One of my very favorite questions: How long have you been ‘in Recovery’?
Gosh, well, where do I start counting?
How about after my first psychiatric diagnosis? (age 16)
Directly following release from my first hospitalization? (age 21)
After my first dose of psychotropic drugs… or my last? (age 16 and 26, respectively)
Perhaps it was the last time I saw a therapist? (age 29)
(In fairness, these ages are estimates. It’s all a bit of a blur.)
I could go on. But I’ll spare you.
For those who consider themselves to be ‘in recovery’ from substance abuse or addiction and who follow an abstinence model, the answer is clear. They have a whole system – replete with souvenirs of remembrance – to document their recovery down to the day.
I, on the other hand, have many ups and downs. There is no specific beginning to them (unless you count birth) and there will be no end (unless you count death).
Yet, one of the statements that most drives me up the proverbial wall is that ‘recovery is a lifelong process.’
At this point, all I can think to say in response is, “Just when was it decided (and by whom) that what you get to call ‘life,’ I have to call ‘recovery’?”
We really need to amp up our examination of who coined this ‘lifelong recovery’ idea. For one, I don’t believe I was ever ‘sick,’ and so from what precisely would I be recovering? And just who exactly developed this weird, black-and-white binary of ‘sick’ and ‘well’ to begin with? (Surely, one is never completely one or the other in their entirety.) What of the complicity with assumed chronicity that being forever ‘in recovery’ implies? I could also offer the same argument we’ve already heard of co-optation – of the painfully quick shift from meaningful to buzzword. I could speak to the offensiveness of medical facilities and even hospitals dressing themselves up in pricey, painted bricks and ‘recovery’-oriented names. (And, even though I’m ready to release the word itself to the wild, this phenomenon IS offensive.) I could wonder – as so many have – about what it is exactly that I’d be ‘recovering’? But I want to go deeper because the reality is there simply is no humanity to be found in the broad brushstrokes of these simplistic concepts as they are laid down over the complexity of our lives and minds.
I don’t have a lot of fond memories from when I worked in a more traditional provider setting, but one particular analogy a former colleague offered has stuck with me over the years. In the language of cigarette smoking: there are those who smoke, those who have stopped smoking and consider themselves ex-smokers, and then there are those who have been stopped for so long that they simply consider themselves non-smokers again. The comparison is imperfect, but I appreciate it for the basic fact that it supports the idea that some people have a particularly difficult time in life and then just… move on.
I heard Daniel Mackler talk once about how difficult it was to find people (who had received a particular type of support) to talk to during the making of one of his films because so many of them had simply moved on with their lives. They were doctors and lawyers and teachers and parents. They didn’t see themselves as ‘in recovery.’ They hadn’t necessarily left a forwarding address.
How have we allowed ourselves to be sold this idea that ‘recovery’ is where it’s at? In whose best interest is it to keep us believing that? We spend an awful lot of time supporting one another to get in and stay in ‘recovery.’ But what if ‘recovery ‘is just another prison and we’re wasting our time keeping each other there, rather than focusing all the energy we can muster to build an escape hatch? And, no, ‘escaping’ doesn’t mean living a life free of pain or that all old wounds have healed perfectly. It doesn’t mean that I believe we’ll all be living life as if we’re ‘skipping through a field of daisies,’ as I was once accused of believing. (Who on earth walks through this world so perfectly untouched and unaffected?) It simply means that we have moved from a place where our hurts consume and define us to one where we recognize that they are but a part of what make us human.
I don’t mean to take a word away from those who find it meaningful. However, much like I find ‘stigma’ (see my blog post, ‘Anti-Anti-Stigma’) to be a word of the system that demonstrates tacit acceptance of the existences of all its parts, so do I find ‘recovery.’ These unnecessary delineations between those who are living ‘in recovery’ and those who are simply living continue to foster an ‘us’ and ‘them’ that inherently negates the truth that ‘us’ IS ‘them.’ I realize it also creates a sense of camaraderie in some realms, but is it worth it in the long run?
Once again, we find ourselves on a merry-go-round and here’s where I get off.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.