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Build resilience into the recovery journey

February 3, 2015
by Lori Ashcraft
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The name Jessie Close may not ring a bell for you, but her sister’s name, Glenn Close, probably will. But first, we need to talk about resilience. I just finished reading Jessie’s book, released in January, that aptly enough is entitled Resilience. Jessie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as an adult, after years of exhibiting symptoms.

There is a stage of resilience people reach in their recovery process that allows them to take the ups and downs of life without getting thrown to the ground.

We behavioral health folks now finally have a hard-won consensus that recovery from mental illnesses is possible, and some of us would go so far as to say probable. We talk about “person centered, person driven” services. We understand the importance of creating healing spaces, and when we are able, we create facilities that are more friendly and respectful.

But then what? Once a person begins their recovery journey, we have often fallen short of helping them build the resilience they need to leave us—yes, leave us. We don’t even have many exit strategies because we don’t plan on people leaving us very often.

Those who don’t leave

When we are able to face the fact that some people don’t leave our systems, we often place the cause directly on their shoulders. “They have done well, but they still need us for….” I submit that it’s time we look at ourselves and look at what we need to do to take our next growth steps as professionals and as service providers.

We either don’t know how, or are too afraid, to open the doors for the next steps into real independent community living.  Are we afraid if they don’t need us we will be out of a job?

I’ve probably made some of you mad by now, so let’s take a breather.

Jessie’s story

I first met Jessie a couple years ago at a conference at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Jessie and her sister Glenn had just established their nonprofit organization, Bring Change 2 Mind, with a mission of “eradicating the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness.” 

The next time I saw Jessie was at a meeting a year later. She had changed considerably. She seemed stronger, more confident. She was now managing her illness instead of having the illness manage her. I didn’t find out what had taken her to this new level of strength until I read her new book. Jessie wrote Resilience with the intention of giving others hope. This act of sharing her story is one of the keys to building resilience.

When we share our truth with the intention of helping others, something magical happens in very core of our being—a place pills and shots don’t touch. As we give back, we build social capital that allows us to be participating and valued members of our communities. Once we have this in place, we can stay in our community and hold our own.

I have probably read over a thousand recovery stories, and they never cease to move me. I thought Jessie’s story would just be one more. I’d be moved, wipe my eyes, have a sandwich and get back to work. It didn’t happen that way.

After a rocky childhood, Jessie began a life of self-medicating with drugs, alcohol and men. By 1990, Jessie was having full-blown manic episodes followed by deep depressions. She was finally diagnosed, yet struggled with suicidal preoccupations, medication side effects and a frightening “creature” who had taken up residence in her mind and tormented her constantly. And of course there was stigma and discrimination.

“I slowly realized that Calen [her son who also lives with mental health challenges] and I were the way we were meant to be. I accepted the fact that I had a severe mental illness and that it would always be part of my life because it was part of me. The medications helped control my moods…caused the creature to remain in hibernation,” she told me during our recent one-on-one interview.

Jessie is a very smart woman. She had family support. She had resources that many don’t have. So why did she have to suffer for decades before she could say this?

“I realize that the face I present to the world is not always the face that reflects me. I have learned to hide my discomfort. I have learned to press on no matter what. If I have to, I have learned how to step back and take care of myself when I can,” she said.

This brings me back to the idea I opened with: We have not yet taken on the challenge of helping people build resilience. We have not provided the experiences that help them grow from tough experiences.  Jessie gives us some clues on how to begin:

Give people opportunities to tell their story of recovery in ways that are encouraging and healing for others

Give them opportunities to gain validation from telling the truth about themselves.

Show them how to give and take so they can build social capital and become valued members of their community.

Show them that being real is the best way to bust stigma and discrimination. When Jessie’s son, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, began dating the woman who would later become his wife, her parents were horrified. But they came to embrace him. How?

“Simple,” they said, “We met him.”

Jessi Close from The Recovery Channel by ROC on Vimeo.