Recovery And Mental Health

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Have you ever awakened in a terror, only to realize that the horrifying fate you had just witnessed was only a nightmare? How would life be different if nightmares were real? Perhaps there would be no more tomorrows, where you could continue to live with those you love and continue to do what you love doing. Zap-you awaken, and life and its beauty come back to you.

Mental illness is like a nightmare. Recovering from mental illness is like wakening to find ourselves once again fulfilling our roles in life successfully. Recovery does not change the fact that an illness occurred, and that symptoms of the illness may even be present. However, recovery frees us from believing we don't count because we are crazy and irrational. It puts our repertoire of "can'ts" in the background, and reminds us of the many options for the good life that are available to us. Recovery allows us to shed the sick role and use sound thinking to guide our future.

How Do I Start the Recovery Process?

Doctors and therapists encourage but do not create recovery. That is the job of the individual patient. Recovery begins with hope-the insight that things can get better. The Center for Mental Health Services (2004), a division of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), summarized how to begin recovery in their consensus statement:

"Recovery begins with an initial stage of awareness in which a person recognizes that positive change is possible."

Natasha spent most of her adolescence in acute and residential treatment facilities. Her Bipolar illness interrupted her ability to function at home and school. Her intense emotionality and quick anger made it uncomfortable for others to be around her, and people sometimes felt threatened by her. She was miserable-and often wondered if life had any meaning.

One day, she had an insight that life could get better-and she started to work to make that happen. This started her recovery process. She enrolled in college and got a degree in fine arts. She fell in love, got married (later divorced) and had a son. She got an administrative position at a prestigious college. Her peers at work recognized her brilliance. She was the life of the office and kept everyone in good spirits. She had an eye for detail, and if anything was missing from a plan of action, Natasha knew how to fix it fast.

Her son, Randy, however, was her most precious endeavor in life. She made sure he went to the best schools, and that he had the tools to master his academic subjects. He was always on the honor roll-until his sophomore year in high school. That was the year that Randy became very ill with Bipolar Disorder. The hardest part of Randy's illness was the experience of psychosis: Hallucinations, delusions, not caring for any of his responsibilities-even his own grooming.

At first, it was relatively easy to stabilize Randy on medications. But by his senior year at high school, it became harder and harder to stabilize Randy when he would become psychotic.

The best psychiatric hospital for adolescents was three hours away from Natasha's home. She would accompany Randy to the hospital, and stay in the Ronald McDonald House. She was unable to keep her job and spend so much time away from work, so she retired. In fact, she gave up almost everything that had kept her going in life to "be there" for Randy.

Several months into the last hospitalization, Natasha told me she was starting to "lose it". She felt the old feelings of anger and despair surfacing daily. She felt like she might end up in the hospital herself.

One day, I shared an observation with Natasha. "You know, Natasha, you are one of the most emotionally expressive and powerful women I have ever met. Have you ever written any poetry?"

In fact, Natasha had written many poems about her experiences over the years. She kept them in a journal at home. She sent me an email with a couple of her poems. They were much better than any of the published poems I had read-another observation I shared with Natasha.

The realization of her value as a poet enabled Natasha once again turn to recovery. Natasha made arrangements for Randy to have the care needed until he was stabilized, and she returned home. She used the despair and anger and loneliness that troubled her to write "confessional poetry". She started attending "open-mike" night at her community's poet organization, and recited her poetry on stage.

Her blatantly honest descriptions of her feelings drew readers into her experience. They found the feelings she described "intriguing" rather than "sick"-in fact, many of them had felt the same way-but never admitted it. Natasha's description dignified their feelings. Before long, she was a local celebrity. But most important, she had transformed her self-definition to "poet" and "friend" instead of "bipolar" and "lonely".

How Do I Stay in Recovery?

Natasha's story informs us that recovery involves redefining life in ways that empower us as valuable players in life. As summarized by the consensus statement of the Center for Mental Health Services (2004):

"Recovery focuses on valuing and building on the multiple capacities, resiliencies, talents, coping abilities, and inherent worth of individuals."

Can you believe in possibilities? Then you can find the road of recovery. Do you know and practice coping skills that work for you? Can you work a little each day on sharing your capabilities and talents? Then you can stay "in recovery", and find it again if you ever get stuck.


Katrina Holgate Miller, PhD writes about the strengths and skills people use to face their mental health issues with empowerment (moxie) rather than victimization.

She has turned her 30+ years of clinical experience with thousands of clients into stories and tips about how her clients were able to recover from mental illness and addiction and return to the roles they enjoyed during times of wellness. She is author of the website Her email is

Katrina Holgate Miller, PhD, MFT is a freelance medical journalist specializing in mental health.

Her professional experience has encompassed many facets of mental health care, including mental health assessment and treatment, substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse (victims and perpetrators), couples counseling, and adolescent group counseling. For the past five years, Katrina has worked with patients across the country to help them resolve their barriers to adequate and effective mental healthcare and chemical dependency/addiction treatment.

Her writing tells the stories of the patients who used their moxie to overcome their distress.


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