Is It Possible To Thrive After A Mental Illness?
Accepting mental illness as an act of grace is a revolutionary act.
All the pain, all the suffering, all the times missing out, on the socials, on normal things that feel anything but normal… When experiencing mental illness, it’s hard not to view it as brokenness that needs fixing. Having suffered from depression and anxiety since the age of 15, I wrestled with this for most of my adolescence and early adult life. It was difficult to see my experience as anything but a burden holding me back from living a normal life.
At least I had something to hold onto: I was in pain, but my struggle made me curious. Curious in a way that encouraged me to explore the nuances of psychology and the self. Curious (and perhaps naive) enough to find a remedy, to do all I could to try to get better, to be normal. Book after book, technique after exercise, all created a stop-start effect; I’d feel like I was moving forward, then hit another setback.
Up until around six years ago, I felt I was working to fix brokenness. Then, slowly but surely, something started to change. I became curious about the spiritual dimension, or at least what, if anything, is beyond the mind, beyond the emotions (or lack of emotion) I was feeling. I started to meditate. Serendipitously, while reading The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck, a paragraph changed my outlook forever:
“Rather than being the illness, the symptoms are the beginning of its cure. The fact that they are unwanted makes them all the more a phenomenon of grace—a gift of God, a message from the unconscious, if you will, to initiate self-examination and repair.”
I paused. Stared at the page. Re-read. Couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was a man — a psychologist — who was claiming that depression, and the symptoms of mental illness, were an act of grace? Something clicked. I rushed to share Peck’s words with my housemate, who shared a mutual interest in the exploration of the self. We looked at each other, sharing a sense of fascination and relief.
Curse or Calling?
Peck’s words reverberated, stirring my soul. There was something I knew to be true and felt with all my heart. Perhaps, rather than ‘normal’ being the optimal level of functioning, a goal to aspire to, there was something more, a deeper fulfillment, a deeper form of self-knowledge, and depression, and other mental illnesses, were messages from somewhere within. Peck was a portal for me into other great thinkers, all of whom had something revelatory to share: mental illness can be a call to something greater, the uncovering of inner gifts, and lost parts of the self, a return to wholeness.
This goes against the conventional model that says depression, and other mental illnesses, are a life sentence, a chemical imbalance you’re destined to live with your entire life. Increasingly, evidence is showing this isn’t the case.
A recent study in Clinical Psychological Science assessed “optimal well-being after psychopathology,” in other words, people that have had clinically diagnosed mental illnesses that don’t only go on to be normal, but thrive.
In the author’s own words, they set a “very high bar” for thriving, whilst assessing a sample of over 23,000 Canadians. Those with a history of disorders including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or substance abuse, were compared to strict definitions of optimal wellbeing and ability to function. “Contrary to traditional clinical wisdom,” author Andrew Devendorf wrote, “we found that mental illness and substance use disorders may reduce but do not prevent the possibility of thriving.”
This study isn’t the first to demonstrate thriving is possible after mental illness. Psychologist and author Jonathan Rottenberg has carried out a number of studies on thriving post-depression, with similar findings. In one study of people who have had spells of major depression, 39 percent reported positive mental health, whilst 10 percent reported thriving 10 years after a diagnosis. Rottenberg notes:
“These glimmers suggest that a substantial percentage of those who have depression can shake it off and go on to thrive. This means living better than the average human being without depression, experiencing frequent positive emotions, good relationships, autonomy in thought and action, and meaningful goals.”
It appears that the data itself backs up Peck’s perspective, which one first sight might appear crude, or even insulting. Accepting mental illness as an act of grace is a revolutionary act, the beginning of the Hero’s Journey, the call to adventure, the first few steps into personal transformation.
The Mindsets Shift to Thrive
In the years since I read Peck’s words, my life has transformed. All those years of surviving reached a tipping point, eventually. I’m grateful for the act of grace of depression, for all it has taught me. Equally, having walked through the shadows of mental illness, often facing moments of despair and hopelessness, I know that any discussion of thriving has to be done with the utmost respect for the realness and often incapacitating intrusiveness, of symptoms. They’re not to be taken lightly.
So how does one move more towards optimal wellbeing? It goes without saying, this is your journey. No blog post, no steps, no singular grain of guidance can lead to overnight transformation. But, in my own journey of thriving post-mental illness, I’ve distilled a number of steps that can support the process:
1. Believe change is possible
Yeah, I know. I’m starting with “it’s all a matter of belief.” When you’re close to rock bottom or have faced multiple people telling you to change your mindset or snap out of it, any discussion around belief can feel superficial. But I’m not talking about small changes in ways of thinking (although they do help). I’m talking about the Big Belief: the belief that thriving post-mental illness is possible.
It doesn’t have to feel attainable, or even realistic. But as long as part of you taps into the belief, you’ll start to move in a certain direction. This article has shared numerous sources of evidence. Know that thriving is your birthright and that mental illness is an invitation for deep self-discovery.
2. Move from victimhood to studenthood
Another necessary caveat: victimhood is tricky territory, often misunderstood. What I mean by this isn’t that depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses are forms of victimhood, which is disrespectful, at best. What I mean is that when you see yourself as a victim of whatever you’re struggling with, you shut down any potential for learning and transformation. You are not your mental illness, whatever you call mental illness is experienced by you.
This step does not ask you to bypass or suppress the very real and raw emotions, from frustration, bitterness, hopelessness, etc. You absolutely have to feel all there is to feel. Instead, it’s a call to become a student of your experience. As Peck says, symptoms are “a message from the unconscious, if you will, to initiate self-examination and repair.”
There is no coincidence. Your unconscious is always providing you with material for your growth, healing, and transformation. Becoming a student gets you to befriend your mental illness, seeing it as a teacher, and not a tyrant. In my experience, this shift in approach opens the door to inner revelation. It allows you not to conflate the messages from the unconscious as your identity, who you are (“I am depressed”) but instead explore the expanse beyond the darkness.
3. Find a greater purpose
The memory of one morning, around 13 years ago, walking to work in the spring sunshine, when I was particularly down and despondent. Struggling with the heaviness of depression, I remember telling myself: “one day, I’ll be the happiest man in the world.” Looking back, there’s an innocence to that statement, but in some way, it was a statement that ignited a journey of exploration to answer the question: what is the opposite of depression?
Anyone who has experienced depression, and happiness, will know that they aren’t opposites. Depression is too invasive, a state or void in which things come and go. Trying to placate depression by becoming happy is futile, although I tried, for a long time. Eventually, my exploration led to the realization that the theory of happiness we’d be taught was a lie. Happiness is a fleeting emotion, a response to circumstance.
There’s an existential quality to depression that makes it a spiritual act. When you look deep within yourself, with whatever challenges you face, can you find a deeper meaning, a higher purpose, something to dedicate your life to? Having a North Star to aim towards doesn’t provide ever-lasting happiness, but it does offer a safe harbor and resilience to handling life’s ups and downs.
4. Live as truthfully as you can
Mental illness is often a call to action, unwanted symptoms that cause you to look at life in a different way. Perhaps anxiety is a sign that your environment isn’t quite right for you. Perhaps depression is a sign that you’re not living up to your full potential, or saying yes to many things in life that don’t feel true to you. Mental illness has a way of stripping back what’s false, as the truest sense of you fights to rise to the surface of consciousness.
Part of this is an intuitive process. Often what is revealed from within comes as a surprise, a certain change in life trajectory that you weren’t consciously aware was needed. As long as you’re dedicated to being true to yourself, the messages of emotions and the beginning of the cure will present itself to you. Are you doing what you can to be who you are, or instead, living as the person you think you should be?
5. Connect to something beyond the self
The founding father of psychology, William James, once wrote: “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” Modern living and its individualistic qualities give the illusion we are all islands, operating alone. But the truth is, we are all part of something much greater, an interconnected web of life that transcends any individual.
When caught up in mental illness, it’s easy to feel the loneliness, the separation. But what if you can connect to something beyond yourself? That includes the part of you that isn’t the anxiety, or the depression, the pure awareness behind all sensations and movements of the mind and body. Beyond that, it speaks to some higher power, some transcendent, cosmic quality, a wider perspective.
Find this something beyond the self in whatever way works for you; meditation, philosophy, music, nature, art, you name it. Anything that raises you away from a sense of separation, reminding you that you’re never truly alone, but very much an important part of the fabric of existence, and like all of nature, designed to flourish.