Pop-Up Workshop Summary: Debating Recovery and Discrimination

As part of the #seeme14 programme the organisers were keen to create space for delegates with burning issues to invite others to discuss these within the framework of the event. These ‘pop-up’ workshops covered topics such as the impact of welfare reform and on human rights. Eleanor Tate ran a workshop to discuss the concept of recovery, and the implications for this on anti-stigma work. She summarises the workshop here:

I had attended seeme14 without the knowledge it would be possible to facilitate a workshop on a theme of my choosing but when the opportunity presented itself I grabbed it. I was aware the hurriedly chosen title for my workshop “The Damage Done By The Recovery Movement” didn’t exactly fit with the theme of seeme14 or indeed the wider mental health movement in Scotland so I was pleased to find that 11 people had decided to sign-up for it. I was also happy to welcome those extra few who “couldn’t get in anywhere else” on the day, accidental workshop attendance is as valuable as intentional workshop attendance when those there are willing to engage and many did.

Following a discussion with Simon Bradstreet from SRN in the morning, he requested to attend too, given that Simon embodied my nemesis I was more than happy to involve him in the hope he could hear a different perspective to the one he was used to.

There’s been an emerging theme from #seeme14 on “personal journeys” and I suppose this workshop was mine. I haven’t worked in a traditional sense for almost 5 years; among many things, facilitating workshops, discussions and meetings used to be part of my bread and butter, something I did with ease. After almost 5 years of full-time professional mentalism I did question whether I’d be able to do it again but placed my trust in my skills and my “ability” to dissociate. I was ill on the day of the workshop; (no sympathy required, it was an illness borne out of multiple stupidities) which wasn’t helpful but I was keen for it to go ahead. I hadn’t prepared for the workshop at all; by the time day two of seeme14 had begun I was mired in frustration, apathy, a sense of exclusion and anger at what I had seen and heard so far. I went into the workshop feeling hopeless, it was something I’d said I’d do, I’m a woman of my word and though frustrated I was committed to the core aim of seeme14, that aim of “change”.

I struggled to start the workshop, “recovery” appears hard to define, as a recovery naysayer I’m often met with the argument that “recovery is different for everybody” it’s open to interpretation; one man’s recovery is another man’s depths of hell, kind of thing. I think (and hope) we’re past the stage where anybody views recovery from mental illness as “the absence of symptoms and a return to normal functioning” and though it’s clear that this is still the ideal in terms of government policy and society (and indeed invited speakers to seeme14), I think we, the mental health community know this isn’t attainable. Had I been prepared I might have brought along this definition from SRN

“Recovery is being able to live a meaningful and satisfying life, as defined by each person, in the presence or absence of symptoms. It is about having control over and input into your own life. Each individual’s recovery, like his or her experience of the mental health problems or illness, is a unique and deeply personal process.”

Recovery is hard to define, it often attracts a rather fluid definition, the recovery “movement”/dogma is even harder to define, especially when you know you’re one of the few people who aren’t part of it, in a culture of absolute absorption with it.
Over the course of the workshop, as more contributions were made, from many different areas that picture of the recovery movement became clearer. Some in attendance vehemently defended it; argued “why not help people become as well as they can be?”, “why not help people make progress?” WRAP was championed and defended (though reassuringly the recovery star was slated from almost all angles), for some in attendance the topic was initially a challenge but that began to change.

Definitions were paramount at seeme14, one of those definitions was that of “people with lived experience” with which I was aligned, it’s not a definition I chose but it was the only one available that almost fitted. The point I had made the day before and the point I made again was that for some of us, mental illness will never be in the past tense. Some of us are living with mental illness now and will continue to do so in the future, for some of us, mental illness is chronic. The argument of “helping people become as well as they can be” was once again raised, after all recovery does not mean the absence of symptoms, it just means people are able to live their lives, regardless of what their illness may present. It came as a surprise to some present that people living with mental illness may not want this “help” and may in fact perceive it as pressure.

I and many others like me do live our lives, we get up, we go about our business, we go to bed. The way the recovery movement looks, is shaped and impacts on that removes that right, that right to live our lives as they are. Some of us will never live in the absence or even alleviation of symptoms, we just get used to them, our windows of tolerance become so wide that after a while our “alternate realities” become our normal. We know that most of those around us don’t have the same experiences as we do, we know we’re mentally ill but that’s who and what we are, there’s no point fighting it. This doesn’t come from a place of “not trying hard enough” it comes from a place of knowing, acceptance, having insight and experience and having the confidence to make the best of a bad job in the face of a society that wants you to be “better”.

I made the point that for many of us lunch is just lunch, those enmeshed in the recovery dogma may label it “self-care”, a few glasses of wine after a hard day is just a few glasses of wine, the recovery dogma labels this “self-medicating” (and that’s bad!). In our world a bath is just a bath, a trip to the shops is just “Monday”, a haircut is just a haircut. The recovery movement and rhetoric attempts to hijack this, tries to assimilate all our activities, our life, the way we live into some bigger, more ambitious plan.

You could be forgiven for thinking I fear recovery, I don’t. The question of whether recovery equals a loss of support and was that something to fear was raised; I have no support so that’s not the case either. For some in attendance it wasn’t a fear but it was an issue, many felt there were goals, spoken or otherwise that their support was dependent upon, recovery felt like a threat, a bully. If recovery were available to me, and preferably it’d be the “absence of symptoms” one, I’d take it right now, it’s not available to me and many others like me. We could drink milky drinks until they were coming out of our ears, takes baths, take walks, find new hobbies but we’d still be mental.

Every professional and every person who chooses to see us through an “in recovery” lens takes away a little of our freedom. For the many people who don’t consider recovery an option or even “a thing” the language of mental health is discriminatory and stigmatising. Support doesn’t support as it’s coloured by this push, this need “to help people make progress” one attendee described his experiences of “treatment” for his illness which he found so traumatic he’d chosen to live with his illness instead. The truth is, some of us will never make progress, (another word I became patently aware was open to interpretation), and so the argument that “recovery isn’t linear” was raised. Recovery peaks and troughs, that “personal journey” finds a winding path; there are good days and bad days.

It sounds much like living with mental illness to me and living with mental illness is hard, it’s exhausting, the last thing we need is the added burden of pigeon-holing our activities into neat little “goals”, rungs on a ladder or quantifiable gains on a star. People living with mental illness don’t want or need praise for doing what they do because it fits under the recovery umbrella, I do my garden because it needs done and nobody else is going to do it, it’s not “therapeutic” it’s just gardening. If we remove or at least diminish the recovery doctrine we could make living with mental illness, for those of us who have to, a lot easier.

I was keen for the workshop to find some ways in which seeme could change their approach in the future to stop alienating the unrecovered an unrecoverable, by day 2 of seeme14 the recovery colours had been well and truly nailed to seeme’s mast.

“Recovery from mental illness is possible” was stated by many speakers and a commitment to working with the other Scottish orgs to put recovery central to the work done in the future was made.

However it was clear from this workshop, from this diverse group of people that there were other voices and those other voices wanted to be heard. It was suggested that seeme (and other orgs) allow more time and a bigger voice to the “non success stories” this isn’t to say that those who can’t/won’t/don’t recover aren’t successful, more a reflection of how they’ve been viewed and portrayed so far. We need to hear more from people living with mental illness, people living with mental illness need represented by mental health organisations, by their own community.

For many people, care, treatment and support from statutory and voluntary agencies isn’t a means to an end, it’s life. For people living with a mental illness hearing endless accounts of mental illness in the past tense is unhelpful, stigmatising and exclusive. For people living with mental illness the constant expectation that we’re striving for something else, for change, to be better is offensive, unhelpful and disabling. Those whose personal journeys follow a circular path or don’t move at all are as valuable as those who are “better” and our national mental health organisations need to recognise this now and in the future.

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4 thoughts on “Pop-Up Workshop Summary: Debating Recovery and Discrimination

  1. still not recovered even though I've got shares in Horlicks says:

    This is by far the best thing I’ve read on Recovery for a long time. Thank you for making our reality clear to those who usually choose to ignore us.

  2. Eleanor I’m sorry to have missed your workshop as it sounded just the sort of group I’d liked to have been part of, to hear the critical voices and the counter culture experiences of people with mental illness.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences honestly. We need to hear more stories like yours. You are right to say we all matter and are of equal value. I suspect anyway that the hijacking of the recovery movement by government was mostly about money, to get folk off their benefits and back to work. The last few years have proved the point with the welfare cuts targeting of the disabled and mentally ill.

    I call myself now a psychiatric survivor, a political statement, having survived mental illness and psychiatric treatment, the latter for me being much worse than the former. All of my close family members through 3 generations have gone and through the psychiatric system, come out with diagnoses/labels, call it what you will. Some of us got back to ourselves, others of us lived with and in the system. I broke free by not believing a word of it.

    It was sharing my “recovery” story on SRN website in 2005 that first brought me into mental health work, then attending the SRN peer support conference in Dec05 where I believed in the PS civil rights movement that was talked about by the Americans. I thought it was possible because it had happened to me. Emancipation from mental illness and lifelong labels. I embraced the recovery mantra and got involved in setting up PS Fife in Jan08, doing the WRAP Facilitator training, going out through Scotland to train folk.

    It didn’t take long before I got bored with the folk in power trying to reign me in. As a community workers since 1980, having set up many different projects in various settings, I didn’t appreciate being straitjacketed or badmouthed. It was a spur to behaving even more counter-culture, getting myself expelled from what I saw as “chums” or an exclusive crony group. And now I’m a writer, activist and campaigner in mental health matters, focusing on psychiatric system thinking wherever it’s to be found. To bring about a paradigm shift so that “first do no harm” is a reality.

    All the best, Chrys

  3. doyourememberthattime says:

    yush. the only truly valuable part of the conference. so sic of the idea that to have any value, I must ‘recover’.

    • yes well I recovered, over and over again, but it had no value since I wouldn’t conform to the top-down notions of recovery. Where recovery = conformity = doing what you’re told or you won’t be in the Recovery Gang.

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