Recovery from Mental Illness

Women with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other problems may struggle, but many can have rewarding and productive lives. Here’s how three women overcame their symptoms

by Ginny Graves
mental illness illustration image
Photograph: Illustration by Gérard Dubois

At the hospital, she received a different diagnosis: bipolar disorder. Bipolar is tricky, because it’s often misdiagnosed as depression. The two years that Garcia went without a proper diagnosis is comparatively short; several studies have shown that the average lag time is six to 10 years.

The doctor in the hospital prescribed lithium, a kind of salt, in addition to the antidepressant, and within days Garcia felt remarkably better. “It was as if I’d been hunched over and could stand up straight for the first time,” she says. Her quick and positive reaction to the drug was a bit unusual. “Some people with bipolar disorder don’t like taking mood stabilizers or atypical anti-psychotics because they may numb the feeling of euphoria associated with manic episodes,” says Geena Athappilly, MD, an instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

For Garcia, that glimpse of wellness had the opposite effect: It gave her hope that she could actually turn her life around, and she instinctively knew just what she needed in order to heal: “more social connections, especially with people who understood what I was going through.” During one of her healthier moments in the previous two years, she’d attended several support-group meetings run by Recovery International (RI), a peer-to-peer program that teaches people who are suffering from mental illness to talk about their dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors and change them using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. She’d enjoyed the sessions but hadn’t had enough emotional stamina to continue going. Once she was on lithium, she decided to give the program another try.

“I started going to meetings every day, and right away it began making me feel better and teaching me coping skills,” she says. In her weekly sessions with a professional, she discussed deep childhood issues, but in the RI groups, surrounded by people who were struggling just as she was, she had the chance to talk about the minor day-to-day thoughts and events that threw her off track. “For example, if I call my son Shane and he doesn’t call back right away, I develop symptoms. So I’d share that in a meeting, along with the kind of anxious or angry thoughts it triggers. And then we’d talk about the tools I could use to get through it, like telling myself that he was probably fine, just busy. The program taught me that I can ‘excuse rather than accuse,’ and that’s been very helpful for me.”

The meetings not only gave her a healthy social connection but also provided a sense of purpose. “Within a year I started leading groups, and now I lead several a week,” she says. “I’ve met people who are more than dear friends. They’re able to give me the healthy support I need to keep my mental health on track. In the past 10 years, both my sister and father have died, but I’ve made it through those heartbreaking events with the help of this community. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”

Next: The Facts About Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder and Treatment-Resistant Depression

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First Published in the May 2013 issue

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