What’s in a recovery story?

For the past 15 years, the MGH Schizophrenia Program has hosted an annual Public Education Day for individuals with lived experience and their families. Without a doubt, the most popular component of this event that has been a panel of 3-4 people with lived experience talking about their recovery. This positive reception and my own reactions over the years as a clinician to hearing about and witnessing the journey from struggling to recovery has made me reflect on the function of recovery stories. Recovery stories often begin as a piece of writing which changes over time as individuals develop new understanding and navigate the non-linear and potentially life-long process of recovery. Writing helps people make sense of their illness experiences, integrate them into their life’s narrative story without guilt, shame, or self-blame and achieve closure. Writing is also empowering as each individual is the author of their own story. Recovery stories not only benefit the writer, but also the audience, insofar as these stories connect people to a sense of common humanity, help people transcend traumatic experiences and decrease stigma.

“Writing [recovery stories] helps people make sense of their illness experiences, integrate them into their life’s narrative story without guilt, shame, or self-blame and achieve closure…”

Common humanity, the awareness that suffering is a part of life for all of us, is defined by Kristen Neff, PhD as one of the three essential components of self-compassion. The other two are self-kindness, or treating yourself as you would a friend, and mindfulness, the ability to be present and respond to thoughts and emotions without suppressing or judging them.  Dr. Neff contends an individual is not able to treat oneself with kindness in response to suffering without being able to notice and acknowledge the suffering of others.  Further, that those who cannot do this remain isolated in their suffering, which can lead to enduring negative reactions to suffering, such as self-pity or anger. 

“Everyone loves a comeback story.”
Recovery stories are also fundamentally comeback stories. Comeback stories are the stuff of movies, sports, politics, nations. They inspire and help us believe that the human spirit can triumph over any obstacle and give us hope that suffering we experience now or in the future will be relatively finite, that we will grow from those experiences and perhaps even experience gifts through suffering (sometimes referred to as post-traumatic growth) and ultimately flourish. Recovery stories almost always include elements of overcoming obstacles, particularly trauma, and it was Dr. James Pennebaker, PhD, who first identified the positive health effects from expressive writing about one’s experience of trauma.

Recovery stories fight expressions of stigma.
When someone close to you has cancer you become much more likely to bristle at jokes or allusions to cancer that are not compassionate (e.g., “Don’t shave your head, you’ll look like a cancer patient)”. The American writer, Susan Sontag, astutely identified that the likelihood of using stigmatized illness language correlates with the degree to which the cause, treatment, and course of the illness is not well understood. Tuberculosis, cancer, and HIV/AIDS were all once highly stigmatized illnesses that have become better understood and less stigmatized as more effective treatments have become available. Schizophrenia and related illnesses remain poorly understood by the general public (and even by some professionals) and these conditions are therefore ripe for stigma. Recovery stories counteract stigma of mental health conditions by providing models of each individual’s unique pathway to fulfillment. They not only inspire hope, compassion for self-and others, but also spread the word that “Recovery is real.”

I am deeply grateful to Anne Whitman, PhD, CPS, Ryan Markley, CPS and August Rosenberg, CPS who graciously contributed their recovery stories to this newsletter issue. (Anne and Ryan are both valued team members at our Center of Excellence and we enjoy the privilege of their sharing their experience and educating us.)

Cori Cather, PhD
Center Director, MGH COE

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