I’m taking a break over the summer to catch up and re-enter the world! I’m very grateful to you for reading – and to Sharon for her guest post on living in the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of mental health recovery.
“You’re going to have to lower your expectations now.”
I had just been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a mental illness characterised by episodes of depression, mania and psychosis, and the key worker’s statement made it clear: I wasn’t going to recover.
This was ten years ago and what she said was in line with contemporary thought. People with ‘severe and enduring’ mental illnesses – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder – simply weren’t going to get better. Rewind another few decades and they could have expected to live out their days in a psychiatric institution.
Thankfully, things are changing. Today, more and more mental health teams follow the ‘Recovery Model’. This views every individual with mental illness as having the potential to recover – including those with schizoaffective disorder.
In this context, recovery is not the same as cure; these illnesses are, after all, enduring. Instead, what it means is that the person can live a life that is fulfilling and worthwhile, despite ongoing symptoms and medication side effects.
I did have to change my expectations: I was not going to be able to progress as a doctor. And I still live with schizoaffective disorder: I have symptoms which are sometimes worse than others, and I take medication with side effects which I choose to tolerate in order to stay as well as possible.
Nonetheless, I do not hesitate to say that I am in recovery. I enjoy life as a wife and mum; my work as a writer is rewarding; and I am a member of a supportive church fellowship where I am discipled. Schizoaffective disorder is not my identity, but one small aspect of a life which is personally fulfilling and, I believe, worthwhile at a community level.
How did I get there? The first and most important factor was a change in medication which controlled my psychosis and lifted my mood; next came hope that recovery was actually possible; and finally, a change in mindset so that a bad day was an opportunity to practise coping skills, rather than a descent back into depression. It was a balance of acceptance and change – accepting that some symptoms were inevitable, changing what I did each day to add value to my existence. Re-reading the Bible in three months cemented my recovery journey and my faith journey together; writing my memoir, Wrestling With My Thoughts, allowed me to use my experiences to help others.
King David understood that one could be both mentally unwell and walking in recovery. In Psalm 13, he wrote; “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” This resonates with me deeply. Yet just three verses later, he says; “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” Like me, David knew joy despite his dis-ease, and could sing to a God who made his life ‘good’.
It is said that Christians live in the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of God’s kingdom. Some of us have mental illnesses, some have physical illnesses, others enjoy good health. And yet all of us are walking in recovery – we have not yet been cured of our sinfulness, but we can live good, fulfilling and worthwhile lives, with God’s help, even now.
My prayer for those who read this is that they will know recovery in its truest sense, and will be able to sing the Lord’s praise as David could…in spite of his wrestling. And if you know someone affected by mental illness, perhaps you will consider partnering with them in their recovery – to pray for them and remind them that, with God, there is always hope.
Sharon is a medical doctor with a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. She’s written about her experiences: ‘Wrestling with my thoughts’, which you can get here.