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Healing and recovery are real

By Daniel Fisher, M.D., Ph.D.

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We who have recovered from mental illness know from our personal experience that recovery is real. We know that recovery is more than remission with a brooding disease hidden in our hearts. We have experienced healing and we are whole where we were broken. Yet we are frequently confronted by unconvinced professionals who ask, "How can you have recovered from such a hopeless situation?" When we present them with our testimonies they say that we are exceptions. They call us pseudoconsumers. They say that our experience does not relate to that of their seriously, biologically ill, inpatients.

I recently re-experienced this negative attitude about recovery. A friend of mine, during a discussion in a psychology class, said she knew someone who had schizophrenia, recovered and became a psychiatrist. "He must have been misdiagnosed," was the professor's response. So my friend reviewed my earlier symptoms with me. I met the DSM IV criteria for schizophrenia in the interval from 1969-74. When she presented my history to her professor, he reversed his position and said that the diagnosis of schizophrenia must have been correct. He doubted I had recovered and said, "we now have a case of an impaired physician." By having earned board certification in psychiatry, having worked as medical director of a community mental health center for 11 years and having directed the National Empowerment Center for 3, years I have proven that I am not an impaired physician. This episode reveals the depth of negative expectations which are taught to students. After all, mental illness is considered a terminal condition for which there is no cure. Therefore anyone who appears to have recovered must not have been sick. This leaves no one with first hand experience of what helps and what hurts to speak for those who currently cannot speak due to their distress.

This example illustrates the dilemma many of us face who have recovered from mental illness. It would be easier in the short-run to forget and not tell others of our experiences. But for many of us the benefits of telling outweigh the risks. For in the telling we open wider options for peer support, we continue our healing and we help reduce the stigma of others. Yet to have our story discounted after we risked our social position, jobs, and insurance by giving testimony is an affront to our integrity.

Similar pessimism exists in the medical community concerning the prognosis for long-term physically manifesting illnesses such as heart disease and cancer, despite evidence that people can recover from these conditions as well (see Healing and the Mind by Bill Moyers). I agree with Dr. Andrew Weil who concludes in his book Spontaneous Healing that "medical pessimism arises because the practice of medicine provides the illusion of control over life and death. [and sanity]...Every time a patient fails to get better or especially dies, doctors confront the fact that their control is illusory." I also agree with his thesis that we all have built-in self-healing systems. This is the basis for NEC's self-managed care approach to healing.

In an effort to better establish the validity of recovery from mental illness, the NEC is planning an in-depth study of recovery and healing. We want to record the factors that many of us have found important to our recovery of valued roles in society. Are there particular coping strategies we have discovered? Are there relationships both professional and personal which have helped? Are there educational materials or workshops which made a difference? We would welcome your stories of recovery. We are particularly interested in stories of adolescents and people of color as these groups are often under represented in consumer/survivor groups. Though we cannot promise they will all be used, we will credit any that are used, if you want us to do so.

By telling our stories we help reduce the terrible load of pessimism and stigma. Each time we do so we give renewed hope to others looking for a lift in their spirits and we make the world a safer place for them to return to.