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The 6 Steps of Healing You Need to Know

How to reset to wellness.

Source: VirginiaG/Pixabay
Source: VirginiaG/Pixabay

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 any illness that is considered physical. A psychiatric disorder diagnosis is different. The illness attacks the body and mind, but more particularly the sense of self. I'm sure some physical illnesses affect a person's identity and confidence as well. But there is something that is particularly cutting about the stigma of mental illness.

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.

However, as much as I believe there are differences in being diagnosed with a mental illness, what I've come to realize is that any severe or chronic illness ravages our sense of confidence in how we will manage in the world and what life actually means.

Take any traumatic event: a suicide attempt, a diagnosis of cancer; whether the event is mental or physical, it doesn't matter. As healing begins, several stages start to occur. Each happen at varying rates and depths unique to the person undergoing the crisis. No right or wrong, but a healing pattern unique as a fingerprint. I say healing, because this is not about cure, but about creating wholeness not health; creating meaning so that the wounds of our illness no longer pain us, but become part of our living narrative enriching ourselves and those around us.

This six-stage healing process is one I discovered as I’ve gone (and continue to go) through recovery and what I’ve seen in others. Although described as a sequential process, it’s more accurately 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 we start, albeit slowly perhaps, to accept our illness, mental illness or otherwise, 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, fewer stays in the hospital, or a 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 shape the kind of meaning harvested.

If we accept 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 devastating illness and our families. On the contrary, it’s to honor struggles and celebrate the power that is retrieved. Remember, facing what is, is an act of bravery.

Wholeness 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

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