Father’s Day, 2021: A Tribute to My Father

My father was a flawed man.

Many would agree with this assessment, especially my siblings and my mother.

Many people are flawed, including my siblings and my mother and myself. Often our flaws aren’t as apparent as they were with my dad. We hide them as best we can.

My Dad’s flaws happened to be known and obvious. He suffered major depressive episodes, with at least 4 suicide attempts. He barely survived one. I know this as one of my psychiatrists, on staff at the hospital where my Dad was treated for that attempt, had rights to retrieve old medical records.  So my physician had reviewed Dad’s records – in particular, whether my Dad was bipolar or unipolar – to better treat me. He also said my Dad had clearly meant to end his life. 

Dad could be sharp with his criticism of my mother, my siblings and me. Sometimes all we heard were negative barbs on our competence at the task we were asked to do.

Dad once humiliated me by marching into the high school gym to literally pull me off the dance floor. I had “committed” some infraction, in his eyes. He was furious. …It was obvious to all the teens who witnessed what was going on. I was humiliated. 

He could also put us on guilt trips. The hardest guilt trip for me … that I remember … occurred during a Christmas holiday. The previous night I’d just returned home from college for Christmas vacation. I had been out late on a date with my steady boyfriend Jim, now my husband. Early next morning, with the dairy cows needing to be milked, he woke me up to help. This was our routine when I came home for weekends or breaks. But this time he threatened: “Gail, how you help during the holidays, is how Christmas will go for all of us! He meant, if I didn’t help him the precise way he thought I must, I would ruin the holiday for all eight of us, plus any grandparents and boy or girlfriends that might be invited. 

Imagine the burden Dad put on me: Everyone’s happiness – especially my Dad’s – and more importantly, how Dad would act toward the family, the amount and the severity of criticisms, barbs, pouts, etc. – depended on me. 

Dad was SO out of line, but I did not realize this until a caring psychiatrist told me straight out, thirty years later, no father has the right to say or imply such a treat. 

Never.

Dad did not need to threaten me. It was nonsense. I had always been a conscientious and careful helper with the milking, any barn chores, making hay, combining oats, etc. 

When Dad attempted suicide in 1968,, I came home to help on the farm, especially with the daily milking (Dad was in the hospital). My grades suffered badly that semester. One of my advisors, on seeing my semester grades, said “That must be when you started dating Jim.” I replied, no, I had gone home to work to help out after my dad’s suicide attempt. She never bothered me about those grades again. (Jim and I were already a couple.)

Yet, I am grateful to him for many things.

1. Stressing the importance of voting.

2. Stirring my interest in local, state and national politics.

My dad’s favorite president was FDR, not JFK, as some think.

3. Taking the older children, including me, on trips, especially to Washington, DC, where we meet our state senator and congressman, both honorable men.

There were simpler trips: to see a fish hatchery, an apple orchard to witness the apple trees in bloom, a lake side short vacation, visiting the University arborteum in early spring, and more.

4. My Dad’s eagerness and happiness to see our newborn children.  

5. My Dad’s (as well as my Mother’s) happiness for myself and my family when we traveled to New Zealand in 1986. 

At the time our daughter was 11 and our son 6. We could hear the expressed joy from my parents that we landed safely (And had connected with the company from which we’d rented our caravan!). A twenty-two hour flight with three stops for fuel, in Los Angeles, Hawaii, and Fuji, before reaching New Zealand. 

More delight and happiness was expressed by my Mother and Dad when we arrived home three weeks later, and they picked us up at the airport . We rested in their pleasure at seeing us safe and sound.  The return trip to the United States, and eventually to our state, was much more tiring than the trip out.

Mom and Dad treated us to breakfast at the airport and drove us the roughly 30 miles to our home. 

6. Taking us to church, 30 miles from our farm, each Sunday. We all were baptized and confirmed. All six of us children.

7. Emphasizing 4H as important to our development.  I had a very active 4H life: sewing, cooking, and dairy.

The best was winning purple ribbons for raising two heifers to maturity.  These were both 50/50 projects.  That is, I raised another farmer’s Registered Holstein heifers from 6 months until they were “freshened,” i.e., had calves and thus began producing milk.  I showed these two animals at the Wisconsin State Fair. Poise was required – and I and the original owner split the profits when these now productive cows were auctioned off! 

8. Hosting our holidays, especially Christmas, every year. 

9. Attending his six children’s and grandchildren’s gatherings – high school graduations, for example. Only one sibling lived far away, half way across the continent, so visits to her were infrequent. 

10. Flowers, always your love for flowers. We remember. Now our children raise your favorites: Iris, roses, snap dragons, dusty Millers!

My Dad graciously handled his diagnosis of diabetes when he reached his seventies.  He had to change his diet, of course, and after a trial with oral hypoglycemic agents, he learned how to take insulin. He tested his blood glucose faithfully and kept the records and doctor’s appointments.

Then his kidneys started to fail. More dietary restrictions, this time protein …meat … was limited along with high potassium foods, a reduction in milk, fruits and vegetables. As a retired registered dietitian, I learned in 1969 what diabetes and renal dialysis could do … a heavy impact on the individuals quality of life … fatigue … stress … and a unavoidable but constant pressure to do the right thing to prolong life. 

He was gracious also, when he had to undergo renal dialysis. I can’t imagine spending the better part of three days a week traveling: And then hooked up to a dialysis machine. 

I’ve often wondered how his life and our lives would have differed, had he had more help in the form of counseling and empathy, even from us, his children. We did not like to listen to his recounting his symptoms, for one thing.

We had little patience with him.

Now I think surviving and then tackling physical rehabilitation after open heart surgery, in the early days of heart surgery, the 1970’s, was an immense accomplishment. Think of having your chest opened up twice!!!

Twice. A few blood vessels were not tied off completely during the original surgery. He began to lose blood and all blood brings to life. So the surgeons took him back to surgery. They forcefully had to work around the breast bone, or cut it.

Science now has demonstrated that diabetes and heart disease are bi-directional with depression. Today, people are prophylactically counseled on watching for depression after major illnesses and procedures.

There was also a time he survived a near fatal reaction to a dye injected for a test.  He had to be resuscitated. I remember my mom telling me later his attendants had implored,  “Richard, hold on, hold on.”

He held on.

Father, I was not permitted or asked to help plan your funeral. I was not consulted regarding hymn selection, or asked to speak at the funeral. 

I was not asked to sing for him, although I have my father’s beautiful voice. He was a tenor. His favorite tenor was Mario Lanza. I have been singing solos since fifth grade. I still sing.

I was outraged at being left out of the planning and being left out of the service.

I called the minister at 8am the day of Dad’s funeral to ask the minister to inform my mother that I would not attend, nor my husband nor our children.

I did attend, arriving barely before the funeral began. I went out of respect for my mother.

You see, my Dad and I both had said to one another, he and I were the most alike … of the 6 children, I resembled him most. I have a letter from my dad to me, dated July 1989. He tells me we are the most similar and of one mind. He tells me he is proud of me.

I think he wrote to me because in the Fathers Day card I sent to him I had written I was proud of him.

I was proud of him. And I still am.


Dad, here is the song I sang to Mother, just after she passed at Hospice. I sang it at her bedside. I sing it to you now.

Morning Has Broken
Lyrics by Eleanor Farjeon

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for the springing fresh from the word

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day

The Depressed Voice Doesn’t Sing

My Dad had a beautiful voice (as did his father, my grandfather), but he never sang in a choir. He loved song. We heard the love of song come flowing out at times, though that was unusual except during Sunday church services. I believe the love of singing and a voice to sing with was there in him.  That love and that voice was passed on to his children, three of whom sing in choirs regularly. I’m crying now, for his children get so much joy from singing.  My father with reoccurring major depression missed a world that brings so many rewards to his children and to me.  A world of joy, beauty and companionship.

As a child, I asked Dad,” How about joining the church choir?” His response was to look grave, shake his head no and say “No, I can’t read music”. It seemed as if I had asked him a really distant question. Singing in the choir seemed to be for those who deserved to sing, who were good enough (as persons) and who had friends in the choir. There was no possibility in his mind for him to join choir.

But he would have been welcome.

You see, despite the potential great reward, the risk may have been too high for my father to have sung in a choir. Risk? Singing in a choir? Yes, for Dad had high anxiety often, which is common with major depression.  The necessity of performing in front of an assembled congregation may have led to some real anxiety issues on Sundays. And something else, perhaps more subtle but more dangerous: Riding the waves of emotional highs and lows that are necessary to express when one sings the lyrics with meaning may have been too uncomfortable for my father. For there is no lack of opportunity to travel from the depths of despair to the heights of all grandeur and sublime to sweet simple unadorned joy when one sings good music. He may have been moved to tears when singing; even been unable to sing. When depression is near the surface, surging emotions are not safe.

And something else got in the way. Depression often blocks out the bearers knowledge that they have the talent to do something. “I’m not good enough” is a frequent negative thought and self-talk holding people back.

And yet singing brings great joy to many people and that passion for singing can lead to other benefits as well. Our singing brain is bathed in dopamine which brings feelings of pleasure and alertness as well as serotonin, another neurotransmitter associated with feelings of euphoria and contentment. I remember feeling that going to choir rehearsal at the end of the working day was a trying task, requiring a lot of physical and creative energy. But so agreed with a friend and choirmate who often remarked that he was dead tired and didn’t think he make it until the end of rehearsals. “But then,” he said, “something magic happens and I revive….it happens almost every time.”

Singing, I believe, can bring healing.

 My father missed this world:

The first track on Chanticleer’s “Out Of This World” CD (1994) is titled I Have Had Singing, and it touches me every time I hear it sung with such beauty for I know its meaning well. Here is the story of the song:

A book by Ronald Blythes Akenfield, Portrait of an English Village, recounts the difficult lives of the inhabitants of a tiny East Anglian village in Suffolk, England. In one interview, Fred Mitchell, an 85-year old ploughman, recalls his difficult childhood. When asked what they did for fun, he took a pause, then replied:

“I never did any playing in all my life. There was nothing in my childhood, only work. I never had pleasure. One day a year I went to Felixstowe along with the chapel women and children, and this was my pleasure.

But I have forgotten one thing —the singing.

(Here I insert the lyrics used in the composition)

“Singing, singing, oh the singing!
There was so much singing then!
We all sang, and this was my pleasure too.
The boys in the fields,
The chapels were full of singing, always full of singing.
I have had pleasure enough,
I have had singing.”

 

 

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.

Part V – Why does all this recovery happen?

One doesn’t recover from a mental illness in the same way one recovers from a broken arm. Yet recovery and healing is possible, and life can be enriched. We refer to that healing as a personal recovery.

Reading more of Professor Mike Slade’s work on personal recovery I found that my journey rediscovered something essential for the recovery to succeed: a sense of personal agency. This is the belief and assurance that one has the power to positively impact one’s own life; the power to act in one’s best interest. He writes that developing a sense of agency can be a difficult process precisely because mental illness often takes away that assurance and belief. He urges professionals, staff and family to show support which recognizes the importance of renewing the individual’s sense of self agency.

Finding and supporting that sense of agency – the ability to act in your own best interest – in yourself and for those you love is a crucial part of personal recovery.


I developed a great deal of authority over my life when I successfully quit smoking, a task I once thought was impossible for me. You see, when I quit I’d found I could make a difference in my health care, a truly enormous difference; perhaps a life-saving one. And I learned people would support me in this difficult but worthwhile goal!

Now I hopefully approached a new goal, to learn tools and techniques to help counter the persistent negative thoughts common to major depression. The experience of power over my life I’d had when I successfully quit smoking taught me to seek new tools which I could use to achieve new goals: It was time to learn Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and I had no problem learning and practicing its techniques. I continue to be an agent in my own life: Here in my 67th year I set out to find a Personal Trainer so the physical work-outs I desired would be effective and fun. I found one through a good friend; hired her, and have lost weight and body fat while building muscle, etc. I think more clearly and can concentrate more fully since I have been on a regular exercise schedule.

The symptoms of depression and bipolar II persist but weaken; the sense of authority over my own life increases; I’m healing.

Part IV – The Tasks of Personal Recovery

Touching my own experience, I saw in it each of the four recovery tasks listed in the previous post.

Recovery task 1: “The first task of recovery is developing a positive identity outside of being a person with a mental illness.” The person identifies elements that are vitally important to him or her, which will differ in significance from what another person identifies. “…only the individual can decide what constitutes a personally valued identity for them. “

I was lucky. In the midst of serious depression, I was married, a mother, and pregnant with our second child. . I did not lose those identities completely, but they were shaky. The years passed and I started my recovery journey: about 10 years later, the roles of wife and partner, mother to a child and mother to a teenager crystallized and doubt had been replaced often with enjoyment and wonder.

Recovery task 2: “The second recovery task involves developing a personally satisfactory meaning to frame the experience which professionals would understand as mental illness. This involves making sense of the experience, putting it in a box, and framing it as part of the person, but not as the whole person.”

The frame in which I understand my mental illness experience keeps evolving as the mental illness does not cease. But as the illness fades and my recovery grows, the frame gets more refined with the passing years.

I realize that again, I was lucky. I was married to Jim and he knew mental illness to be a no-fault biopsychosocial medical illness. So did I: I had inherited the tendency to depression, but was able to frame this as bad luck, not personal or family fault. Also, I lived near Madison, WI which had good services and I could afford good medical care. Again, I was fortunate.

I also had training in a health care field. I was a registered dietitian, (and still am) and proud that I was on the academic staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 16 years (as a clinical instructor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences). So I was comfortable in various in and out-patient settings. I also knew appropriate levels of anatomy and physiology – and even biochemistry-lite. So I could follow the medical model of mental illness.

So I framed my experience of mental illness as an illness and as time went by, I was more and more able to put the illness in a box and frame it as only part of me but Not ME.

Recovery task 3: “Self-managing the mental illness.” Mental illness becomes ONE of life’s challenges. As people develop personal responsibility, self- management skills develop. This doesn’t mean managing the mental illness completely on one’s own but rather, knowing when to seek help and support.

I was desperate to “get better”. I cooperated in every way I could, even in the long decade of my body failing to respond to any of many anti-depressants. I never skipped a medication or an appointment. I ate well and got enough exercise at that time of my life.

As I began to recover in the 1990’s I took an even more active role in managing my illness. I learned cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and carried out the exercises on paper, as assigned and in session with a psychology doctoral student. It helped me greatly, the CBT, so that I keep it up today as needed. Nothing has been as effective as CBT for minimizing negative thinking.

Now I’ve taken further steps to guard my health. In January of 2014 I hired a personal trainer(!), adding hour-long work-outs six days every week, three of them with my trainer.

Recovery task 4: “Developing valued social roles.” The key word here is valued. Valued by the individual with mental illness and by the greater social circle/setting/society. The person undergoing recovery, in this last task, must find a niche for himself or herself in their community. It could be a position/role modified from previous times or a new experience altogether . The role may or may not have anything to do with mental illness.

A huge change in my life occurred when I began to volunteer in a big way in the mental health organization NAMI, at the local and state level. You can read about my development in the About Me section of this website.

With this change I gained a tremendous amount of confidence and poise. I also had conviction in the value of what I was doing (teaching and, later, directing the Family to Family Education Program for NAMI WI). I felt education to be a liberating factor in living with mental illness in myself and in the family. I was fortunate in that the work fit me like a glove; teaching small groups of college age adults in the application of didactic material to the clinical setting gave me experience for teaching small groups of adults. My history as an adult child of someone with a mental illness and my own history of depression and after 2002, bipolar II illness, helped me understand families and persons with mental illness and all the dilemmas and controversies that entails.

So I definitely found a position in the community where I was valued and I felt valued.  I carried out my responsibilities with confidence and skill and compassion. I blossomed. I had developed something essential for self-management: a sense of personal agency .… I was the author of my own work.

Part III – The Journey and Tasks of Recovery

Dear readers: To talk together about recovery for those struggling with mental illness we need a definition of recovery that does justice to the magnitude of the journey. Here is one such definition –

“…..a deeply personal, unique process of changing one’s attitudes, values, feelings, goals, skills, and / or roles. It is a way of living a satisfying, hopeful, and contributing life even within the limitations caused by illness. Recovery involves the development of new meaning and purpose in one’s life as one grows beyond the catastrophic effects of mental illness.”

Recovery from Mental Illness: The Guiding Vision of the Mental Health Service System in the 1990s. William A. Anthony, Ph.D Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal, 1993, 16(4), 11–23.

I encourage you to read the entire article from which the definition above was taken. What the article has to say about recovery was ground-breaking when first published in 1993. It is a fine resource as well today.

If the definition above is the vision, we need guide to follow it: 100 Ways to support recovery. A guide for mental health professionals, Second Edition, 2012.

The guide’s author is Mike Slade – Professor Mike Slade – Clinical Psychologist and Professor of Health Services Research at the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, London. I found plenty of material in the report helpful to anyone wanting to learn about recovery and eager to help a family member or friend.

Professor Slade clarifies that recovery is a word with two meanings. Clinical recovery “is an idea that has emerged from the expertise of mental health professionals, and involves getting rid of symptoms, restoring social functioning, and in other ways ‘getting back to normal’”. “[Personal recovery] … is an idea that has emerged from the expertise of people with the lived experience of mental illness and means something different to clinical recovery.”

Most mental health services, Mike Slade acknowledges, are currently organized around meeting the goal of clinical recovery. Yet most mental health policy around the world increasingly emphasizes support for personal recovery. His guide aims to support the transition to ongoing personal recovery, framing the process by identifying common tasks undertaken by persons in recovery:

Recovery task 1: “The first task of recovery is developing a positive identity outside of being a person with a mental illness.”
Recovery task 2: “The second recovery task involves developing a personally satisfactory meaning to frame the experience which professionals would understand as mental illness.”
Recovery task 3: “Self-managing the mental illness.” Mental illness becomes ONE of life’s challenges.
Recovery task 4: “Developing valued social roles.” Roles valued by the individual with mental illness and by the greater social circle/setting/society.

I was able to see each of those four tasks in the flow of my own recovery ……………….

Part II – Hard; oftentimes Lonely Work

Here is a favorite explanation of mine about recovery:

“Recovery is a process, a way of life, an attitude, and a way of approaching the day’s challenges. It is not a perfectly linear process. At times our course is erratic and we falter, slide back, regroup and start again……The need is to meet the challenge of the disability and to re-establish a new and valued sense of integrity and purpose within and beyond the limits of the disability; the aspiration is to live, work, love in a community in which one makes a significant contribution.” –Pat Deegan, PhD, quoted in Recovery Now “What is Recovery “

I first read Pat back in 1993 and I cried because she understood the ill person’s experience as it is, burdened by symptoms and then the relief, when well again.  No one has ever expressed this empathy since with more insight and delicacy for me:

Courage and fear was my main diet as I began my recovery journey . Always fear. Fear when I went to my first psycho-education meeting sponsored by UW Hospitals in early 1990’s. I didn’t know how I would be received, who the other people would be in the class —would I be able to talk to them and what would I say?  Courage too, but it always took second place. It is definitely easier to stay home than expose oneself to the risks of rejection and dreadful anxiety that accompanied me whenever I went forward.

Fear when I quit smoking.  Afraid the anxiety of not having cigarettes would cause me to lose my temper around people I loved and lose control of myself.

Fear when I tried out for University of Wisconsin –Madison Choral Union. It was something I wanted so badly to do: To sing within a large group of men and women forming an impressive choir. I had wanted to be part of this since I’d been a college student.  And now in my 40’s I had my voice back (A polyp was removed from my vocal cord and I’d quit smoking)!  Deeply anxious, I simply couldn’t allow myself to speak spontaneously to the Choral Director and I couldn’t think of what to say……..so I went to the audition reading my information and questions from an index card.  Nice; I was selected to be part of the alto section!

For the mentally ill, struggling with symptoms that strike to the heart of whom they think they are or could be, Recovery is hard, lonely, lonely work. And so important. I’ve been reading anew a number of documents and articles on recovery and have found some helpful resources to pass on to you.

Part I – On Recovery

Another season has come to pass in south central Wisconsin. Summer is here; indeed today is July 4th. I feel blessed as I reflect upon the year that has passed. I have good health and I am very thankful.  Oh I work at it, daily, maintaining good mental and physical health. But we know that striving for good health and working towards it, even faithfully, doesn’t promise we will be healthy.

I’m especially thinking of mental health recovery. I am in recovery and have found, to my deep satisfaction, that healing has come to me.  Recovery is complex to talk about. What does it mean, as applied to people with mental illness and psychiatric disorders and why is their recovery is SO important?

Here is a working definition of recovery:  A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.

Further, it is something worked towards and experienced by the person with the mental illness.  Mental health professionals and family cannot “do” recovery to the person. The essential contribution of professionals and family is to support the person in their journey of recovery.  As the recovery journey is individual so the best way to support it will vary person by person.

In reality the support that is needed goes beyond individual providers, friends and family. It extends to accessible community services also.

Note that there is nothing mentioned here about a medical recovery or cure for mental illness. But it is real, and this recovery is a new sense of self and of purpose. As health and wellness is regained, people once again take pride in themselves and ….get a life! But gaining recovery is hard work!

Stay with me; I will be returning to the topic of Recovery within Mental Illness often during the next posts.

Communities in Action to Prevent Suicide, part IV

Dr. Whiteside, concluding her keynote address to the Communities in Action to Prevent Suicide conference, April 2015, asked us to visit the websites below for a look at what suicide attempt survivors have to say for themselves.  Their words offer important insights.

www.livethroughthis.org is a wonderful and compelling collection of portraits each linked to a suicide attempt survivor story, as told by those survivors. LiveThroughThis shows through these remarkable stories that everyone is susceptible to depression and suicidal thoughts. It does this simply by showing portraits and stories of attempt survivors — profoundly sharing that they are people no different than you or I.

As the website’s author Dese’Rae L. Stage writes, “…these feelings could affect your mom, your partner, or your brother, and the fear of talking about it can be a killer.”

The second website attemptsurvivors.com  is a now-completed project of the American Association of Suicidology. This site also features attempt survivors who have spoken up and told their stories. This website’s editor taught me a valuable lesson also. She wrote that people continually ask survivors about suicidal thoughts and actions, saying “Why would you want to do that to yourself?” As she noted, this question represents a shocking and a fundamental misunderstanding. You see, as when inquiring about any potentially fatal health issue the question needs only be, “Why is this happening to people we love?”

Do you see the stark difference between these two questions? The first, intentionally or not, is accusatory and focuses on blaming the suicidal person. The second question reflects concern for the person and asks why it is that this has happened to this individual, without seeing the act as a personal fault — and in truth, suicide is usually the result of a mental illness process.

Thank you for reading and for hearing and listening to them.

Resources on Suicide – and the way forward

I’ve written a resource page on Suicide – Look on the menu bar, click Suicide and then Resources on Suicide.  There are links there for anyone who may be at risk for suicide or is a survivor of a suicide attempt.  I hope they can be of help for you.

Especially I want to draw attention to the link for the report The Way Forward: Pathways to hope, recovery and wellness with insights from lived experience (2014 pdf), by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Suicide Attempt Survivors Task force.   The report is unique in its breath and scope, and unique in that its co-leads were one, a survivor of suicide attempts and mental health advocate, and the other, a psychologist with years of experience working with people in suicidal crisis.

“For far too many years suicide prevention has not engaged the perspectives of those who have lived through suicidal experiences. Because of social stigma and fear, as well as personal shame, a culture of silence prevailed. The Way Forward represents a seminal moment in this field’s history; it is an opportunity to benefit from the lived experience of suicide attempt survivors. Many of its recommendations are derived from evidence-based practices, and several are aspirational. All are grounded in the evidence of recovery and resiliency that is clear in the lives of our Task Force members.”
– from the report.