Chris Cornell’s death hit many of us quite hard, and one of the things I keep hearing is that it was especially hard because he was someone who had beaten his demons. I saw very similar comments when the toxicology report recently came out about Carrie Fisher’s death.
There is no denying that it is hard. Mental illness is really hard. But that so many people consider relapses and suicide risk shockingly unexpected outcomes of mental illness suggests a profound misunderstanding of what it means to battle it.
Despite what movies might have led you to believe, mental illnesses like depression and substance use disorders don’t have a single cause — and treatment rarely is a matter of exorcising particular demons (or memories). Even psychologists who believe that there is something to be gained from reaching into and airing out a traumatic past believe that this process requires repeated, painful efforts over a long period of time, and that success in this process is rarely complete or permanent.
Rather than derive information about surviving mental illness from movies attempting to depict therapeutic treatment, consider the horror genre. When it seems as if the evil creature has been killed, but it comes back alive after you’ve breathed a sigh of relief, that is what battling mental illness is like. When you’ve discovered that the threats are coming from inside the house, from a place or person you trust, that is what battling a mental illness is like. And we’re often talking about recurring battles over a lifetime, in which the enemy might lay low, call a truce, and fraternize with our side for a time. We need to celebrate each battle that is won without prematurely assuming that the war has come to a happy end. Labeling someone as a “success story” might make it more difficult for them to ask you to be there at their side, ready to continue the fight, when the enemy silently regains enough strength to attack again, as it often does.
And just because we’ve won the battle doesn’t mean we’ve won the war.