In my studies I have found that many people who experience psychiatric symptoms or have had traumatic things happen to them feel that they have no power or control over their own lives. Control of your life may have been taken over when your symptoms were severe and you were in a very vulnerable position. Family members, friends and health care professionals may have made decisions and taken action in your behalf because your symptoms were so intrusive you couldn’t make decisions for yourself, they thought you wouldn’t make good decisions or they didn’t like the decisions you made. Even when you are doing much better, others may continue making decisions in your behalf. Often, the decisions that are made for you and the resulting action are not those you would have chosen.
Taking back control of your life by making your own decisions and your own choices is essential to recovery. It will help you to feel better about yourself and may even help you to relieve some of the symptoms that have been troubling to you.
There are several things you can do to begin this process. You can do these things in whatever way feels right to you. You may want use a journal to list or write your thoughts and ideas as a way to stay focused on what it is you want, to motivate yourself and to record your progress.
1. Think about what you really want your life to be like.
Do you want to:
- go back to school and study something of special interest to you?
- enhance your talents in some way?
- to do a certain kind of work?
- have a different home space or to own your home?
- move to the country or the city?
- have an intimate partner?
- have children?
- work with an alternative health care provider on wellness strategies?
- make your own decisions about treatment?
- stop putting up with disabling side effects?
- become more physically active?
- lose or gain weight?
You can probably think of many more ideas. Write them all down. You may want to keep them in a journal.
2. List those things that have kept you from doing the things you wanted to do in the past. Perhaps it has been lack of money or education. Maybe your symptoms have been too severe. Maybe your treatment makes you lethargic and “spacey”. Maybe someone in your life insists on making your decisions for you.
Then write down ways you could work on resolving each of the problems that keep you from doing the things you want to do and being the kind of person you want to be. As you do this, remind yourself that you are a intelligent person. You may have been told that you are not intelligent because you have a “mental illness”. Experiencing psychiatric symptoms does not meant that your intelligence is limited in any way. You have the ability to find ways to resolve problems and to work on resolving them. You can resolve these problems slowly or quickly. You can take small steps or big steps — whatever feels right and is possible for you. But you must do it if you want to take back control of your life.
In the process of taking control of your own life, you may need to change the nature of your relationship with some of the people in your life. For instance, instead of your doctor telling you what to do, you and your doctor would talk about your options and you would choose the ones that felt best to you. You may need to tell a parent or spouse that you will make your own decisions about where you will live, what you will do and who you will associate with. You may have to tell a sibling who has been overprotective that you can take care of yourself now.
3. Know your rights and insist that others respect these rights. If your rights are not respected, contact your state agency of protection and advocacy (every state has one — you can find it under the state listings in your phone book or by calling the office of the governor).
Your rights include the following:
- I have the right to ask for what I want.
- I have the right to say no to requests or demands I can’t meet.
- I have the right to change my mind.
- I have the right to make mistakes and not have to be perfect.
- I have the right to follow my own values and standards.
- I have the right to express all of my feelings, both positive or negative.
- I have the right to say no to anything when I feel I am not ready, it is unsafe, or it violates my values.
- I have the right to determine my own priorities.
- I have the right not to be responsible for others’ behavior, actions, feelings or problems.
- I have the right to expect honesty from others.
- I have the right to be angry.
- I have the right to be uniquely myself.
- I have the right to feel scared and say “I’m afraid.”
- I have the right to say “I don’t know.”
- I have the right not to give excuses or reasons for my behavior.
- I have the right to make decisions based on my feelings.
- I have the right to my own needs for personal space and time.
- I have the right to be playful and frivolous.
- I have the right to be healthy.
- I have the right to be in a non-abusive environment.
- I have the right to make friends and be comfortable around people.
- I have the right to change and grow.
- I have the right to have my needs and wants respected by others.
- I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
- I have the right to be happy.
These rights have been adapted from The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Eugene Bourne (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1995).
4. Educate yourself so that you have all the information you need to make good decisions and to take back control of your life. Study resource books. Check out the internet. Ask people whom you trust. Make your own decisions about what feels right to you and what doesn’t.
5. Plan your strategies for making your life the way you want it to be. Figure out the best way for you to get what it is that you want or to be the way you want to be. Then start working at it. Keep at it with courage and persistence until you have reached your goal and made a dream come true.
A Possible First Step
One timely way you could choose to begin the process of taking back control of your life is to get involved in the upcoming election. You could begin by thinking about and listing the political issues that are most important to you. They may include things like mental and physical health care, the cost of medications, disability benefits, housing, human services, social justice, the environment, education and employment. Jot down some notes about action you would like to see your community, state or the federal government take in regard to these issues. Then study the candidates. Find out which candidates most closely support your view on these issues and will best be able to create favorable change. Then register before November so you can VOTE for that person or those people.
In addition, if you feel ready, you could become further involved if you choose to by:
- contacting groups that are concerned with the issues that you care about — ask them for information, volunteer to assist them in their efforts.
- talking to family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers about your views and the candidates you support – -encouraging them to vote for the candidates you prefer.
- letting others know about your preferences through bumper stickers, campaign buttons and lawn signs.
- writing a letter to the editor of your newspaper to share your views or calling in on radio talk shows.
- volunteering to work at the polls, or to work for a particular candidate.
Whether your candidates win or lose, you will know you did the best you could and that through your efforts more people are now informed about the issues. You may even decide that you want to run for office.
Printed by permission of: The Mental Health American, Fall 2000
Mary Ellen Copeland, PhD, is the co-originator of Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) and the original author of the WRAP Red Book as well as dozens of other WRAP books and materials. She has dedicated the last 30 years of her life to learning from people who have mental health issues, the simple, safe, non-invasive ways that they get well, stay well and move forward in there lives, and then sharing what she have learned with others through keynote addresses, trainings and the development of books, curriculums and other resources. Now that she is retired, and that, as she intended, others are continuing to share what she has learned, she continues to learn from those who have mental health issues and those who support them. She is a frequent contributor to this site.