Life is about more than what is hard, difficult, and painful. It is about more than making things less hard, less difficult, and less painful. If you have a mental illness (or mental health issues or whatever politically correct term you prefer) the management of symptoms is essential for a better life. It is not, I believe, sufficient and that is where the concept of recovery comes in. Saying that recovery is simply symptom management is like saying driving a car is about having oil and gas in the car… It is, but it is about much more than that.
Mental illness has devastating impacts on daily life. It makes everything harder. But the experience of mental illness goes past even this. It becomes the lens through which you see yourself, other people, and make decisions about what is important and possible in life. It defines what is real and what is illusion. Most often it tells you that you are centrally flawed as a human being and much of what is available to other people is not available to you. It tells you the only question in life is what bad thing in life is going to happen next and the only task in life is to get use to it and accept it.
Often the message that people seem to get from treatment is that it is all about symptom management. And even that is not always real effective. People are left more with a sense of how they are limited than in the discovery of what is possible. I believe the reason so many people opt out of the mental health system is not because they dont buy the problem. I think often they simply lose faith in the solution.
What does it mean to find a better or new life? What does recovery mean?
There is something in life worth getting.
- You can get from the beginning of the day to the end of the day without disaster. Life is not so stressful that the events of daily life are a never-ending struggle. Your days are not a perpetual wreck getting ready to happen. Your choices are more than numb out, be on ever vigilant guard, or medicate your experience. There is more to life than being anxious and fearful about what is about to happen or being angry or guilty about what did happen. This is the initial step in recovery and without progress here you dont get much farther.
- Other people are more than a source of deprivation or threat. You begin to repair damage relationships and establish others. Life becomes what you do with other people rather than what you try to do despite them.
- You begin to establish your own sense of personal significance. There is a growing sense of purpose. You are about something. And life is about making that real. It is a combination of your talents and interests and the needs around you. You become part of a larger something. You begin to get a growing sense of completion.
- Many things may continue to be hard or difficult, but life is defined more by the opportunities presented to you, rather than the threats presented. Hard times become more survivable because you know “something better is coming.”
You have something worth giving.
- You count. What you think, what you feel, what you do makes a difference to others and in the scheme of things. This is one of the biggest lies told the mentally ill. “What you do doesnt count anymore. You will always be a source of disappointment for yourself and for others.” It is the message that is at the heart of most stigma and one of the most crippling experiences that someone can have.
- Others start to see you as a source of opportunity in their lives and not a threat or source of threat. It is almost impossible to have any sense of hope in life if the people around you are not hopeful about you.
- Success builds momentum in your life and your first response to challenge or stress is not resignation, but anticipation. You begin to have faith in yourself.
Life is safe
- This does not mean that it is not dangerous. It does not mean that it is not painful. It does not mean that problems do not occur. It means that you see life from a new context. Each problem is not forever. Each problem does not mess everything up. Each problem is not an indictment of you or the people around you.
- It means fundamentally that you know that bad times are real, but that they are not the only thing real. It means you know that bad times can be coped with, or endured and that good times can be created and treasured.
- You are loved and you love. You are seen as who you are and treasured for who you are.
- Life is not defined by loneliness and the feeling that you are forever Robinson Crusoe.
- Not only are you cared for but you can trust that care and what it means. And others can trust your care and commitment to them.
These are some of the things that I think define recovery. Life can better for virtually everyone. Life anew can be yours. It can be mine. It can be something we share with each other and help each other to find and grow. Life has a promise that is real and no diagnosis, label, or judgement disqualifies you from laying claim to that promise.