Yesterday, Dr. Daniel Fisher emailed and asked my thoughts with regard to “recovery”. Even before I walked away from prescription-pad-only psychiatric work, others asked me about this. Other treatment providers, designated patients and family members asked what I thought they could expect to happen next and what they should do to make things better. I told them that chemical interventions are not the only, or even the essential, tool for recovery. Adherents to mainstream pharmaceutical beliefs expressed distress over my lack of faith in tablets and capsules.
What recovery means is a central issue.
I’m happy to have been asked for my thoughts. I love opportunities to explore ideas. If recovery is what we want, we should know what it is. If we don’t know what direction to point our boats, how will we know which way to paddle? And there’s a lot of paddling to do. Thankfully, there are many of us to do this work, each in our own way.
Listen for the message inside this story: Yesterday I went body boarding in the ocean with my family. These waves were the best of the winter. They weren’t the biggest, but there was a lot of power in those low sleek waves. This winter there have been a lot of storms. The surf has been brown, thick with debris and crashing high. The power in those enormous waves dissipated itself by bashing every direction at once. They knocked us off our feet and didn’t go anywhere. The clean lines of yesterday’s smaller and more consolidated waves carried us fast and far.
It would be convenient to define and validate measurable, countable and researchable features of recovery, things we could study to obtain “proof” that alternative paths to reach this condition are scientifically valid. Those that control the purse strings demand words like “evidence based”. We could eventually enter the playing field of mainstream medicine with our research protocols and data, our charts and double-blinds. We could make them listen and believe, fight research with research. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
But those designated as patients in our society are people, warm soft humans that come in an endless variety of selves that are built from differing gifts and life experiences. When asked how I define recovery, I must begin by saying that I know every single person on this planet is recovering from something. And they are doing it in their own unique ways.
Another story: There was once a woman whose baby was taken unexpectedly from her by death. In the depth of her enormous pain, she called out to her God to restore her beloved child to life. God answered like this: “If you can find one person who has not suffered such a loss, I will do as you ask.” So the woman walked from village to village with her dead child wrapped close in her arms. She questioned every person she met. But she could find no one without such a loss. Every person she asked told her of their own griefs. At last, she returned home and gave up her child to God.
All of us are recovering from something. All of us.
I’m not so good at research definitions and statistics. There are others who are. I failed my long-ago attempt to make it in the world of professional medical academics. I researched the use of group therapy in recovery from addictions. Back then, I didn’t realize that the money, and therefore academic success, was in the pills. When I wrote my discussion of the processes and effects of group therapy, I talked about the people and their improved happiness. I explored the lovely things that happen when a group of people sit together in a circle and talk and listen. People discover that they are more alike than different. They discover that, despite the infinite variety of life experiences and despite their differences, they share an essential commonality of human spirit. They all want to feel happier and suffer less. My article got published only after all this had been cut out. Just the facts, ma’am. My grant request to study more about powerful therapeutic group relationships was denied. I was shown the exit ramp from academics.
I don’t believe there is an endpoint for recovery. There’s no one-size-fits-most set of criteria which mean you’ve reached your full human potential. I am at heart a follower of processes rather than a goal collector, a “feeler” rather than a counter of beans. Recovery is a verb to me, not a noun. It’s a process, not a goal.
The belief that there’s a quantifiable and universal state called “recovery” sets a culturally defined finish line for those designated as patients. Being graded and judged by the life standards of others, gives me chills. My life works well for me. Others may judge it broken when compared to the current American paradigm. There are those who need help obtaining their basic needs of life: food, shelter, safety and loving relationships. There are those who can help. Where you swim in this pond varies over time.
I like this new label, “lived experiences”. This designation of those with lived experiences creates a special belonging group for those that have lived through personal encounters with the psychiatric system. The intention is for people who have similar experiences to be in a group and share unique understanding and support with one another. Listening and sharing, understanding and support are good things.
I also like the inclusive sound of these words. All of us carry our lived experiences with us. We all continue to grow and change, make new relationships with our perceptions and have changing recollections of our lived experiences. This path of growth and change is the essential meaning of the recovery process to me.
It’s easier for scientists to measure and calculate endpoints and outcomes. It’s more complicated to study the process of personal transformation. Recovery is a meandering path made of starts and stops, backs and forths and arounds and throughs. There are times that the next leap forward is preceeded by slipping back.
Here is my measure of the recovery process this morning:
Are you happier now and suffering less than you were before?
Thanks for enquiring, Dr. Fisher. I wouldn’t have written this without you. This will take all our fine minds, together.
Thanks to everyone for inquiring, reading, thinking and writing.
All the best.
Alice Keys MD