Hope is a necessary ingredient of recovery. Without it there is no reason, no impetus to even try. Bad times become more than an event, a point in the process of life. They become where we are stuck. In a way they become who we are. When nothing we do matters then nothing we are tends to matter long. When effort makes no sense eventually we stop making any.
One of the quickest ways to destroy someone’s sense of hope is to tell them a personal defiency they are born with is going to cause problems with virtually every important aspect of their life, that these problems are going to be chronic and intractable, and that as a result the quality of life they experience will be seriously diminished. For many this is their experience of what it means to be diagnosed with a mental illness.
The damage is not in telling someone they have serious life issues that if unaddressed will lead to damaging life consequences. Anyone who is living with mental health issues knows that. The damage is in telling someone their issues are all they really have or will have. It is in saying these difficulties are the most real thing about you and that everything in life is but an expression or symptom of them. It is in saying that the most real thing about you is not what is important to you—not what you care about, what you value, who or what you love, or what you see as your purpose in life—but only what is hard, difficult or problematic for you.
Depression tells you lies like this. You start off trying to get out of the hole. In time you start to wonder if you are the hole. The only way out is to hold onto the truth that no matter how bad things are (and they may be very bad) that bad things are not the only thing. It is to know that the space you are in is not the only space and better places are possible. It is to know there is something else just as real as the way you feel right now. It is in nurturing hope, even when it doesn’t feel real or immediate.
The experience of depression is one of extraordinary loss. Things you used to do, you used to know, you used to care about seem far away and alien. The take aways in life seem to have an insatiable appetite and soon you wonder if anything is to be left. Life becomes about worrying about what bad thing is to happen next and soon it seems easier to not feel anything at all. It can be an experience of extreme personal violence.
The cruel irony is that for too many the message they get from their experience of the mental health system too closely mirrors the message of their experience of the emotional distress in their life. I have known many people this is not true for. They tell me that being diagnosed was a blessing. They say it gave them focus and told them the elephant in the room they had been forever fighting had a name. But they are the lucky ones.
One lady told me in tears one night, “I just wish that my family knew that everything I feel, everything I think, everything I say and do is not about bipolar disorder.” Many others have told me they feel like ordinary human experiences like grief, fear, anxiety, and anger have been labeled as symptoms of an underlying psychiatric disorder. Difference has been labeled disease. I know one person who had just completed WRAP training who was told by his psychiatrist that his enthusiasm for his WRAP plan was manic behavior. Many other people have told me from their experience that being diagnosed is anything but an objective truth or scientific effort. It depends on who you see and what they believe. Like many other people mental health professionals are used to consistently seeing what they consistently look for. To be diagnosed for many is to be told the disease is total and that their needs, wants, values and hopes don’t have the validity or importance they do for other people.
In the face of all this the experience of hope—the belief that something better is both possible and realistic for you—is central. Hope is an experience borne of human connection. It is not about being fixed, but being cared for. It is not a matter of the right technique, the right medication, or the right bag of therapeutic tricks. The most frequent technique is medication and the message is that they cure pain. They don’t. People need people. For many their experience of the mental health system is that it is a little like being given a spoon to bail out a sinking ocean liner.
Hope has nothing to do with wishful thinking. It is ultimately realistic but only if it is based on a truth that can bear the weight of its own promises. Hope in this sense is based on the reality and accessibility of life transforming experiences. Terrible things happen to people, but we are not the terrible things that happen to us. We have a human capacity for resilence, an ability to get past and grow even when faced with the most terrible of things. Recovery is about operationalizing that resilency. It doesn’t mean we don’t mess up or have problems. It means that our difficulties no longer define our end point or the ceiling of what life can be.
Anyone who tries to tell you that hope is pointless or empty is committing an act of violence on your soul. The testimony of countless lives is that there is every reason for hope and the most realistic way to understand your struggle with the mental distress that may seem like it plagues your life. The measure of any technique, therapy or medication is not in their supposed truth, but in their usefulness in helping you improve your life.
Hope not only gives life direction and meaning. There is ample evidence it helps us to live longer. Hope tells us life is an opportunity to be treasured and not a deprivation to be endured.
Choose hope. Choose it each day. It is the best choice you will ever make.