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Pebbles, Potholes, and PerspectiveHope: The First Pillar of Psychiatric Recovery
by Sarah Hancock
The Recovery Model is founded upon five pillars: hope, choice, empowerment, recovery environment, and spirituality. For the next five columns I will address each pillar separately in an effort to pain a more complete picture of how one can utilize each to move further along the recovery journey. Singly, a pillar leaves your recovery foundation extremely unstable. However when pillars are used together, not only is psychiatric recovery possible, it’s probable!
Hope. When I was in the thoroughs of my symptoms, hope was hard to come by. Soon after receiving my first diagnosis, time didn’t slip through the hourglass. It was somehow suspended, transformed into cold tar.
The hours turned into days. The days turned into weeks. The weeks turned into months and the months became years. Over time, my hopeful glimmer simply burnt out. I think it was partly a natural grieving process, like the one Elsabeth Kubler-Ross discusses in her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying.” (http://www.amazon.com/Death-Dying-Scribner-Classics/dp/0684842238/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1366933642&sr=1-1&keywords=on+death+and+dying)
First stage: denial. Second: anger. Third: bargaining. Fourth: depression. Fifth: acceptance. The stages aren’t linear, so you can go through them in any order. Additionally, just because you’ve gone through one stage, doesn’t mean you won’t go through it again in the future.
Part of my extinguished hope came from the realization that I belonged to a group of people I’d made fun of growing up — a group only referred to by polite public when using hushed tones, one of which I was scared. A group fair game for anyone to criticize, ridicule and mock. A group I so desperately did not want to be lumped into, yet regardless of my effort, a group I gave up and joined.
Hope of becoming normal again, evaporated. During this process my symptoms became so severe I became lost in them. My entire focus became survival! I was in and out of group homes, crisis houses, hospital wards and an institution. I was in and out of reality. I was in and out of life.
Constantly surrounded by acutely symptomatic people, professionals telling me to lower my expectations and family members at a loss because they weren’t sure what had happened to their granddaughter, daughter, sister and aunt, let alone what to do with her. My life’s focus became my illness. I became my illness. Hope eluded me.
One evening in 2009, after 11 years of illness, my father drove his symptomatic daughter home early from a family activity. Pulling up to the curb, I told him I was sick. Sick of being sick. He parked and turned to me saying, “I’m sick of it too.”
Tears ran down my face. I asked him what I should do because I was already doing everything I knew how. His reply, “I have no clue.” Truthfully, his honesty relieved me. He then whispered, “I don’t, but Heavenly Father does.”
I sat in the passenger seat boiling over with frustration and bitterly exclaimed, “Well, I sure wish He’d tell me how!” I got out of the car and probably slammed the door behind me. As I watched him drive away through my hot, shimmering tears, I began to wonder what more I could do to find out how Heavenly Father expected me to live with this stupid illness. I was already following my treatment plan, taking medication as prescribed and living in alignment with my values (something I’d learned at a very young age was vital to finding some semblance of inner peace), yet I was a victim of mental illness.
I suffered the ill effects of a horrid disorder that had me under its complete control, dragged me away from my family, friends and reality “carefully down to ...” well, we won’t go there. People viewed me as a victim. People talked to me about my suffering. Oh, how I suffered. Life was awful. Woe was me!
Later, I sat pondering my dad’s wisdom. Heavenly Father knew what I needed to do? I began thinking about what I could do to figure out what it was. I thought about my relationship with God. If I really believed I was His literal daughter, if I believed He loved me and if I really did love him, what would change my circumstances?
I enrolled in a Peer-to-Peer class through NAMI. During the course of that class I met others with mental illness living lives I craved to have. Parents, children, employees, students — people. I didn’t even feel human when I began class. Little by little I began to regain my humanity, a pivotal moment in my recovery journey.
Until that moment, my illness was happening to me. I began to realize that feeling like a victim (although very real) had gotten me nowhere on my recovery journey. In fact, it had shoved me off Recovery Road!
Over the following months I reflected again and again on my relationship with my Heavenly Father. Though scripture study, prayer and going to the temple I regained my testimony and strengthened my knowledge of my pre-mortal life. I began to realize Heavenly Father did not send me to earth to fail. On the contrary, he taught us everything we needed to know to succeed in this life. Only when he was confident He’d done His best, he sent us to earth to succeed. Succeed royally, even!
I was not a victim. I was a child of God. He had given me the tools to succeed and they were simply buried deep within my spirit. Maybe I wasn’t sent here to prove myself to Him. He already knows all. Maybe I was sent to earth to prove to myself that I can succeed.
I began asking Him to help me know how to break down my “unrealistic goals” into realistic stepping stones. With every small success, my personal expectations began to grow. Many naysayers assured me my goals were impossible. Many thought I’d stress myself out and fail yet again.
Truthfully, as symptoms began to dissolve, I was waiting to for it to fall apart — waiting to fail. However, as days passed, I began to prove myself to myself. I began learn to live life with symptoms on my own terms.
I began to learn little things to exercise control over my mind, taming it. I decided distracting my brain was vital. I started humming hymns. I determined that more than anything I needed a job. I searched until found one.
A couple of weeks after beginning work at an entry-level position, I was promoted. My employer believed in me. A glimmer of hope sparked. If she thought I was a valuable employee, maybe I was a valuable human. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Little by little, I rediscovered long-buried talents. I rediscovered who I really was, not the nameless, worthless schizoaffective girl. I became Sarah again.
Over the past three years, I have worked around symptoms and taken control of my life, changing my prognosis. One doctor told me to lower my expectations, avoid stressing myself out. I knew that in doing so, I would simply slip further down the slippery symptomatic path. Instead I pushed forward. Next month, I will graduate with my master’s in Rehabilitation Counseling with an advanced certificate in psychiatric rehabilitation. Apropos, no?
Obviously there’s a truckload more to my story, but finding hope began the process. People think I’ve done something amazing. I didn’t. I just took my life back. Now it’s your turn. Where will you find your hope? If you haven’t any, take mine. If you know someone who needs hope, share it. Let them know that you believe in them. Help them begin to believe in themselves. Grow hope! It’s the first pillar of recovery.
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