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How does the language of the medical disease model impact our recovery?

Those who have experienced the darkness of trauma know a depth of pain like no other. We spend our days struggling to survive. We feel broken. We feel alone. We often don't want to live. Our relationships are trauma bonds, and we aren't provided what we needed as children to learn how to get our needs met in life-serving ways. In addition, the guilt and shame from self-blame create a deep self-loathing. We are lost and have few resources, so we seek refuge in places and with people who promise to help us. We are shown that the world isn't a safe place, yet we put our lives in the hands of people who are supposed to be trustworthy.

I spent over 25 years in the mental health system, beginning at 13 years old when I was first hospitalized. During those years, I had no idea what was going on internally. My dissociation and fragmentation were so severe I couldn't function. During my years of inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations, I was given many different diagnoses and medications. I now recognize poly-pharmacy was potentially exacerbating my symptoms rather than helping. Nevertheless, I believed what psychiatrists told me; I had a disease, a "mental illness," a "chemical imbalance." I took the medications and was compliant with everything, but I got worse.

Fortunately, my psychiatrist, who had known me for ten years, strived to learn more about his patients and became educated in trauma. Unfortunately, trauma was not in the vocabulary of treatment yet. It was seen only as a rare occurrence. However, he saw things differently, an because of that, he saved my life. He saw past the symptoms, the diagnoses, and labels and recognized my trauma when I could not. Due to my dissociation, I had no frame of reference, no memory, and no relationship with myself. But the words he spoke were not any I had heard before. He told me I was not mentally ill but extremely traumatized.

I was given a diagnosis that day that was terrifying and liberating simultaneously, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). My experiences definitely got worse before they got better as I began to remember and understand my reality. Still, for the first time (after years of intense trauma treatment), I was hearing a new language of recovery. Unfortunately, the language of the disease/ medical model doesn't speak of healing. It only talks about managing symptoms and learning to accept diagnoses. The concept of healing was something new.

I was fortunate to work with a therapist that was well trained in treating DID and trauma. We worked together for many years. During the past 15 years, I have researched, self-analyzed, and worked with hundreds of people with complex trauma. As a result, I have gained a new perspective that has allowed my recovery and assisted others on their journeys. I recognize that symptoms are actually trauma responses and understandable reactions to experiences. Even the most uncomfortable trauma responses meet our needs. This was when my paradigm shifted from seeing "mental illness" in myself and others to recognizing the need to separate illness and disease from my treatment process.

When I was in the mental health system, I identified so strongly with my illness that I lost hope, and losing hope is a death sentence. I never believed I would get any better and everyone around me strongly reinforced that. The premise of the medical/disease model is that mental illness diagnoses are a life sentence, and our only hope is to take the correct combination of medications and learn to manage our symptoms.

When I was initially diagnosed with DID, I went deeply into that reality for as long as it was healing for me. Then I began to strive for wholeness. My trauma therapist trained under Dr. Colin Ross, author of "The Trauma Model," who has an integrative perspective of DID treatment, and for me, that was the only option.

It's taken many years to develop a relationship with myself. Finally, I can have compassion for myself and a deep self-love that was impossible under the condescending remarks and derogatory views of the "helping professionals" in my life. I can only have this relationship with myself because I stepped away from the role of a "mentally ill" person and into a new way of viewing my experiences. I also learned to get my needs met in life-serving ways.

You might read this as shaming people who identify as mentally ill, but that is not the case. I am saying for me and millions of others, that this identity does not apply. There are numerous explanations for symptoms (experiences) other than illness for people impacted by trauma. Yes, our responses to trauma are often intense and feel out of our control, but our suffering isn't a pathology. There are reasons for these experiences, and the more you learn about trauma, the more everything begins to make sense. What if there were other options in viewing ourselves, our experiences, and our potential for changing our lives?

• What if there is no disease, no illness, and no chemical imbalance?

• What if the reality is recognized that diagnoses are rare and the truth is trauma causes most symptoms (experiences)?

• What if the truth is that we are not sick at all?

• What is recovery is possible with the correct treatment?

How would your life change if you radically accepted who you are, regardless of your perceived flaws, and allowed yourself to see beyond your diagnosis(es)? I invite you to self-reflect upon the messages you have been told regarding your symptoms and think about your journey thus far:

Are people in your circle affirming your capacity to heal? Are the reasons for your symptoms explained to you from a trauma-specific perspective? Have you been given life-affirming and recovery-oriented treatment? Do the people you work with understand the impact of trauma on all aspects of the self?

My life was saved the day I was told my 33 years of "mental illness" resulted from what had happened to me. I stumbled in the dark for many years, feeling helpless and hopeless, until trauma treatment showed me the light of potential recovery.

True freedom is experiencing joy for the first time. I am living a life grounded in the present moment. Once I was crippled by feelings of self-loathing, and now I have a compassionate relationship with myself and love who I am. I no longer live in fear and have the ability to connect with others and build community.

For this life, I am grateful.

Watch Kimberly's story:

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