Taking a Fresh Look at Recovery

John McManamy Health Guide
  • I helped with a new website overhaul for NAMI San Diego, where I serve on the board. As part of the overhaul, I uploaded my own 13-article series on recovery. Recovery is a recurring theme here at HealthCentral, but is always worth reviewing. Let’s get started ...


    Although there is no precise definition to recovery, there is a strong general consensus that reclaiming the lives we once led - or even staking out a much better one for ourselves - is a reasonable expectation, regardless of our current condition. It may be that we have to accept certain limitations and scaled-back expectations, but in no way should we have to endure a miserable half-life as the price of being stable.

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    Recovery advocates talk of the “medical model” vs the “recovery model,” as if the two were at odds. The reality is far more nuanced. When we are in crisis, we are in no shape to help ourselves. Our doctors and therapists call virtually all the shots. This changes as we become more stable. The clinical relationship becomes a partnership. Unfortunately, this is where things tend to fall apart. 


    We have a vision of where we want to go. Our doctors have seen us where we just were. Our want our lives back. Our doctors want to keep us out of the hospital. Do you see a recipe for potential disaster?


    Anyone who has been to a support group or read comments on this site knows the narrative: Patients who complain of being turned into big fat zombie eunuchs, worse off than before. Doctors who don’t listen.


    So, is recovery the antidote to bad medicine? Short answer: Yes, over the long term. The catch is you have to do it. How hard is that? Talk to anyone who has ever made a New Year’s resolution. And in the condition we often find ourselves in, being told that we can turn our lives around comes across as a cruel joke.


    Think about it: We can barely get out of bed, we’re told to exercise. We’re too ashamed or terrified to meet people, we’re told to get out of the house. We experience hunger cravings or none at all, we’re told to eat healthy. Our brains run away from us or bog us down, we are told to get on a good sleep routine. We can’t think, we’re told to exercise mindfulness. On and on and on.


    But even if we do get our diet and exercise and all the rest of it on track, the hard part is only just beginning. We may have to change our entire environment, all those things that were making us stressed and depressed and anxious and manic in the first place - the abusive relationship, the stressful work situation, the life-sapping place we call home. Try doing recovery when you’re trapped in your own toxic world. 


    It gets worse. Our unrecognized personality issues are standing in the way. Common, ordinary quirks - such as procrastination or minor fears or trouble organizing. On and on. There may be much bigger issues to deal with - anger, major fears, impulsivity, personal insecurities. Try turning your life around without addressing all that.


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    We’re not finished. There are new skills we need to learn and old ones we need to relearn. Social skills, vocational skills, cooking skills, cleaning-house skills, money skills, standing-up-for-yourself skills. This is worse than attending school.


    Then, finally, after all that, we have to come to grips with what may really be holding us back in the first place - our unresolved early and recent traumas.


    So - let’s see. We are told to change our habits, our personalities, and our environment. On top of that we need to remake ourselves with new skills and open up the Pandora’s Box of our past. Can you appreciate why “recovery model” may sound like another way of saying, “Just snap out of it”?


    If only there were a magic pill, and therein lies both the problem and the solution. Our meds only take us part way. Recovery holds out hope of getting us the rest of the way. By committing ourselves to recovery, we are making a bold declaration of faith in ourselves. A life-affirming gesture, an act of defiance. In taking this vital first step, we are half-way there.




    This piece went in a different direction than what I originally envisioned. Please feel free to jump in and pull it in another direction. Comments below ... 

Published On: April 07, 2013