I know I was in the middle of something else here, but I wanted to take a few moments to respond to an article posted in one of my FB groups. Liza Long, most popularly known for her “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” piece a few years ago, wants us to stop using the word recovery. She may name some pretty important things to remember – like mental illness is not a choice – but overall, I’m annoyed (though not surprised, HP is rather mainstream-y after all) that this would be published. What little she gets right isn’t worth the constellation of stuff she gets wrong, not to mention that this reads like a globalization of a personal grudge.
First of all, she creates a false binary here: “When local and national mental health policy is shaped by high-functioning consumers who have been able to manage their illnesses rather than by the sickest patients and their families, it’s the equivalent of only allowing stage 1 cancer survivors to drive the narrative and take most of the funds.” That’s not actually what’s happening – as far as I can tell, there isn’t really much of **anything** shaping national mental health policy besides Big Pharma– and besides, if you say that the sickest people should shape **national** policy, you’re going to be leaving a whole lot of folks out, too. Her entire argument against the word “recovery” is based on the fact that other people are defining it in ways that don’t work for everyone. Well, the answer isn’t to have one set of people define standards for everyone; it’s to tailor and build support and resources for individuals and local communities based on specific needs that differ from person to person, family to family, community to community. What if we actually focused on that work rather than complaining about a word?
Now, to her points in the article:
1) Not everyone “recovers,” she says. Well, not everyone is a man, either; should we retire the word “masculine” and its associates because only half the human population experiences this chronic condition?
2) “Recovery” implies mental illness is a choice, she says. Only if you’re a kangaroo – that is, you can make some pretty big leaps. Recovery might implicate volition, depending on who’s using it, but it can also mean hope. The word by itself allows for customizable content.
3) “Recovery” forces “normal,” she says. Only if you use the word that way. Again, there is nothing about the word “recovery” itself that forces normalizing standards on diverse groups of people.
4) “Recovery” bolsters stigma, she says. She does raise a good point: “if others are recovering, why aren’t you recovering?” is troubling and damaging. But then she takes it too far: “Hope is a universal concept that embraces a wide range of possibilities. Recovery seems dependent on a prescribed set of treatments that may not work for everyone.” Well, one of those possibilities may be recovery. Also, hope is only universal if you define it that way; recovery may be dependent on external standards but the problem she has doesn’t seem to be with recovery, but The System’s way of defining it. The solution for **that** is going to take a lot more than tossing a word. Her suggestion – that “hope is a choice” – merely reinforces the same logic she claims is so hurtful about the word recovery (if hope is “universal,” something will be seen as wrong with you if you can’t have or find it) and is nothing more than cotton-candy inspiration.
5) “Recovery” is unrealistic and we don’t use the word for things like chronic illnesses and cancer, she says. Her logic about only ever using the term “remission” for cancer and “management” for diabetes is a bit off – I have known people who used to have those conditions and now do not so it’s not even standard to approach “long-term” illnesses shorn of “recovery” language. More to the point, though, “We would never apply the blanket expectation of recovery to any other chronic illness or disability.” We actually do this all the time; if we didn’t there would not exist a palpable stigma against people with physical disabilities, too.
Finally, I take issue with behavioral models of recovery, too, because they seem to blame the victim in a subtle but persistent way. And I’d only endorse her thought “Mental illness is physical illness” if by ‘physical’ she means “environmental, social, relational, etc.” It’s clear, though, that she does not and so, in a very high-level way, is actually victim blaming, too. Overall, her issues ,which are sloppily reasoned and use the very arguments she criticizes, seem to stem from the way national policies, personal doctors and broader society conceptualize recovery. I may share her critiques of that unholy trinity, but I would hope that we would care more about those of us who are suffering than to simply abandon what is in actuality a personalizable and potentially helpful word.