No Such Thing as False Hope
At the NAMI Texas Rally on March 26, 2003, I announced (much to my own surprise) that I had recovered from a serious mental illness.* I said this to a large crowd without any prior planning, as I did not even know that I was going to speak that day. Five months have passed since then and I am still “blown away” by my own words! Several people have asked me how I reached this place in my life, but I do not have one simple answer. So, I wanted to take this opportunity to share a bit of what I endured and moreover, what I have learned about myself.
In 1981, I encountered my first mental breakdown and spent a total of two years in hospitals in Dallas. That experience is so memorable that I even remember my admittance and discharge dates. What is most memorable is the pain and the loss of hope that plagued me every morning when I awoke in a locked unit amongst others like me. I was dependent on hospital staff to meet my every need and frightened by that loss of control over my environment. Yet nothing was more terrifying than my own loss of control over my thinking and my behavior. I was tormented by voices that shamed my every move while ordering me to be the most influential person in the world. I was given heavy doses of anti-psychotics, antidepressants and mood stabilizers but my thinking and worse, my behavior, remained bizarre and uncontrollable for several months. Eventually I began to show small signs of improvement and when I became somewhat stable on medication, I was offered the full array of therapies-psychotherapy, group therapy, music and art therapy, and relaxation and exercise classes. I credit these therapies in helping me to gain enough control of my thoughts and actions to be released to the “outside” world.
For the next fifteen years, however, I was hospitalized over 30 times due to suicide attempts or my inability to take care of myself. Most of that time was spent in a reality that no one else could understand. I often referred to myself as “Queen of the Alphabet” and surrounded myself with three people who were both allies and enemies. Sometime in 1996 however, I came to the understanding that these three people were characters of my imagination. While many would define that delusion as “nuts”, I think I needed them to make sense of my world. More importantly, I needed them in order to stay alive.
In looking back on those years, I recognize a foundation of hope that I protected so that I could eventually lead a life outside of my illness. I yearned to be like other adults who worked and supported themselves. I craved financial independence and dreamed of a home that I paid for myself, without the help of my parents and social security disability insurance. I wanted a partner to share my life with and I wanted friends with whom I could be comfortable and friends that would like me. And now I have all that! And more!
My recovery from this illness did not happen overnight, nor did it happen in a vacuum of the right medications and my own motivation. Granted, I needed (and still need) the right medications to clear my thinking and balance my wild emotions, but without people in my life that believed in me and gave me the chance to believe in myself, I would not have come this far.
I can point to one defining moment when the direction of my recovery changed. I had recently started a new medication that was working well and I asked my therapist how to live the life that I wanted. She began her answer with, “Well, I don’t want to give you any false hope.” That statement was all I needed to hear to trust my own inner knowing and my faith that God was leading me into a fulfilling and meaningful life. I do not believe that hope can ever be false. I see now that she was concentrating on my illness instead of my wholeness and my instinct to get well and stay well. I walked out of her office and removed myself from that way of thinking and have not looked back. There is no such thing as false hope.
Mental health providers have focused on relapse prevention and maintenance for so long that they bought into the notion that recovery was not possible. My mission in my volunteer and paid work with NAMI Texas and NAMI Austin is to step out of that closet of debilitating stigma and share my truth. The truth for me, and many people diagnosed with a serious mental illness, is that RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE!
My hope is that all persons with a serious mental illness will reach a level of wellness that they never imagined possible. Recovery means something different to everyone and while there is no cure for serious mental illnesses, there is support, education and advocacy available for all of us.
On September 6, 2005, I celebrated six years as a staff member of NAMI Texas. There were many days, especially in the first 2 years, when I wanted to succumb to my fear and my lack of self-confidence, but I put one foot in front of the other and have grown with each step. I have learned how to be resilient when I have a difficult day by focusing on the joys in my life…like my two dogs and three cats, my partner of 7 years, my beautiful home, my healthy 26 year old daughter, my rich spiritual life and more.
Let’s all move forward to EXPECT RECOVERY from ourselves, our family members and our mental health delivery system.
*In saying that “I have recovered from a serious mental illness”, I do not mean that I am cured. I am saying that I have recovered to a level of wellness that permits me to lead a meaningful and productive life. I still must take medication to keep my brain well.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world: indeed it's the only thing that ever has!” –Margaret Mead