The recovery movement has made wonderful progress over the past 15 years in getting people thinking about and starting the recovery journey. Our next important step is to create a pathway that enables each recovering person to sustain healing and well-being by learning, growing, and contributing to the larger community—a community where reciprocal relationships build an interdependent network of ongoing natural support.
While attending the 28th Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Symposium, a symposium with the theme, “Beyond Stigma: Advancing the Social Inclusion of People with Mental Illnesses,” I had the opportunity to participate in one of several working groups. This one, led by Ron Manderscheid, was tasked with exploring the interface between inclusion and isolation; between dependence and interdependence; and the space between past recovery achievements and the next steps needed to make recovery real in the community.
It’s not about fixing the community, or is it?
While the contributions of the group were interesting, I began to be troubled by what a number of the group members were saying. They seemed to be focused on creating community acceptance of those who are recovering from mental illnesses, and thinking about this challenge in terms of a research study design. I wanted to scream.
I didn’t want to talk about fixing communities. I wanted to talk about how people in recovery could be prepared to play valuable roles, about how they could build social capital, and about how, through a reciprocal process of give and take, they could take ownership of their rightful places in communities of their choice and, in so doing, sustain and strengthen their own recovery processes.
So, I wondered, why was this group of really smart people going down the same old path of trying to fix the community? Couldn’t they see that recovering people need to take responsibility for creating their own value in the community? (I’ve learned through painful experience that just blurting this sort of thing out would cause ME not to be part of a community, so I bounced my leg, sighed frequently, and drifted off to my own thoughts about the subject, checking back in now and again to see if anything had changed. It hadn’t.)
My colleague, psychiatrist Ken Thompson, explained to me that the purpose of the work group was to identify how we might take a population based, public health approach to behavioral health. He pointed out that Ron was asking us how we would know if a community was doing all it could to create opportunities for people to stay well through participation. Ken agreed with my assertions that people in recovery need to learn how to contribute to their communities. He even agreed that their recovery hinged on it. But he pointed out that communities need to be willing recipients ready to provide opportunities for the give and take relationships that are vital to sustaining recovery. OK, I get it.
“Ask not what your community can do for you...”
On the second day of the working group, Ron asked me to share my ideas with the group. He could see how my position could complement the work of the group. If, on one hand, we could encourage communities to become accepting and strengths-based and, on the other, we could prepare recovering people to make valuable contributions, we could lick this stigma/discrimination thing.
In retrospect, I wish I had had the presence of mind to preface my comments with the words of JFK at his 1960 inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” At the time, President Kennedy wasn’t talking about how to sustain recovery, but in my mind, this is exactly the approach that we people on the road to recovery need to be adopting. It’s not about what our community can do for us, but what we can do for our community. When we approach the challenge in this way, we begin to create a valued role for ourselves to play: we become contributors. So long as we remain receivers, rather than contributors, we continue in a position of impotence—powerless to take ownership of our rightful position in the community.
I told the work group about my own personal “community” that I give and take with. Like many of us these days, it is more virtual than geographical. At the core of my community are my husband, my dog, our housemate and my brother. They love me and I can count on them. There is a guild of bead artists in Phoenix to which I belong.
Then, there are my spiritual associates—a random collection of people who exchange spiritual resources and support each other through all sorts of situations. Then there’s my work, which includes communities of associates from around the world who share ideas, resources, and solutions. There’s my 12-Step group that meets twice a week. I guess I can count Amazon as part of my community, since I rely on them heavily for materials and information. Google is a regular player in my life as well as a few websites that I visit regularly for various reasons.
With the exception of Amazon and Google, all of the members of my community would change the way they relate to me if I stopped being a contributor and just became a receiver. At first, they would be curious, but then they would think something was wrong with me. They would start taking care of me and may even begin to try to manage and control me. In time, my membership in the community would come into question. This isn’t a unique situation: it’s what happens when we don’t contribute to our communities.