A Slippery and Stigmatizing Slope: The Use of Recovery in Managing a Mental Illness

Can we please stop using the word, “Recovery” when talking about mental illness? The use of this word for those who struggle their entire life with a mental illness is damaging. This one small, seemingly insignificant word communicates to others that healing from a mental illness is possible if you only “try hard enough”. “Recovery” assumes that the one suffering has the possibility to completely “regain control” of their life if they only take accountability for their illness. It’s a very slippery and stigmatizing slope to place the burden of one’s illness on the individual who suffers to absolutely no fault of their own. While I can agree that the healing process requires an individual to come to terms with their illness and manage it, I do not agree with the sentiment that others who are struggling just haven’t “tried hard enough” to reach recovery. Some of those who struggle alongside of us will not recover, ever. Some will die due to this disease. And there are some, who actually will heal enough to remain in remission. We cannot assume that everyone that suffers is able to reach stability and insisting that they can do so only serves to shame them.

The definition of the word recovery implies that one is virtually cured: 

Recovery: “a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength”. OR

“The action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost”.

I understand why people are drawn to this word and use it instead of “coping or managing”. Healing is an individual process and it is something that cultivates pride and mastery. It takes immense time and work to heal oneself. I am engaged in the process as we speak and it has been extremely challenging and difficult, but rewarding. Even on my best days, I do not feel I have recovered: “returning to a normal state of health, mind, or strength”. I have struggled for nearly 30 years and I honestly do not feel I will ever be completely recovered. Some are in the throws of persistent and severe mental illness, with psychotic episodes that are uncontrollable. Although, I do not experience psychosis, I know how it feels to be dropped back down to earth, disoriented and bewildered from an episode of mania that kidnapped me once again. Was I too blame? Did I just not try hard enough?

What I can tell you is that Bipolar illness crept in slowly and stealthily in my late teen years, stealing my laughter, my potential, and my clarity. I was actually on top my game physically, an athlete. I was sociable and friendly, a lead in the school musical. I had been accepted into college and was not involved in drugs or even in a sexual relationship. I was NORMAL and my illness ROBBED me of my care free and happy lifestyle. When you preach “recovery” and the role I must have in it to stay healthy and stable, it communicates on some level that I caused the instability. I was simply living my life and it was hijacked and destroyed by an illness that I did not ask for, nor did I want. I prayed for “recovery’ and complete remission. And in the past 30 years of my struggle there were years where I was more stable and years where the beast of mental illness rose again, rendering me disabled and destitute. The imbalance in my brain is not always controlled by me. Therefore, I choose to embrace the illness and struggle “as is” and “manage and cope” as best as possible.

Here is me the year right before I became very sick on the Summer swim team:

 

I feel recovery in the incidence of mental illness is shaming and stigmatizing. Those who have a choice to remain away from what is causing their illness, such as in substance abuse, perhaps can talk about being in recovery. Their actions and their commitment to their health, has restored it. With mental illness however, a person can be choosing the right behaviors and still experience a damaging episode. And sadly the first thing people will say is: “Were you taking your meds, Were you sleeping, Were you…?” And, guess what? They might not have, but often times they did not choose to alter their behavior. Many times behavior changes as a result of perceptions and memory being altered as a result of the illness and then it spirals from there. I cannot count the amount of times I “skip” a dose of my Lithium because I simply cannot recall if I took it, even if I am marking it down or have a pill box. The first signs of my illness, I have learned over time, is disorganization and memory problems. People have told me I look and sound different when I am manic. So much is altered that telling me I should have done this or that is kinda fruitless when you truly understand what is occurring. And I often don’t know that I am going into an episode until I “fall out of it”, regaining clarity once again. But, somehow when my brain goes awry, I am supposed to stick to certain coping mechanisms and ultimately there is a lot of self-loathing that occurs because I cannot do so. My MS degree means nothing when I can’t even accomplish basic functions because of my mania or depression. And this has been an on-going struggle for years.

And so, I had a choice to make: to accept my faulty-wired brain or beat myself up and “try harder”. I am choosing to embrace myself as I am and do my best to manage and cope. And so, to all of you who feel you may never “make it” and “recover”, it’s OK. My advice is to do your best and if you have a day or week or even a month where you completely fall apart, accept it. Surround yourself around those who accept you the way you are. This moment right now  is what truly matters and you may or may not make it across some made up finish line to “recovery’. No matter where you are at in the process, embrace it and love yourself fiercely and completely, regardless.

I am coping and managing my illness as best as possible. There is NO finish line. There is just myself and my experiences and what I know. And I know my struggle and how hard it is. Embrace you, because you are “that special”, “that amazing”, and “that worthy”.

 

 

 

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7 Comments on “A Slippery and Stigmatizing Slope: The Use of Recovery in Managing a Mental Illness

    • I still prefer not using the word recovery based on its definition. I often use healing for the process of self discovery and then management or coping for addressing how I approach my illness. I’ve noticed many people feel the way I do. It seems hurtful when people use a common word that refers to a permanent change back to stability. I see the article you are using loosely defines that term and that’s fine if others want to use it. Language is powerful and it communicates a strong message. I am a consumer and I would prefer to be a part of the conversation since I struggle and words can impact me. Not everyone would understand the more expansive definition of recovery provided in that article. They hear that word and it implies that one is cured or back to a normal state. It doesn’t matter if it has been expanded, it is still going to be misinterpreted by many, causing stigma. Normal people with no issues will insist that we can recover if we just do A, B, and C and I feel it is discrediting. I acknowledge others don’t feel this way and I accept and respect that, I just disagree.

  1. You have made a very powerful point in this. I wish more people understood certain trauma is not ever going to be ‘got over’ or healed….. the most that can happen is we learn ways to manage it and expecting this IS putting far too much pressure on people who already really struggle with the shame and stigma at large.

    • Thank you. I understand that others are comfortable and like using the word, recovery. I just feel that those in the “normal” population might interpret the word in a way that means mental illness can be cured if you “try hard enough”. I feel it is misleading and that can be damaging for some. I have seen others say: “I will never recover” and that the word, “recovery”, makes them feel like a failure. I realize the term can be expanded to incorporate managing the illness, but the general population may not grasp the concept and it can lead to stigma. It can make those suffering feel ashamed and add to their depression. It can lead to despair. It is just my feelings on it and I have even had therapist feel the same way. But, I respect others may like to use the word.

  2. You make some very compelling points and I applaud you for expressing them so bravely and openly. I agree that language is extremely powerful and people often do not understand the weight of their words. We are all entitled to our reactions and they are valid. I’m sorry that this word has made you feel less than, your writing speaks of so much more: an intelligent, strong, and clever woman. I appreciate you giving me another perspective although I will continue to use “recovery” to describe my own personal journey because it is so engrained in addiction and codependency that it seems appropriate, comfortable, encouraging, and natural. In my context it represents hope, with the caveat of progress not perfection… also what is “normal” anyway? 🙂 I very much enjoy reading your posts, I look forward to you inspiring more deep thought in future. You are a very talented, powerful and insightful writer!

    • Thanks, I appreciate your comment and compliments. It’s complex and I respect that everyone feels differently and will use the language that is most comfortable to them. I was actually afraid, in ways, to write about this, but because I had seen others feel similar, I wanted to put it out there. I learn a lot from doing so. I’m happy you commented and I feel as long as we are supporting one another and doing our best to understand, the language is second to that! Again, thanks for commenting as all perspectives are welcome! I’m always growing and learning. ❤️

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