This week we will be posting a series of responses to Angela Woods‘, Akiko Hart‘s and Helen Spandler‘s article The Recovery Narrative: Politics and Possibilities of a Genre. The responses take different stances towards the recovery narrative and are written by activists, survivors, and academics from multiple disciplines. In this first piece, activists Kaz DeWolfe and The Borderline Academic unpick the pressures of adhering to “consumer/user” and “survivor” recovery narratives.
We both greatly appreciate the recent article, “The Recovery Narrative: Politics and Possibilities of a Genre.” As activists in the U.S. consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement and workers in consumer/survivor run organizations, the notion of a “recovery narrative” genre deeply resonated with us both. We feel that the notion of a “recovery narrative” is pervasive in almost all corners of the mental health activism landscape.
We especially appreciated its focus on both “consumer/user” narratives and “survivor” recovery narratives. While most mental health activists, researchers, and practitioners are generally aware of “consumer/user” narratives of recovery – i.e. those that center on a person’s return to wellness or able-mindedness through medical interventions and traditional therapies – there is little awareness or discussion of “survivor” recovery narratives. In our own work, we have found that there is an equal amount of pressure to perform a particular recovery narrative regardless of one’s political affiliation or subgroup within the larger movement.
While “consumers” are encouraged to share a narrative that demonstrates the value of traditional psychiatric services, those on the “survivor” side are often pressured to share a narrative that serves the opposite purpose. Survivor recovery narratives often take the form of an individual who was once an able-minded, able-bodied, and productive citizen, who then began to struggle due to trauma or life hardships, and prescribed psychiatric medication as a result. The psychiatric medication lowered their productivity and functioning within the workplace and nuclear family. The prevailing medical model conceptualized their experiences as symptoms of an illness, which limited their ability to process their trauma and find meaning. The recovery process is facilitated through rejecting their diagnosis, coming off psychiatric drugs, and through realizing that they have the tools to cope with life’s challenges and problems without the use of drugs.
As activists who have had negative experiences with psychiatric medications (and who have expressed oppositional stances toward the use of involuntary medication), we have felt pressured to conform to this particular narrative. We are both employed by organizations that center survivor perspectives and highlight survivor narratives. Wanting or needing to be paid for the work we do within the survivor community becomes an added level of pressure, in addition to the social pressure within the broader social movement.
What we have come to realize about both of these kinds of recovery narratives is that they are not that different. They both reify a capitalist definition of recovery and wellness – one that is tied to being productive in the workplace and adhering to a role in the nuclear family structure. Whether the mechanism of recovery involves taking psychiatric medication or coming off psychiatric medication, the key transformation in the story revolves around going from someone who is unproductive, dependent on others, etc. to someone who is contributing economically, supporting a family, etc.
The recovery narratives that are published and shared widely never go, “I was working 60 hours a week and I was miserable, so I quit my job, went on disability, and now I’m doing okay” or “I was hiding my voices and trying to pass as sane so I wouldn’t make anyone in my family uncomfortable, and I hated it, so I decided to leave and now I can finally be myself.” The narratives are almost always, “I was on disability, too depressed to go to work, and now I am working a 40-hour week and I am a great wife/husband/mother/father.” Being disabled, and proudly so, is rarely included in the narratives shared by either community.
But what happens when you don’t fit into this kind of “recovery narrative”? What if you are still struggling to get out of bed or be productive, and either coming off medication or being on medication/getting therapy has not changed this? What if you don’t want to recover? Or what it to you, recovery means accepting yourself as you are – even if this means you are unproductive and unattached to a nuclear family – and surrounding yourself with people who do not value you based on your productivity? Unfortunately, these kinds of narratives are not only devalued but actively suppressed.
During our time in the movement, we have been discouraged from reaching out and being authentic about our current struggles because, “You’re off your meds – we need to show people that they’ll get better once they get off their meds.” We have been told that our stories are not useful, that they do not serve a political or economic purpose, or that they are not deserving of sympathy/empathy from an audience. “People who don’t work hard are just not likeable narrators,” we are told. Or we are told that in order to be effective advocates we need to be able to demonstrate professionalism, level-headedness, to “pass as sane” or show that we are recovered. We’re reminded that people won’t take us seriously if we are visibly in distress, if our madness becomes visible.
About a year ago we started Radical Abolitionist, a cognitive liberty blogspace. When it was conceived, we imagined sharing stories of resistance to paternalism and force, not stories of recovery. Narrative is an important tool of any movement, and in advocating for civil rights we need much more than just recovery narratives. We need victim narratives, liberation narratives, resistance narratives, accountability narratives, restorative justice narratives, prophetic narratives, acceptance narratives, inclusion narratives, even vengeance narratives. Our movement will grow and thrive when everyone who is marginalized by sanism and ableism has a voice with resonance, whether it conforms to a prescribed narrative or not.
Kaz DeWolfe and The Borderline Academic are activists, advocates, and co-founders of Radical Abolitionist, a cognitive liberty blogspace.