The Stages of Grief After a Mental Illness Diagnosis

In the ten years that I’ve lived with schizophrenia, I’ve seen good days and horrible days, I’ve had successes and I’ve had failures but nothing can compare to the despair I felt in the first few months and years of living with the illness.

They say there are five stages of grief when you lose a loved one. I can tell you from personal experience that those five stages also exist and are just as intense when you’re told you’re crazy.

Instead of losing someone you loved you’ve lost yourself or at least your conception of yourself.

First there’s denial, in my case I didn’t believe my diagnosis, I thought “they’re all playing a trick on me to make me think I’m crazy, it’s all a ruse” I thought the psychiatrists office was a set up and I was so reluctant to accept the diagnosis that I couldn’t even make it through a therapy session without storming out.

That segues into the second stage, anger. I was angry with my parents for taking me to the hospital and putting me through this, I was angry with myself for being affected by my thoughts and I was angry with the doctors who were trying to force me into a view of health I had yet to accept. If I was crazy, I was gonna get well on my own.

The third stage of grief is bargaining. Eventually I made the bargain halfway through my stay at the hospital that I’d take my meds if it would mean I could get out of there sooner. I made concessions with myself to stick with treatment until I could get out of the hospital and back to my own life.

Depression is the next stage. I can recall days where I was so sick and sad that I didn’t want to get out of bed. It bothered me with every ounce of my being that my mind was still telling me these weird things, that it was still playing tricks on me even in the mental hospital where these things needed to go away. The depression lasted for a long time, even after I got out of the hospital I was in a daze, without hope for months after I got out, too tired to speak, too frustrated with med side effects. I just didn’t want to deal with any of it. I stopped taking care of myself, I stopped caring about my health and gained weight and I was so bogged by delusions and paranoia that I preferred not to even go out into public.

The last stage of grief is acceptance, and like anything else it takes a great deal of time to get to that point. Acceptance is the point at which you say to yourself, “Ok, maybe the things I experience aren’t real, maybe I actually am sick, after all there’s no basis in reality for any of my beliefs and I’ve noticed that when I take my meds I seem to feel better, maybe there’s actually something to this.”

To accept things and move on and get better though, you need things like the intuition to realize you’re sick, you need fear to motivate you to conquer it, and most of all you need hope that one day things will get better.

It’s hard to find that hope in your darkest days but that’s where pushing yourself and practice with the things that disturb you come in.

Say you have the irrational belief that everyone hates you, every time you interact with someone and it goes smoothly, and they’re polite, you get a little boost of confidence and proof that what you believe isn’t necessarily the truth.

Eventually hundreds of these pleasant interactions lead to thousands, which build a foundation for reality in your mind. As this foundation builds you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel and you start to feel a lot better about yourself.

In time you’ll realize that your sickness is manageable. You will realize that a diagnosis doesn’t define you.

I can guarantee that some symptoms will never go away but with this foundation of reality and hope they become a lot more manageable. At least that’s how it worked for me.

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  1. You are a brilliant and insightful person.
    Schizophrenia seems to be a way of seeing and perceiving the world differently. The toll it takes on a person with this difference is huge, and should not be underestimated. I have so many memories of different people like you, in the course of my therapist life. I always fundamentally felt, that although they had this diagnosis, they were just experiencing the world differently.
    And this of course has exceptional value for all of us. It challenges our paradigm. It makes some of us ask, what exactly is true perception?
    If you stay on your meds and write like this, people might actually begin to understand the value of people with schizophrenia in terms of their own realities. You could bridge the gap.

    By the way everyone has a mental illness diagnosis.
    And you rock!

  2. Thank you for your intuitive blog post. I came here after a job promotion loss ripped the scab off my grief over what schizophrenia has taken from me job-wise.

    You articulated the process very well in how reality builds on reality. My concern now, for me, is temptation to allow psychosis to come back because that world was the sum of my talents and dreams. Hard to explain. Whatever my vision for my life, it was fulfilled when psychotic. To protect and serve was my psychotic theme, with me serving through the C.I.A.

    Anyway, it’s not reality, except for the hope to protect and serve. I have to cope with all these limitations in reality. The grief is hard.

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