Recovery: Creating Your Personal Journey Through Self-Honesty, Resilience and Hope

Mat Costanzo
17
1333

I am in recovery from “mental illness.” I’ve always felt that the typical professional services were unable to provide the relief I needed. When I re-entered the workforce I focused my energy on these limitations. I became a peer specialist—a person in recovery trained in supportive counseling and advocacy. I also began earning my master’s degree in psychiatric rehabilitation, a field dedicated to the idea of recovery, and one which takes a more holistic approach. I’ve become a constructive critic of the mental health field and found that these ideas already existed on the fringes. They continue to gain momentum and I’m excited to advocate for them.

Recovering from mental illness isn’t easy, but it is relatively straightforward and it’s not hopeless. I’d like to share my story to illustrate how the basic idea can be put into practice by anyone. Recovery is adapting to how your brain works. You accept how it works, observing what makes it worse or better, and learn to navigate the triggers and symptoms you experience. As you do things differently, these ‘corrective experiences’ begin to undo the negative beliefs you have internalized. It’s a long haul and takes commitment, but can lead to real and lasting returns. In many ways it isn’t significantly different from the formula that the anonymous groups use to overcome addiction.

My story may help illustrate this. It starts with two diagnoses: ADHD and Borderline Personality Disorder. They ran my life ragged and by 24 I was lost, hopeless and desperate. But over the next few years I addressed my attention problems, paralyzing anxiety and complete inability to love myself.

I grew up in an affluent, happy home and community. But nothing seemed to work out for me from the very beginning. I learned that I had ADHD. I couldn’t control myself, and was always told that I should be able to calm down, take ‘no’ for an answer, and be patient. But inside, I knew I couldn’t do these things. My parents yelled at me, my sister and her friends made fun of me. I was kicked out of preschool; they called me “spaz” throughout grade school. I found that I was willing to do anything for approval. I figured out later that approval, and the acceptance it implied, was the single most important thing in the world to me and that I’d do anything for it. This is known as Borderline Personality Disorder. As I entered high school I stopped showing pain on the outside. I learned how destructive it was for me to let it out, so I swallowed it, doing anything to appear ‘normal’ and letting the raging pain crush my spirit. This led to a diagnosis of depression. Of course, it was far more complicated than that and being told that this was just a chemical problem was deeply invalidating.

Upon finishing college there was so much noise in my head that I couldn’t hear anything else. I discovered drugs and alcohol and became a full-blown addict. I found a girlfriend who gave me approval and we became incredibly co-dependent and unhealthy. Eventually she pulled away. As she got better I grew worse. Her acceptance had filled the hole I’d been buried in and as she put distance between us I got into heavier drug use. I developed extreme grandiose delusions about who I really was to compensate for how little I really had. If you didn’t understand me it was because you were captured in the cultural norms of our society. You were trapped in the old paradigm, and I was here to change it… somehow. This led to another diagnosis: Schizoaffective Disorder. Of course, it wasn’t. It was my attempt to lie to myself to avoid the pain of my reality. Being told that it was another chemically-based problem and that I needed to take my meds was another wound. Have you ever felt that you were screaming for help and no one could hear you? It’s frightening.

I got worse. They started showing up with the ambulance more and more, locking me up again and again. I was told how ‘sick’ I was. But my inner experience couldn’t be denied. Who can deny their own experience? So I resisted this ‘hard sell’ that I had mental illness and just needed to trust these experts, because it threatened my understanding of myself. By trying to tell me what was wrong with me instead of listening to me, clinicians drove a wedge between us that kept us from working together. This isn’t something that I experienced with all clinicians, but it was the norm. I remember five professionals who I felt could understand or were willing to try. But in my 20s I was under the care of no fewer than 40 doctors and therapists.

My turning point happened unexpectedly when one day I had my own insight. I was sitting with people around a table at a bar and I’d been speaking for at least 15 minutes—talking at them, not with them, and I did something I’d never done before… I looked at their expressions and could see that they were miserable. They wanted me to be quiet. They hated what I was doing. And it hit me: I’m terrible at this. I don’t know how to read other people’s expressions. I don’t know how to interact!

I shut my mouth that night and didn’t speak for the next 10-12 months. Instead I watched. I chose people who were succeeding inter-personally and I watched every move they made. They said something, kept it brief and light, then they listened! Their responses were short and they kept the conversation going in a positive, pleasant direction. Then they listened again! I started to learn. Of course, you can imagine how family and doctors reacted to this strange silence. If only I could have told them that I was inside doing something productive.

During this time I recognized that my inability to pay attention was tied to my ADHD and that if I could learn to focus, I could have a chance at making progress. So I went to the hardware store and bought some wood and nailed together a small balance beam, about three feet long. I stood on it for about an hour a day for a year. I fought to stay on that balance beam because, while I was focusing on maintaining my balance, my mind had to stay in one place. At the end of that year my ADHD was all but gone. My parents, however, who love me very much, found these behaviors so disturbing that they had me committed several times.

Regardless, I made fantastic progress with these two strategies. But my social anxiety was paralyzing. I was living with a friend at the time but stealing my brother’s keys to sleep in his car so I could avoid my roommate and I desperately wanted that to end.

So I chose a coffee shop and said “One day I’ll feel at home in there.” The first day I walked toward it and stopped a hundred yards away when the panic started and I congratulated myself on my effort and turned back around. The next day I did the same thing. By the end of a month I could stand inside the shop for a couple of minutes. At the end of the second month I could order coffee. When I could do that I said “OK, next you’re going to say something to the barista when you order your coffee.” It was all progress and I made sure to praise myself for each tiny increment. What I said got better. I started making eye contact. By month three I could sit with a book and drink my coffee, but I was tormented by the certainty that everyone was looking at me. So I started checking. I watched the guy in the corner. He was reading a book, the couple next to him were deep in conversation, the four people on the couches were working on something… these people weren’t looking at me. I learned later that this was called Reality Testing. I still do it today. Slowly I learned to practice the skills I’d learned by watching people interact. I don’t think I annoy people when I interact with them anymore. I may be imperfect and sometimes awkward, but overall, that mountain is now a molehill.

When I got to New York and walked the streets I thought I’d feel free to practice what I’d learned. I expected to be excited to see the results of high functioning. All the same, the strangest thing started to happen: with nobody around to place me in the box I’d left behind, I allowed everyone I spoke with to be a surrogate for people from my past. I’d internalized a lifetime of criticism and learned to self-stigmatize like so many other people who get unsupportive feedback for their idiosyncrasies.

I carried the damage of the feedback I’d received and transferred it onto every situation. I told myself I was awkward, so I acted stiff and uncomfortable. I told myself I was oblivious, so I second-guessed myself constantly. It became easier to be alone, without triggers to invoke the traumas I’d suffered earlier. In the end, I found myself back in a state of psychological distress, paranoid, depressed, full of anxiety and turning to alcohol to cope. Yet it never escaped me that the root of this problem was in my own mind, that it only existed because I’d learned to see myself as ‘ill’ or ‘dysfunctional.’ That, in the end, I couldn’t love or accept myself, which is the root of any personality disorder. When you aren’t accepted as a young child, you learn strategies to get the acceptance you need. You learn to hide, to lie, to be the aggressor. These skills become part of how you learn to survive and they outlast childhood and become a trap you can’t escape.

Learning to love myself was something I didn’t know what to do with, but I was lucky to get just the kind of help I needed. I had a second life-changing experience in 2009. I had a powerful breakdown, one that would ordinarily have left me hospitalized and confused. Luckily I was a student at Howie The Harp Peer Advocacy Center, a peer-training program. I thought they’d kick me out because I’d flown into a rage and was screaming at everyone. But some of the staff pulled me aside and asked me what was wrong. I threw everything I had at them and when the smoke cleared they were still there, looking with concern and compassion at me. They said, “That’s great stuff. What else?” So I yelled some more. They said, “Wow, we’re hearing a lot of pain. What happened to you?” It began to hit me: we’d been at this for over an hour. They weren’t checking their watches or losing interest. Their support was unconditional. Long ago I’d learned to believe that I could only be loved if I acted ‘worthy’ of love. That I wasn’t allowed to be myself. But here I was at my worst, and they were still here. Trust happened, vulnerability happened, and my walls of anger melted into a river of pain. The crying started then. I’d never cried to anybody. They stayed with me all the way through it, then gave me their home phone numbers. I called one of them that night and she was there for me, and I hardly knew her! They stuck by me for about two weeks, listening. This experience was the beginning of my healing. They made me feel that I was worth loving and that let me believe that I might deserve it.

The most important kind of help I ever received was relationship-based. The people at Howie the Harp used a technique called Active Listening and offered Unconditional Positive Regard. They gave me a start on loving myself. From there I took the responsibility of finding people I could trust and to use the skill I’d learned at reality testing to correct myself whenever I began to feel those old feelings. I started with a family member and eventually built a small community whom I trust. We care about each other. They allow me to check in with them whenever I need to and that helps me steer clear of old and painful emotions.

Each of these healing experiences was an adaptation to my challenges. The balance beam, the reality testing, the building of community and supports. Learning to accept that my mind will take me places I don’t want to go if I allow it to. These are just some of the tools I use in my recovery. They’re adaptation. I accept that I’ll always have doubts about my worth, but I recognize those doubts and address them. I accept that my attention may get swept away at any time but I catch myself faster and faster. This journey of acceptance and growth is recovery. It starts with acceptance that your brain is a little different and the desire to do the work to learn to navigate it. Success comes of patience, resilience and self-honesty. I still use medication and therapy, but as tools, not solutions. I think of my providers as consultants in my journey. Some have taught me a great deal, but the responsibility to steer is mine and those who’ve truly helped me respected that belief.

The recovery movement goes much further than this and has more to offer than you may be aware. This is simply an introduction. Nobody is hopeless and we can all do better than basic maintenance. Good luck—you’re worth it.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Mat, thanks so much for sharing your moving and heartfelt story! And VERY well done for coming up with so many approaches that worked – you actually invented for yourself stuff that people go to universities to learn!

    One thing struck me about the start of your story – you said that you grew up in an “affluent, happy home and community.” If that was really the case, why were so many people so intentionally mean and hurtful to you? I have to wonder how happy those other people really were when they seemed to be unable to accept you but instead attacked you for being different. It also sounded later like when you were finally finding your way despite the “help” of the system pushing you further in the mud, your family was not only not supportive, but continued to work to undermine your recovery. It sounded to me like they were very busy blaming you for making them feel uncomfortable.

    I’m very impressed by the path you’ve followed and really appreciate you sharing it with us. It saddens me that you had to figure out so much of this yourself, but it’s also a joy to hear that at least the folks at Howie the Harp center understand how to truly support someone. Hang in there and keep on moving forward – you are a tough and smart person who survived a lot of crap!

    • First, Mat – thank you for sharing your very moving story. not only are you amazing in how you’ve managed your recovery, but you are sharing what you’ve learned and that is helping others to try using some of your strategies. at your young age, you’ve already touched many lives. that is a great legacy. you are amazing, always remember that.

      now i need to speak up for parents. i don’t know mat’s parents so i can’t speak for them directly but as a mom of an amazing son diagnosed with schizophrenia i can say it’s very possible his parents did all they could with what they knew. they most likely relied on doctors to tell them what was wrong and how to handle it (and this started many years ago so there was even less information). my guess is they were scared and wanted to help him but didn’t know how. And later when he was finally finding his way – from his parents perspective they saw their son, standing on a beam for an hour every day, not talking to anyone for about a year, and sleeping in his brothers car even though he had a home to sleep in. from a mom’s perspective i would be very worried.

      i hope mat is able to work with his family and teach them how best to be with him – although i believe it was buddha who said, when you feel you have finally reached enlightenment, go home and visit with your family and see how enlightened you really are.

  2. Wonderful! People don’t know and/or don’t care about the snowball effect of rejection. You, literally, began a large part of your healing in an instant. And, the interpersonal support you received was pretty basic. Had your surroundings been halfway decent when you were younger, you could have just lived your life, rather than endure years of pain to get there. Congratulations on your new, authentic, autonomous life.

  3. Glad things are better for you. What strikes me most about your story though is how many levels of psychiatric brainwashing you have internalized. Hopefully if you hang around MIA some of this will start to unravel. To start you need to realize that you NEVER had a “mental illness” or “ADHD” (with or without quotes) and how being taught to see your life from within a “mental health” perspective has held you back.

    Forget programs and techniques. I knew Howie the Harp personally, and hung out and jammed with him, before he became a place. The only “technique” he ever employed was “marijuana maintenance therapy.” 🙂 I highly doubt he would want to be remembered as someone who pioneered “techniques” or “approaches.” His main message (other than Psychiatry Kills) was that human support is not something that requires certification, whether as a “professional” or a “peer.”

    For many, life in present day amerika is an endless series of traumas; as soon as you “recover” from one there’s another one waiting. The only lasting solution will be collective and political, not just personal. Anyway, good luck.

  4. Great article, same problem. I see you figured out by yourself exposure therapy.

    I want to recommend meditation for you. It was a great step forward for me in terms of social anxiety. It changes your body chemistry definitely.

    Thank you.

  5. Bravo, Mat. Your story is deeply moving and impressive in how hard you wanted to change. A lot of people who comment on MIA make the case that there is no need to change, people are fine just as they are, and how dare others suggest that the problem is yours. I have a sister who is dyslexic. My childhood often wasn’t as perfect as I thought it should be because she was always in an uproar. The spillover to every aspect of family life was huge. It has only been quite recently that I have begun seeing her problems as hearing related. People who don’t hear well, or whose hearing lags their intelligence, get tremendously frustrated, hyperactive, and impulsive. They don’t read other people well and can be easily influenced. All of this leads to more frustration. Your balance beam idea was brilliant because at some level you surmised that your ear might be the problem. These are just my most recent evolving thoughts on the origin of “mental” illness.

    • As a diagnosee myself I realize we need to balance the needs of the psychiatrized individual against the needs of the family/community/society. We are not meant to be independent loners in isolation. Some Catholics choose this but it’s an ascetic lifestyle–penance for the sins of humanity. More of a sacrifice than an ordinary celibate makes.

      Psychiatry did not help my relationships with others sadly. This effected not just me but those around me as well. I thought the pills would make me a kinder, better, more mature, rational person–that I owed it to those around me to sacrifice my own mind and body–even cutting my life short by 25 years–to make them happy.

      In the end it made us all worse off. My family thought I had Asperger’s but now all the symptoms are gone. They’re pretty puzzled. I am overwhelmed at the sensations of empathy and affection I have. Not just anger and grief like at first. Learning social interactions at 44. Suffered from social phobia since 15. Got drugged up at 20. Trying to adult now. Sad I’m so late but glad my progress is speedy. Can keep a clean house and am starting a job soon. 🙂

  6. Inspiring Mat, I like your realisation that a key turn towards your recovery was listening, not talking and how you have translated your diagnosis into things you do that can change with practice not things you have which need to be medicated, maybe someday you’ll shred those diagnosis altogether.

  7. Very courageous and inspiring story. I agree that self-love is vital, to know the feeling of love at all. That is transformational. When we perceive our challenges as our guidance to personal growth and expanding our awareness, it is win/win, and our capacity for love and compassion increases. I believe that is the most powerful healing of all, and has the potential to radically change how we experience life, and reality in general.

  8. Eventually Mat, you will probably want to discard your label of “mentally ill.” Unless you’re talking to a doctor who could have you locked up of course.

    A friend of mine got off his lithium. He did it all wrong though. He cold turkeyed after years taking it. And long after any withdrawal problems should have vanished he lay in bed wallowing in self pity and bitterness.

    Finally he would get up for a little. Then back to bed. This went on for 10 years.

    His nutrition went kaput. He told me he only ate a bag of chips and can of pop a day during one episode where he lay in bed for 3 months or so.

    I told him, “Of course you feel awful. You are only eating crap and getting no exercise or communicating with anyone. Don’t you see this is actually a choice?” I also chided him for not talking to people who loved him–his sister, his cousin, and friends like me worried if he was still alive. I asked him if he realized how selfish this behavior was.

    Last I heard he got out of the hospital where he got committed. Warren continued to insist he was bipolar. Naturally he had mood swings. (Like calling yourself stupid over and over.) He kept wailing how he wanted to die. I told him to avoid saying that in front of doctors if he didn’t want to be locked up.

    My guess is he tried to set up an appointment with a psychiatrist to get the lithium he thought he needed. When he couldn’t get in, he started telling everyone he wanted to die. Sigh. You get the picture.

    I wanted to date him at one point. Not anymore.

  9. sorry rachel, but less judgement and more compassion. “he lay in bed wallowing in self pity and bitterness” is your judgement. you really don’t know how or what he was feeling unless he told you and i’m guessing that didn’t happen. he could have been truly suffering from depression or psychosis, or anxiety or any number of mental health issues. “selfish”, again, judgement. “continued to insist he was bipolar” – your judgement is he wasn’t – do you know that to be a fact?

    “don’t you see this is actually a choice?” No it’s not. this as a huge part of the problem with the stigma about mental health – the just suck it up and be happy attitude. there was an amazing blog i read, the writer, Libba Bray, described her depression so viscerally (?-usage, ie. i could feel every word she described). it was beautifully written and unbearably sad but i think everyone should read it to get a better understanding of what depression really is like. i don’t know if this will get deleted but here’s the link to it (fyi – i am in no way related to or know anyone at this site) https://kindnessblog.com/2016/01/22/miles-and-miles-of-no-mans-land-by-libba-bray/ if it’s deleted, i’m sorry, but the takeaway is it’s not a consistent state. you can be in a depression and still laugh at a friends joke or have a good time at dinner but at other times it’s deep dark hole. you can’t just chose to be happy. “There is an undertow to depression. It doesn’t take you all at once. It leaves you with some false sense that you are coping. That you are in control. That you have the shore still well in sight, until, at some point, you raise your head to find yourself all alone, battered by rough seas with absolutely no idea which way you should swim.” by libba bray.

    last, i come back to compassion. when someone says they want to die, compassion is a good response. no judgement, just empathic listening.

    • You’re obviously new here. In many cases I would have modified my language. But I had listened to Warren’s complaints for hours at a time. You have not. His cousin and I both felt the same way. He was angry because his life had disappointed him (Me too!)

      Some cases of depression require encouragement. Others may demand a little sternness.

      Depression can be very addictive like heroine. And there is no known organic cause for depression either regardless of what the drug commercials on TV say. A brief perusal of articles–not just here–but in the American Psychiatric Journal and other sources will verify this. No well informed psychiatrists believe this.

      I tried to keep Warren out of the hospital. I wanted him to feel better and lead a productive life. How cold-blooded and lacking in compassion.

      Guess that was cruel of me. He was determined to get locked up and put back in the system. That’s what he got. Forced to go through Day Treatment babysitting and drugs.

      I know what Warren is going through, because I have been there myself. Refusing to talk to family or friends in order to frighten them is pretty selfish imo.

      • i’m sorry if that felt like an attack on you, it wasn’t meant to be. it just made me sad for warren, when i read your post. one thing i do know is that i don’t know what it’s like to be you or warren or anyone else, only myself. i am lucky to have good mental health (and i do believe it’s luck, no one chooses or deserves to suffer from mental illness, it randomly attacks innocent victims) but i do have people i love suffering. and no i’m not a fan of meds or the way the medical community deals with mental illness.

        i’m sorry you have not been able to help warren as much as it sounds like you wanted too. it’s all so damn frustrating and some people respond to one method of treatment while others with the same diagnosis don’t respond at all.

        i wish you and warren peace and health.

  10. This is a very inspiring story, and it made me realize that I need to get into a solution… I’ve been so focused on the wrong things and blaming others, yet I need to step up to the plate and take initiative in prder to grow like I want and to experience a new plan devised to not omly help myself but others as well…. It’s given me a new drive to beat this and devise a new plan of action… Thanks!