Personal Medicine. A concept formulated by Pat Deegan

As I was preparing my presentation (titled “Living Successfully with Depression and Suicidal Thoughts”) to be given at NAMI Wisconsin’s Family Programs Summit this November, I ran into the term “personal medicine,” meaning an activity that a person does to obtain wellness, rather than something a person takes. The term was introduced by Patricia Deegan, PhD, in early 2003 as a result of qualitative research she did through the University of Kansas – School of Social Welfare [The Importance of Personal Medicine: A Qualitative Study].  Upon interviewing individuals who were taking psychiatric medication, Deegan found that “When describing their use of psychiatric pharmaceuticals or ‘pill medicine’, research participants also described a variety of personal wellness strategies and activities that I have called ‘personal medicine’. Personal medicines were non-pharmaceutical activities and strategies that served to decrease symptoms and increase personal wellness.”

Pat Deegan writes: “Personal medicine is what we do to be well. It’s the things that put a smile on our face and that make life meaningful.” She continues “Many of us have learned that finding the right balance between Personal Medicine and psychiatric medicine is the road to recovery.” [Common Ground Toolkit and Recovery Library]

She cited three examples of personal medicine that work for her: playing with her dog, taking care of her daughter, and reading scripture. I jotted down six examples to begin with: parenting and grand-parenting, cooking and baking, singing, texting and emailing Rebecca and Benjamin, sending notecards to people, and writing. Oh -and reading is a ready seventh activity; it’s the way I start every morning! Listening to music, often at the end of the day, is an easy eighth.

Reading Pat Deegan’s research closely, I see she identified personal medicines as falling into two broad categories: those activities that give life meaning and purpose, and self-care strategies. Both types increase feelings of wellness and help keep psychiatric symptoms and/or undesirable outcomes such as hospitalization at bay.

Necessary personal medicine is sometimes serious work. There was a year in my life when I was moderately depressed. I felt I had to bake five days a week: I had to bake every day I was home alone, at the time between jobs, every day that my husband Jim was away at his work. I baked for three hours every day, minimum. Why? I needed to structure my time, to accomplish something and to knead and stir down pain and numbing thoughts. It was always a batch of chocolate chip cookies one day and bread the next day. This period occurred after the children were grown, so what we didn’t or couldn’t eat ourselves, which was a lot, we gave away.

I learned this lesson [Partners in Recovery – PIR, June 2010] from Ms Deegan:  “It is so easy to get lost in thinking that we are not good enough or that we are irrevocably flawed because we have a diagnosis of mental illness. But healing does not come from outside us; healing comes from within.”

Now I realize that at that time in my life I was using baking as a self-care strategy, without being alert to my decision to do so. Baking simply kept me on my feet, kept me “productive,” and stopped the grinding negative thoughts. The joy and creativity I normally found in cooking and baking was absent. No lofty thoughts occurred while the warm dough was molded under my hands. No images of Grandma or my Mother – my bread-baking teachers – formed in my brain that I can remember. No smell of yeast permeated my mind. I simply did the tasks and came out with good home-baked items.

Good home-baked items. And I did not deteriorate in my mental status. I improved with time, never needing hospitalization or respite care. There is something good and healthy in people with a diagnosis of mental illness. Medicine doesn’t only come from a doctor or a mental health provider team. “Discovering personal medicine is powerful medicine and connects us to the resilient, healing parts of ourselves.” [PIR]

Today, much of the time I spend cooking and baking takes the form of personal medicine that makes my (recovered) life sing with purpose and meaning. I love the seasonal foods and the celebrations that each represent. In our family, every spring, there is homemade cream of asparagus soup with a twist of lemon on the side. Summer brings ruby red strawberry shortcake with berries from the field and real whip cream, plus new leaf lettuce for many simple tasty salads. Then late summer taught me to appreciate warm peach cobbler. Fall is chili and beef stew and the first cinnamon apple pie. The December holidays are hot chocolate from scratch, my delectable Mustard Apricot Glazed Ham, baked sweet potatoes, and pecan pie. All this is done with flow and calm that brings a great deal of satisfaction and attention to detail. My mind and senses are stimulated and utilized in a very positive and reinforcing way. And my family eats well too!

May each of you find the personal medicine that connects you to the resilient healing part of yourself.