Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Mental Illness and the Process of Acceptance

A Personal Perspective: What helped me on my journey to acceptance.

Key points

  • The journey to acceptance is different for everyone.
  • Acceptance often is an accumulative combination of factors.
  • Objective discussions about the barriers to acceptance may expedite the process.

A father once wrote me:

We worry our adult daughter has bipolar disorder. What finally triggered your acceptance that you had bipolar and needed medicine? It might help us support our daughter.

Vlad Bagacian/Unsplash
Source: Vlad Bagacian/Unsplash

The road to acceptance is different for everyone, of course. No two journeys are alike. I wish they were. Similar features, maybe, but never identical.

A formula would make it so much easier for loved ones and healthcare professionals. The hard truth is that not all of us move through the doors of acceptance through no fault of our own. Trauma, marginalization, poverty, addiction, type of diagnosis, the severity of illness, lack of support, lack of housing–some or all of these factors influence whether a person is able to recognize they need help and whether they reach for it.

Acceptance for me was a process, an accumulative combination of things. From the ages of 24 until 30, I was very much in denial. Then slowly, I started to accept. I was scared when I was involuntarily admitted to the hospital for the fourth time. Terrified, this would be my life, in and out of the psych ward with no off-ramp.

I had tried all sorts of complementary treatments with very little improvement. I hadn’t tried the typical medical treatments, most notably medication.

I’d been meditating when my first psychotic episode started. That first psychosis and each of the following manias, depressions, and psychoses all had spiritual elements intertwined within them. Feelings of expansion, unity with the cosmos, bliss, seeing colours and lights, sensations of energy, spontaneous insights into the nature of the universe, and more. In hindsight, I understood these experiences as part of what the medical system doesn’t recognize: a Kundalini crisis. But these elements were labeled as symptoms of bipolar disorder.

These experiences, however, also escalated into delusions and irrational behaviours. Such as the idea I could drive my car with my thoughts. In that delusional state, after driving until I ran out of gas, I sat in my car, not understanding why my beliefs were no longer working to rev the engine.

Not one person asked me or talked to me about the significance that some of those things held for me–not until I met a nurse when I was in the hospital for what turned out to be my last time.

She heard what I went through and said, "when you touch that limitless part of yourself in meditation, it can be overwhelming." She was speaking my language. She was the first person who understood me and listened. In that one line, she taught me what I was going through could be both a mental illness and something mystical. It didn’t need to be either/or.

I trusted her enough to ask about a psychiatrist who might share her view. In my first appointment, he listened to why I didn't believe I needed medication and why I saw elements of the ‘psychoses’ as part of my journey to enlightenment.

He validated what was meaningful for me, shared he was a beatnik in the 60s, and explained he felt I had gone into an altered state. But like the nurse, he suggested that mental illness and spiritual experiences didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. From this joint understanding, we created a strong rapport where I was willing to work with him and try things he suggested, which included medication.

My acceptance process started when people, like him and others, were willing to have objective discussions about what prevented me from believing I had a mental illness or that I needed medication.

I thought people were pathologizing my personality and emotional and sensitive artistic sensibilities. I thought they wanted me to take medication because I was ‘too much’ and meds would turn down my "volume." Well–I’d have none of that.

I needed people to answer challenging questions without defensiveness or reeling off stats. When I met health providers who gave me accurate information and were willing to have dialogues instead of just telling me what they thought was best for me, I became open to listening and eventually shifted my view.

Not everyone has spiritual elements within their mental illness, to be sure.

But every individual needs healthcare professionals to listen, be curious and sincerely ask questions about their perspectives and experiences. Individuals need healthcare professionals willing to collaborate and have people come to their own conclusions. It’s the only way acceptance can occur and "stick."

I needed to know my healthcare team not only saw my side but was on my side. That paved the way forward.