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Understanding Recovery Journeys


By Humber Recovery College

Living alongside mental health conditions

There is no single definition of the contested term ‘Recovery’, but within a mental health context the term ‘Recovery’ is most frequently used to describe the personal lived experiences and healing journeys of ‘people with severe and enduring mental health conditions with long term needs’ (Deegan, 1998, Anthony, 1993),

Recovery is a non-linear process of rebuilding after a crisis, taking responsibility for personal wellbeing and learning to live alongside any continued symptoms or impairments without the pressure to eventually be symptom-free. By focusing on existing and potential strengths, skills and resources, an individual can pursue what they consider to be a satisfying and meaningful life. Learning from one’s peers, someone can work towards their own self-defined goals at their own pace. This process of rediscovery is often referred to as a ‘Recovery Journey’.

"Recovery does not mean cure. Rather recovery is an attitude, a stance, and a way of approaching the day’s challenges. It is not a perfectly linear journey"

Deegan, Anthony (1993), Author

When someone says the word ‘recovery’, most of us think about reaching end goals or experiencing a linear general cessation of symptoms following illness. This idea comes a medical model of recovery. The word ‘recovery’ itself suggests ‘getting better’ - which is part of the reason that lots of people don’t really like that word. Many people feel that it doesn’t accurately portray what mental health post-crisis is like in reality, and some people with intellectual disabilities or with life limiting illnesses also find the term inappropriate.

Medicalised notions of recovery may be appropriate for some physical conditions (e.g. fractures) but typically not for mental health and lifelong conditions. This type of recovery, which often evolves and changes over time, focuses more on how we manage and live a meaningful life alongside our experiences, instead of trying to ‘get rid of them’ with a ‘cure’. Some people may find they recover in the traditional sense, but many more people don’t. This unique process of discovery, or rediscovery, is typically called a Recovery Journey. And no two journeys are alike.

Rebuilding Life.

Meaningful mental health recovery is about rebuilding life, making sense of what has happened (or is happening) and finding meaning from it whilst developing a new sense of self and purpose. This may be with or without a continuation of symptoms, whether that means constantly or fluctuating.

"People still seem to think that a cessation of symptoms is the default, rather than being something the person is probably going to need to learn to live with. I soon found out I had to. People need to manage their expectations."

This ongoing process of navigating, acknowledging, learning, reflecting and growing following a crisis or difficult period is referred to as a ‘Recovery Journey’. It is the process of becoming an expert in one’s own self-care, (re)building resilience and (re)discovering who one is… and making the steps that towards what the person finds important. However, this is not a mechanistic process of getting from A to B, or a rugged, romanticised, individualistic voyage of optimistic self-discovery or self-sufficiency where ‘everything is within your reach if you just try hard enough’. This attitude sets people up (especially for those with long-term, psychosocial disabilities) for failure. 

Recovery Journeys and Lilypads

Recovery journeys tend to evolve and change over time as we take steps towards where we next want to be. When we reach that goal, or change our minds, we may set our sights on a new goal, or decide that we’re happy as things are (and least for a bit).

No matter which route a person’s journey travels, it is incredibly important that the individual directs the pace, route and destination of their journey.

Imagine a pond that is full of lilypads, and in the centre is a frog, poised on its own lilypad. It is the choice of the frog about which lilypad it next wants to reach, where it wants to get to, when it wants to move and how long it wants to stay there before moving on again. It might not be interested in going to certain lilypads, or might want to leap over one lilypad to reach one beyond it. At different times it may want to stay in the pond or rest on the bank. Much in the same way, a person navigating their recovery journey decides what to goals focus on, and when, and how long for.

The person can also decide who they want to bring along with them on their journey, and in what capacity. In this vein, people supporting this person cannot make the ‘leaps’ for them or wrongly coerce them to be on a ‘lilypad’ they’re not ready or wanting to be on. But supporters can share in the highs and lows, help instil the person with confidence so they can make the next ’leap’, share tips on how to navigate the ‘pond’, spot additional ‘lilypads’, point out warning signs or maybe even help move some ‘lilypads’ closer together.

"Recovery is different for each individual and no amount of predesigned pathways or options will work for everyone"

This means that no two journeys are alike. For some people, these journeys have a fixed end point, for others, it’s an ever-evolving process of reflection and learning as they visit and revisit a whole array of lilypads.

Personal recovery is uniquely messy.

A typical recovery journey is messy. It’s often quite painful, especially when expectations (of self or staff) are not managed. It is very easy to ‘overshoot’ goals, think it’s going to be straightforward… and that’s without factoring in the curveballs that life throws at us. 

"There’s always far too much emphasis on the ‘positive’ side of Recovery. It’s not always plain sailing and it’s damaging to be eternally optimistic."

We can bully ourselves and beat ourselves up when things don’t go according to plan. It’s very common to stumble, get lost, feel overwhelmed or need a period of rest. We even may find that sometimes things get too much to handle and we relapse into crisis. Using the lilypad metaphor, this might be when the frog falls into the pond. It’s important to remember that relapses are not steps backwards (or thatwe’ve somehow ‘failed’) but rather paths we weren’t expecting to navigate right now, and that it’s probably time to reflect on what’s happened, learn from it, maybe change some things and reassess what is going to be the most helpful thing to do moving forwards.

At times like these, we can lean on our supporters for additional help and guidance until we feel more in control again. We can learn from these unexpected detours and be able to recognise potential warning signs in future.

"There are times of rapid gains and disappointing relapses. There are times of just living, just staying quiet, resting and regrouping. Each person’s journey of recovery is unique. Each person must find what works for them; the aspiration is to live, work and love in a community in which one makes a significant contribution."

Deegan, 1996, Author

Recovery Journey Podcast.

The concept of mental health recovery is a topic that is widely debated, as many of us ask the question 'what does a recovery journey in mental health mean?' Well look no further than the recovery and wellbeing college podcast (Recovery club podcast, episode 1:'the road to recovery'). Hear people with lived experience of mental health talk about there own personal recovery journeys and what it means to them. Register now online and gain access to this podcast and future podcasts.

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