Recovery is not a one-way street

One of the things I’ve noticed in mental health (and to some extent the disability sector) is that we often clean up our autobiographies when it comes to the idea of recovery. I’m not talking about the Recovery Model here, which is simply gorgeous, I’m talking about the idea of recovering from something. Recovery is really messy. Really, really messy, in my experience. Recovery means having the ‘lightbulb moments’ (how I hate that phrase!) we all love to put in our memoirs, and it also means that three nights later we’re howling on the floor of the bathroom, wracked with fear and despair and convinced this will never get any better. Recovery is three steps forward, four steps back, two steps to the left and six to the right. Sometimes recovery means you are only losing ground slowly, under terrible circumstances, fighting like hell and only going downhill a bit at a time. That’s recovery. Sometimes recovery means you’re self-harming because it’s the only thing you can find that makes the suicidal urges go away. Sometimes recovery isn’t the smiles and sweetness we see in the brochures, it’s about trading an appallingly dangerous strategy for one that will kill us slower, because that’s all we can manage. And sometimes recovery is the way it looks in the movies, it is about light and hope and moving in the right direction and letting go of things that are tearing us apart. It is about healing and peace and green grass and kindness.

I give talks about my personal ‘Recovery Journey’ (ye gods) here and there. It’s a strange thing to do, and something I put a lot of thought into. I don’t want people to come away from them feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. Nor do I want to be part of the ‘spin’ in mental health, the messages I feel I’m supposed to be giving out that I do not believe and that my experience does not validate, such as “Just ask for help and it will all get better”. I know there are people for whom that has been their experience, and the last thing I want to do is deny their story. Their experiences are just as legitimate as mine. However, I also know far too many people for whom that has not been their experience, for whom the ‘help’ did harm. Life is complex.

Recovery is also complex. What we are recovering from is very different for many of us. What exactly is threatening to destroy us, to limit us, to cut us off from life varies tremendously. The strengths we use to recover are also highly individual. Recovery becomes pointless and limited when it is narrowed down to the same things for everyone, a one size fits all, eat your greens and get lots of exercise parental exhortation to conform. We can’t all recover in the same way, because we are threatened by different things and bring different strengths! Recovery works best when you tackle it with your unique strengths, whatever they are. For example, I write extensive journals which are mostly poetry. This has been absolutely essential to my recovery process. It is a safe place where I can be totally honest because I protect the integrity of my journals fiercely and anyone caught tampering with that process would be executed in a world of trouble. Ahem. In my journals I find the truth of how I was feeling, what was going on in my internal world at any time since I started when I was 14. I know that when I stop writing I have become silenced by something I am afraid to say. I feel very strongly about the value of a space to speak the truth, of creativity, of having a voice. I also know however, that not all of us are poets or writers. I am careful to encourage those who have these strengths to use them in their recovery, and not to impose the framework on people whose interests and talents lie elsewhere. If riding motorbikes is the thing that makes you feel alive, it can become part of your recovery instead. (Or as well as. You can be a poet-bikie if you want) One the most important principles of recovery I follow is to play to your strengths. Whatever it is you are good at, do well, whatever your unique personality strengths are – making friends, creating order, planning ahead, rolling with the punches, researching, expressing yourself, finding the funny side… they’re what you bring to the battle.

However, even doing this, recovery is not neat, not always uphill, not a one way street of ever increasing health. I think we do people a terrible disservice when we allow them to think this. Personally, as a peer worker, I am constantly caught in a difficult position between various of my values. On the one hand it is important to me to allow people to see the ‘rough edges’ of my process, the very real wounds I carry and difficulties I struggle with. Hence, this blog. I get stressed when I feel I’m starting to ‘spin’ mental health or the recovery process. Keeping things real and being truthful about the process is really important to me, and I get angry when people are set up to fail by being given the impression that if they just try hard/get help/take this pill, everything will be fine from then on. On the other hand, letting people see the very real pain and difficulty under this process can stress them out, make them feel anxious for me, and as a peer worker, can make them worry that I won’t be able to sustain what I’m doing and will leave them in the lurch. So I can get good feedback from both revealing and concealing distress – thankyou for being honest, it really helps, or thankyou for being professional and holding onto your own stuff to give me space to deal with mine. And I can get negative feedback from both revealing and concealing my distress – I’m stressed and worried for you, or you seem to have it all together while I’m a total wreck! I bounce about between values, and have learned that the line between is not only unclear – but what is helpful for one person is something the next complains about. The best path so far has been to listen to the feedback I get and adjust as I go, while keeping in mind that as a peer worker the attributes, such as respect and acceptance, that I am hoping to bring to my relationship to other people with mental illnesses, are also the attributes I have a right to expect that people will treat me with. Like recovery, relationship is a two-way street.

So, when I hear about services exiting clients who “aren’t recovering fast enough” I’m very angry, and I feel they’ve missed the point. When I have to fill in forms about my health and feelings to prove that I am recovering and the service I’ve been receiving is useful, I’m angry that a 5 point likert scale has more weight than my own thoughts and ideas about what is working for me and what I want. Even more, I’m angry that recovery is scored, at the idea that it shows a clear upward trend with no back steps. There have been times when a service has not been getting nice, joyous, increasing health scales from me, because I’ve been in severe crisis, where as far as I was concerned, still being alive at the end of the week WAS recovering! Recovery is more like a rollercoaster or a game of snakes and ladder than a “Go directly to GO” card in monopoly. Services that are genuinely client-centred and recovery model oriented will reflect that.


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