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Everyone knows I refuse to say I live “in recovery” as a person with Type II Bipolar disorder.

“You can’t recover from a chronic health condition,” I say. “You live with it. You manage it. It’s like diabetes. If I had diabetes and lost enough weight to stop using insulin, no one would say I had ‘recovered’ from it. I would have just managed it really well.”

There are people I know who use extremely restrictive diets, along with exercise, to manage their bipolar disorder. My Boston doctor helped me with meds when depressions became unbearable. North Carolina doctors instead put me through seven years of pharmaceutical experimentation to achieve a stability that depends on an expensive cocktail of (mostly) addictive pills. My friends’ illnesses are managed; my illness is managed. But are we “in recovery”? What in the world would that mean?

How the ‘Good Guys’ Define Recovery

Recently, I met a new friend whose grandson relies on ACT team services from Telecare. The company sounds like the best mental health provider I’ve ever heard of. According to my friend, every member of her grandson’s team — psychiatrist, nurse, case manager, and peer support specialist — has “lived experience.” That is to say, all of them are people like me. They have diagnoses and they live with their diagnoses. That makes them particularly expert in thinking about what it means to live with or “be in recovery from” a mental illness.

As I read Telecare’s description of what recovery seeks to establish for people with SPMI, I got what was for me a sudden and stunning insight into the secret meaning of mental health “recovery.”

Mental Illness Disability: Created by Stigmatizing Culture

Telecare’s website describes first, how a person becomes disabled as a result of a mental illness diagnosis:

  • Receives diagnosis of a serious mental illness
  • Results in fear, shame, loss of uniqueness and an uncertain future.
  • Retreats from life.
  • Stigmatizing culture results in losses of dignity, identity and hope.
  • Opportunities lost for life roles, learning choice-making skills.
  • Traditional treatment within culture of control causes loss of self-control, self-responsibility.
  • Personal power, self-respect, sense of uniqueness, motivation further degraded.

What the culture has taken from the person with a mental illness, according to Telecare, are:

  • Personal Power
  • Hopes and Dreams (Their Future)
  • Uniqueness
  • Motivation
  • Pride and Identity
  • The Ability to Self-Assess and Self-Evaluate
  • Connections to the Community
  • Dignity and the Respect of Others
  • Choice-Making Skills
  • Opportunities for Life Roles and Education
  • Self-Control
  • Self-Responsibility
  • Self-Determination

‘Recovery’: To Reject the Culture’s Limits and Simply Live

Recovery is the process of reversing those losses, Telecare says. In other words, “recovery” is what happens when people with mental illnesses reject stigma and discrimination and live our lives.

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That means we’re not “in recovery” from our illnesses. We’re “in recovery” from a system of stigma and discrimination that systematically strips us of our power to live. We’re in recovery from a system of cultural abuses heaped on people who have mental illnesses.

That’s a different picture. I’m not sure I’d use “recovery” as the word to describe it. You “recover” from an illness. You “throw off” shackles. You “rise up” from oppression. You “unite” with people of like mind and “stand together” against those who do wrong.

God’s People Stand Together in ‘Recovery’

As a people of God, we need to stand together with people who have been told they are less than, not so important as, not competent to, not worthy of. We need to stand together because God tells us to support those who live on the margins. Even more important, we need to stand together because all of us live “in recovery” from the evil that has distorted this world. All of us need to be reminded by God that:

  • Each person is unique, a “work of art” (poesie, in Greek), “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph. 2:10)
  • Each person who follows Jesus is empowered by God: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1:8)
  • Each follower of God has hope for the future: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jer. 29:11)
  • The lives of other followers inspire and motivate us: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so readily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Heb 12:1)
  • God enables us to make good decisions: “The person with the spirit makes judgments about all things … we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor 2:15, 16)
  • The community needs every one of us: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7)
  • We have dignity, with or without respect: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31)
  • God provides wisdom: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5)
  • God’s people teach and encourage each other: Therefore encourage and build each other up … encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” (1 Thess. 5:11, 14)
  • Our difficulties provide chances to learn: “Endure hardship as a discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” (Heb.
  • The courageous choice to live can inspire others: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deut. 30:19)

It is by our unity as God’s people that others see Jesus (John 17:20-23). We must stand united with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ, affirming our need for every member of God’s Body. This is recovery. We all must recover from the fall. We all must recover from our own sin. And we must avoid setting one group apart, as if they (we!) have an unusual or dangerous or special condition that God and God’s people are unable to handle. As God encouraged Israel before she entered her Land of Promise:

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them [editor’s emphasis], for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deut. 31:6)

Today, in the world of promise God has given us through Jesus, we are forced to know that at any moment, any of the “them” outside may join us “inside” the community of faith. That makes their “outsider” difficulties part of our “insider” commitments. When we see people in our midst who have been set apart, discriminated against, systematically treated as if they are worth less and have less dignity than the rest of our community, it is our job to stand with them. This is a spiritual battle for their dignity as humans and for our unity as the Body of Christ.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood,but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” (Eph. 6:12-13)

Join me in taking a stand.

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