can come to the final destination of being recovered. I now understand that for me, as far as I believe, that is not the case. I will forever be in ‘recovery’, but I really prefer the term ‘treatment’. You will never ‘recover’ from a mental illness. You will always be in treatment though.

Phyllis, bipolar II disorder

Full recovery for me would mean to accept myself as a physically flawed human who is worthy of love regardless of her looks or size. I have never truly believed that and most likely will not, given my age (late 50s).

Paula, anorexia nervosa

I don’t think my brain will be symptom-free as the likes of calorie counting become hardwired and I still struggle with control issues and perfectionism at times, but I’ve been free of physical bulimia in the years since. Recovery for me has meant working on self-compassion, coping strategies, and healing, which is a continual work-in-progress for myself as it is for most of us as perfectly imperfect human beings.

Caz, bulimia nervosa

For me, recovery from ADD means being able to finish everyday tasks without my brain fighting against me the whole time. I just want the ability to fight back, instead of giving in to distractions.

I don’t consider all my symptoms of ADD necessarily bad. Of course, it’s affected my life in big ways when it comes to education and even work… But I know I’ll always be fighting. As long as I have a fighting chance, I’m happy.

Casey, ADHD

When I look back on my life, especially how far I’ve come the past 11 years, I am astonished at the difference. I was once completely debilitated by flashbacks, triggers, hypervigilance, and almost total mistrust in the world. With a lot of hard work, therapy, acceptance, and understanding my illness, I have been learned to live, not just survive. I don’t know if I will always have symptoms that I need to manage, but continued growth and change to me is a life-long pursuit and all part of the recovery process.

Alexis Rose, PTSD
Know your worth, believe in yourself, keep going
Book cover: Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis by Ashley L. Peterson

Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis aims to cut through the misunderstanding and stigma, drawing on the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria and guest narratives to present mental illness as it really is.

It’s published by MH@H Books and available on Amazon and Google Play.

23 thoughts on “Finding Recovery in Spite of Mental Illness”

  1. One of my fear is to never reach recovery but since I know my triggers and reached acceptance stage, I will define it as my own recovery. I also hope I know how to put my next episode should there be one, under control

  2. I try to think of my feelings as passing through, rather than who I am. They do change. Sometimes that helps. But i will always have image issues, so in that sense recovery is ongoing.

  3. I have learned to accept this as well. No matter how hard I try, my anxiety and depression won’t go away. I am stuck in the mindset I had during my eating disorder too. I had to learn to accept it as a part of me and accept those thoughts and feelings will always be there. I have gotten so used to it that I don’t take medication because I don’t feel normal unless I feel this way

  4. “I tried to approach the issue with greater acceptance, and recognize that it’s more useful to me to conceptualize recovery as trying to live the most meaningful life that I can in spite of my illness.”

    I LOVE that sentence!! Love it! I couldn’t agree more!!

    I think it’s weird if mental illness just occurs from nowhere for no good reason, versus if your life takes a huge dive (with things going disastrously wrong) and it causes you to have a breakdown from the stress. With the former, there’d be a craving to get back what you used to have, because why’d it suddenly disappear? With the latter, it feels like the issues are innately who you are, if that makes sense.

    I took sixth in my group of thirty writers with 10 points!! (Highest scorer got 15.) Woo hoo!! I’m in good position for this upcoming weekend’s story to give me a high combined total and get me to the future round!

    1. I had the craving to get back what I used to have, because when I was well I was fully well, and mental illness wasn’t something that was always lurking around in the background.

      Congrats on the writing result! That’s awesome!

  5. That is a really insightful idea ive never really thought of before. Recovery does sound like a word where there is an end in sight but really we know we’ll live with what we have in one way or another for the rest of our lives.

    Thanks Askley, this has given me a new perspective on my own conditions. Keep up the good work.

  6. I like the line, “It’s been a gradual shift, but I feel more empowered by it” I think the more we know about ourselves and the illness, the more we have power of the situation. Even if it might be a little rocky, still… just knowing is a great essential during recovery. Just remember to adult one day at a time.

  7. Ashley, I love the term ‘adaptation’ versus recovery. Recovery suggests symptom-free. For many of us with mental illness, some days are better than others but if we stop working to manage our mental health, we spiral down. On a personal note, I’ve been struggling with the idea that if I recognize that depression will always be a part of me, am I labeling myself? Is labeling myself as a person who copes with depression giving power to a part of me that I struggle with the most? I hope this does not sound ignorant or self-judgmental. I suppose there’s an element of fear, because I’ve spent my entire life trying NOT to accept that this part of me may be “uncurable.” Thank you for allowing this type of dialogue here. I learn so much from your blog and your readers’ comments.

    1. It’s so hard to figure out how to work illness in without having it threaten to take over identity. I really like the term “adaptation” – it’s a very constructive way of looking at it. 💕

      1. Yes, you’re so right. We’re all works in progress. If we can adopt constructive, useful ways of working through some of the more difficult issues, we’ll move forward instead of staying stuck or reverting backwards. Thanks for the inspiration and support.

  8. There was no “before mental illness” me, so recovery to me would be being able to live a fulfilling life with as much functionality as possible. Being a good aunt to any kiddos in my life would be my way of breaking the family cycle of intergenerational trauma.

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