When I learned I had bipolar disorder (BD) my shrink (he quickly became my ex-shrink – I’ve fired a few of them) said BD was “just like diabetes”. You know that whole “it’s like any other medical illness and that’s why you take medication for it”.

I heartily agree there are biological factors involved with mental illness and the medication I take has been a godsend. But it’s not, and I repeat it’s NOT like having diabetes or MS…or genital herpes for that matter. A psychiatric disorder diagnosis is different. The illness attacks the body and mind, but more particularly the sense of self.

My old identity shattered. Who am I if I have a mental disorder? If I’ve been in the psych ward? If I’ve had psychotic episodes? If I’ve been committed? Tied to a gurney? Take psychiatric medication? The most devastating obstacle was the damage the stigma wreaked on my psyche. Ironically, external barriers such as stereotypical ‘red tape’ and material losses were the easiest to overcome.

A traumatic event occurs: a stay in the psych ward, restraints maybe or a suicide attempt and several stages begin. Each occurs at varying rates and depths unique to the person undergoing the crisis. No right or wrong, just a recovery pattern unique as a fingerprint.

This healing process is one I discovered as I’ve gone (and continue to go) through stages of healing and what I’ve seen in others. Although described as a sequential process, it’s more accurate pictured as a woven tapestry. When one part of the tapestry is restored, all aspects of the piece shifts and improves.

1. Acceptance - Denial of the illness is the greatest barrier; acceptance, the greatest liberator. When a person starts to accept the illness, specifically mental illness, only then can healing begin. Often the longest leg and biggest barrier in the road to recovery is the journey to acceptance.

The process of acceptance is similar to the joke: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Bit by small digestible bit, denial is eventually erased. It took a full five years for me to accept I had psychiatric illnesses, before I became willing to accept help.

 2. Insight - Even the smallest degree of admission allows insight to begin. It is only then that I will notice and then have the ability to monitor details of the illness: warning signs, behaviors exacerbating mood swings, frequency of shifts.

 3. Action - At each stage of insight, I can craft a plan of action to enhance recovery or take steps to enlist support to help me do so. If I see staying up late worsens my illness, I learn to turn into bed earlier. If connecting with friends helps keep me buoyant, I find ways to nurture my social ties.

 4. Self-esteem - As I make positive choices, I see how those decisions and actions impact my health, rebuilding my sense of competency, self-efficacy and in turn my self-esteem. This encourages further acceptance, insight and action.

 5. Healing - When I allow myself to accept an illness I would rather not and take actions to combat it, healing is a natural by-product. Healing needs to be defined very broadly. Healing does not necessarily mean remission of symptoms, less stays in the hospital or return to the level of functioning pre-illness. It is (in my definition) the restoration of a sense of meaning, purpose, sense of self and quality of life, despite struggles with the illness.

 6. Meaning - As healing occurs, the self returns to new wholeness complete with these past new experiences and new choices. It is here meaning can unfold. Via discovery, meaning, from an otherwise painful experience, is birthed. Discovery of familial history, personal strengths, bonds of friendship and belief systems play a pivotal role in crafting purpose. The significance an illness holds differs from person to person. Every malady emerges from unique sets of life circumstances. The distinct details from which the disorder arises shapes the kind of meaning harvested.

 If we accept mental illness, seek to understand its mechanics, importance can be derived even from our darkest hour. This isn’t to diminish or ignore the pain experienced by those of us with mental illness and our families. On the contrary, it’s to honor struggles and celebrate the power that is retrieved. Remember, surviving is a feat in and of itself.

 Recovery and meaning are hard won. Finding meaning isn’t dependent upon comprehending the ‘why’ or ‘what’ of it all. Paradoxically, it is as we learn to live without knowing the ‘why’s’ that peace and meaning emerge.

 Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived. - Anonymous

 © 2013 Victoria Maxwell 

Victoria MaxwellBFA, BPP* is creative director of Crazy for Life Co. an educational and consulting company offering workshops and stage plays on a range of mental health topics. Her acclaimed solo shows about her personal experience living with bipolar disorder and psychosis, tour internationally. To contact her at victoria@victoriamaxwell.com  or visit at www.victoriamaxwell.com

 *Bachelor of Fine Arts / Bi-Polar Princess

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