Mental Illness & the Stages of Emotional Response

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Has anyone heard of the Stages of Emotional Response? Let me explain what they are. The stages are: denial, anger, grief, bargaining, acceptance. These are the stages someone will go through when there is a trauma. NAMI teaches the Stages of Emotional Response in their Family-to-Family and NAMI Basics course. It’s touched on in Peer-to-Peer. Family members, caregivers, and friends go through the stages differently; and may cycle through them more than once or twice. Everyone’s experience is unique.

They, however, are not the only ones to go through the Stages of Emotional Response. The person living with the illness does as well. With any illness. I’ve been through all of them; and tend to go back through at least some of them from time to time.

Denial. I accepted that I had an illness right away. My denial was in the need to take medication every single day. My denial was in how much areas of my life was going to be affected. Denial was in believing that mental illness is something minor like a cold. It couldn’t possibly be something that would take any great effort to manage.

Anger. I go back to this one a lot. Mental illness has taken so much. It has taken my education. It has taken away memories with friends that I never got to make because… I couldn’t. It has taken away lost moments with my nieces and nephews… new experiences… the ability to just go and do without having to take a million things into consideration… It has taken phone calls with my grandma so that I don’t worry her. Those make up just some of a pretty long list. I get ticked off just thinking about it some days.

Grief. Yes, I grieve over my education, employment that I loved, and hobbies that are no more. I also grieve the loss of new memories that will never come to fruition. There are some things that I tend to be okay with but will grieve again and again. The loss of my own family is a major one. I love children; and I like to think I could have been a good mom if it wasn’t for my illnesses. The medications I take aren’t safe for the baby while in the womb or while nursing; but aren’t safe for me to be off for any amount of time. Due to hypersensitivity to noise, lousy/unsafe decisions, and need for almost complete structure when manias, anxiety, and OCD rear their ugly heads… There would be times I wouldn’t be even remotely close to a good mom. I can’t even take care of myself during these times.

Bargaining. I have done a lot of this one. I’m not suicidal but think of suicide at least once on a daily basis. I hate my illnesses and how dangerous they can be. I used to bargain with God. I just wanted to make it another six months. To spend six months with my family. Then, it went to a year… then five. Give me just that with my nieces and nephews. Let me make five years’ worth of memories with them. Let me make it until after Grandma passes away. It would destroy her if I left this earth before she did. Let me see the kiddos graduate. I want to see that.

Acceptance. I don’t do much bargaining anymore. I have come to terms with my illnesses. I will strive hard for wellness and a long life. I know it isn’t promised but bargaining feels wrong. I know that I need to take my medications and that I need to be my own nurse. I have accepted that I will go through times of being sick, but that I have so much to live for. My nieces and nephews love the things we do together- even if it is the same thing and in the same places. My more traditional education was taken from me, but I have had the opportunity to have non-traditional; and I have used it to help people.


I am fully aware that I will cycle back through most of these. I will never be in denial again, but the rest of the stages are open season. The bargaining usually comes after an episode of mania. The anger after anxiety. The grief after a bout with self-injury; and, honestly, grief over children will take place once a month. Acceptance, however, is something I have finally been able to come back to on a normal basis.

No one should ever feel less of themselves for going through these. Carrie Fisher once said that “If you can survive and live with Bipolar Disorder, you’re a superhero.” She’s right. Sometimes it’s okay to take off your cape for a bit and be an everyday person with weight on their shoulders. If not, I think those living with mental illness would break.

They’re call stages. You can get through them. To quote Gillian Anderson: Be kinder to yourself.

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