Highland Rivers Health: Mental health, substance use recovery a process, but always possible

Melanie Dallas

Editor's note: September is National Recovery Month.

If you were to go online and search for the definition of recovery, your results would likely include those from Dictionary.com, which provides two definitions. The first definition — “a return to a normal state of health, mind or strength” — is what many of us envision when we think about recovery.

For example, when you have the flu, recovery usually means being able to go back to work or school, enjoying the activities you did before being sick and no longer feeling fatigued or achy. If you broke your arm playing football, recovery may mean your cast has been removed, physical therapy completed and being able to throw the ball or block your opponent as you did before. In these examples, recovery means returning to the state of health and functioning you had before your illness or injury.

For people living with mental illness or substance use disorders, the meaning of recovery can be similar — but also very different. It is similar because mental illness and addiction recovery means regaining health and daily functioning. But different because mental illness and substance use disorders are often chronic conditions, meaning they must be managed through a combination of therapy, medication and other supports.

A more important distinction is mental illness and substance use recovery is focused on moving forward. For an individual with mental illness, life before recovery may have meant feeling depressed or anxious, perhaps experiencing extreme paranoia, hearing voices, not wanting to eat or wanting to hurt oneself.

Likewise, someone with addiction may have spent most of his or her time seeking or being under the influence of drugs — perhaps losing jobs, friends, family or a home. Understandably, most individuals with mental illness or substance use disorders who are working toward recovery don’t want to go back to how things were "before."

The second definition for recovery on Dictionary.com — “the action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost” — may be a more appropriate way of thinking about recovery for individuals with mental illness or substance use disorders.

Although in one sense this definition speaks to having something returned (as in, detectives recovered the stolen painting), people living with mental illness or substance use disorders can likely relate to this on a different level. Indeed, many seeking recovery might feel mental illness has robbed them of their independence, addiction has stolen their self-respect and their confidence and self-esteem have been lost.

In this sense, recovery is about regaining — health, wellness, a self-directed life and more — rather than returning. Unlike a traditional treatment model that focuses on treating what’s “wrong,” the recovery model is person-centered and builds on an individual’s strengths, preferences and goals.

While it is true that those with mental illness or substance use disorders may not be “cured,” it is always possible for them to recover — to learn to manage their illnesses in ways that support physical health, stability, independence and community engagement.

What’s also notable about the second definition above is the word process — and recovery is indeed a process. Just as recovering from a serious injury or physical illness may require weeks or months — or in some cases, years — mental health and addiction recovery takes time and requires many different interventions and supports. This is why you rarely hear people living with mental illness or substance use disorders say they are recovered, but rather living in recovery.

If you or a loved one is challenged by mental health or substance use issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified behavioral health provider, whether it is Highland Rivers Health or another provider in your community. Recovery is a process to be sure, but recovery is always possible. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you can be on the path to recovery and living your best life.

Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for mental health, addiction and intellectual developmental disabilities in a 12-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Whitfield and Murray counties.

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