Learning from Stories of Recovery

People considering therapy and other treatments for mental health problems are sometimes concerned that ultimately nothing will help or resolve the condition.

Peter Kramer, a psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, admits that disorders of the mind and brain can be powerful. But In his introduction to the book Same Time Next Week: True Stories of Working Through Mental Illness, he affirms his experience that despite the fact that many people face years of intrusive thoughts, destructive impulses, paralyzing moods, relentless addition and intractable pain, real relief ultimately can be achieved for many.

However, that solution to years of struggle often comes from outside the mainstream, Kramer argues. Many experience years of what he calls institutional failure: “over-aggressive treatment, grounded in a failure to explore, to listen, to elicit the crucial elements of history and experience.”

Those seeking solutions often accumulate labels, with little clarity gained, says Kramer. “Some of the labels are mistaken; more are unhelpful.” Sometimes the process of putting people into diagnostic categories only confuses physicians and patients, and doesn’t provide real benefit, he adds.

Lee Gutkind, editor of the book, provides some staggering statistics. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four adults and one in five young people age 13 to 18 experiences a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. What’s more, 60 percent of those adults and half of those adolescents will not receive treatment. Serious mental illness costs the U.S. almost $200 billion in lost earning annually. Yet in half the nation’s 3,100 counties, there are no practicing psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers.

Despite these challenges, many survive and thrive. For people with intractable issues, the answers often come by taking a few steps off the typical path.

Gutkind has collected stories written by patients, former patients, and therapists. (Some therapists who’ve treated others have also personally struggled with their own mental illness.) Together, the essays offer insight into uncommon approaches to healing, and show how creativity and uncommon insight helped solve problems that traditional approaches couldn’t touch.

For example:

  • Jeannie, 18, who stopped talking, walking and eating (with the exception of bolts and pencils) and frequently smashed her head against the floor. She had been in mental institutions since she was 12. Her diagnoses included anorexia, depression, personality disorder and pervasive refusal syndrome.

What worked? Meticulous, step-by-step speech therapy, literally teaching Jeannie how to produce sounds and then, to produce words, then phrases. “Five months passed since we began treatment,” writes Miriam Mandel Levi, a speech language pathologist. “Though she continued to use a gravelly voice and was frugal with her words, Jeannie spoke in full sentences in therapy and was using some 20 words and phrases on the ward.”

  • Ella Wilson, a young mother who had been diagnosed as bipolar with borderline personality disorder, anorexia, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and treatment-resistant depression. Her treatments had included 10 different medications, group therapy, light therapy, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and acupuncture, among others.

What worked? Ella found a therapist with whom she connected. The therapist diagnosed her as someone who had experienced several forms of abuse, but convinced her that there was nothing else wrong with her. But what seems to have helped the most was something rather simple: Ella and her therapist went to a retreat center, hiked through the woods one night, and Ella literally buried all the painful pieces from her past. “[My therapist] had unabandoned me and taught me to unabandon myself,” writes Ella Wilson, a Brooklyn nonfiction writer now.

  • Kurt Warner, a social worker and writer, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or is “fighting an inner dictator,” as he calls it.

What Worked? He taught himself to regularly disobey the orders his mind gives him. “I always remember…I feed OCD by obedience and starve it by disobedience [to the orders],” says Warner. “OCD enslaved me…until I got educated and fought back. Education, family support and rebellion enabled…me to stand up to the dictator in my head.”

The lesson these stories provide is important, says Gutkind. “A diagnosis of mental illness, although difficult, painful and sometimes humiliating and degrading, needn’t lead to defeat. With hard work and empathic, passionate support, those who are suffering from mental illness can regain hope, build a sense of accomplishment, and survive.”

 

Learn more:  Same Time Next Week: True Stories of Working Through Mental Illness, edited by Lee Gutkind, In Fact Books, 2015.