Is recovery from a mental illness possible? All day during daytime tv (oops! the truth is out that I watch it!), there are ads for Cancer Center of America and other organizations for cancer, where a person – usually a woman – talks about her recovery from an aggressive cancer. They don’t use the term remission, but recovery. I know not everyone has that story. On the news we hear every night about so-and-so losing his battle with cancer. I know many who have dealt with remission and then recurrence, several times sometimes. But there are also many folks who deal with cancer, and because of aggressive tactics such as mastectomy, or from sheer luck, find themselves in remission, or even so many years into remission that they can claim recovery. Cancer is something you can fight and win. Language surrounding cancer includes “survivor,” “battle,” “recovery.” And even though the memories and scars last, you can put the experience behind you and open a new chapter in your life.
Not so mental illness. New chapters don’t open. Mental illness is a chronic medical illness, and like other chronic illnesses, it doesn’t go away. It can be managed the way diabetes or chronic pain can be managed, yet instability can always be right around the corner. Medication can stop working, sending you into a deep depression, a dangerous manic episode, or into psychotic realities. Good or bad stress can send you into a tailspin where anxiety rules your decision-making. And all of these unstable reactions can lead to harming oneself, particularly through suicide. Suicide rates among those with mental illness are much, much higher than in the general population.
Because of the constant fear of this cycle of stability and instability, I often find that I would rather deal with the acute illness of cancer. Even the aggressive kind. I can battle the illness and hope for an end to it. I can live a life without cancer once treatment is over. I could share with people that I have cancer, or had cancer, and they wouldn’t respond with “Is that all?” Mental illness is permanent, dangerous to one’s self when unstable, and stigmatized so that it’s hard to get support from one’s community.
I wish recovery from mental illness was possible. Daily I fight it, and will continue to fight it ad infinitum.