Reprinted from "Recovery" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 9 (1), pp. 5-6
We come from two sides of the recovery services spectrum. Matt is a service provider. Renea is a mental health service user who moved into service provision. This editorial presents some of our reflections on recovery, based on both our personal experiences and our work with others.
What is recovery made of?
Renea: One aspect of recovery that really resonates for me is the notion of hope. I remember, back when I was first diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, feeling like it was a death sentence. I thought my life wouldn’t amount to much. There was one night I cried for hours over it. But my life has turned out pretty good. I have a good marriage, a meaningful and fulfilling job, a nice place to live in, friends and the freedom to pursue my interests. I have a pretty good quality of life even though I live with schizophrenia.
I wish that, when I was first being told about my diagnosis, recovery stories had also been shared with me. It would have given me something to hope for. It’s hard to move forward when you don’t have hope. It’s times like that when you need someone to hold the hope for you. I’m lucky in that I had people in my life who did hold the hope for me. I don’t think I would’ve reached the point I’m now at in my recovery without them and their belief in me— a belief they held even when I didn’t believe in myself.
Matt: I couldn’t agree more with the importance of hope in the process of recovery. Renea’s inspiring example of the power of hope speaks to how essential it is to have someone looking forward toward a future of potential and light. How this hope is kindled is as important as the hope itself.
As individuals set out on their journey of recovery—many times not yet knowing what that means—they are often met with a series of challenges and obstacles. For people to face these challenges and surmount these obstacles, conditions must be right, internally and externally. Basic physical needs, such as adequate nutrition and safe, affordable housing, as well as a supportive social net are examples of external factors which may support this process. Life experience, a variety of coping skills, wellness techniques, and the holding of hope are internal examples. In order to effectively establish such conditions, the power of decision must rest with the individual themselves.
People who support others in their recovery must be willing to hand control over to each individual and just walk alongside the individual through the beginning stages and later on when they express a desire to be supported. Hope is born of freedom of control, and of belief in oneself and ones’ abilities, so we must nurture hope by supporting true self-determination.
Let’s talk about ‘recovery’
Renea: I think there are pros and cons to defining recovery. Service systems sometimes want to define recovery so that everybody is talking about the same thing and so ways of measuring and evaluating services can be identified. But really, if we are truly providing person-centred care, we should be getting our definition of recovery from the individual who is in recovery. And, as many people have acknowledged, it means different things to different people. I once heard a presentation in which international mental health consultant, Ron Coleman,1 said that if systems were truly person-centred, we’d have a unique definition of recovery for each person being served.2 That jives with my thinking.
Matt: As individuals who support others in their process of recovery, it’s important to reflect upon how we actually discuss this process. For service providers, what responsibility do we have to this movement outside of our Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five jobs? While I’m certainly no advocate of work-life imbalance, I would earnestly argue that those with knowledge and experience that can improve the lives of others should share that whenever possible.
An inspiring mentor once said that the best work he did in mental health services was done at a cocktail party on a Friday night. I see this to be true over and over again. And it extends to all areas of life. Any time we talk about mental illness, any time the media or an artist portrays someone’s deepest struggle, any time we interact with our neighbours, family, friends and even strangers—each of these circumstances are opportunities to consider the possible role of recovery, and to promote mental health as a universal human attribute.
Beyond recovery: Looking to the future
Renea: I like the word “recovery.” To me, it inspires hope. The word implies that things can get better. That’s powerful, because I once thought they never would. It’s not about the presence or absence of symptoms for me. It’s much bigger than treatment. In includes everything: work, relationships, spirituality, meaningful activity, creative expression—everything. To me, recovery means living beyond your illness, living a life that’s satisfying and meaningful, recovering from the effects of your illness. It’s about being happy. It’s about the things in life that are important. And if you think of recovery that way, it’s something everyone can aspire to—even when there is no cure.
The downside to the word “recovery” is that it links us to a problem, whether it’s a mental health issue, an addiction or any of life’s other challenges. The word implies that we are always “recovering from” some problem. There are other words, like “wellness,” that don’t emphasize this link so much, and they may be more universally understood. I’ve heard people say “recovery” is a journey that never ends—but do we want to be continually living our life in relation to some problem?
Matt: Like Renea, I too appreciate the word “recovery” itself. But I acknowledge that, by discussing recovery, we are also implying loss. For many people engaged in the process, they are in pursuit of recovering what has been lost—whether it’s something previously held, or potential for the future. But for others, the process has created a shift. Their lives have morphed to one not tied to illness, systemic involvement, and strengths versus deficits—rather, they have realized what Pat Deegan identified as the true goal of recovery: “becoming more deeply, more fully human.”3 As service providers—and as members of a fellowship of citizens—this must be how we view recovery, whether temporary or lifelong. As people navigate challenges and adversity, we must see their process as a unique, dignified, yet common human experience. We must honour this process as we all move through each stage of our lives.
About the authors
Renea is Program Coordinator with the Vancouver Mental Health and Addictions Services Peer Support Program. In addition to her master’s degree, she has also completed the Douglas College Community Mental Health Worker program. Her introduction to the world of mental health services was as a service user when she developed schizophrenia. She is a recipient of the BC Schizophrenia Society’s Calder Cup and Coast Mental Health’s Courage to Come Back Award. She sits on the board of directors of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada
Matthew is Assistant Program Manager with Options Community Services’ clubhouse program in Surrey. In addition to his bachelor’s degree, he holds a graduate diploma in Psychosocial Rehabilitation (PSR) from Douglas College. Matthew is also the Coordinator of BC’s first Psychosocial Rehabilitation Advanced Practice and sits on the board of directors of PSR BC
- Ron is a leader in the international Hearing Voices Network and co-founder of the organization Working To Recovery.
- Coleman, R. (2013, April). Workshop for people who hear voices. Speech presented at Hearing Voices Vancouver, Vancouver, BC.
- Deegan, P. (1996). Recovery as a journey of the heart. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 19(3), 91-97. p. 92