One of my greatest privileges as a psychologist is to work with individuals and families who are experiencing the devastation caused by a severe mental illness, such as an eating disorder, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, or addiction. There is though, a specific aspect of this work that is often overlooked or neglected, especially when the major symptoms of the disorder have begun to subside. It is this issue that I feel is a crucial cornerstone for long term recovery both for the individual and those who support them. This is an issue in overcoming mental illnesses that I simply call, getting well.
Overcoming Mental Illness by Getting Well
How can something that sounds so simple be so complex? Isn’t getting well what everyone wants when they enter treatment? Yes, of course. However, during the process of “getting sick” there are dynamics or patterns that begin to set in for the individual and the family that actually end up interfering with that person’s ability to truly be well.
What do I mean by getting well? It can mean a lot of things, most of which are pretty obvious. It can mean that the person has been able to recover from their mental illness enough so that they are able to function again. For some, a full recovery is possible and they can return to the life that may have temporarily been put on hold due to symptoms of their mental illness. In some cases, this may be just months and for others this may be years. For others, their diagnosis may be with them for a lifetime and creating a new life, one that makes some space for this new diagnosis, is the goal. Whatever your particular outcome may be, there is the very important task of becoming a well person. This goes beyond just being able to function again. This is an attitude, a way you carry yourself, and influences the way you approach every challenge you encounter.
Can a well person get sick? Of course. But, a well person has the expectation that once the illness is over, she will feel better and go back to being well. A well person expects to be well most of the time. A well person does things independently and has goals. A well person has boundaries, has friends, and gives back to others. A well person knows when it is time to go to the doctor or make a change in her treatment. A well person can acknowledge when things are not going well and that she has to change some of her behavior patterns.
Being Optimistic Can Help Recovery from Mental Illness
My former mentor, Dr. Charles Carver, alluded to this in his seminal work on optimism and pessimism. In short, he argued that these traits are about expectations. That individuals who are more optimistic are more likely to anticipate that things will go their way or work out in a positive way for them. Later research showed that optimists are also more likely to engage in coping skills or problem-solving behaviors that would make a positive outcome more likely. Pessimists, on the other hand, expect bad outcomes and therefore tend to cope in ways that bring about this type of result. So what does this have to do with being well? It is an essential part of being well. People have to begin to expect wellness. People who struggle with difficult psychological disorders have to learn that they are no longer sick or fragile and that they can begin to expect good outcomes again. This is not accomplished by just “being more optimistic.” And, in fact, telling someone they are too negative or that they need to “think positive” can really feel blaming and invalidating. This work is done through a series of tiny steps, gradual changes, and new expectations by both the individual and their support network (including their treatment team) where they begin to interact with others as a well person.
So it is not that a well person can’t have symptoms or lapses. That happens all the time with serious mental illness. Everyone has bad days or flare ups of some kind. But, when a person is recovering from a serious mental illness, they have spent many days, months or years, not engaging with life in a functional way. Relationships may be damaged, schooling or work may be disrupted, there could be financial hardship as a result of the mental illness, or emotional development may be delayed. All of these very complex and daunting issues can serve as a barrier to being well by shaking a person’s confidence in himself and in his recovery. As a result, a slip quickly becomes a relapse. And for some, relapses result in multiple hospitalizations or residential stays.
Sometimes a relapse can be quite illuminating. It can help the individual realize that there was some deeper psychological work that still needed to be done and by going back into a higher level of care, that work can be done. However, at some point, all people recovering from a serious mental illness must address what it means to no longer be a “sick” person. Again, that does not mean free of all psychological symptoms or struggle. For those whose journey took place over many years, it can feel impossible. And when one feels overwhelmed by what needs to be accomplished to be well, it can be very tempting to go back into old behaviors or “relapse” in order to kick that can further down the road.
But if we can use a relapse to really dig in and get to core of these fears that prevent people from fully embracing recovery, we experience the “silver lining” of a relapse. We can begin to speak about what feels unspeakable and begin to work through the fears and shame that holds people back. At the same time, we must begin to develop the skills to re-integrate back into life This is difficult work. It is tempting for family members to feel like this should be the easy part, but it’s not. It is the most challenging phase of recovery. It can be quite lonely and alienating and family members or friends must learn how to support this individual in a way that does not encourage “sick” behaviors. So therapy must continue for some time on an outpatient level in order to make sure that the individual and their support network are not slipping into old patterns unconsciously.
It is this phase of recovery, this work of getting well, that is my true passion. If you or a loved one are ready to “be well” but are unsure of how to get there, please call me. I would be honored to help you on this journey and to guide you on your path to a fully lived life.
Get Well Today
If you’re struggling with a mental illness, “Getting Well” and overcoming mental illnesses is possible for you! Contact us today to learn how we might be able to help you live your life more fully.
I’m Dr. Amy Boyers, a Clinical Psychologist in Miami who specializes in eating disorder treatment (all types including anorexia treatment, bulimia treatment, and binge eating treatment) and other long term conditions, including addictions, bipolar, and OCD. I offer personalized and sophisticated eating disorder treatment services, individual and family psychotherapy, family member support and education, in-home meal support, cognitive behavioral therapy, anxiety treatment, depression treatment, and much more.
I look forward to helping you obtain a brighter tomorrow.