When Recovery Hurts

I’ve written a lot about recovery from mental illness and addiction on this blog and in many other forums.

I’ve described what recovery is and what it isn’t, and how to develop your own personal recovery plan to achieve your goals.

It’s also worth repeating that one of my favorite definitions of recovery is “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” (SAMHSA)

I’ve featured dozens of interviews in my “Stories of Hope” series to spotlight people who share their unique challenges in their personal journeys of recovery.

I’ve offered suggestions on how to support people with mental illness and specific “gifts” you can bring them to foster hope.

I helped start a recovery-based rehabilitation program in a large public psychiatric hospital that has been nationally recognized.

I’ve worked with tens of thousands of people over the last three decades who have been in all stages of recovery, from total despair and hopelessness to great happiness and satisfaction with their lives.

I say all of this not for self-promotion, but to give some sense of my dedication to this topic and my long-term, first-hand professional experience in this area.

When recovery hurts

Overall, I believe that a recovery-oriented approach to mental illness and addiction is worthwhile.

The recovery philosophy offers the message that help is available and that treatment works.

We also know that many, many people do make strides toward reduction of symptoms, more effectively managing their mental health issues, and ultimately finding greater peace of mind.

But I’m also attuned to the fact that many people still struggle greatly. They face significant and sometimes severe and disabling symptoms.

As a result, they often can’t effectively engage in school, work, hobbies or maintain supportive relationships. And many don’t receive adequate treatment. Others receive no treatment at all.

To some of these individuals, the idea of “recovery” is almost like a slap in the face. They see others who are making progress toward their goals and having reduced symptoms, and they feel inadequate or like a failure in comparison.

For those who are struggling, the promise of recovery seems distant, hollow, and unattainable. How can you get better when it’s a daily challenge just to get out of bed or to take a shower?

So can a recovery-based focus actually cause distress or anguish for such people? Unquestionably, yes.

As a compassionate helper, this is a hard pill for me to swallow, when I consider that my efforts to inspire and motivate may also bring sadness and discomfort to others.

A way forward

But I believe there is a way forward, to still promote the benefits of the recovery-focused framework, while also acknowledging the distress it may bring to those who are still suffering greatly.

I believe it’s very important for all of us to speak directly to support those who may be struggling, hopeless, and still searching for a brighter future. Here are some thoughts for them:

  • Remember you are not alone. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. There are kind and supportive peers, friends and professionals who can assist you. Treatment does work, but only if you are engaged in it and you commit to staying involved on a consistent basis.
  • Try not to compare yourself to others. Recovery is not a competition. While you may believe you are failing or not making progress when compared to others, your journey is unique. Your time for growth and happiness may be just around the bend, sometimes when you least expect it.
  • Stay informed. There are always new and emerging treatment options, including medication, therapies, support groups and more. Use reputable sources and keep searching for new strategies for growth and personal development.
  • Become a scientist. Experiment with various proven strategies for recovery, with professional guidance. What works for others may not work for you, and vice versa. Try out different approaches and see what helps. If it’s of benefit, keep doing it; if it’s not helping, try something else.
  • If the term “recovery” makes you feel discouraged or distressed, substitute the word “hope” instead. Hope is elusive and hard to sustain, but nurture your hope, because things can get better over time.
  • Make every effort to fight negativity and discouragement. While easier said than done, become familiar with cognitive-behavioral approaches to combat, reduce and replace negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors, with more rational, hopeful and positive ones.

I do firmly believe there is hope for all who struggle with mental health challenges. While each person’s path will be different, and some will face a tremendously arduous journey, there is reason for optimism.

With the array of effective treatments available and the ever-growing openness to talk about these issues, we can increase access to appropriate care while continuing to chip away at the pervasive discrimination which has shrouded mental illness for far too long.

But we must all be a part of the solution. This involves working together to reach out to all those who suffer and to extend a hand of hope, fellowship and support. It also means listening to each person, no matter where they are on their path to recovery.

Recognize there is great variability in recovery from mental illness and addiction, and that many still struggle mightily each and every day.

We must also send the clear and simple message that the recovery process is ultimately about finding your own unique strengths and connecting with effective support and treatment.

Of equal importance, it’s about learning to love and nurture ourselves and others, relentlessly, hopefully, and with kindness and respect for the dignity and worth of each and every precious soul.

Here’s a question: What can you do to reach out to someone who is still struggling with mental illness or addiction? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my  Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this article, please share it with a friend. Thanks!

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