12/16/2014 11:34 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

Can People Recover From Mental Illness?

In many of my previous blog posts, I've mentioned that I am in recovery from bipolar disorder. While making a statement like this is quite natural to me, it seems to have created some confusion among some of my readers. Questions arise such as, "I thought that mental illness is a chronic condition. How can you say you've recovered?" One reader even told me that I can't possibly be in recovery, that my medications are just masking my symptoms, and that true recovery involves being medication-free.

So I thought that I would use this post to explore recovery from mental illness and what it means to me. When I was first hospitalized in 1996, at age 18, I was overwhelmed by the "prognosis of doom" that I absorbed from my stay. While the doctors were not overtly saying that I would struggle for years to come, if not my lifetime, I saw the condition of other adults with my diagnosis who were in the hospital with me. Their illnesses had severely progressed, and many of them had been hospitalized a number of times. One of them told me that the next step for him was a state hospitalization which could last years. I, thus, linked my own mental illness with the idea that I would one day become just like the older adults with my condition.

I remember the turning point for me. It was many years and about a dozen hospitalizations later. And, somehow, something indignant within me had managed to help me narrowly escape the state hospital myself. I wanted to avoid becoming a "chronic mental patient" and function outside of the mental health system.

In my quest for connection around this issue, and my hope that I could somehow turn a difficult situation into a more positive one, I reached out to a group that was training people to tell their mental health recovery story to others. Not only was this the first time I had heard the term recovery, it was also the first time that I was exposed to people who, in my book, were living this concept. My trainer, a brilliant man who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1940s, had gone on to be the CFO of several fortune 500 companies. I thought to myself, "if he can do it, so can I." Was he symptom free or off of medication? No, but he was "functioning" better than a large percentage of the American population. And to me, this was and still is what I consider recovery.

The truth is, the definition of recovery is different for everyone. Perhaps herein lies the struggle that my readers have had with this concept. Recovery may be a nebulous term; however, in my mind, when I am speaking of my own recovery, I am talking about how I went from being a person who was locked in hospitals and my room, in bed, unable to care for myself or attend school, or work, to being a person who has a highly productive well-rounded life that includes two jobs, a plethora of healthy relationships, and a life that has purpose and meaning. I am a person who now not only can take care of myself, but also contributes to others, and has made my career by "paying it forward" to the next generation of people who struggle with mental illness. If I had to pinpoint one thing that helps me the most to stay well, it is knowing what my life purpose is, and living it out. As Viktor Frankl says in his book Man's Search for Meaning, "Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear almost any 'how.'" I had to bear a lot in order to get to where I am today, but I have no regrets. I living a joyous life despite of, and because of my mental illness.

In my estimation, recovery from mental illness, as I personally define it, is definitely possible. However, it takes a lot of work and perseverance. With the proper treatment and support, people can and do get well, contribute to society, and live highly productive, fulfilling lives.

There is a scene in "Macbeth" where Macbeth says to the doctor:

Canst thou minister to a mind disease'd ... and with some sweet oblivious antidote/ Cleanse ... that perilous stuff/ Which weights upon the heart?

To this, the doctor wisely replies, "Therein the patient/ Must minister to himself."

Thus, many say that there is no cure out there for mental illness. I completely agree. The cure comes from within.


Have a story about mental illness that you'd like to share? Email, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.