"Recovery" by Pat Risser


Recovery is a fairly new concept in mental health.  In today's public mental health system, most of the emphasis is on "mental illness" and not on "mental health."  As clients of the public mental health system, we find that the emphasis is usually on our "disability" rather than our abilities.  Despite this negativity from the system, many consumer/survivors have recovered.  What does this mean?


To recover something means to get something back that has been lost or misplaced.  So, if consumer/survivors recover, just what is it that they recover and what was lost in the first place?  I contend that what we lose is ourselves.  I believe that most of us enter the system as trusting souls seeking help for some emotional problem.  We enter with a lot of expectations.  First of all, we are brought up in this culture that teaches us from birth to trust doctors and to believe in doctors' ability to heal us.


We enter into the relationship with the doctor with a belief that we are ill, sick or broken somehow and with an open faith that the doctor can heal us.  We often place ourselves at the mercy of the doctor to make us well.  This belief system causes us to elevate the doctor to a position of authority and in the process we place ourselves in a position of subservience to that authority.


The first thing we are told is that we are indeed ill and that we will never recover.  We are given a diagnosis or label that comes to define us.  We surrender our personal power to the authority of the doctor and we grow accept that we are hopeless, helpless and powerless to do anything to effect the outcome of our "illness."  Our identity subtly shifts to that of being a mental patient instead of trusting and believing in ourselves and our own personal power to heal.


It is distressing to me, every time I hear a person introduce themselves as their psychiatric diagnosis.  I can't count the number of times I've heard someone say, "I'm a schizophrenic," or "I'm a manic-depressive."  In essence, people lose their identity as a person and their diagnosis becomes their identity.


This subtle shift occurs in such tiny increments that it's often not noticeable.  No therapist (in their right mind) would be so blatant that they'd say, "I'm the professional and you're JUST a mental patient so therefore, 'I' know what's best for you."  However, this attitude bombards mental patients sometimes hundreds of times a day.  The effect of these micro-oppressors is an eventual brainwashing that erodes any self-confidence or self-esteem that may be present.


Eventually, we lose hope and we lose our sense of self as we resign ourselves to our new identity as a mental patient.  We go along with whatever "treatment" is suggested, without question.  More and more, our lives revolve around our identity as sick or mentally ill until our lives are consumed in that identity.  We no longer have feelings like everyone else.  If we are too happy, we are manic.  If we are too sad, we are depressed.  If we have difficulty concentrating, we are schizophrenic.  We go to hospitals because we're incapable of directing our own lives and we go to day treatment because we no longer fit anywhere else.  Our lives become centered around the drugs we have to take.  We measure our time in increments of 15 minutes because that’s how long it takes for a ‘meds’ appointment.  We break our days into increments centered around our medications – pills in the morning, pills in the evening and the in between pills with some to be taken with food.  We measure our calendar in terms of the 6-week increments between ‘med’ appointments and one of the major goals or our 'treatment' is compliance.


It is this loss of our 'self' that we recover.  In the recovery process, we learn to reclaim our selves.  In recovery, we regain our sense of self-esteem, self-worth, self-value, self-determination and our autonomy as unique and wonderful individuals.  This isn't an easy process.  We must often overcome not only our own internalized sense of oppression but we have to overcome the attitudes of the providers in the system, the psychiatrists, our family, friends and loved ones who have also come to view us as mental patients.  Stigma and discrimination are hard to face but, face them we must – both those that are internal and those that are external.


Often the first step in recovery is that we have grown tired of our limited and powerless identity as a mental patient.  Sometimes, we’ll see one of our peers do something to assert themselves and it causes a twinge in us, making us wish to do the same.  We may simply challenge or question in a small way.  With this assertion on our part, we not only take a tiny step to reclaim our self identity but, we start to shift the power imbalance so that the doctor or others in the system aren't on quite so high of a pedestal.  It doesn't matter whether we lower the authority figures from their elevated status or whether we raise our own status.  What matters is that we begin to see ourselves as more equal, as more of an individual instead of as a mere mental patient.


We may notice that others can have a bad day, an off week or even a down month while we, experiencing the same feelings, are described in terms of negative symptoms.  We may uncover long dormant yearnings for similar dreams as others.  We may find that within ourselves, we've grown tired of being limited to "supported housing" or "supported employment" and we may start to desire owning our own piece of real estate or actually having a career.


When we first try to assert our self, we are usually met with great resistance.  We may acquire new labels such as "treatment resistant" or "non-compliant" to attempt to force or coerce us back into a subservient role.  The more "institutionalized" we are, the harder it may be to assert ourselves.  The more we've come to rely on others to take control of our lives, the more difficult it may be to "recover" our sense of self.


We may find that others like ourselves are helpful in our recovery process.  We may find that we want the same self-confidence that others have found and we may seek out peer support.  We may recall that being strapped down in seclusion or restraint and being treated condescendingly as a small child wasn't very helpful.  We may realize that those who helped us most to remain sane in insane institutions were our fellow inmates and we might start to develop relationships with others who help us feel better about ourselves and who support us in our tentative steps toward independence.


I have three children and I helped them to learn to ride a bicycle.  I did the usual thing of running alongside while holding onto the back of the bicycle seat.  Eventually though, I let go.  I ran the risk of my children falling and skinning their knee or worse yet, cracking their skull.  However, I knew that the result would be an increased sense of independence and freedom so I let go.  However, the system, family and friends treat us as though we need them to hold onto the bicycle seat of our lives forever.  They do this in the name of love and fear that we might skin our knees or crack our skull.  However, this "safety net" is not love.  It is abuse and it's part of what holds us back and keeps us unhealthily dependent.


As mental patients, we are almost totally dependent upon others.  This unhealthy dependence harms us.  We grow complacent and we expect as little from ourselves as we can get away with.  However, if we remember back to childhood, we can again find ourselves.  We are born with the ability to hope and dream.  We must get in touch with those hopes and dreams that have sometimes lain dormant for a very long time.  We may start to recall what we wanted to be when we grew up.  We may rightfully start to ask what if anything is standing in our way of still pursuing those dreams.


In losing our self-identity, we likely developed a fear of being independent.  We may be receiving SSI or other help from the system.  This help may keep us dependent and we may be afraid to surrender those 'benefits.'  However, it may help our perspective if we recall our life as teenagers.  As teens, we likely had a home, food, clothing, shelter, transportation and perhaps even an allowance.  Why would anyone want to give that up?  Why would anyone want to go out into the rat race and interact with co-workers who are jerks, bosses that are even bigger jerks, fight traffic, be forced to rise and shine every week day, just to receive a check that mostly goes to paying bills and out of which Uncle Sam takes a huge chunk?  The reason is that we naturally crave and cherish our freedom.  If we can get in touch with those cravings, we can counteract our fears and start to overcome our unhealthy dependency.  We can actually choose our own course toward freedom and independence and the happiness that brings.


We have the right to fail and to make mistakes.  That is how most people learn and grow.  We may learn to accept all aspects and different parts of ourselves and find that they are part of what makes us unique and valuable people.  We may discover that if we hear voices, it's okay.  We may not be able to interact with our voices in a loud and belligerent manner in a crowded grocery store (or we’ll likely be hauled off to the nearest psych emergency unit) but if we do it quietly in our own home, we no longer get labeled as being sick or ill or different.  We may not be able to be naked in a public park in the middle of the day or while walking down main street but, we can give in to those desires in the privacy of our own home or in special nudist parks.  We may find other ways of coping with our differences that, as long as we don't get into other people's “space” doesn’t end up with us locked up or forcibly medicated.


We may find that we can do and be all that we want to be if, we learn to cope with our feelings in ways that don't invade other people's "space."  We may, in the process of recovery, find that we want to return to school or pursue meaningful work.  We may uncover our ability to hope and dream again and we may actively start to work toward making those dreams become our reality.


Our human spirit is, to me, not something religious.  It is that sense of purpose that drove Beethoven to write such beautiful music even though he was deaf and his ears would never hear the sounds.  As our identity became that of a mental patient, our spirit was battered by people around us, our families, friends and the system.  We received the message that we were hopeless.  As that spark of remaining spirit starts to recover, we rebel against the despair that others thrust upon us.  Our spirit finds inspiration and hope and dreams that once lay dormant or new dreams become a driving motivation.  We no longer allow ourselves to be unmotivated and trapped in a role of unhealthy dependency.  We cherish the thought of freedom and self-determination.  We grow stronger with each step we take.


Over the course of time and usually with the help of others, we struggle back from the darkness of being an overly dependent, sick, ill, mental patient and we recover our selves.  We find that we yearn for an identity that is more than a psychiatric label and a bottle of pills.  We recover our sense of self-confidence, self-esteem, self-assurance and self-motivation.  Recovery isn't an easy process but, its rewards are many including freedom, independence and the ability to hope and dream.  Recovery is possible!