My Recovery Journey: Mary Ellen’s Reflections, Part III

Were you ever an impatient youngster, riding in the backseat of the family car, kicking the seat in front of you and asking, “Are we there yet?” If so, you likely heard in response, “Don’t make me turn this car around.” Today, we’re not turning around—we’re still on our way to hearing about the exciting next chapter in the WRAP story. But we are going to pull off the road for a moment and tell the restless child within when we plan to arrive.

When the journey is about recovery, the short answer is that the trip never ends. And that’s good news. To me, and to those of you who have been so generous in sharing your strength and hope with me all these years, recovery is a lifelong process of learning to be well. Of knowing how to cope every day with whatever comes up. Of reclaiming our dignity and self-worth. Of sharing these gifts with others we meet along the way.

When I first started talking about recovery in the late 1980s, sharing the results of the studies I conducted—studies I was told I would never be able to design and evaluate—I was severely chastised. “How dare you create false expectations?” the so-called “experts” asked. People with “psychiatric symptoms” will never get well, they said. They will live with these “symptoms” for the rest of their lives and will likely get worse over time. I was once told by a psychiatrist that a person with a “mental illness” could no more help himself than a person with heart disease. Even then, we knew that people with heart disease could exercise and eat healthy foods to stay well, but those of us with psychiatric symptoms were relegated to the sidelines. We were told there was no hope. We were supposed to take our medications and be quiet.

Thank goodness I’ve never been that good at being quiet! And how wonderful that I’ve had so many of you at my back. Together, we learned that we can relieve, reduce, and even get rid of troubling feelings and perceptions. We can pursue our goals and dreams. We can be good parents, have successful careers, and literally climb mountains. We can do these things and so much more because there is always hope.

If we’re going to be on this journey for life—and why wouldn’t we be, since we’re never really finished learning and growing—we had better pack well. I’ve learned from you, my fellow travelers, that here’s what we need to take:

Start with hope. It’s the roadmap that will ensure you never get lost. Hope is our birthright as human beings. Don’t ever let anyone or anything take it away.

Take personal responsibility. It’s like a good walking stick. Others will be on the journey with you, but it’s up to you to do what needs to be done to keep yourself well. Too many of us were led to believe that we would need others to care for us. Recovery is about learning to care for ourselves, with the amount and type of help we decide we need.

Don’t forget education. Think of this as your well-used travel guide. You wouldn’t venture to a foreign country without reading about how to keep yourself safe. Likewise, you need to learn all you can about what you are experiencing so you can make good decisions about your life and your health. This is a never-ending process. I’m always looking for information about how to get and stay well.

Add self-advocacy. You need to know the language. Your peers and health care providers can help, but you are responsible for effectively reaching out to them so that you can get what you need, want, and deserve to support your wellness and recovery. This can be difficult when we feel we have lost our rights, or if they have been stripped from us involuntarily. But as we take responsibility for our health and well-being, our self-esteem grows and our voices become stronger.

Finally, don’t forget support. You need a good pair of shoes to help carry your weight. Although working toward your wellness is up to you, receiving support from others, and giving support to them, will help you feel better and enhance the quality of your life. The key is to create mutually supportive relationships, ones in which everyone can grow and change as they want to. Remember my mother, Kate? She filled the reservoir of support with the many ways in which she helped others so that she could draw on it when her own well was in danger of running dry.

Hope, personal responsibility, education, self-advocacy, and support. These are the key recovery concepts you have taught me over the years and that I have shared with so many others. They have withstood the test of time. They are both the instructions for, and the products of, your trip. You may set out tentatively on this journey called recovery with just a dash of hope and a little bit of education. But the farther you travel, the more responsibility you will take, the more support you will give and receive, and the more you will learn to advocate for yourself.

Your experience may be different, of course, but I don’t ever expect to stop my car and get out at a place called “Recovery.” It will always be ahead of me on the road. Next week, I’ll tell you about the next place on my journey, a place where I’ve decided I can actually get out of the car, walk for a bit, look around, and take some time to some time to smell the roses.

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