The following is an edited version of an essay written by the author for a class on critical mental health. This piece speaks to some of concerns I have with using recovery language so please enjoy and discuss respectfully in the comments!
How Does One Actually Recover From Life’s Daily B__S___?
By: Cathy Huynh
During a guest lecture in class, Tania Jivrag, a Madvocate, read one of her slides: “Recovery – ‘to be myself again’…but what are we in the meantime if not ourselves? Is a person who is not happy, not motivated, not friendly, angry, upset, suicidal, not themselves? Are we only ourselves when we serve the agenda of ‘normal’” (Bellows, Jivrag & Pasini, 2015)? The class fell silent, it felt as though she took a hammer and hit the nail on our heads.
But first, what is Sanism in regards to recovery? Sanism when we ask people dealing with mental health to regain their sense of ‘sanity’. We are asking these individuals to remember a time in which they were not ill, irrational or engaging in destructive behaviors. We ask them to recover their old selves, because we, as a society, no longer want to deal with what they have become.I started asking myself: Who are we asking people to be when we advocate for recovery? So they can negate a part of their identity and only highlight the parts in which we deem acceptable? I will explore what agenda we are serving when we desire recovery in the people we are working with by utilizing the image of recovery t-shirts.
Furthermore, sanist thinkers believe that ‘recovered’ people should look a certain way. Even though how we think a sane person should look has not been explicitly expressed, it is implied through what the opposite of it looks like. Someone who sanist thinkers believe to be ‘crazy’, different, irrational and violent does not look ‘put together’ so to speak. So then, who are the types of people that wear these t-shirts?
T-shirts #1 and #2 exemplify sanist ideas of recovery because it is implying that people who are recovering from mental health will look different from those who are not recovering. It implies that recovery has a specific appearance it projects, an appearance that these recovery t-shirts will help reinforce. Those embodying these t-shirts imply that they looked less than, when they were dealing with “mental health” stuff as oppose to now, where they look qualified enough to be showcasing recovery.
According to literature, recovery is also believed to be the acceptance and overcoming of one’s own challenges (Poole, Jivrag, Arslanian, Bellows, Chiasson, Hakimy, Pasini & Reid, 2012, p. 20). Individuals who would wear T-shirt #2 are claiming that they have obtained the support needed to overcome their problems. They are the “good clients” in sanist literature where Poole (2011) explained that the act of accepting, and the willingness to receive help, has earned them a badge in the recovery book (as cited in Abdilahi, Meerai & Poole, 2014, p. 15).This is not to say that individuals dealing with their mental health should not celebrate what they believe to be their recovery, progress or successes. However, if this is what recovery appears to be, then what does not recovering look like? These recovery t-shirts then, is an example of sanism because it created a binary between what recovery ‘looks’ like versus the silence of those who did not, or choose not to conform to rigid ideas of recovery.
The last T-shirt, “Recovery is for those that want it” runs parallel with the notion of health and fitness, that everyone can be healthy if they put their mind to it. The phrase is at best, naïve at the first glance but incredibly ignorant at a second take. Morrow (2013) states that this individualistic framing of recovery neglects a broader analysis of structural relations of power in mental health and forget to take into account the cultural, economic, social and political context in which people develop emotional distress (p. 325). This reminded me of Tania’s slide which read: “What systems do we support when recovery is about getting better enough to do things independently” (Bellows, Jivrag & Pasini, 2015)? Who is benefitting when we ask service users to ‘fix’ themselves. We seem to serve an agenda that places a huge emphasis on productivity, employability and the ability to only rely on ourselves to lift our spirits.
Recovery is for those that want it! What if they do not? Are they not worthy to be given the same rights as the ‘recovered’? Who are we to judge how someone defines their mental health journey? The journey through life is never an easy road to begin with. In the words of Roxane Gay (2014), “human endurance fascinates me, probably too much because more often times than not, I think of life in terms of enduring instead of living” (p. 152).
Cathy is a Social Work student who spends the majority of her time commuting and pondering what her next meal should be. She has a lot of feelings about too many things, specifically feminism, grief, youth homelessness, big cities, and how Asian-Canadian female bodies are marked in this society. For any inquiries, she can be reached at email@example.com.