Recovery: What’s Wrong with this Word?

I’m not sure what it is about the word, “recovery,” but for a lot of people it’s a turn-off. I confess I’ve often felt that way too. Perhaps it’s because I’ve known so much more about the journey through Hell than I could ever know about Paradise. After years in the lower world, with only an occasional glimpse of blurry bright patches in the far distance, I’ve been amazed at finally getting out of there. Getting my life back, though, didn’t have much to do with all the jabber about recovery I’d been hearing for years.

Pop psychology has loaded the word with plenty of baggage – at least when it comes to depression. (It’s still a powerful word in AA.) There are so many people preaching about their healing techniques that I usually shut my mind as soon as I hear them begin. And there’s so much advertising about new drugs, turning frowns into smiles by the millions.

And so many books! Even the good ones have their problems. Sure, I get lots of ideas and insights from them, but sooner or later I wind up feeling overwhelmed, angry, insulted – maybe all of those. A few ideas are fine, but after a couple of hundred pages, I’ve got more tips and techniques than I can keep track of, too much urgent advice, too many things that have to be done every day.

The tone is must-y and should-y. Just go out and do all this. Act, think, exercise, eat, lower the stress level, relate to people! They often assume that you’re already well enough to be doing all that. And I get this implied message – even if it’s not there – that I should be able to undo depression, if I really try or, even worse, if I really want to. It sounds arrogant, preachy, belittling, and I’m reminded of all those “friends” who command you to get your act together and stop whining.

Of course, this word is much on my mind as I work away on my new site, which is all about – recovery. I don’t want to fall into the “recovery”: trap. I’m excited to have reached a turning point in my life, but I’m afraid it’s too easy to start sounding like: You too can do it – if you really try.

Even if I’m careful and never create that impression, there are still the hollow echoes of that word “recovery” from all the claims, oversimplifications and faulty assumptions that come to mind. Even if it doesn’t provoke frustration or hostility, it can still seem so unattainable as to be irrelevant. I’ve noticed this in the reactions I get to posts about recovery as opposed to those about depression.

When I do a post on my own recovery and talk about the ways I managed to pull it off (always hoping the ideas might be useful to a couple of readers), the reaction is often like this: Great news, happy for you … Of course, I can’t even imagine feeling that good myself, or I’m adapting and resigned to living with this forever, or How can I think about recovery when I can’t even get out of bed? etc. Others describe (and this is what I most hope for) what they’ve been able to do to feel better.

Whatever the comments might be, they tend to be brief and few in number.

When I post about episodes of severe depression or damaged relationships, there’s often instant connection: I’ve been there – I could be using those same words – here’s what’s happening to me. There are many more comments, often with long, personal, intensely moving stories. Those are some of the most powerful, unforgettable parts of this blog.

This is no surprise. From what I see all over blog-world, people go on line, as I did, to find out if anyone else is going through this same hell, to make connections with them, to tell their stories and get support. I’ve been helped as much by finding this community as by writing (and as a result learning) about my own experience. Most people are searching for this sort of help and have too much to cope with to start thinking about life without depression.

Recently, a few readers have raised questions that have gotten me thinking about another problem. They ask: Can recovery include doubts? Can you really say you’re recovered if you still take medication? It’s as if there were conditions attached to recovery, that it only counts if you do it in a certain way, or that you have to pass a test before you qualify.

That reminds me how easy it is to focus on the method instead of the result, the word instead of the different life. Strange how hard it can be to remember that “recovery” is only a word. So I’ll use whatever word feels right and try to drop all the baggage of this one. I don’t want to get tangled up in techniques and semantics.

How do you manage to avoid the trap of “recovery”?

20 Responses to “Recovery: What’s Wrong with this Word?”

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  1. Laura Eckard says:

    Recovery, and all of the “baggage” that goes with it, at times seems like a double-edged sword. With the growing peer support movement (undoubtedly a good development), we are becoming increasingly encouraged to use Recovery language in our work (support groups, speeches, presentations, articles, etc.) At times, I myself find this language somewhat limiting. At one conference, upon hearing a renowned psychiatrist wax on for an hour about the empowerment brought about by the concept of Recovery for the patients within his practice and how its successes have motivated him to travel the country educating others about Recovery, I recall sitting in the audience with tears in my eyes, thinking “oh, I’m not doing this right; I’m failing once again. Here I am, so sad and rather depressed, again. I know about Recovery, I’m working on it myself. But I don’t feel successful everyday. How can I possibly empower others when I can’t feel the good myself???” I made it a point to talk with the speaker after his speech; I asked him if he truly believed that Recovery was possible for EVERYBODY, in all circumstances, and he looked me in the eyes and firmly replied, “yes, Recovery is a possibility for every person with a mental illness, regardless of their diagnosis or prognosis.”
    I went home and relapsed into a deep depression. Things were so dark, I quit many of my Recovery-oriented activities because I could not even get out of bed or decide what to eat or wear, and of course, in my mind I was feeling like a total Recovery failure. I feared that my relapse meant I had given up, gotten lazy, that I had somehow quit Recovery. I sat on my couch and cried and watched every episode of Reno 911 I could find as a way to cope with my relapse and damaged self-esteem.
    Now I look back on that time and realize that, for me, Recovery WAS watching tv on my living room couch for a few months. I realize now that I WAS still working on Recovery, I had not given it up, I had not failed at it at all. I had simply experienced a relapse. But I was still working my a$& off at Recovery. I was still doing what I needed to do to cope with what symptoms I had. Besides, I know what giving up really looks like; I’ve tried to do that many times before. But this time, when I relapsed, I did something different. And for me, THAT is the essence of Recovery.
    I came out of that episode of depression. Since, I have relapsed into a few more. They have been bleak. But they haven’t been as destructive as previous episodes and I don’t beat myself up about what my “Recovery” looks like. It looks different for everybody and for me, it looks different on different days.
    I have found the Recovery language to be beneficial and insprirational when it is presented in REAL language. It is not a panacea concept. I would like to see it evolve farther and applied in a more realistic way as currently, it is now thrown around a bit too carelessly and this is causing people to misunderstand the concept. I don’t want to dismiss the concept outright; I believe we are headed in the right direction and can use this language to bring hope to people suffering with mental illness. But this hope we bring must not be empty. So lets open up the discussion and talk about what it REALLY means…
    Thanks for your blog!

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Laura –

      Thanks so much for telling this story. It really is a powerful one about recovery. I know exactly what you mean – it’s so tempting to use any idea about getting better as a yardstick to slap yourself with. Recovery is up, down and all over – your own story that no one else can write. I’m glad you’ve been able to see the change in the way you respond to depression.

      All my best to you —


  2. Jaliya says:

    John, what you say about the old self you initially wanted back and then decided not to take back … That makes such sense — all that was “shaped so much like depression”; yes, we want so much to *drop* it and leave it somewhere like the sackful of rocks that it is … and then I think, “But *can* we? Can we really get rid of part of who we’ve been (if I’m catching your meaning here)? Could it be that our attempts to get rid of our depressive aspects is one of the primary challenges of this illness? … and yet I so understand the urge for the new, the novel, the unstained, the luminous. The *wanting* to feel, move/be moved, and to relate … and to excise something that can’t be excised (such as by surgery) …

    I wonder if some of the healing work itself is just to restore our will and to hold it in awareness for a while before we venture out into the world with it. Richard Mollica, MD, calls trauma an “existential injury” — and I have come to see major depression in this way too …

    Perhaps in part because of the extent and effects of existential injury, the word “recovery” as commonly used strikes me as trite … probably because I was OD’ing on therapy, self-help and support groups when the pop-psych world went bananas for RECOVERY … Perhaps, too, there is a cultural imperative implicit in the common use of “recovery” –> a demand to hurry up and get better; get off your ass and back to work! … The curative understanding of recovery (per Lerner/Remen) that you mention makes great sense …

    I hadn’t known about how the original AA emphasis on sobriety had been shifted … I came of age during the late 70s and 80s, and all I remember hearing in just about every context was RECOVERY!! It got to be exhausting …

    … and yes, “recovery” is one of those words … ๐Ÿ˜‰ I realize that I’ve got very strong feelings about it, and I don’t want to nullify anyone else’s understanding …

    • John says:

      Hi, Jaliya –

      I wouldn’t say it’s about getting rid of parts of the person I’ve been. It’s more about separating out the distortions of the enduring dimensions of who I am – personality, thinking, talents, feelings – and giving that self a chance to flourish. So much of the experience of being me has been about seeing the depressed person as who I really was – and the happy times as the aberrations. There’s an interesting story that Peter Kramer tells at the beginning of Against Depression about the recovery of one of his patients. She felt that the depressed “her” had fallen away, and the person she found herself to be was a surprise – and seemed like a completely different personality. Instead of praising Kramer for his help, she was angry that he had taken the depressed person so seriously as her true self when it was a kind of fraud, a depression stand-in. I think that comes closer to what I look for. In reality, of course, I’m not completely different, but everything depressed that tried to impersonate me is now on the run.


  3. Happi says:

    Hi John…

    Maybe there is too much emphasis on the many definitions of ‘recovery’!! We are always trying to pick one or the other and/or rejecting them all!

    Sometimes I think we spend far too much time filling our brains with things that ‘others’ have written about “recovery” and/or “depression” and/or anything else associated with it, that there is no room left in our brains to put all the ‘good stuff’ that is sitting right before us!

    We can talk about depression and recovery and all those things that have happened to us for years and years and one day we wake up with a few gray hairs on our head and wonder where life went? Worse yet, we still feel like life has given us a bad rap!

    I think the very BEST we can do is to focus on what/who is happening in our life – in the present – in our immediate sphere of influence – and start our ‘so called recovery’ from the here and now!

    Unfortunately, some of us, although we’ve seen therapists and psychiatrists and have been in various ‘recovery groups’ and such, will still suffer from some painful past, some phobia, and/or be vulnerable to some depression and/or anxiety. Hopefully we’ve learned from those various venues and can handle the present better than the past but reality is that very often we still don’t understand ourselves as we ‘think’ we should! We keep looking for answers that are just too darned complicated to understand, and often we want to keep searching for answers even though we probably have enough information in our heads to be top notch professionals, super scientists or guru brain surgeons!

    Why do we always over-analyze this thing called ‘recovery?’ Likely it’s because we are still not feeling ‘quite right’ after all that we’ve learned and we still ‘think’ there is something better out there for us.

    Maybe the reality is that we will always be ‘prone’ to depression because……(you can add in whatever you want here)and we might never reach our ‘ideal’ definition of ‘recovery’ (please don’t throw any rotten eggs at me for that statement!) lol

    I have learned to ‘accept’ that I will likely never feel the same ‘normal’ as some others because I am a person who is prone to depression, high anxiety, worry, and immune problems. I get sick easily, I get depressed at times, I get panicy, I worry and that’s just ‘normal’ for me. Maybe we should all define what is ‘normal’ for us …then we wouldn’t be looking for other people’s definitions for our own ‘recovery’ so much!

    Recovery for me is learning how to deal with those situations when they come up and using what I learned from them to benefit others. I don’t go back and say I want to be like I was before because like you said,John, you don’t want to go back there because it wasn’t all that great!

    I have learned to always go forward and say “yup, another setback….how can I use the knowledge that I have learned until now to move out of this present situation without trigging all the other bad situations in my past that brought me pain?” If I keep going into my past, I have to recover over and over and over again from those situations rather than just focusing on ‘recovering’ from the present situation.

    Someone asked this question today “What’s the therapy for your soul, not including therapy?” and this was my answer “Standing alongside others when they are in difficult distressing times and seeing them progress and get back into a healthy lifestyle!”

    To me, THAT is recovery! Some days, when I can think of ‘others’ more than ‘myself’, I think I’ve come a long way!


    • John says:

      Hi, Happi –

      A lot of helpful ideas here. I spent so long looking for a method or med that would take care of the problem. It wasn’t so much the definition of recovery but, as you say, some cure “out there” that I was trying to find. Starting where you are seems exactly right – after all, it doesn’t really work to start with a method that assumes you’re where it says you are, then try to get where it says you ought to be. The temptation for me has been thinking that I’d always have to live with depression, that there were just some people like me who had trouble with the basics of living. Unfair but that’s just the way it is. I had to stop assuming that was true.

      Thanks for all these insights.


  4. Jaliya says:

    Hi, John,

    I have to admit that my first thought about the word “recovery” as I read your article was “Ick.” I thought then of re-covery — re-covering — covering up again. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always had an adverse reaction to the word “recovery” in the context of illness and especially in the context of some addictions programs. “To cover up again” doesn’t sit right with me … even as I understand there are other meanings to the word “recover”, such as “restore” … which is a word I much prefer ๐Ÿ™‚

    Great food for thought … Thank you.

    • John says:

      Hi, Jaliya –

      That’s interesting – I wrote a post a while back about not wanting to think of recovery as my goal because it usually mean getting something back that’s been hidden, i.e. my old life, so I can feel like myself again. The trouble is that my old self and life were shaped so much by depression since childhood that I don’t want them back. I want a new life and I want to wake up all the buried feelings and energy and connecting to people that I missed out on. But there are a lot of definitions of recovery to choose from. I didn’t put it exactly like this in the new post about Michael Lerner and Rachel Remen, but they equate recovery with curing in a biological sense and don’t want that confused with healing at the level of the whole person. A friend of mine wrote me that the emphasis on “recovery” in AA is recent and due to the impact of the professionals on the field. The traditional AA emphasis is really on sobriety. And then there’s the new age crowd. What interests me is that the word stirs a strong response in so many of us. It goes to something so important, I guess, that it’s become symbolic and everyone wants to get it right. I just don’t know.


  5. eva says:

    i’m not in the period of recovery now but for me once your in the stage of recovery the next stage is healing. so for me it’s positive idea because it’s a process of healing….

    • John says:

      Hi, Eva –

      That’s an interesting way to put it, that healing is another stage following recovery. I’ve been reading a lot about that distinction recently. Many people do see the two quite differently, and I’m working on a post now to explore these ideas.

      Thanks for your comments.


  6. Happi says:

    Hi John,
    I’m new here and this blog caught my eye!

    I immediately looked up ‘recovery’ at and it came up with a number of definitions. Three of them made me nod in agreement and I realized that I have indeed ‘recovered’ a number of times in my life.

    1. the regaining of or possibility of regaining something lost or taken away.
    2. restoration or return to health from sickness.
    3. restoration or return to any former and better state or condition.

    I think we always think of ‘recovery’ as something permanent – getting to a specific place in life where ‘all is well.’ We don’t often think of ‘recovery’ as something ‘ongoing’ or ‘repetative’.

    There are a number of life’s circumstances which have taken me in a downward cycle (the worst of which was a complete mental, physical, emotional and spiritual breakdown)and what I discovered when I ‘recovered’ from those episodes, is that no matter how hard I try to ‘get life right’ there will still be someone, something,or somewhere that I will have to face yet another episode to ‘recover’ from!

    I love to think of recovery as stepping stones to this unknown place. Some days I can climb those stones to great heights and other days I stumble and fall back a couple of stones! When I re-climb even one of those stones, I call that day to day ‘recovery’.


    • John says:

      Hello, Happi –

      Glad you found us!

      That’s a wonderful description of recovery – especially the way you relate it to dealing with life, not just looking at depression by itself. My own experience with depression is somewhat different since the illness recurred again and again no matter what was going on in my life. When I felt good, I could deal with even the worst situations on their merits without hitting a low point – and when depressed, there was little, however minor, that I could handle at all. Recovery as stepping stones, not an end point is a great way to describe the climb.

      Thanks for your comment.


  7. Margaret says:

    I view recurrent depression as a chronic disease, a brain disease, that has periods of remission and relapse. As with diabetes or asthma or hypertension, ongoing management is needed with specialists (psychotherapist and psychiatrist). I have had to learn, and am still learning, how to manage this chronic illness. Medication(s) is/are needed to maintain adequate control of the disease. I must be vigilant for signs of a relapse because a relapse could be fatal. Only those that suffer from this disease can truly understand the depth of sadness, hopelessness and helplessness that occurs with major depression. I realized that a friend of mine doesn’t get it at all when she said to me, “I don’t have time to be sad.”

    I use the word recovery for the time period after a relapse ends and remission begins, when I say “phew” and am again relieved to have survived a visit to that dark place.

    • John says:

      Hi, Margaret –

      It is a great feeling when a bad time ends – I’d often wake up, feel fine and carry on with hardly a memory of what I’d just been through. – It’s interesting to me how many different views people have about depression and recovery – and how these are changing. Psychiatrists have never referred to the conditions they treat as diseases – the official diagnostic manual explains that the word “disorder” is used (vague as that is) because they haven’t found a clear physiological/ biological process underlying each one. With all the neuroscience research in recent years, though, they seem to be rethinking that. So maybe we’ll wind up with a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Diseases (instead of disorders), after all.

      I hope your recovery periods get longer and longer!


  8. Coming from a Twelve Step background, I love the word recovery. But I can see how the pop psychology spin can turn people off.

    For me, recovery means growth, not a cure. It’s not about “trying harder,” it’s about surrender — admitting that I have a problem I can’t fix by myself and asking for help. And then accepting that the help I get might not come in the form I’d envisioned, or in the time frame I desired.

    Recovery absolutely depends on hearing stories of other people’s darkest days, because I need to know that I’m not alone in where I’m starting out to know that I can get better. And John, your stories about what life was like when you were depressed ARE recovery stories, because you’re not there anymore, and that gives people hope.

    Recovery is a million tiny steps, sometimes forward, sometimes backward, stacked up on top of each other, day after day.

    • John says:

      Hi, Heather –

      You remind me of one thing I’ve learned about recovery but always seem to forget. It’s not a matter of trying harder – but surrendering, and letting things happen unexpectedly and in their own time. In bursts of enthusiasm I think of some master plan and tense up as soon as I imagine I’m not getting there fast enough. You have a lot of wisdom about that.

      I couldn’t agree more with what you say – living those truths is another matter.

      Thank you!


  9. Karen says:

    Maybe because for some of us, recovery is a process, not a state. We are somewhere on a scale of functioning, but always with depression hanging on somewhere. It’s not even a process that promises a result as we climb a ladder rung by rung. That setback is always possible. Or that weight is too heavy to lift.

    Cognitive work, talking back to the disabling thoughts, is needed all the time – necessary, but not always sufficient. The same is true with medication, at least for me, right now.

    We need each other to help us reinforce doing the work and to provide the support. People around us are tired of dealing with our need for empathy. If they haven’t had a similar experience, they have no good basis for empathy. I even have a hard time dealing with someone close who is depressed and behaving in a less than kind way.

    Still, even if we don’t get to experience it, or it’s temporary, creating a vision of what recovery feels like is useful. Maybe we will glimpse it ourselves from time to time, or who knows – find that we recover after all.

    • John says:

      Karen –

      I think you’ve got it just right. There’s such a need for acceptance of whatever we can do and realism of expectation. A vision of what recovery feels like is something I’ve very much needed, mostly to get away from the limited thinking and assumptions of so much of the advice we get about undoing depression.

      The danger for me is trying to set goals for change and expecting to reach them more quickly and directly than I can. I’ve mostly gotten away from that, but it’s one of tendencies I have to watch out for.

      Thanks so much for sharing these insights.


  10. Evan says:

    I’m not in recovery so it’s not a problem for me. The problem I have is with words like ‘self improvement’ and giving the impression that self development is some kind of should.

    And let’s not forget that the shoulds and oughts must be followed with commitment because . . . well, because the guru says so. (And getting trapped into saying, “I am not a guru” is no improvement.)

    My way is to talk about the experience as much as possible and mix up the terms I use.

    I think you put it very well when you say that people are looking for connection. And stories work well – my natural style is analytical and didactic, but you do stories well.

    • John says:

      Hi, Evan –

      I know what you mean about “self-improvement” – the coaching idea, as in “life coach”, is also a turn-off for me. Your work is extraordinary in taking on similar subject matter but doing so in a very human, empathetic way – a style that induces connection. Analytical doesn’t seem the right word – maybe synthesis, working toward a holistic sense of the complexity of life.


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