Recovery is defined as “the act or process of becoming healthy after illness or injury.”
In our culture, we often talk about recovery from physical illnesses and accidents, but we rarely talk about what it means to recover from a mental illness or injury. Injury in the context of mental illness may mean the death of a loved one, trauma, or other psychological wounds that we’ve experienced unexpectedly.
I think that we do a disservice to our communities and our society by not talking about what it means to recover from a mental illness or disorder. We tend to shy away from it because of stigma and shame. We don’t talk about our struggles with mental health issues because they aren’t tangible and we live in a world where invisible illnesses are swept under the rug.
It’s exciting to see that fMRIs and measures of neurotransmitters in cerebrospinal fluid are finally showing tangible and quantifiable differences between healthy brains and those brains struggling with illness, but even now in the “age of the brain” it is difficult to gather enough inertia to overcome thousands of years of skepticism around mental health issues.
But I digress. Today, I am here to specifically talk about recovery.
My husband is finishing up graduate school for occupational therapy, a profession that is focused on neurological, physiological, and psychological recovery and restoration of function. Yesterday, he volunteered at an event for National Recovery Month. Having volunteered at this event in the past, I knew that there was a giant wall called “The Wall of Recovery” where people could write what recovery means to them. At the top of the board is written, “Recovery is...”
My husband has been fortunate not to struggle with mental health or substance issues, so I was curious what he might have written on the board. He said that he grabbed a marker, and without hesitation wrote,
“Recovery is self-compassion.”
Surprised, I said, “I’ve never thought about it like that before.” He said, “It’s true. People struggling with mental health stuff or addiction rip themselves apart every single day and it keeps them down. Grace and self-compassion heal.”
As I reflected on what he said (and was yet again reminded one of the many reasons why I married him), I thought about how right he was.
As a psychotherapist and social worker, I work with folks in active addiction and those battling mental illness. Every day I have the privilege to see people step into recovery from these things. Every day I am blessed to walk in my own recovery.
When I think about the process of healing from a mental illness or substance use disorder, I have realized that there are a few unifying factors that aid in sustained recovery. Those are the following:
Support and community. It is so difficult to heal alone. We all need help, especially when we are not well. Having at least one other person who offers support and accountability can be a game changer.
Spirituality. Spirituality means being connected with something bigger. This can be a higher power, the vastness of the planet, nature, or our breath. You don’t have to be a certain religion or believe in anything to be spiritual. Taking time each day to connect with you, practicing self-awareness, and mindfulness is crucial in sustaining emotional well-being.
Learning healthy practices for coping. It’s amazing if we can get to a level of always sitting with our stuff, but some days things seem overwhelming and we are exhausted. On those days, learning healthy ways to care for ourselves that keep us in recovery are key. This might be going for a walk, playing music, exercising, watching our favorite show, taking a bath, you get the drift.
Self-Compassion. Recovery is marked by daily acts of self-compassion. It’s in taking daily actions to give ourselves grace, re-parent ourselves with nurturing hands, and asking ourselves what we need in difficult moments. Some days when we hear the voice of our illness nagging, self-compassion means saying, “I see you, but I’m not going to listen to you today. I’m going to do something kind for myself.”
Next month marks the start of my 6th year of recovery from bulimia and depression. Sure, there are days when my ED (eating disorder) voice starts nagging. Usually, it’s on a day when I’m really tired or emotionally drained. The gift of recovery is saying, “Okay, ED is telling me I need to go to the gym. What am I trying to control? What’s really going on?”
Our triggers are a gift for long-term recovery and self-understanding. When my ED voice kicks in, I now see it as a red flag that something else is going on that needs attending. So I get curious. And I get compassionate, which is the polar opposite of ED. I put my hand on my heart and say, “I’m having a hard time right now, what do I need?”
I reach out, and I tell someone. Telling someone, “Hey, I’m beating myself up right now and I know it’s ridiculous,” takes away its power.
Having been sick for so many years changed me. It gave me perspective that will forever inform my life. It helped to show me what matters most in life, what fulfills and what rings hollow. It made me realize that I am stronger and more resilient than I ever imagined. It also changed my heart and gave me hope for everyone I encounter. As painful as depression and bulimia were, they have been two of my greatest teachers.
For many years I lived in shame about admitting that I had been sick, that I had been less than perfect. I saw my illness as a weakness, a character flaw.
I now know that those thoughts could not be farther from the truth. Recovery has shown me that every day is a gift. Every day has hope. Recovery makes me strong. Recovery is vibrance and embracing the messiness of life.
Hurt, loss, anxiety, depression, over-spending, substance use...we are all recovering from something. If you find yourself struggling, reach out. There are people who would love to help you get well. Sometimes therapy is a good place to start. Check out the link below for licensed mental health professionals in your area:
Recovery is real.