A Journey Toward Recovery: From the Inside Out

Some of you will know that I have worked in the addiction and mental health field for over 40 years, spending the first 25 years as a neuroscientist working on the brain neurotransmitter dopamine. I eventually closed my laboratory because I: (1) stopped believing in disease models of mental health, and (2) felt that psychiatric drugs were causing more harm than good.

I have since spent nearly 20 years empowering people to overcome substance use and mental health health problems. Empowerment comes from hope (that the problem can be overcome), understanding (of the nature of the problem and its solution) and a sense of belonging. I have connected recovering people so that they can inspire, learn from, and support each other. I have tried to create empathic environments in which recovery can flourish.

During this time, I have developed a number of websites, one of which is Recovery Stories, on which I blogged regularly and provided a number of Recovery Stories. I set up this website – it was built by Ash Whitney of our current team – because I believe that storytelling has an important role to play in the recovery field. At the end of the day, recovery is about people’s journeys. It’s about a personal transformation.

Solutions to serious substance use and mental health problems are manifested in the lives of people in recovery. These lived solutions provide insights into principles and practices that underlie recovery.

Please check out Recovery Stories, but note that I do not upload any new content on this website due to a  lack of time.

Here is a blog I uploaded on Recovery Stories which contains long excerpts from an amazing article by Dale Walsh entitled A journey toward recovery: From the inside out. [Sadly, I cannot now find a link to the original article.] You can see how I relate to these words given my change in views about the medical model in psychiatry.

‘The Problem
For many years I believed in a traditional medical model. I had a disease. I was sick. I was told I was mentally ill, that I should learn to cope with my anxiety, my depression, my pain, and my panic.

I never told anyone about the voices, but they were there, too. I was told I should change my expectations of myself and realize I would always have to live a very restricted life.

After I was diagnosed, I was put in a box up on a shelf. Occasionally I was taken down and my medication was changed. But no one really talked to me. No one helped me figure out why I should be content to take my medication and be grateful things were not worse. After all, at least I did not have to live my life in the back wards of a state hospital.

Because of my history and because of the society in which I lived, I easily turned the notion of illness into thinking there was something wrong with me. I was the problem. I felt deformed, everything I did was wrong. I had no place in the world. I was a freak.

I was deeply ashamed of who I was and I tried my best to cover up my abnormality. I learned from those around me that psychiatric disability and its aftereffects were something to hide. As a result I lived marginally. I worked in a constant state of terror and tried to look normal.

For the most part I succeeded—but at a tremendous cost to myself in terms of my energy, my self-image, my fear, and my inferiority. There were times when the stresses got to be too much and I ended up hospitalized, defeated, and feeling a failure because I couldn’t tolerate even the day-to-day problems of what seemed to be a fairly simple life.

I worked in the field of mental health and I was very careful not to let anyone know my shameful secret. I was constantly terrified someone would find me out. I kept myself in entry-level positions because I was having a hard enough time without the added stresses of climbing up the ladder in my field.

I went to therapy. I took my medication and waited to feel better. I waited and waited….

I sometimes felt angry at my caregivers, but mostly I felt angry at myself. At times my symptoms were better but I wasn’t. I felt powerless. I felt empty. I looked outside myself to the doctors and professionals to cure me, or at least take away some of my pain. But they didn’t. Maybe I was one of those hopeless cases. I felt despair and deep loneliness.

This old patriarchal system of treatment and culture of disease is characterised by a hierarchical arrangement of power, a mechanistic view of the mind, causality due to organic forces outside the person’s self, an emphasis on a person’s deficits, and treatment administered by an expert—always at a professional distance.

Did they think they might catch it? Why were they all so careful to maintain that professional distance? For years I felt trapped because I knew no other way to look at myself and my process.’

The solution
Then about 8 years ago I read The Courage to Heal. I started talking to people – professionals and survivors who knew about the effects of trauma and psychiatric disability. I was lucky enough to stumble on 12 Step and other self-help groups.

Finally my symptoms, my dreams, and my fears started making sense. I discovered the principles and the practices of recovery. I discovered hope.

I had lived for years in despair because the pills and the therapy did not make me better. I began to see that if my life was to become better, I would have to do it myself. I saw that other people with histories similar to mine had been able to move beyond their symptoms.

I started working with a therapist who was able to communicate to me that she trusted and believed in my own capacity to grow and move forward. She was willing to assist me but she respected my own pacing. I began to believe I could actually participate in a healing process.

As I looked within myself I discovered over the following years, slowly and sometimes painfully, that healing, making positive changes in my life, and feeling better, were all possible. Especially helpful to this process were several self-help groups where I didn’t have to hide, where people understood and were engaged in struggles similar to mine.

I saw people who were further along in their recovery who served as role models. I also got to know people who were not so far along as I was—whom I could mentor. Giving back and learning how to get out of myself and into someone else’s frame of reference has been, and continues to be, an important step in my recovery.

What I found through my own experience is that in order to travel the path of true recovery I could not rely on externals, wait, hope to be rescued, or be made better because of someone or something outside me.

Instead, I learned that both the power and the possibility of change reside within me. I could make decisions that would affect my life.  But I found I could not do this alone. I needed a supportive community around me.

Slowly and gradually I found people who understood. I found friends and support people who could help me hold the hope when I was going through tough times and when I reached what felt like an insurmountable obstacle. These people believed in my capacity to heal.

As I learned to take risks, I found that I could actually set and accomplish goals very much like people who were chronically normal.

Recovery is not a return to a former level of functioning. I have heard so many people—professionals and survivors alike – say that mental illness is not curable. I agree that we can never go back to our “premorbid” selves. The experience of the disability, and the stigma attached to it, changes us forever.

Instead, recovery is a deeply personal and unique process of changing one’s attitudes, values, self concept, and goals. It is finding ways to live a hopeful, satisfying, active, and contributing life. Everyone is changed by major happenings in their lives. We cannot return to the past.

Recovery involves the development of a new meaning and purpose in one’s life. It is looking realistically at both the limitations and the possibilities. It is much more than mere symptom relief.

As I continued on my path of recovery, I found I could handle responsible jobs. I am now slowly expanding my social network as I feel safer in the world and more comfortable with who I am.

And, very importantly, I have come out of the closet and announced publicly, as a representative of those with psychiatric labels, who I am, where I have been, and where we as a community of oppressed people can go if we can find our voices, recapture our power, and exercise it to take charge of our lives and our journey toward wholeness.

I am still in recovery, for it is a process—not a sudden landing.

Discovering and participating in this culture of healing has given me the hope and courage to travel the path of recovery. This is a culture of inclusion, hope, caring, and cooperation; of empowerment, equality, and humor; of dignity, respect, and trust.

Forming relationships and creating systems of mental health care based on these principles are vital to supporting the growth of people who are users of the system.

Traditionally, people who have been labeled as mentally ill have been considered to have poor judgment. They need to be taken care of. They do not know what is best for them. They are told what is wrong with them, what they need, what their future is to be like, and what is in their best interest.

The stigma and discrimination that those of us who are labeled as mentally ill have suffered steals our hope, isolates us, and is a barrier to our healing.

Part of healing and recovery is the ability to participate as full citizens in the life of the community. As psychiatric survivors begin to break their silence and advocate for their humanity, the call and demand for basic civil rights becomes increasingly stronger.

People want to be able to make their own choices about their own lives. They want to be seen, heard, and taken seriously. They want to be part of the decision making which so deeply affects their everyday experiences. This taking back of power and being taken seriously are both necessary components of recovery.

The notion that there is a recovery process that goes on internally within each person with a psychiatric label, often very separate from the treatment the person receives, is a new and somewhat threatening concept for the psychiatric treatment community.

As recovery begins to be talked about and recognized by psychiatric survivors, it offers a way of taking back dignity, self responsibility, and a sense of hope for the future.

By taking back power from the system of care, a consumer/survivor acknowledges that the ability to cope and heal comes from within. No one else, including the best of service providers, can do anything but facilitate the healing process.

However, this facilitation—if it takes the form of good attention, respect, validation, and genuine connection—is an essential part of recovery.’

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