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According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the definition of recovery is “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.” Most people can identify with the improving health and wellness and striving to reach full potential parts, but what on earth is a self-directed life? We are not grand puppet masters directing the show that is our lives. Stuff happens that we have no control of, so how can we call it self-directed? Here’s what I think are the elements of creating a self-directed life, with a demonstration of these elements by our characters, self-directed Sally and not-self-directed Ned.

  1. Internal locus of control: this means that a person views the world as something to be acted upon, not as something that acts upon them.
    Ned and Sally are out at a restaurant, and they both order virgin margaritas. They both struggle with alcohol addiction, and they are both given alcoholic margaritas by mistake. Ned takes a sip and declares that it is obviously his destiny that he was going to relapse today, so he might as well keep going. Sally takes a sip and immediately flags down a waiter to replace it with a virgin margarita. She didn’t order alcohol on purpose, and she can move on with her day despite this one sip.
  2. Self-identification of goals: this means that a person is able to create and work for goals for themselves, not for anyone else.
    Ned and Sally both have depression. Ned follows his doctor’s orders to lose weight, go out to parties, and go back to school full-time to finish his degree even though he’s okay with his weight, he’s never really liked parties, and he didn’t like college which is why he didn’t finish. He figures it must help if the doctor thinks it will, so he goes along with it. Sally, however, decides that she’s going to make her own goals. She thinks a good goal for her would be to maintain her weight, spend more time reading instead of watching TV, and enroll in just one class to see if she likes it or not.
  3. Willingness to explore their unique interests: this means that a person pays attention to what they get the most interest and enjoyment out of, and allows themselves to pursue it.
    Ned and Sally are in college, and they both take a philosophy class. They love it, and want to know more and more about it. Ned thinks that learning more about philosophy is a waste of time, and he doesn’t let himself get too wrapped up in it. Everyone expects him to get a math degree, so that’s what he focuses on even though it’s not that fun. Sally, however, sees how much fun she’s having when she’s learning more about philosophy. She keeps taking classes for her math degree, but keeps taking philosophy classes too. She thinks her interests are worth exploring, even if they might be a little impractical.

Living a self-determined life isn’t about finding the perfect box to live in and molding yourself to fit in it. It’s about building a box to live in that fits you and only you, and being proud of it because you made it just right.

What is a self-directed life?

Kate Fitch

I've been with the Network since 2015, when I started as a volunteer. I've been on staff as the Communications Specialist since January 2017. I'm currently in college and pursuing a dual BA in Public Health and Public Administration. I'm most passionate about making sure that people with mental health conditions are fairly represented in the media, at policy tables, and in treatment system planning. In my spare time, I like to crochet, knit, and be the best cat mom ever.

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