What Are We Recovering From? Making a Case for Recovery

Lisbeth Riis Cooper
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Over the past 30 days, we have had World Mental Health Day, Mental Illness Awareness Week, National Wellness Week and Recovery Month. Lots of ways to raise awareness about the same thing. But are we talking about the same thing? 

There is a rising tide of mental health care reformers and advocates who are interested in creating a new mainstream for the way we care for each other when we are in our most vulnerable moments. Many are active in this online community galvanized by Robert Whitaker’s work.

However, we do not all speak with the same voice, as indicated by the variety of ways we promote our cause and the lively debates here and in alternative and complementary mental health conferences such as those sponsored by the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care, ISEPP, INTAR, Alternatives, Empathic Therapy and many more. Not to mention the many Occupy and other psychiatric reform protests.

One of the current debates centers around whether “recovery” is a useful concept or whether it is overused, co-opted or simply not an accurate way to describe the process of learning to work with and through madness and life’s challenges.

“If those of us experiencing emotional distress or extreme states do not have a brain disease,” so the argument goes, “what are we recovering from?!”

Another well-reasoned argument is that recovery implies a desire to return to pre-crisis functioning. But pre-crisis functioning may be driven by dysfunctional coping mechanisms. In these cases, emotional crises can be gateways to mental, emotional and spiritual growth and a state of becoming “weller than well,” to quote Dr. Karl Menninger (as our Papa Bear Michael Cornwall is apt to do).

Yet another argument for abandoning the term “recovery” is its long-standing association with substance abuse and 12-step programs and, more recently, the pharmaceutical industry and medical model. When used in these circles, recovery is a daily practice that does not mean complete healing but instead involves keeping symptoms in check and staving off relapse, which is always right around the corner if we forget our disease or our meds. Often referred to as the long road home…

When we formed our family-led support network almost one year ago, Mother Bear Community Action Network (Mother Bear CAN) grappled with these same concerns. And we asked ourselves, our families and advisors,

Are we a family recovery network?

Mother Bear CAN’s primary goal is to help families facing mental health challenges to find real and lasting healing in community. We are committed to helping families become “weller than well” and to helping families heal their relationships by working through mental health challenges in a way that empowers and connects all family members, when possible. And, in a very real sense, we do “cover” for each other, even though we cannot recover for each other. Together we can create communities that foster healing and connection.

What we have found over this past year is that most families still believe extreme emotional distress, often defined by a mental illness diagnosis, is a life sentence. That personal and family “recovery” is too much to hope for (and this is recovery by any definition). That distress is a disease for which there is no cure, but one which families must chase primarily with medications and hospitalizations in the hopes that they will find the right combination to bring their family members back. An elusive chase that seems to have no end in sight.

After consulting with individuals and families with lived experience, leaders of the recovery movement (often one and the same), and mental health care reformers, we decided that the promise of recovery was indeed the first thing we could and should offer families.

Recovery provides a point of departure from what many families are being told and what we know is possible if we rethink our approach.

We dared to dream and created our vision of a new mental health paradigm in which the whole family is supported, both personal and family recovery are expected, hope is encouraged, the role of medication is carefully considered, and family and community are a vital part of the healing process.

We developed our mission to support families through recovery education, family-led support communities, and access to recovery resources that enable all family members to thrive—emotionally, physically and socially.

We decided on a set of shared values that draw on the wisdom of lived experience and a careful examination of mental health research, as is presented by Robert Whitaker in Anatomy of Epidemic.

Our Mother Bear CAN families embrace the following recovery values:

  • Recovery is not only possible; it is expected.
  • Emotional distress has many causes and many possible solutions.
  • All family members deserve support and education for their own emotional distress.
  • Individual and family empowerment are essential for recovery.
  • Families, with honest education and support, can play a powerful role in recovery.
  • The role and decision to use medication should be carefully considered including documented studies of risks.
  • Recovery is a universal human experience that requires patience, hope and encouragement.

But the question remains, “What is recovery?”

This is what we discuss together as a community in our Family Dens, in our online forums and at conferences with our peers and sources of inspiration. There is no one answer. And that, we believe, is just as it should be.

Here are just a few of the ways our families define recovery:

Recovery is a universal experience.

It is a natural resolution of emotional distress and disempowerment that may have been caused by many things, among them the many traumas and losses that are part of the human experience.

We all have dark nights of the soul, grieve losses, suffer trauma and experience overwhelming feelings and thoughts. And sometimes, we are recovering from the very things we or others thought would help us heal.

We do not view emotional distress as a disease, but we recognize that we can make ourselves sick by not living a healthy, balanced emotionally expressive and connected life, so recovery can involve healing from physical illnesses too.

Recovery means thriving.

Not subsisting in a medicated fog or a minimally functioning state or dying 25 years younger than our peers.

Recovery is about richly connected relationships, personal empowerment and self-direction, a sense of meaning and purpose, health and vitality, dreams. It is about living a life worth living.

Recovery is more about transformation than restoration.

If distress indicates we have been overwhelmed by life’s circumstances, then moving through the recovery process is about uncovering strengths, cultivating patience for the natural healing process, finding new ways of handling challenges, and re-connecting or connecting more fully with our community and our “tribe.”

Families who have recovered from an emotional/mental health challenge can be more resilient, courageous, and healthy than families who haven’t had to make this journey.

Recovery is relational.

When one person in a family or community struggles, we all struggle. Distress is not something trapped within people, it an experience held between them. Recovery is about repairing our relationships and the disconnections that isolate us from each other and from ourselves. Recovery restores our sense of belonging and usefulness, meaning and purpose. It reminds us that we are irreplaceable and our existence and contributions matter to others.

Recovery is unique.

For some, that may mean complete recovery—leave your diagnosis and your labels behind. For others, it may be helpful to think of recovery as an ongoing process of growth, evolution and self love.

Rather than tell someone what recovery means, we think it is more valuable to ask,

 “What does recovery mean for you? What is your truth?”

Honor it. 

In that spirit, we invite you to tell us what recovery means to you and what other concepts help you heal and support those you love and serve?

28 COMMENTS

  1. http://youtu.be/Um8tzB0saeM
    Link ID: Prelude and Prologue by Kate Bush

    The advertisement on the video (on my screen) is a statement from Romney / Ryan’s financial campaign: “It’s Time For A Real Recovery” (with a ‘Donate Now’ button). I’m pretty sure we are not a democracy, but a donacracy (donate, donate, donate!).

    Anyway, the prologue (an introductory act, event, or period) to one’s recovery is guided nicely by the song’s opening lyrics:

    “We’re gonna be laughing about this
    We’re gonna be dancing around
    It’s gonna be so good now
    It’s gonna be so good”

    For what it’s worth, this is the song from Kate Bush’s Aerial CD that accompanied my “recovery”. I had fully recovered myself – I was found (I wasn’t lost anymore). I didn’t just “feel like myself again” – I WAS myself. It was short lived, though.

    Now I’m waiting for another Angel to sing me a new song, depicting the new image that accurately reflects my reality (Prologue’s ending lyric: “to find the song of the oil and the brush”). Yes, I need to find that song.

    *smiles*

  2. This! “Families who have recovered from an emotional/mental health challenge can be more resilient, courageous, and healthy than families who haven’t had to make this journey.”

    thank you for writing this. People need to hear this. I wish I had Mother Bear back in the day when I turned to (and later rejected) NAMI. I feel if I had listened to their approach my daughter would either be dead or a chronic mental patient. We made it through alone and nobody should have to navigate extreme states or crisis alone. Thank you. Your work is vitally important.

    • Nina, we are so glad you and your daughter have found your strength and courage. We are sorry you had to do so alone. No family should have to face these challenges alone or without hope and encouragement. You are definitely a Mother Bear. Welcome!

      We hope you will join our online community at motherbearcan.org. We are working hard to build a network of local Family Dens as well. We need wise mothers (and other family members) like you to help us transform suffering and to help all families find strength, resilience and joy.

  3. A poem –

    Recovery

    Recovery is not managing illness

    It’s discovering wellness

    Recovery is not fixing what’s broken

    It’s finding wholeness, meaning, and purpose

    A love for life

    Recovery is a journey

    A reconnection to self, others, nature, and Spirit

    A willingness to forgive,

    an openness toward reconciliation

    A search for peace

    Recovery requires discipline – listening, learning, and growth

    An appreciation for the lessons of passion, and suffering

    A love for humor

    It takes faith – perseverance, and strengh

    Without guarantee, without certainty

    Recovery is not for the faint of heart

    It’s reserved for the fighter

    The one who refuses to say “die” – Until the spirit has truly lived

    May you experience recovery – With all its challenge, in all its beauty

    – Duane Sherry

  4. Duane, your poem is absolutely gorgeous and touches the heart of what this whole human journey is all about. May we share this, with your permission and attribution, on our website and our next newsletter? You have written a love letter that everyone should receive in their lifetime.

    Thank you for walking this path of recovery us and so many others Duane.

  5. Lisbeth and Jennifer,

    This blog message on recovery and beyond is so clear and rings so true. Thank you for this wonderful breath of fresh air, a rare good news message that will be a very valuable touchstone for many!

    I wish Mother Bears Community Action Network had been available during the 30 years I served families every day in a public mental health system, because I would have referred every family that came to me for help, to Mother Bears for vitally needed additional support!

    That support will be most powerfully delivered in the face to face den gatherings that you have created, and that are now starting to meet on a regular basis.

    Because there is such a desperate need for such hope fueled, real time, mutual family member support, I believe it won’t be long until every town and city in the United States and beyond will have regularly scheduled den meetings available.

    There is a new day dawning in the mental health world, as evidenced every day here on Mad in America.

    Lisbeth, I know your vision that has been the source for the creation and the emergence of the Mother Bears Communiuty Acion Network, come straight from your heart that wants to meet the enormous un-met need for families to get the help they need, when they need it!

    You couldn’t have picked a better person than Jennifer Maurer to be the intrepid, ever inspiring Managing Director!

    • Michael, Do bears blush?! Thank you for your kind words. Our inspiration comes from all the courageous individuals and families who have walked this journey and shown us what is possible with love, support and hard work. As one mother bear said in our pilot online Family Ed program, “this journey is not for sissies!” But it is worth it. We come out stronger on the other side and along the way.

      Isn’t this what Joseph Campbell would call “the Hero’s Journey?”

      Thanks for being a dear and trusted guide!

  6. I love what Motherbear has created, and am grateful that the recovery perspective on mental health is becoming more wide spread and available to people. I wish my family could have read something like this when I was hospitalized and diagnosed as a teenager. I have been lucky to work in the peer psychiatric survivor movement since 2003. In this time I have travelled and met people from around the world living, teaching, and breathing recovery. It’s been interesting throughout the years to see the growth of the concept of recovery, its explosion into policy and acceptance federally, provincially, statewide, and internationally.

    Still, it’s a loaded word, without much cohesiveness on the definition. I agree with you, that perhaps that is how it should be. The definitions you have in this post are beautiful. I have felt the sting of the word Recovery being meaninglessly used and manipulated to receive particular outcomes for organizations. I have felt the sting of Recovery (as an organizational value and practice) being “co-opted” at times.

    You asked what concepts help us to heal? Yoga has been one concept/practice/system that has helped me heal (and support those I love and serve) and it too has had a massive cultural explosion in recent years. Many people complain that Yoga too, has been co-opted. With both recovery, and with yoga, I sometimes feel the frustrations of this colonization or co-opting, but I like to remind myself of this: The concept and practice is powerfully helpful and useful and it is becoming more mainstream: THIS IS A GOOD THING. Also, the idea that distress is not something that is trapped within people, it is an experience held between them applies here too. We are always co-creating the world we live in.

    So in the spirit of honouring what recovery means to me:

    What recovery means to me, and my relationship to it changes as the years go by. For me, recovery from extreme emotional distress is still a daily practice. This isn’t a sad thing or a negative devoid-of-hope thing. It is a spiritual thing. For the most part, I left my labels behind a long time ago. It just means that I’m aware of its impact on who I am. For a brief time I felt I had to recover from working in the recovery movement itself. Now I feel my life is interconnected to it in ways that are unexplainable and that are sometimes magical and sometimes painful. Pleasure, pain, gain and loss. Like life. All of it. In any case, I appreciate this post very much, and am excited to see the good work Motherbear Can is doing.

    • Rossa, we have been so inspired by your family’s experience and your curiosity, fearlessness and willingness to sit with and share your fear as you have explored your own recovery and worked to support and empower your son’s journey.

      Thank you for sharing your family’s ongoing Holistic Recovery From Schizophrenia. It gives us hope.

  7. Thanks for opening this beautiful and inspiring dialogue about the nature of recovery. It needed to be aired. My daughter is recovering from the treatment she received after her diagnosis of schizophrenia and the ensuing forced drugging/institutionalization.

    In our circumstances, the recovery journey involves our entire family. When my daughter had no access to holistic alternatives and she had her rights and humanity stripped away, our entire family suffered with her; we were devastated and lost our trust in the medical doctors we thought were smarter and more educated than us. Certainly, as practitioners of a noble tradition of healing we assumed naively that all medical doctors were impervious to arrogance, the lure of riches and power, and that they harbored an insatiable curiosity about the universe, a desire to constantly learn more about their profession through unbiased science, and integrate the humanities into their clinical practice through meaningful communication in order to seek and validate the humanity in all of their patients. This simply wasn’t the case in the providers my daughter was exposed to.

    For us, recovery means claiming our power to protect our children from harm. The problem with NAMI is that it divides family members when it should be united them in a common effort to redefine psychiatry and eliminate abusive medical practices. I realize that many families identify with having been helped by psychiatry; some rejoice when a family member is forcibly committed and drugged as they see this as a better alternative than having a loved one exist on the streets or in jail.

    How can we parents stood by and let our expectations for our children’s treatment sink so low that we favor forced drugging and institutionalization over neglect and homelessness? Why have we given so much power to the state to define normal behavior increasing the odds, that we, the family members, in an attempt to avoid stigmatization by association, will label and lock up our own flesh and blood children in a vain attempt to force our children to conform to society’s expectations?

    Our family is detoxifying from a host of mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds imposed by a society that has gone crazy. I am trying to learn trust again in the medical system. I don’t even want to get a mammogram. Yes, that is crazy, I know. But when a loved one is traumatized by the system, the entire family is traumatized, or they become numb and lose hope in meaningful recovery.

    I don’t pretend to understand the depths of despair experienced by someone who is locked up, labeled a danger to themselves or others, and stripped of their humanity, while being forcibly drugged with toxic chemicals to the point of losing all empathy and gaining 100 pounds.

    But I would suggest that we parents need our own peer support services to strengthen our resolve to become agents of change and heal from the guilt and sorry many of us feel for having introduced a loved one to the psychiatry system. Those services are not currently available in any chapter of NAMI that I know of.

    MBCAN is the answer to the prayers of many parents like us.

    Keep up the good work!

    • I hear you. I feel I’ve been traumatized, too. These days I am more willing to put my faith in alternative healers than conventional medicine. I’m glad I had my eyes opened by mainstream psychiatry, because now I consider regular MDs like car mechanics. Broken bones or colds they can fix. I go to drop-in clinics only if strictly necessary and I have an annual check-up through work. I stopped seeing the family doctor because of the way he views my son’s diagnosis of schizophrenia as something permanent. I don’t even like my son going to see him because the doctor’s attitude reinforces his thinking of himself as a life-long patient, but we haven’t gotten around to finding someone else.

      Re NAMI and family members wanting their relative to be force medicated, I don’t understand why it needs to get to that point, if the family has a close relationship and family members are really trying to understand each other. It seems to me that we must work within the individual’s wishes.

  8. When you lose something and then after a period of time you relocate it, you are said to “recover” it. So, looking back, I thought about what it is I had lost and then “recovered.”

    I was raised like most in the Western world to trust authority. I was taught from infancy, if you have a problem, go see doctor; doctor will fix it. Even though I was part of the generation that was raised to not trust anyone over 30, that didn’t apply to doctor.

    So when I had emotional distress, I turned to the “experts” and expected them to cure me, to “fix” me. When that didn’t happen, I grew frustrated and yet I couldn’t blame them. They were “doctor” and the expert authority. They must not be wrong. The fault must be with me. Perhaps I needed more medication or more writing in my journal or more groups or more therapy or more hospitalizations or more whatever. I “knew” I needed to do more. The fault must be mine. It couldn’t be their fault that I’m not getting better.

    As I sank into a quagmire of self-blame, I started to lose my self. We each have many roles in life. I was husband, father, student, worker, friend, brother, son, neighbor, etc. However, my primary role evolved into and became “mental patient.” What that means is that if my wife or children needed something and I had a therapy appointment, I would choose to attend therapy. My life revolved around being a mental patient. It became almost all consuming. The more I blamed my self for not getting better, the more I lost hope and the more I became primarily a mental patient as that role became the dominant feature that defined my life.

    I contend that the more I sank into the role of “mental patient,” the more I lost my self. I lost my self-esteem, self-admiration, self-confidence, self-glorification, self-love, self-regard, self-respect, self-satisfaction, self-sufficiency, self-trust, self-worth, self-determination, self-exaltation, self-importance, self-assurance, self-important, self-interested, self-possessed, and self-pride. I lost hope as my identity became more and more just that of “mental patient” and my loss of self-pride resulted in a loss of self.

    At the time, had someone pointed this loss out to me, I would probably have been confused because I had always associated pride with that negative sort of excess that has been labeled self-absorption, self-worship, selfish and self-pity. My life revolved around my “mental illness” to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. I became one of those helpless, hopeless and overly dependent patients who lived from Big Gulp to Big Gulp and for whom time was measured from one cigarette to the next.

    Slowly it came to me that I had lost my sense of self. I had lost pride in myself and in my life. Pride is essential to our concept of self. A smart person could probably get away with stealing all of their life and yet most do not. Why not? Because of pride! “To thine own self be true, and then it follows as the night from the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” A proud self-image is the strongest incentive you can have towards correct behavior. Too proud to steal, too proud to cheat, too proud to take candy from babies or to push little ducks into water is what separates us from the animals. A moral code for a community must be based on survival for that community, but for the individual correct behavior in the tightest pinch is based on pride, not on personal survival. This is why a captain goes down with his ship; this is why “The Guard dies but does not surrender.” A person who has nothing to die for has nothing to live for.

    One definition of the opposite of pride is shame. As I lost my self, my self-pride, I had grown ashamed. I was ashamed of my life. I was ashamed because I was weak and couldn’t work, I couldn’t support my family, I couldn’t support myself, I couldn’t do anything. Certainly, I couldn’t do whatever was necessary to “heal” myself. No matter how hard I worked at it, I was still suffering from ≥mental illness≤ or a disease or disorder. I had grown paralyzed emotionally because I lost my self. An enormous amount of shame comes with a history of abuse and trauma but, the system played upon that vulnerability and amplified my sense of shame by treating me as a mere mental patient, a chart number, a diagnosis.

    I had to liberate myself. I had to recapture some sense of pride. I had to “recover” my self.

    I began to question and to challenge. It was terrifying when I first stood up to staff and asserted my self. I felt that I could potentially lose their approval but worse, I could also be kicked from the program and perhaps lose my primary “self” identity as mental patient. My “mental patient” identity was so strong that to risk losing it was very frightening. I wasn’t sure what “self” I might have left if I were to lose my primary identity of “mental patient.” Who and what might be left? However, when I did question and challenge, I felt some small sense of pride. It felt good to stand up for my self somehow.

    With each episode of standing up and questioning and challenging, I felt better and stronger. I felt better as I became more self-determining. I slowly began to regain my sense of self. I grew stronger in my self-esteem, self-admiration, self-confidence, self-glorification, self-love, self-regard, self-respect, self-satisfaction, self-sufficiency, self-trust, self-worth, self-determination, self-exaltation, self-importance, self-assurance, self-important, self-interested, self-possessed, and self-pride. I acquired a renewed balance in my roles in life. Instead of my life being dominated by my mental patient role, I became more of a husband and father. I got into the workforce and developed a strong sense of pride in my work and even in my ability to work; something that had been missing for many years. That sense of self-pride grew to impact more and more areas of my life and the sense of accomplishment was tremendous.

    So, just as I had lost my “self” I worked hard to recover that lost “self” and pride was the key. In losing my “self” I lost my pride in who and what I am and I became “mental patient.” In recovering my “self” I rediscovered a sense of pride as I took pride in overcoming and recovering from “mental illness.” The saying, “One day at a time,” became prominent as I learned to control my actions and behaviors. Much of the time the saying for me was more like, “One moment at a time.” I learned that my thoughts, moods, feelings and emotions just are. They hold no magic power or ability to dictate my actions or behaviors. I learned that I might feel suicidal but I didn’t have to act in ways that were self-harming. As I exercised my abilities to control my actions and behaviors, I grew stronger and the unpleasant thoughts, moods, feelings and emotions grew less and less in both strength and number.

    I live today, as RECOVERED! I no longer claim a “mental patient” identity. Instead, I am husband, father, grandfather, homeowner, tax payer, voting citizen, and so much more. That’s “recovery.”