Illuminating how narrative identity is damaged by mental illness and involved in personal recovery
Mary, a 42-years old woman with severe depression, shared the following in a life story interview:
“I have experienced myself in a way that is very destructive. The values I thought I had in my life, I have experienced how they were driven to the background, so I did not have anything at all. The things I thought were anchor points in my life, I have experienced how they disappeared. I have been in a place where I have lost myself. Emotionally and intellectually, when I think back on it, I think it is the illness that overshadowed my understanding of how things were. In a way I am now rediscovering myself”
With her story she illustrates the two key questions we seek to answer in our book: How does mental illness impact identity? And how is identity involved in reclaiming a good life? Given the massive costs of mental illness for individuals and their close others, we need knowledge about how to use identity as a resource for personal recovery.
As authors we all share a passion for understanding identity through the stories people tell about themselves. Over the past decade, we have collected life stories from people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and borderline personality disorder to understand how their narrative identities differed from individuals with no known mental illness. We would often talk about how the life stories were incredibly rich and that our participants shared so many valuable insights about living with mental illness. We decided that we needed to write a book to do justice to these powerful stories. This is what aim to do in our book “Storying mental illness and personal recovery”.
Stories are key to making sense of and communicating experience. They provide entry into the lived lives and inner worlds of other people. Storying important events and reflecting on their meaning creates narrative identity: Telling who we are and how we came to be. Hence life stories are uniquely suited to elucidate first-person perspectives on mental illness. We analyze life stories from individuals who are experts by experience to understand how identity is damaged by mental illness and involved in personal recovery.
No other research process has been as moving as delving into these life stories. As we read through the stories, we found that people with mental illness experience cascades of identity costs: They fear their illness and its impact on their future, they lose valued roles, and they feel vulnerable and weak. Such identity damage needs repair if individuals with mental illness are to live good lives.
Still, many of our participants had found ways to experience well-being. When they narrated themselves as able to affect their lives, as connected to people and communities, and as learning from encounters with others, the stories were laced with positive feelings such as love, joy and pride.
How can we use these dearly bought experiences from our participants? We develop a guide to narrative repair that may help people with mental illness on their way to personal recovery. It is a story telling guide to gaining insight into the personal costs of mental illness, to coping with pain and fear, and to accepting the losses. The guide invites individuals to tell stories of their lives to anchor identity in values, strengths, and hopes. Our guide includes suggestions for facilitating story sharing with the aim to help listeners with various backgrounds to scaffold narrative repair.
Authors: Dorthe Kirkegaard Thomsen, Tine Holm, Rikke Jensen, Majse Lind and Anne Mai Pedersen