• Jonathan Edgeley

Mental Health Awareness Week 20 - What is Recovery?

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Recovery is a word that has, unfortunately, become synonymous with abstinence and, more particularly, with 12 step abstinence based recovery programmes. I say unfortunately because looking at that word from that perspective, probably, serves to exclude more than it includes.

The term recovery should never be used in an exclusive capacity, it should always have an inclusivity that embraces flexibility, adaptability, cohesiveness, diversity, energy and stability. Options including 12 step/abstinence based, faith based, natural/spontaneous, SMART, medically assisted, intuitive and controlled use, etc. and multiples therein should always be given equal credibility. Metaphorically speaking, recovery is a very personal jigsaw puzzle. We take pieces from all over the place and construct it as we progress. For some, when the puzzle is complete, there is a sense of being recovered, for others the puzzle may involve a lifelong process with the construction being pretty much the journey. Maybe for these people the puzzle is never really complete, the essence being the process rather than the end state and they may identify themselves as being in recovery.

Any pattern of behaviour or way of thinking we find ourselves repeating, over sustained periods of time, naturally results in bunches of neurones, within our brains, becoming strongly attached. It’s very much like electrical circuitry, the more power we need for an appliance the larger the wires and fuses we need to support it. Repeating thinking and/or behaviours means the wires and connections within our brains become reinforced and larger. Every time we learn something it’s pretty much the same thing and learning to use substances and/or behaviours to manage emotions results in changes in brain circuitry. It’s called neuroplasticity, it happens almost every second of every day, it’s how we learn and it’s how both our brains and ourselves develop. In addiction, and many other mental health conditions, these changes become not unlike eight lane motorways. Taking drugs, drinking alcohol, gambling and/or thinking or behaving in a particular way becomes almost the only way to feel good and our brains keep convincing us so by limiting the production of our natural feel good brain chemicals. That’s why, when we stop using, drinking, etc. we feel worse, not better. We have to wait a while, eat and do the right things, whilst our brains begin to make sufficient feel good chemicals to make a difference.

This is why family involvement is so important when we are talking about recovery, in whatever form it takes. As human beings we function best as part of a social system, unfortunately as addiction and/or mental health problems progress they often have a detrimental effect on that very social system. Whole families can, and often do, becomes very dysfunctional, sick and certainly not very good places for recovery to occur within. They find themselves being sucked into a world of addiction and begin to treat the addicted person as a child, absolving them of almost all responsibility and blaming them for almost everything going wrong. The whole family become locked in patterns of behaviour that reinforce this culture and find it very difficult to change because the perceived consequences are often so dire that it fills everyone with fear and dread. Recovery will only take place where there are the conditions that allow it to. Just like a seed that is going to need water, soil, warmth and light for it to germinate and grow, so recovery needs certain things also. Recovery needs to be surrounded by hope, freely given by people who care. It needs the belief, compassionate curiosity and loving kindness of a none stressed family for it to germinate and flourish. It also needs people around who can suspend their judgements and learn to accept as, inevitably, risks are taken, mistakes are made and the pain of consequences begin to inform the new consciousness.

In essence addiction and mental health problems are family issues. When we learn to accept this we can begin to also accept that they need family solutions.

Written by Peter Sheath, Registered Manger & Lead RMN Nurse @ Sanctum Healthcare

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