An Important Recovery Step: Self-Responsibility

Self-responsibility is an important step in recovery.  What does it mean to be responsible for your self? One of the first steps is to just accept yourself the way you are. Sometimes we're not very happy with our lives, but we cannot make them any better if we don’t first accept ourselves and our lives as we are.

When we begin to accept ourselves, it's important to understand that blaming others, chemical imbalances, genes, or conditions and circumstances must stop. It's easy to blame our illnesses on something or somebody. The hard part is accepting and taking responsibility for our illnesses.  You might be thinking, "Well, does that mean I begin to blame myself if nothing or nobody else is at fault?" No, that's not what this means at all. It's just that if you are going to improve and recover, the blame game must end. This just puts us in a better frame of mind to begin to make changes in our selves; it helps us begin to take control back of our lives.

It’s important to understand that circumstances and conditions, and even others can and do contribute to episodes of what is called mental illness. When I think I have no control over things around me, I begin to lose control of my feelings, thoughts and actions. My feelings, thoughts and actions may begin to escalate and without insight I am overwhelmed and my inner world collapses, which brings on relapse.

We have all heard of the principle "know thyself.” When I begin to accept and stop blaming, then I am able to start to know myself. I can then take a personal inventory of myself so I can see areas where I need to improve. This helps me take responsibility for my own recovery. This is how we begin to get insight into our condition.

It’s also important to understand that what is called mental illness is just like any other illness. When we see it as an extraordinary illness to other illnesses, this view keeps us helpless to be able to do anything about it. As we change our thinking about it and give it the same importance as a cold, the flu, a sore throat, a toothache, then we are not powerless to help ourselves. Even people with other chronic illnesses that may be life threatening, such as heart disease or cancer, have to keep their illness in perspective so that they can still live as satisfying and productive a life as possible. It’s about taking the extraordinary and making it ordinary, such as getting to the point where you see it as an interruption in your life rather than robbing you of your life.

Using this insight as an example, how does one take responsibility for mental illness without blame and begin to view it as any other illness? Well, when I get a cold or sore throat, I begin feeling achy, my throat is scratchy, my nose begins to run. What circumstances or conditions contributed to it? I may have been around a friend or loved one who had a sore throat; I may have been where it was drafty; I may have overworked myself and let myself run down.

Even someone with heart disease needs to take responsibility for the illness as well. They must look at their life style and how it contributed to their heart disease. They may have to ask what circumstances and conditions contributed to it? Being a workaholic and taking work home; eating rich and fatty foods; lack of exercise; not managing reaction to stress; ignoring the warning signs.

Any number of things may have contributed to it and this gives me an awareness of how I may have become sick. When I gain insight as to cause then I can take steps toward prevention. Are relapses triggered by my reaction to stress? When I miss a night of sleep, does it cause a manic high? Do I isolate from friends and not answer the telephone when they call?  Do I feel guilty thinking that I caused a disaster that I read about in the newspaper? When this happens, do I hear voices blaming me and telling me to hurt myself?

There are things that we can do to gain back self-control. As we take responsibility for the illness and our lives, we become self-reliant and competent. Recovery is learned through a process of perspiration, inspiration, hard work, relapse, setbacks, and gains.  For instance, in order to manage my reaction to stress, I can take a class on how to handle stress through meditation, relaxation, yoga, tai chi or I can see a therapist. When I miss a night of sleep, I can do something about it as well.  I can make sure everything I need for the next day is laid out and ready to go in the morning, such as breakfast, lunch in the refrigerator, select clothes to wear the next day.  I can take a bath and play quiet music in the background.  I can read something inspirational.  I don’t need to  stimulate my mind further by watching television or listening to loud music.  Rather than isolate, I can call a friend and talk on the phone; I can meet a friend for a cup of coffee; I can invite a friend over. 

When I think that I caused a disaster that I read about and feel guilty, then I need to do a reality check.  I may need to sit down with paper and pencil and read through the article again.  Did it happen in New York City and I live in Chicago?  “I didn’t cause a disaster when I haven’t been in the city at the time the disaster happened.”  I might write out this statement in large letters so that I can read it whenever I feel guilty about the disaster.  I can also read it aloud to myself when I hear voices.  I can divert my attention from  the voices by listening to music.  I can work a crossword puzzle or call a friend on the phone.  I can also get some peer support or talk this through with my therapist as well.  

What’s really important is that you realize there are techniques, strategies, and skills that you can learn from others or develop yourself.  By applying them, you gain experience and eventually can increase your recovery and reduce relapse.   This is called prevention.  Recovery takes time.  While you’re learning you may still relapse.  This is only a setback and is not permanent.  Relapses are only temporary.  It’s important that you continue doing the work of recovery, and not give up on yourself.  It helps to have a strong, natural support system as well to provide mutual support during this period.  In time, you’ll find yourself back in the place you were prior to the relapse.  Remember recovery takes time; it’s faith (belief that you can do it) and works (application of techniques, strategies, and skills) that get you where you want to be; and it’s support.

The following are the steps outlined in this column:

I.      Self-responsibility is necessary in recovery.

2.    Begin by accepting yourself the way you are and where you are.

3.    Stop the blame game.

4.    Begin to use the principle "know thyself' by taking a personal inventory of yourself.

5.    Change your belief about mental illness by treating it as an ordinary illness that is common to  anyone in society.

6.    Take back self-control by learning and applying techniques, strategies, and skills.

Remember, recovery is possible when we begin to take responsibility for ourselves.


They Said I Would Never Get Better

By Andrea Schmook, Reprinted from:
The Experience of Recovery
Edited by LeRoy Spaniol and Martin Koehler
They said I would never get better. I would always be mentally ill. They said I would be in and out of mental hospitals the rest of my life. I could never be the person I was before my mental illness. I made up my mind in the mental hospital that I would prove them wrong. I would get better and help others know they could too.
The year was 1977, just two years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a patient institutionalized for 15 years who brought a suit for release and won. As a result, 250,000 mental patients were deinstitutionalized after years of hospitalization. At the time, I was living in Anchorage, Alaska. I had lived there since 1957, when I was twelve years old. Beginning in May 1974, my husband and I had gone through six major crises in an eight month period that led up to my getting mentally ill. Because of the enormous, chronic stress I was under, I broke not only mentally, but physically, socially and spiritually as well. Beginning in July 1976, I started hearing voices and had to quit work. I had no insight as to what was happening. Although I was on Thorazine, I was not getting any better. I continued to hear voices, experience hallucinations, and became delusional. I couldn’t function any longer as a wife and and mother. I was out of control and my life was falling apart. By January 1977, I went into the Alaska Psychiatric Hospital after becoming delusional and thinking I was the Virgin Mary.
The Alaska State Police were called to escort me to the mental hospital. Within twenty minutes of signing myself in, I was forced drugged against my will. This had a very negative effect on me. It set me up to resist treatment and medications after getting out of the hospital. It was just one more traumatic event added to the others that had led up to my institutionalization.
I wanted to get better right from the beginning. However, I didn’t find any support from professionals. I was very frustrated. I asked if there were any groups of people who had been mentally ill and had gotten better. I wanted to meet with them. I was told there weren’t any such groups because people with mental illness did not get better. I asked if I could have just one person’s name that had been in my situation. I was told that confidentiality laws prevented the professionals from giving me any names. I felt as if I had both feet nailed to the floor. I felt alone. I felt hopeless. However, this didn’t stop me. It made me more determined than ever to keep my resolve to get better. I was very frustrated. They told me I was denying my illness. I wasn’t denying it. I accepted my illness.
My whole life had collapsed around me and it seemed like there wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent it. But living with mental illness the rest of my life was not something I wanted to do. I wanted to sleep all the time, making it difficult to function on a daily basis. The simplest tasks were no longer easy to perform. My frustration gave way to tears, self-pity, and resentment. I wanted answers and the mental health system didn’t have any.
I was told my mental illness was caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain. I was told I had a brain disease. I asked how they knew this. Did they take any tests to determine this? I didn’t remember my blood being tested for any such thing. I was never given any answer. I was put on Thorazine. Thorazine made me sleep too much and slowly my will was being destroyed. I felt flat and empty inside. Besides, I had the Thorazine shuffle when I walked; I drooled and my tongue stuck out from time to time. It was very embarrassing. I didn’t know these were side effects to the medication. No one had told me this. I thought I was much more mentally ill than I was. I was over-medicated from 1976 to the end of 1980. I seemed to be a zombie on Thorazine.
After I got out of the mental hospital, I asked my psychiatrist what happened to me. His only comment was, "What the hell do you care?" He was very flippant about it. He said he would not tell me because it was not in my best interest to know. It took me three months to build up the courage to go back to the mental hospital and ask the social worker what had happened. He explained that I had an acute paranoid schizophrenic episode. He was very kind to me when we talked. He tried to answer my questions and help me understand. I found it very difficult to understand at this point. Mostly, I felt hurt and humiliated and I just wanted it all to go away.
December 1978, my husband decided to divorce me and left me with two young children. I wanted to work. My conscience told me I had to work. I had to face reality if I wanted to get well again. My therapist tried to convince me to go on welfare; to get food stamps; to get housing assistance; to get aid for families with dependent children. I told her that, in good conscience, I couldn’t do that. I wanted to get better. She told me, "You can’t make it without welfare. You will fail and you will lose your children." We argued about this on several visits, until finally I told her I couldn’t see her any longer because she was trying to force me to go against my conscience. I knew what I had to do to get better. What I wanted was to find a doctor and therapist who would support my desire to be healthy again.
I changed doctors and therapists. I wanted to find someone that believed I could get better and who would help me know what I had to do to get better. I finally found a doctor that said, "I don’t know" when I asked him if I could get better. For the first time, someone didn’t tell me "no" or that "people with mental illness did not get better." He gave me hope. For the first time, I had a glimmer of hope! He told me follow up and records were not maintained on people who stopped seeing their doctors. He said there was no way of knowing whether people stopped seeing their doctors because they got better or because they were still sick and just stopped seeing them.
I was mentally ill for eight years. Through those eight years, I developed a burning desire to get well. My sister had given me a book called "Think and Grow Rich." She told me if I followed the principles in the book that I would get better. No one had told me that before and it stirred something very curious in me. I read that book and I could not put it down. The theme of the book was "whatever the mind can conceive and believe it could achieve." It really made me think. I could identify with the stories of people in the book. I not only began to think about the principles, but I began to act on them. Things began to happen for me. I continued to be mentally ill; I continued to break down; but there were long stretches in between the breaks and they didn’t last as long as the ones before. I was beginning to get healthier as my thinking became healthier. Using the principles, I began to believe in myself. I accepted myself just the way I was. I wrote things down on paper about myself; things that I needed to change and things I couldn’t change. I started thinking about the things I wanted to do with my life when I got better. The more I learned to think, the more I learned how to get better. I learned how to forgive the hurts of the past and to let them go. I learned to plan for the future, but to live just one day at a time. I learned that if I just changed one small thing about myself today, that I would be building a healthier tomorrow for myself and my children. There were many things I had to change about myself so that I could be free of mental illness. It was not an easy thing to do. It was a lot of hard work. There were many, many disappointments and setbacks. The most important thing was not to give up and to challenge my thinking to believe that because I am, then I can, and I will achieve mental health. I stopped blaming and I took responsibility.
I really needed the support of a lot of people, too, in order to make it. I surrounded myself with people who believed I could do it, even though they didn’t know of anyone who had. They were possibility thinkers; just because something had not been done did not mean that it couldn’t be done. Every time I would say, "But, I can’t do that because I’m mentally ill," my sister would say, "Can’t never could. And if you say you can’t do something, then you could never do something. You have to at least try it." I went out and I found jobs and I worked. My employers and fellow employees knew I was mentally ill, but they supported me in my desire to work and they encouraged me to keep on trying. When I broke down, they were there for me. I felt humiliated and embarrassed after a breakdown, but they never reminded me of the embarrassing things I did. They only told me how happy they were that I survived and that I was getting stronger and better every day.
It took me eight years to learn all the things I needed to learn in order to regain my mental health. It wasn’t just changing my eating habits, or taking vitamins that did it. It was a combination of many things that I had to learn to change me so that I could be healthy. It was being able to live in the community, to be able to work, to be accepted by myself and others, it was taking responsibility for myself, it was learning how my mental illness was hurting the people that loved me, it was a willingness to change myself to become all that I wanted to be. It was accepting the illness, but working toward health. I have now been free of mental illness, drug  therapy, and psychotherapy for eight years. I want to share this with others: patients, families, professionals, communities, corporations, and religious organizations. Mental health can be a reality for even the most seriously ill people. People need the hope that others have done it and how they did it.
As I stated when I was in the mental hospital, I made up my mind that I would get better and I would help others know they could too. Currently, I live in the Chicago area. I am developing a speaking business to promote mental health and to educate and train professionals, patients, families, communities, corporations, and religious organizations. My workshops give hope and encouragement to all. (NOTE:  At the time this was printed, I lived in Chicago.)

A Holistic View of Mental Health

There has been a lot written about a holistic connection to physical health. Written material on the holistic connection between mental illness and mental health is not readily available. However, holistic information applies and includes a view of mental illness and mental health.

"Holistic" means body, mind and spirit connections. Traditional mental health services do not consider this view. Historically, they do not consider cure or recovery either. Nevertheless, a holistic view is important as an alternative because it contributes to a person’s healing.

This view blends eastern and western philosophies to help us understand mental illness and mental health. Western philosophy’s belief, based on objective knowledge, is that genetics, biology, and/or environment cause mental illness, and that mental illness is incurable. However, eastern philosophy, based on subjective experience, regards mind, body and spirit connections not as separate but parts of the whole. A holistic view recognizes that healing is possible.

David McMillin, a mental health professional in Virginia Beach, Virginia, has studied this view and applies it in his work. David states, "Spirit is the life (life force), mind is the builder, and the physical is the result." He says the individual consists of mind, body and spirit.

Mr. McMillin further states, "The psyche or soul connects at definite anatomical centers in the physical body. For example, mind connects the physical body through the nervous system. The spiritual connections in the physical body are primarily through the glandular system, particularly the endocrine glands." Mr. McMillin further explains, "Another way of thinking about the soul is that it is the individual aspect of spirit. Conversely, spirit is the universal aspect of soul. Soul (psyche) is the part of us that grows and develops. Spirit is the universal creative life force of the soul’s development."

It is the spiritual force through which we have the ability to work, to affect change, to perform over a period of time and space in a materialistic world. Spirit is the force behind our lives. Spirit is a universal principle of life. Spirit is dynamic energy — the energy we bring to our lives that gives them a spark.

By blending eastern/western philosophies, we understand that illness happens when these holistic connections become disrupted through heredity or genetics, injury or trauma, meditation practices, deep study of religious beliefs or scripture for enlightenment, not using your energy constructively, environment, or the psyche (soul) of one person influencing the psyche (soul) of another. Disorder or illness occurs when the holistic connections are out of balance. Imbalances are responsible for physical and psychological illnesses. In the holistic view, mental illness has its origin when the spiritual and/or physical become imbalanced. However, order is inherent in disorder, making a return to health possible.

Chaplain Anton T. Boison, in his book The Exploration of the Inner World (1936), believed that "many problems of insanity are religious (spiritual) rather than medical problems, and that they cannot be successfully treated until they are so recognized. Mental disorders are not evils but problem solving experiences." He sees mental illness as an individual’s unhappy solution to life’s problems. (Note, Chaplain Boison himself was diagnosed with mental illness.)

Chaplain Boison also said that "our life situations present efforts at growth that create conflicts while striving to achieve better than where we are. A serious sense of inner disharmony and isolation from other people is the catalyst to our unhappy solutions. The experience for many is a make or break one." Furthermore, Mr. McMillin emphasizes that "sometimes the physical body (especially the nervous and glandular systems) are not able to handle the stress of life’s challenges and problems. Mental illness is one of the possible outcomes when the mental and spiritual connections in the body become overwhelmed by life’s distressing experiences."

In a physical sense, food provides the nutrients used for energy. The endocrine system utilizes chemical messengers to coordinate various activities of the body parts. There is a certain amount of overlap with the nervous system, which utilizes neurotransmitter substances creating excitability or inhibition causing neurons to either fire or not. Together these provide the necessary chemicals that energize our spiritual lives. Spirit is energy fueled by the endocrine system. It is the spiritual force by which we live.

Mind can be a destroyer as well as a builder. The operations of the mind influenced by information received through the nervous system by way of the senses — touch, taste, sight, hearing, and smell — forms thoughts interpreted into beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions. These can be both negative and positive based on experience. They have a profound effect on us holistically, whether they are conscious or not. Together they can make us feel happy or sad, angry or peaceful, sick or healthy. Mental and physical health manifests by thinking, beliefs, perceptions and attitudes. Dr. Kidd of the Genetics Department at Yale University agrees that the mind is extraordinary. He says research in genetics has proven that "the brain is phenomenal and can be retrained to overcome genetic defects."

Illness means mind, body, and spirit function without the awareness of the other. For optimum health in a holistic view the mind, body, and spirit function harmoniously through self-knowledge brought into balance by the will. A holistic view means the individual begins the process of self-knowledge, and by the will brings these connections into balance to achieve mental and physical health. The two cannot be separated.

When people make holistic connections, achieving mental health goes beyond recovery or cure; it begins in the inner self and heals. This healing process transforms individuals and their lives as they become their new, healthy selves — physically, mentally, and spiritually. Going through the experiences and making the connections change lives for the better if it happens under the right circumstances. The physical result is that as people mature into responsible living brought into balance by the will, they grow into their true holistic selves.© (1995)