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What Recovery Means To Me

What Recovery Means to Me

 

Long ago, I was a case manager in one of Rhode Island’s Community Mental Health Centers. I was well acquainted with mental illnesses and had the same low expectations for “chronicity” and “maintenance” that all my colleagues held. I thought inside that box for years, until acquiring my own diagnosis and needing something more. I didn’t know it had a name, but I knew what it was when I first attended a support group meeting.

I have a theory. Let’s call it the “theory of diminishing expectations.” It goes something like this: you work with a provider for a while and attain a certain level of stability—not recovery—and that level is duly noted in your record and becomes your “baseline”: the level at which you are expected to function. Then, you are transferred to another provider and don’t quite meet that level. The new, lower, level is recorded as your baseline and you go on to the next provider. The next provider expects a lower level, and unless you exceed expectations, your level will appear to be declining. Basically, the system—with its high turnover rate and non-recovery orientation—traps people in a system of diminishing expectations. People don’t recover because no one expects them to.

Contrast that with mutual support groups, where recovery is emphasized along with practical steps and know-how from peers. Certainly, mutual support is no substitute for the formal treatment system, but it sure is complementary. Instead of “maintenance” and “chronicity”. Mutual support group members expect change. Recovery is not the return to some previous way of being (although many new people come in hoping for that exact experience), it is the moving forward having consolidated the new experiences and new information contained in the experience of mental illness. It is living life fully with the life-changing experience that is mental illness. It is finding a new niche, discovering new strengths and abilities, applying a new measuring stick to progress and setbacks, making new adjustments in oneself and among others, and “finding one’s feet” in very fluid occurrences.

How do we get there?

I have another theory. “Support is to recovery as carbon is to life.” We get to recovery by being with others who are making the same journey, who have the same questions and uncertainties and the same need for reassurance that we are not alone. We get to recovery by asking “is this normal?” and hearing from others that the “abnormal” is, in fact, ordinary when you live with mental illness and that that is okay. We get to recovery when there are examples in the room of people who are just a little farther down the road than we are, just a little more hopeful than we are, just a little more settled than we are. We get to recovery with others. But we do the work of recovering ourselves. Having a group makes it easier and less lonely.

I am not fond of the word "recovery". It implies too much that something was broken and is now fixed and I don’t think of any of us as broken people. I think we are extraordinary people living extraordinary lives which require extraordinary effort at times, bearing extraordinary rewards. Alternatives to “recovery” are words like “transformation”, “renaissance”, “recuperation”, “revitalization”, and “rehabilitation”. None of them quite capture the experience of the attitudinal and lifestyle shifts which take place when someone lives well with mental illness. And that is, after all, the goal for all.

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