In treatment I learned about two types of attitudes towards oneself and illness. In my experience I found that there is a third. These are the roles of a victim, survivor, and thriver. Throughout the journey of chronic illness, like mental illness, I have found that I have been in all three of these roles many times over. When you think you are in one, you could easily be in another. Sometimes it is very difficult to pin down what attitude, or role, I am in.
When I first got sick, I entered the victim or patient role. In this role I found myself asking myself, “Why me? Why am I doomed to this existence?” I would try to blame anyone, thing, or even beat myself up over my illness. This is the stage where I was my illness instead of me having an illness. I remember being in a treatment center, and the staff required you to introduce yourself in this way. “Hi, my name is Jon. I am Bipolar 1. I have OCD and am ruling out histrionic personality disorder and panic disorder.” Wow what an atomic mouthful! In English this means “Hi I’m Jon, I’m sick, and here is my medical diagnosis including the stuff that the doctors aren’t even sure I have.” In truth, a medical diagnosis is used for doctors to administer a treatment, and not to become part of your identity. Even though I realized this later, a lot of treatment centers force you to think the opposite. This ended up putting me in the position of a patient instead of the position of a person. In the long run this made me feel powerless. Being powerless I developed a hate for life, and I entered a vicious cycle of self-pity that took a very long time to get over.
Next came the survivor role. I remember that after my first two years in treatment I finally got over the victim role and began the survivor role. In this role I started to accept that I was sick, and that it was nobody’s fault, not even my own. I still found myself confused and suffering, and I would tell myself that I would do anything to survive this mess. I was still a patient because I thought I was my illness, but at this point life wasn’t about self-pity, it was about surviving severe psychiatric and psychological episodes that occurred quite frequently. When you are sick for a long time, you get used to being sick. I know I did. I lived from crisis to crisis and from problem to problem. I accepted this as my eternal fate and couldn’t imagine getting any better. Getting better was frightening because it was hard for me to imagine a world where my disease wasn’t the center of it. I had spent most of my years that I have been ill in this role. Then I had a life changing moment. My uncle, who was a light in my life, passed away.
This is a little side story, but you will see why its relevant to the last stage. When my uncle passed away, I became a man. I know, being a boy at thirty-one is a little rough, but when I got sick and entered the victim role, at twenty-one, my maturation process slowed down. The family dynamic changed completely when my uncle passed, and in subtle ways I needed to step up to bat and be an active part of my family. My mom and dad needed me to be there emotionally, and I needed to become more responsible for myself and for my family. At this point my problems were important but had to be put into perspective with the whole. My family’s problems became my own as well, so I had to stop being a kid, and mature quickly. I’m happy that I can be there for my family now, instead of being a tag along. I’m still growing, but I know when needed, I will be there no matter how I am. That leads me to the third stage.
When I acknowledged my illness as only one part of me, one part of many, I was free from the survival stage, and entered the thriving stage. Now I am not afraid of being healthy, and I accept that I can be healthy for long periods of time, and that I can move on with my life. I have picked up hobbies and different interests. I have started to make plans for the future, and I don’t get as hung up on the past like I used to. I live with my illness and I’m not a slave to it anymore. Even if I fall into crisis, I understand that it is only temporary. I accept the fact that everyone has good days and bad, illness or not! At the end I keep living, trying my best, and taking care of myself, so that I can be there for myself and for those that I love.
Sometimes I repeat some of the stages above, but I know now that I have the power to thrive. That is freeing. It also brings a lot of hope. This process also shows you that you are more than your illness, and helps you find reasons to live. It gives you wisdom and also color to your life. It is our right to thrive and be happy. Thriving is also a great place to aim for too. I hope my experience through this journey of roles helps you find your own way.