Peterson: Mental illness – my life's blessing, not curse

I don’t remember when my mental health slid into mental illness. It wasn’t as if a fever broke out and a thermometer verified it.

The slip into mental illnesses was gradual, something I was not aware of initially. I experienced the highs of mania, when I could work for weeks on multiple projects, when creativity accelerated, when I needed little sleep. Who couldn’t like that?

I also experienced the depths of what only could be called depression, when the smallest tasks seemed impossible, when despair slowed me to a crawl and I couldn’t sleep enough. Life became a hopeless nightmare. How could I live like that?

I couldn’t, and suicide became the only option.

Fortunately, I survived four attempts.

I cannot put a date on a diagnosis – most everything is a fog – but I would guess the mental illnesses began to show themselves about 15 years ago.

And I live today with a form of bipolar disorder, major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. One washes over the other, the lines of distinction blur. Depression and anxiety are predominant.

They are chronic illnesses, not unlike those that affect physical health. Only the symptoms differ. And people with mental illnesses lead productive, successful, full lives.

People live with diabetes, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And they live full lives because of the precautions – and medications – they might take.

People live with bipolar disorder, depression, dissociative disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia. And they live full lives because of the precautions – and medications – they might take.

It’s just that mental illnesses are diseases that have been consigned to the closet. Only recently have people been living openly with their diseases and battling the stigma that comes with them.

Talking about mental illnesses openly and honestly undermines the insidious stigma they carry.

People with mental illnesses can and do recover if they are able to find and afford basic treatment. I am a living example of someone who lives in recovery. That doesn’t mean I am cured, but my illnesses are under control, rather than controlling me.

In the depths of my illnesses – 2000-2002 – I was hospitalized and lived in residential treatment facilities four or five times to get through the worst of it. When I was back home, I worked full time as Opinion Page editor of the Northwest Herald, a challenging job. But I had the support of my employer and co-workers, which was critical to my recovery. I was not cast aside but accepted unconditionally.

It has been more than 10 years since I was last hospitalized. With the right medications, counseling and treatment, and the unwavering support of my psychiatrist, I have been able to live the good life.

For the past five years, I have been using my experiences with mental illnesses to help others who might have them as a state-certified recovery support specialist for Pioneer Center for Human Services Homeless Services McHenry County PADS.

I also just completed my first year of seminary, but I am taking a break to return to work full time as a recovery specialist. This is where God wants me to be today.

I would not be where I am were it not for the good grace of God, and the love and support of family and friends. When I spiraled into the rabbit hole in 2000, I lost a lot — my marriage, my family, my possessions, my health.

I was able to regain my full health. I remarried. I was able to reconcile myself with being an every-other-weekend dad. I found new, meaningful work using my experiences to help others. I learned I had become a slave to possessions, and I have not allowed that to happen again.

But I do have a chronic disease. Some days are tough to get through. But I do get through them.

I’m not special. I am an average person who has been able to take control of his mental illnesses. You can do the same. Confront them, if you have not already. It might take time and patience to find the right combination of help to join millions of others in recovery. You are not alone, and you do not have to fight this alone.

We all have regrets, but mental illnesses is not one for me. I do not look at them as a curse, but a blessing that took time to discover. I understand myself and others better than I could have previously imagined. That, indeed, is a blessing.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate, freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at

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