The First Thing about RECOVERY from mental illness- a readiness to accept it is possible

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A few years ago when ‘Orkut’ was still going around, a young woman sent me a query, seeing me respond to something about bipolar disorder. She sent me a list of ‘symptoms’ and asked me if it amounted to bipolar- was she bipolar by any chance? I was perplexed to receive the query in the first place- it seemed as though she wanted to be classified as bipolar. It was as though it were a club for the privileged and she wanted to part of it! Nothing is farther from truth, for those who have been there, know the suffering of everyone, once gets a mental illness diagnosis. Nobody who is really ‘bipolar in disorder’ wants to be there, rest assured- it is NOT the club I would have chosen for myself. In fact this post is about recovery and why we want to recover from the suffering, rather than remain its captive for the rest of our lives- a captive of moods that imperil your very life, existence and fabric. Schizophrenia equally or more so.

This is also one of the attitudes that I encountered in the course of my own long association with bipolar. To be honest, once the association starts, there is no going back- there is no stepping out of the field of experience any more. I cannot go  back to my pre-psychosis days, for instance. Of course it has brought much by way of experience, (and I have been tough enough to put myself through the rigour of seeking knowledge out of the enterprise)

What was recovery then?

One of the most difficult things, for even me to accept was the possibility of recovery. No matter what anyone would say, I would not believe that recovery would mean going off psychiatric medication. To me recovery was the fact that I was ‘stable’ (not having psychotic breakdowns any more) and relatively functional in most domains of life- from writing, singing, teaching, performing to other social sides of me. But to be off psychiatric medication only the fools would attempt it! Little did I know that someday when I would think of recovery from serious mental illness, it would really begin with the end of psychiatric medication.

Co-morbid conditions notwithstanding (I suffered from thyroid malfunction for 13 years due to lithium, and then due to valproate, there was liver malfunction, which I have not been able to recover from. Apart from this there was PCOD and other issues) I would not believe that someone could go off psychiatric medication and never have a relapse of any sort. To the extent, that I remember that there was a senior psychiatrist in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, one of the premier institutes in India, who suggested to me that possibly I need not remain dependent on medication for the rest of my life. I was still in my twenties. I was so shocked at his suggestion, that I though possibly he did not understand bipolar very well! I did not go back to him- the fool that I was. Possibly if I had, I would have got off psychiatric drugs long back. But nay, I had to go round the mulberry bush for another decade easily, before I would be able to come to that clarity.

Families and Medication

This brings me to the idea that mental illness has a way out, and medicine is not the only way it works. A few years ago, I had referred someone to my own homeopath, who also had a bipolar diagnosis. He was a younger man, in his early 30’s then. He went and took the homeopathic medicines and started getting better. Unfortunately his life and situations were such that they drove him towards alcohol in the past. Due to his psychiatrist’s advice he stopped drinking while on medication. So once he started getting better with homeopathy, he started drinking again.

His parents started arguing with me that due to homeopathy he was back into drinking again! Nobody starts drinking because of medication – but due to stresses in their daily life, which they are trying to deal with in ways that they understand best. He was unwilling to come into therapeutic dialogue, because that was not something that could have any outcomes as far as they were concerned- it was only for fire-fighting (dealing with emergencies, such as his panic when his wife was pregnant). He would really not come into any clearing- just live his life, do his stuff and then in the evening go out to drink with his friends.

Anyways, the summary of that story is that the boy was brought back into psychiatric medication, because (sadly enough) he could not deal with his parents’s opposition to homeopathy on the one hand, on the other  deal with the reasons that caused him the suffering- which were all embedded in his family dynamics and the family communications, as I could make out quickly.

His father had been dominant all his life (though not in an unkind manner), even as he grew up. It undermined his selfhood and when he grew up, he could not get over the criticism that would come to him from the paternal side, which made him remain ‘small’- as though ‘incompetent’ or ‘incapable’, in spite of being a young man, married and with a child too. Parents can undermine children and, without knowing, mothers become a another pillar of support to the patriarchy which torments young boys – they never understand that their suffering comes from what goes on in their families- not any biochemical imbalances. So how can medicines rectify something which is simply not there– but is there in how people are talking and construing one another?

Most people think that those who recover do so because they are lucky or they have done something special, which they themselves cannot do. The reality is that they have worked on those sides of them, which others are ignoring repeatedly. And getting past parental domination should be on everyone’s agenda- including the parents, to be certain. And this is not meant as an offence. That autonomy which needs to develop in teenage, never develops due to parental over-concern. So parents, if you are reading, please understand your child’s distress is a function of your engagement too- please do not be offended by this statement, because that is not my sentiment. I want to bring this to your knowledge, to help you think of newer ways to go over the same paths.

Otherwise, families will continue to suffer for decades and decades and nobody will know the way out. Please be kind to yourself and your loved ones- but not over-kind.

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8 thoughts on “The First Thing about RECOVERY from mental illness- a readiness to accept it is possible

  1. Sharing your uplifting blog among others I got heated response about the language ‘mental illness’….. I can see that the words together with the image with the tablets is confusing. What are your thoughts? Although I personally never use the words mental illness but rather…. severe/extreme emotional distress/dis-ease/disturbance/challenge, but did not mind posting as is on my FB page.

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  2. Dear Anna-Mari thank you for bringing this up- people can fight over language to their heart’s content. it does not really matter; one person’s distress is construed as ‘illness’ by another who have the ‘authority’ bestowed upon them by medical degrees to medicate them. At least I am not among those who are handing out the labels- I have been on the other side of the spectrum and back. From that knowledge all my construction begins.

    It does not matter if people are touchy about the word mental ‘illness’- we who have known the experience and the incapacity caused by the illness, have then also learnt to let go of the oppression of its linguistic framing; are not really troubled by the word. Whoever is feeling touchy about the mere word, does not want to legitimately accept the suffering of one person’s power over another. Do not get bothered. Is this a battle of wits for anyone? At least for me it is not- I am quite clear about it.

    It is a journey of empowering one another and we can only empower by knowledge. If someone were to only read the post, rather than go after the use of language or try being politically correct- they will understand that this post is all about belief that there is something beyond ‘illness’ but people have to be patient to construct it, or else invite the label and be shunned by society. If they are fair-minded people who are reading the blog, I do not see why they would object to anything, because this is written by someone with due respect even to those I would seemingly have differences with.

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  3. Dear Prateeksa, Here in North America we are returning, oddly, to the trauma model of Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia. This means that in a growing number of communities patients are having their medications reduced and they are receiving trauma informed therapy, often with astounding results. I am excited about this change indirection, and curious as to where it might lead.

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    1. Dear Michael, thank you for sharing this important development. In fact I am very tuned to the postmodern turn in therapy, as well as the narrative approaches of Michael White- and I agree this is a great shift. But I think that this shift is currently happening more in research and less on the ground. No I am not saying what is happening in North America, for you know that best.

      But in India we are so far removed from this, that by the time this comes out, it would be a lot of water under the bridge. On the other hand, there are some psychiatrists who are willing to work on the lines of reducing medication, because they have understood that the DSM cannot be the universal bible of psychiatry the way it is marketed and everyone has to respond to their communities in culturally appropriate ways. However, in India the additional problem that I am now seeing is that many number of Indian psychiatrists are on international panels, loudly and aggressively pushing the global mental health agenda! That is so counter-productive.

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  4. I appreciate your reply, thank you Prateeksha and I know where you are coming from. I have seen in many of the ‘anti-psych’ groups that instead of focusing on making sense of their own life experience and taking responsibility for their life, the whole anti-psych focus is a form of inability/refusal to go where they really need to go to reclaim their lives. Having said this I am still absolutely not in favour of using language that in my view is not serving. Psychiatrists and the prevailing system use this language coupled with harmful medication that is also more than often prescribed in harmful dosages…. They also use Electro Shock Therapy based on their scientifically unfounded mental illness. And I am totally against the use of words such as schizophrenia, bi-polar and whatever permanent box this puts people in in society. For me there is no dignity in this language. It keeps people in a strait-jacket and I would rather see this being done away with together with the DSM Manual. Reading your article however it is absolutely clear what it is all about and I also explained it like this to those who responded negatively.

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    1. Dear Anna-Mari

      Yes indeed you are so right about the anti-psychiatry groups, where the whole onus is the language, whereas the ability to really understand the politics of language is clearly not present. It is all about pitting and pitching against the usage of particular words.

      For twenty years (believe me it is NOT A SMALL TIME) I have spent my life thinking I am bipolar in disorder, and after that span of a time, I have been able to shake off the yoke of the linguistic dominance. Do you think this much would have happened on flimsy ideas and beating my chest against psychiatry? Or anything at all? I think I must tell everyone that the biggest thing I ever did was TO NOT be a part of any forum, anywhere in the world- for it was important to understand and reclaim my life bit-by-bit rather than be caught in a whirl of emotions of peers, peer supporters and any number of people who want to support those who have been wronged- by their families, by psychiatry, by any institution of marriage or you name it.

      We do not emerge from these murky places if we keep on whiling our time in these sand dunes, but by consistent, dogged effort. So do not get swept away by this insignificant play of words, they are almost synonyms of one another and they connote the same thing, to different people, on different sides of the spectrum. Please do not get pulled into the dramas of others, but let us hold on the idea that though we are fighting – we are basically fighting for ourselves and for the truth. We are too small to fight AGAINST anything- for we have lost that battle due to the sheer size of it, and our size in front of those we set out to oppose.

      Thank you always for understanding, and re-presenting this to those who need to know better.

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