Can a Person Recover From Their Mental Illness?

Are you a kind, compassionate person? Are you the type of person who looks for and sees the best in everyone? Do you believe that many people can heal or recover from their mental illness? Believe it or not – I do. But, that’s not the most important question. The real question is – will they be able to recover?

That is an entirely different question altogether. Quite a few people I cross paths with want to hear a story of hope. It’s clear from the questions they ask and the statements they make. They are less than impressed when I tell them the truth; that my recovery was largely fueled by fear of my own mind, being stubborn, and anger.

People cling to hope because it’s positive and romantic. And yes, hope is an important thing because it can keep people moving through dark times. However, there comes a point where hope can be harmful because we invest so much emotional energy in how we want things to be as opposed to how they are. We spend too much of our time in the future instead of the present.

Do I believe that most people can recover and attain a higher quality of life? Yes. Do I believe that they will? That’s a more complicated question. And here are a list of reasons why…

1. The person has to want to change. My biggest system shock came with the realization of how few people want to change. They want something easy, a therapist or a pill to fix them. Recovery is like 98% personal work, 2% clinical assistance. That personal work includes reevaluating one’s emotions, how one conducts their life, how one interacts with others, learning management practices and actually implementing them, and so much more. Every person I know that has reached a high degree of recovery from Depression or Bipolar Disorder is a very different person from who they started off as. Why? Because the attitudes and emotions that these mental illnesses foster are often harmful and toxic. They must be changed.

2. The person needs adequate resources. Numerous people just don’t have access to the resources they need or reject the ones they have access to. Medication and doctor appointments can be expensive. And yes, I know, “Some have sliding scales!” Which means little when you have next to nothing and are barely able to keep your head above water. I’ve watched people absolutely refuse to request help from charities or other resources when they would have qualified because of their own pride. I was one of these people, too.

3. The person needs to be okay with changing. This is different than the first point because a person may decide they want to change, but not like how they change. I find this to be especially true in Bipolar people who trend towards the escalated side of the Disorder that is pronounced, but not necessarily destructive. But even a destructive mania can feel absolutely wonderful to the person experiencing it. And I’ve met several people who view it as their edge in their art, career, or social life. Real emotions are so quiet compared to what a Bipolar person experiences in escalation. Some people don’t want to give that up. On the other side of that coin are the people who are content to be miserable and depressed. Life is just horrible and they feel more comfortable being a victim to it all.

4. The person can make bad decisions. Many people are a bad decision or two away from serious repercussions. “I feel great! I don’t really need this med.” “I’m going to skip this doctor’s appointment.” “One night of hard drinking or drugs isn’t going to kill me.” “I didn’t call in my prescription early enough and they are out of my med until next week!” “I’m not really mentally ill. Everyone else is the problem.” I can talk until I’m blue in the face on what to avoid, but people insist on learning the hard way time after time.

5. Even if the person makes all the right decisions, the pursuit of wellness can still go sideways. Medication can have negative reactions or unmanageable side effects. A person can be medication resistant, meaning their body just doesn’t react well at all or positively to medication. Trying to push through past damage and trauma with a therapist can make a person worse before they start getting better. Many mental illnesses can get worse with age, not better. Bipolar Disorder is one of them. And then you have dealing with the general stresses of life on top of everything else.

And none of that is including the people who like having their mental illness as an effective “Get Out of Responsibility” card. Abusers and manipulators regularly use hope and compassion against their victim. The victim carries the hope that a toxic person will recover, feel sorry for their actions, and everyone lives happily ever after. That rarely happens.

Even if we do everything right, things can still go completely wrong. And getting people to want to change is the hardest battle of all, because change is fucking difficult and scary.

I know that a lot of people are going to take this post as me being negative, but I’m not. This is the reality that I’ve come to know in trying to help other mentally ill people and their loved ones walk their own path. It’s still difficult, even in an optimal scenario. Hell, it’s not like my life is where I want it to be yet either. Self-improvement is a marathon, not a sprint. And I still get shit wrong, too. All you can do is the best you can, really.


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10 Responses to Can a Person Recover From Their Mental Illness?

  1. Jeannie says:

    Wow, Dennis, you are spot on. I’ve seen plenty of people stay right where they are and not change, and a very few who have – but they’ve had to really work at changing those bad habits. To me, it’s similar to losing weight. Some people are born naturally thin – great! Others have to work at it a little bit. Some have to work at it a lot, and they have to decide at what stage they will be comfortable.

  2. Mike says:

    Hi Dennis – great to get your latest post in my email. I agree with what you are saying, as usual. FYI I contacted you recently about my Bipolar wife – we are now getting on better and there is a shift in her acceptance of the illness, and from me an acceptance of my role if I am to continue – albeit partly to support our son in this journey. So yes, being realistic is the way forward. I hope you are well and look forward to your next post. It takes a long time to get over the “I never thought this could happen to me” bit, but when you do, you can sometimes develop as a person in remarkable ways you never thought possible. Physical hardship is difficult to deal with in life, but dealing with mental hardship takes everything you have – and ultimately everything you didn’t even know you had. All the best.

    • Dennis says:

      Glad to hear that there has been some progress, Mike. It’s a difficult journey for everyone involved, but it is one that can be made. All you can do is the best you can for you and your loved ones. You are definitely right on hardships.

      Thanks for being here and taking the time to comment!

  3. Eleni says:

    Thanks so much Dennis for your insightful post on recovery. Yes, I agree recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Your notes appear to me objective, not negative.

    I personally get challenged with all the issues you raised but I am making progresses…being stable for 1 year without anti depressant but mood stabilizers & good discipline. Wish me good luck that it continues this way!

    I wish all your readers a stable move towards recovery…

    I always enjoy reading you; it’s a pleasure. Thank you.


    • Dennis says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Eleni. I’m glad you enjoy my work and that it came off as objective. That was what I was hoping for!

      Progress is progress. Everyone has their own rate. And in regards to Bipolar Disorder, not everyone actually needs an antidepressant. Many can get away with just a mood stabilizer, and I believe there are a couple of newer antidepressants which won’t force a Bipolar person into escalation. I can’t remember the name off of the top of my head though. Anyway, that’s not important. What’s important is that you keep pushing forward and keep striving. Progress is progress, even if it’s not immediate.

      And you’re very welcome.

  4. Darren says:

    Define “success”…

    I was diagnosed bipolar when I was about 45, although, I’ve been this way all my life.

    Getting diagnosed was the beginning of some major change in my life. For example, before I was diagnosed, I’d go into a major depression, and of course would be looking desperately for the *reason* — there *must* be *something* that’s causing me to be depressed! And, of course, I could never find the “answer”, because the fact was that my depression didn’t necessarily have a “cause”. It was just “brain chemistry”.

    Learning stuff like that, figuring it out, coming to a realization that it wasn’t something that necessarily occurred because of my “wrong thoughts” became life-changing.

    But, I’m old now, and tired. And, I still get the same manic and depression phases. I’m single (always have been), got a total of two people who just pick up the phone and call just to see how I’m doing, retired, seeing my friends dying off, and realizing I’m likely to end up in some so-called “care facility” where all they’ll do is overmedicate me so they won’t have to fool with my manic modes.

    How successful is that?

    Me? I fully intend to commit suicide at some point. It won’t be because I’m depressed, either. It’ll just be because fooling with this bipolar crap is simply no longer worth it. Even now, I’m not sure it’s worth it any longer. It’s not like I’ve got family – wife, kids, grandkids, nothing like that. And, I really don’t exactly have great hopes for anything like that in the future.

    So, why am I dealing with this? After a point, it becomes like a losing battle against cancer – you just say “enough with all this chemo and radiation… Just let me go”.

    Is that success? I dunno…

    • Dennis says:

      Hello, Darren. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I can assure you that you’re not alone in those thoughts and concerns you have. I’ve had them myself more than once. I wish I had something substantial to offer you, some combination of words that would negates those fears and perspective. But I really don’t. I know that anything I say will just be pandering and appear to be fluffy, bullshit nonsense compared to what you’ve experienced in your life and your perspectives.

      So, I will instead ask if you are on meds for Bipolar Disorder? Because correctly working medication ends those cycles, pulls them in from the extremes, and should allow a person to feel fairly typical emotions. If you’re on meds and still cycling like that, you may want to try something else, assuming you haven’t already gone through the gamut. It would definitely be something worth discussing with your doctor, though.

      Beyond that, I don’t really know. I think we all need to find things worth living for, even if they aren’t exactly what we had hoped for in our lives. I know this isn’t how I planned for my life to go either. Unfortunately, Bipolar Disorder doesn’t give a shit about that. So, we just have to do what we can with what we have, what we’re given. Are you stable enough to get out and do some volunteer work maybe? It’d be a way to meet some people and put some positivity out there.

      I don’t know you or your life, Darren, so I can’t really tell you where to find success or meaning in all of this. Success is just something we have to define for ourselves, I think.

  5. DVH193818 says:

    I feel this is sum what true. I’m going to family court. And my son is suffering in foster care. When all of his life I have all ways been there. My father pasted away, he was a leagel gardinship of my son. My Parents never pushed me away,my mother past away 3 in half years before my father. I never new about a 388 in California courts. I have never abused my son, I never let him be hungry, I never put any thing before him. Yes, I’m Bi- polor manic with a stress disorder. I was ADD/ADHD as a child, still am. As far as court, They keep saying mental problems as far as me and using Bi-Polor against me. I have never seen any law that says how much you can love your kids. I don’t understand? all I want is my sonn back and he wants me.

    • Dennis says:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      So, in regards to the courts, they really only care about what can be definitively proven and what is best for the child. It’s really not fair, but given how serious Bipolar Disorder, it is often pointed to so as to discredit the person with it. The only meaningful way to push back against this is with fact and evidence. Being that it’s a legal issue, you really need an attorney if you don’t have one. If you can’t afford one, you may be able to qualify for free legal help, but you’ll need to do some calling around and asking for it. Here’s a website with a list of California numbers you can try.

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