Recovery and Mental Illness

Consider Jonathon Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach in the light of someone who is struggling to recover from mental illness.

by Marion Bono
by Marion Bono

After so many attempts to fly faster and higher, having so many smashes and crashes, Jonathon thought, “There is no way around it. I am a seagull. I am limited by my nature.” Jonathon gave in. He decided to be just another one of the flock, thinking, “There would be no more challenge and NO MORE FAILURE.”

But Jonathon had that special quality it takes to recover: try, try again. So he did continue trying until he eventually succeeded going beyond the expectations of the ordinary seagull – only to be called to the Circle of Shame to be admonished. He was told that “we are put into this world to eat, to stay alive as long as we possibly can.” That’s it?

Jonathon objected. He knew there was more. “There is a reason to life!” he said. “We can lift ourselves…we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free!”

Patricia Deegan, Ph.D, is a clinical psychologist who has a mental illness. She is a leader in the recovery movement. In her words, recovery is “a decision to meet the challenge of disability…People experience themselves as recovering a new sense of self and purpose within and beyond the limits of the disability.” This is something only the self can do; it is a decision to lead a hopeful life and to make a contribution in spite of the limitations imposed by illness.

A further definition of recovery comes from Steven Kerkser, former head of the Florida Consumer Action Council (quote):

“Recovery is not remission, nor is it a return to a preexisting state. The idea that we can be ‘cured’ is counterproductive to recovery…

Recovery is the development of new ego and identity structures to replace those damaged by our illnesses. Recovery is about wellness, that is, the redevelopment of a new and healthier personality and lifestyle; an independent personality that is strong enough to stand on its own. Recovery takes place through creation of new patterns of behavior that make our lives more satisfying and productive.

People in recovery like themselves as they are, accept their disability, and enjoy the life they have. Acceptance of one’s disability can lead to greater appreciation of one’s own strengths and new levels of self-esteem. Recovery is based on personal choice, responsibility, self-determination and self-esteem.”

The concept of “choosing to live again” is as meaningful for family members as it is for the person with the mental illness. It asks us to come to terms with the trauma that has beset us. It asks us to give up unrealistic expectations, and put away our shattered dreams of what might have been. It demands that we replace loss and grief with action; it insists that we embrace the people we love the way they are now, and work to give them brighter hope for the future.

It asks us to look beyond what might be the bleak picture of our family member just sleeping or sitting around, smoking endlessly, watching TV, going nowhere. Next month we will see what is offered in the community to help them realize, as Jonathon did. “There is a reason to life!”

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Marion Bono, a member of NAMISWLA, facilitates a support group and teaches the Family-to-Family course, from which these articles are taken.
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