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Pushing the boundaries of recovery: Good enough or great?

September 20, 2012
by Lori Ashcraft, PhD and Bill Anthony, PhD
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Why should the recovery movement settle for 'good enough' when we can go for 'great'?

We are worried!  Why? Because we believe we are at a critical point in the evolutionary change process when it comes to recovery. 

“Hey, wait a minute!” you say. “Aren’t we finally at a point where the recovery movement has changed many of us? Don’t we have a general consensus that recovery is possible for people who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses? Funding sources are even incentivizing the addition of peers to the workforce. Many people who were once thought to be permanently disabled are returning to work and leading full lives.”

Yes all of that is true, and don’t get us wrong--we are happy about the progress. This is good, but it could also be a dangerous situation and let us tell you why. When progress is made and things begin to look good, especially things that have had to struggle to come into existence, there is a tendency to settle long before the potential is reached.

Let’s ask ourselves this: “Where are we in the trajectory of the recovery movement? Have we just scratched the surface, or are we close to maximizing the potential of what is possible?” How we answer this question will determine how much further we can push the boundaries of what we think is possible.  If we think we have just scratched the surface, we will continue to push the boundaries out further. If we think we have exhausted the possibilities and can’t squeeze any more potential out of ourselves or the people we serve, then we’ll settle without ever knowing how far we could really go.

Truth be told, we now have a really good foundation of change that we can build a transformation on. Just to clarify that, change is about rearranging the practices we have used in the past and present. Transformation is beyond change and is based on the future – practices that are yet unknown to us. We now know enough about recovery to move into unknown territory. We are pioneering a new frontier that can bring amazing new knowledge and skill to our work if we are willing to keep pushing the boundaries of recovery as we know it today.

Sound exciting? Why wouldn’t we enthusiastically jump at this chance to keep pushing ahead and discovering new and better ways to support people in their recovery process? As we mentioned in the opening sentence, our biggest deterrent is the illusion that we have accomplished enough for now. Underneath this is the same old fear of change that holds most things in place far too long. If we can move past this point and refuse to settle for good enough, we can go for great.  Think of it--maybe, just maybe, we could find ways to keep people from becoming disabled by mental illnesses in the first place so they would have much less to recover from.

Tap the amazing potential

Let’s keep moving ahead and keep expecting to learn new and better ways to do our work. Let’s trust the amazing potential of the people we serve--that we have only just began to tap, so we can far exceed our own expectations. Furthermore, let’s trust ourselves – that we can rise to the challenge of taking this movement as far as it can possibly go.

How do we do this? Well, let’s look at how we got started in the first place. Let’s see if there is anything we can learn from our first steps that will carry us on into the future. How did the recovery movement get stated to begin with?

A quote from Bill describes those early days: "In the early 1990s, based on the research reports of Harding and the stories of recovery in the consumer/survivor literature, I embarked on a personal mission of delivering the message of recovery to any group that invited me to speak. I spoke and wrote about the ‘decade of recovery’ as distinguished from the previously declared ‘decade of the brain,’ and recovery as an alternative vision for those who practice and research the mental health field. Reactions to this recovery message were mixed:

  • Some attendees in the professional and family member meetings strongly criticized me for ‘raising false hopes’ and failing to recognize that ‘recovery is not a realistic vision for those who were severely mentally ill.’
  • In contrast, consumer/survivor group meeting attendees wondered, ‘why no one had spoken to them of these possibilities before’ and told personal stories of ‘how I am in fact recovering even though no one seems to understand or recognize my progress.’

It’s helpful to remember these early days of the movement because it shows us how far we have come. It also gives us clues about how to continue, and the clue we can pull from Bill’s experience is that it takes courage to move into new territory that is beyond the consensual agreement of what’s possible.

Continue the transformation

At the top of our list of “How do we do move form change to transformation?” let’s put "courage." We as leaders, supporters, and professionals need courage, and also the folks who are recovering need courage to keep moving ahead. The next steps will come from their firsthand accounts of their experiences, and our willingness to believe in them and support their journey. Here’s a simple list of things to keep our minds focused on: