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Why Mental Health Recovery Can Take Years

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I get messages from people all the time about my work. Many times, they’re looking for advice on how to help a loved one with mental illness. Sometimes I feel that, through me, they are trying to find some magic cure that can help immediately. The only advice I give is to be there and, above all else, give it time. That can be hard to come to terms with when your world seems so chaotic, but time is truly the only thing that can heal in situations like these. 

Recovery can take years and it’s important to be aware of that fact. Why? Mental illness is a life-changing situation, not only for the person suffering but also for their support system and loved ones. For the person suffering, it can be devastating. Imagine that you’ve been tasked with being elected President of the United States, with all of its attendant responsibilities, intricacies and problems. This is a job requiring a very measured and controlled response, constant composure, and encyclopedic world knowledge. It takes months to learn, prepare and psych yourself up for the responsibility of something so awesome, and you have to plan, you have to educate yourself and you have train your faculties to be controlled and rational at all hours of the day and night. You prep and you study for months and then, imagine that, during your first week in office, you’re seized by the Secret Service and taken to a psych ward and told that you’re crazy and that your illustrious presidency was all in your head. Everything you had worked for, everything you thought you knew, the life-changing responsibility that defined you as a human being was nothing but psychosis.

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This is a common scenario for a lot of people with psychosis and it’s referred to as a delusion of grandeur. A lot of the time, people think they are a prophet or Jesus Christ himself. You can imagine how it feels to learn that you’re that important and to wrap your mind around that notion and then be told that you’re crazy. The point is, with such earth-shattering ideas, it’s pretty clear why recovery from these ideas can take a long time.

Recovery can also seem to take forever because the experience of psychosis is so fluid and open to interpretation. It’s nowhere near concrete and it’s extremely hard to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not. In my experience, I go about my day and weird instances happen where it seems pretty clear that people are judging and teasing me but I know, based on my experience weighing reality and delusion, that these perceived slights are usually only occurring in my head. Imagine that, in your day, you come up against ideas and people that seem one way but then are revealed to you later to be completely different. It’s pretty easy to see how that can make you question the reality of things. Simply put, the process of differentiating between reality and your delusions is a process of trial and error, a constant practice of trying to determine reality in spite of what your brain is telling you. You could be thinking one thing for years about someone and find out later that you were completely wrong. The only thing I can equate it to is maybe the experience of being married to someone for years learning their nuances, their insecurities, their whole being and then finding out, a little before your tenth anniversary, that the person you loved has a second family. You can imagine being in that situation and thinking that you were crazy because you should have seen the signs, you should’ve noticed something but you were just too involved to make heads or tails of the nights away and the second phone and all the stuff that seems so obvious now.

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Finally, recovery takes a long time because the drugs and the therapies that are available are nowhere near perfect. You can go on one drug after another trying to find a cocktail that works for your mental health and also for your well-being. Side effects are a very real function of getting well. A drug may work for your mind but cause you to become impotent or to gain 100 pounds. A drug may be good for your physical health and for your anxiety but cause your delusions to spike. The process of finding the right therapy is involved and inexact and it’s so easy to lose faith after just a couple of tries that don’t work.

In truth, there probably is something out there for you, but it may require some compromise. You have to decide that gaining weight is ok if it’ll cause you not to fear the nature of reality. You have to learn the intricacies of juggling sanity and side effects. Drugs aren’t the only thing to worry about either, sometimes your doctors will be hacks, sometimes they won’t know what’s good for you and they won’t be sensitive to the things that you know work for you. It may take years to find the right therapists and the right psychiatrists. They may be too pushy or they may be not pushy enough or they may just be out to lunch. Overall, with meds, psychosis, doctors and finding the truth about reality, it’s pretty clear why recovery takes such a long time. The only advice I can offer is to just try to be patient and do the work you know is necessary to get better, it’ll take years but those years will be worth it.

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EDITOR IN CHIEF: Bud Clayman | EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein
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Mike Hedrick

Michael Hedrick is a writer in Boulder, CO. He has lived with schizophrenia since he was 20 and his work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Scientific American and various other places. You can read more from Mike on his website theschizophreniablog.com and on his online writing portfolio at thehedrick.contently.com.

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