Can Mental Illness Ever Get Better?

Most mental illnesses cannot be cured, but treatment has the goal of putting the illness into remission, which means you are healthy for a while, sometimes a long while, before you relapse. I am currently in remission for Major Depressive Disorder, which means that depression is not preventing me from functioning, and I’m in partial remission for Bipolar II, meaning I have some episodes, but not every day, and between episodes I am functional. My generalized anxiety disorder is in full swing, but at this point, even that can be managed enough to keep me functional.

Being in remission from MDD is so wonderful. I eat on time, I shower every day, I can do dishes, I can converse normally, etc. And partial remission of bipolar isn’t too shabby either. I’m not in excruciating pain every day anymore.

There are several fronts on which I have attacked my mental illnesses. The first, and most foundational, was finding the right mix of medicines. Often it takes a lot of trial and error on the part of your psychiatrist to find the right medicine or mix of meds. The bad news is that sometimes this takes years. The good news is that if you persist through the extremely sucky process of trial and error, you will eventually find medicine(s) that work for you, and that is worth the wait because you are paving the way for the rest of your recovery. Many people cannot recover from severe mental illness without chemical help. By the way, don’t be ashamed of taking medicine. All it means is that you are trying to get better. Who cares if you take a pill for the rest of your life? Only ignorant people would judge you for that. You would take insulin for diabetes if you needed it, and you wouldn’t think you should stop just because you started to feel better. You feel better because of your medicine. DO NOT STOP TAKING YOUR MEDICINE. Many people make this sometimes-lethal mistake.

The second front I attacked my mental illnesses on was learning as much as I could about myself, my symptoms, which actions I could take to help me feel better, and which actions or situations made me feel worse. I kept a mood journal for years to help me learn my patterns, as well as to show to my doctor at appointments. After my second suicide attempt, only two years into my treatment (I am currently in year 12, and have not been hospitalized or attempted suicide since 2008.), I made a contract for myself in my journal. This contract stipulated my required behavior for getting better. What I remember from the contract is as follows:

I, Emily Harrington, dedicate myself to taking the following steps to stay alive:

I will take all of my doses of medicine, every day and on-time.

I will not skip any doctor or therapy appointments.

I will not let my blood sugar get low, and I will eat immediately if it does.

I will write down all relevant information on my mood journal, and show it to my doctor in every appointment.

I will tell the whole truth to my doctor and therapist.

I will maintain a sleep schedule, and if I mess up, I will recommit myself the next night.

I will tell my mom and come to the hospital if I plan my suicide again.

I will be kind to myself by taking care of all of the needs listed above.

I will live.

Signed, Emily K Harrington

The third front I attack my mental illnesses on is therapy. At this point in my recovery, I have mastered medicine and self-knowledge/self-care, and I’m moving forward further with therapy. I have been seeing my current therapist for three years, and I’m starting to internalize the questions she asks me whenever I present a problem emotion or problem situation. Those questions are “What can you do when this happens?” and “What has worked to make you feel better in the past?” With these questions, I am forced to answer her or myself with concrete solutions to my problems, and these concrete solutions are my coping tools. When I develop a coping tool through use, it becomes a coping skill that I can use for the rest of my life. I keep them all written down on index cards in a shoebox, that I refer to as my “toolbox”. I rifle through them during episodes or times when I just need comfort, because in an episode my memory is weak, and I need to be reminded of what coping skills I can use. I recommend writing down coping tools and skills to anyone who has a mental illness.

Using these three things in conjunction, I have not attempted suicide since 2008, and I can function fairly normally as far as taking care of daily needs. I am not well enough to work because I still have severe hallucinations, but I deal with them with grace now, instead of abject terror. I still struggle very much, but I am very rarely suicidal and have improved tremendously from a very dark situation. I even made this website with all my hard-won knowledge that I try to share with other mentally ill people because it gives my life meaning to know that what I’ve been through can lessen the pain of others.

It is possible to improve enough in your mental illness that you are in significantly less pain than you started with, and that’s a goal worth working toward.


By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter


My disclaimer:

I am not a doctor or any sort of mental health professional. I am a psychiatric patient with multiple mental illnesses that I have survived for 12 years now. My secondhand knowledge comes from doctors, psychologists, therapists, books, college courses in psychology, and the internet. My firsthand knowledge comes from the feelings, experiences, thoughts, symptoms, problems, and solutions that I have lived through. I know myself well, but again, I am not a professional. The information on this site is not a replacement for getting an actual diagnosis or professional help. Coping skills are fantastic, and I hope you learn some here and that they help you, but please seek and continue real medical treatment if you are struggling with mental illness. I wish you the best. You can do hard things.

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