‘Recovery solutions’: banking on the capitalist temporalities of the mind

In this second post responding to The Recovery Narrative: Politics and Possibilities of a Genre, Michael Flexer discusses the capitalist content and form of recovery narratives. 

We live in a golden age of recovery.  No one is sick, let alone sickening unto death.  Instead of casualties, we have survivors.  No one suffers alcoholism; they’re all recovering alcoholics.  Software offers automatic crash recovery.  It’s not a bailiff at the door; it’s the recovery solution experts.  Googling ‘recovery solutions’ provides an illustrative mix of debt recovery, data recovery and recovery therapies, each advertising claims to comparable standards of speed, ease, completeness and ethics of the recovery ‘product’ offered.

Immediate Credit Recovery Incorporated, accessed May 13,2019, https://myicraccount.com/

The great talisman of recovery is the economy.  For a decade now, the economies of the US, UK and EU have been in perpetual and imperceptible recovery.  When the pound or the FTSE collapse in the morning but by the end of the day things haven’t proven quite so disastrous, we’re told on the news that the currency or the market recovered.  In the depths of a capitalist crisis, crash and recovery are coterminous.  Timescales and chains of causality are concertina-ed into a meaningless, anachronistic instantaneous eternity of ‘getting better’.

When a man is rumbled for industrial-scale sexual assault, we don’t talk of penitence, punishment or even truth and reconciliation.  Rather, it’s off to a clinic for ‘successful outcomes for recovery’.  The Meadows Clinic homepage shows a smiling white face with the slogan ‘This is where I Change My Story’.  In lieu of a public, collective discourse of justice and accountability, we get a personal, subjective drama of recovery as change.  When people (or economies) can just ‘recover’ and change their story by fiat, no one has to answer for lives destroyed by poverty or rape.  Indeed, to bring up any such symptoms of the pathology would be in very bad taste when someone has their recovery narrative written in flames a mile high.

Instead of crime, illness or disaster, we have a rainbow of recoveries.  Simply put, recovery, as an ethics of amnesia insists, without irony: ‘nothing bad happened and anyway, it’s better now.’  In this moral economy of exchange, debts aren’t something to be paid or honoured, but to be recovered and traded.  Recovering a debt is an act of creating a notional entity, a sum that might never have existed previously as a sum, but only is anticipated as existing as an amount to be collected.  It is pure perlocutionary creation – a story of recovery first creates for the future a supposed past to be recovered.

The only fault with this excellent paper from Woods, Hart and Spandler is that it is far too generous spirited towards the recovery narrative genre.  Recovery is a lie.  It pretends to a return, but a return to a time, place and state that never existed.  It’s no accident that recovery is at the heart of the organising political myth of the US today: Make America Great Again.  (Still retailing at only $25.)  The temporality of the ‘again’ speaks to a deliberately occluded present vanishing between a never-been past and a never-never future.

Recovery narratives by people with lived experience of psychosis and/or voice hearing reveal the same temporal paradox.  The recovery is always written from the temporal perspective of cure.  It is written in a ‘now’ that is defined and legitimised by a particular contextual structure, such as the publishing framework of the Schizophrenia Bulletin or the consumerist ideology of US recovery activists movements or the fist-punch triumphalism of the TED talk. The recovery narrative takes the ‘now’ of the moment of writing or telling and re-covers the lived – and potentially unacceptable or unpalatable – past with a curated (and cured) enduring present.  And it’s a present that – in keeping with the well-documented white, affluent ablist bias of the writers [1] – is orientated to a successful re-covered future, comprising an itemised accumulation of the bourgeoise markers of a well-lived life: family; high-paying job; nice house; social capital and recognition.  Consider Romme’s weird diktat that voice hearers use recovery narratives to ‘stop being a victim and become a victor’[2].  This isn’t about collective work to prevent the systematic creation of victims.  It’s just a bit of individual actualisation.  There can still be (indeed must be) victims.  Just don’t be dumb enough to be one yourself.

There’s a telling detail in the unforgivably awful pathography Divided Minds – a co-written recovery narrative charting the diverging and converging life paths of two white female Jewish American identical twin baby boomers, one with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and the other a psychiatrist.  Carolyn – the twin with the medical qualification – recalls a key prodromal moment in the time before Pam – the twin with the diagnosis – had her first psychotic break.  At the same point in the text, Pam recounts the same moment as her first remembered instance of voice-hearing. [3]  Carolyn is very specific on the temporal details.  It is the day of Kennedy’s assassination and this ties to Pam’s account that the voice she heard was aggressively holding her responsible for the president’s death.  At the same time, Carolyn recollects that their classmates are gathered around talking about the latest Beatles record [4].  The Beatles were unheard of in the US at the time.  Beatlemania was 1964 and their first single wasn’t to be released until December 1963.  The supposed past to be recovered is revealed as an impossible fantasy belonging to a later moment of re-writing recollection.  This isn’t about nitpicking factual errors, but rather about demonstrating the tripartite temporal structure intrinsic to a recovery narrative: simultaneously located prior to, within and post the moment of psychosis.  The present narrative self is to be made compliant, via the narrative, to win the promise of the future as a recovered past.  This isn’t simply capitalist in content (yearning for those bourgeoise markers …).  It is capitalist in form.  The recovery narrative is a technology for indebting the self, and demanding the performance of recovery to allow (re)admittance to the future-past.  Recovery narratives depend on (and are generative of) a model of the mind that is capitalist in form and content in which crisis and recovery are the same moment, and that self-same present moment, and its concomitant realities, are to be ignored in order to chase a future based on an imaginary return to a never-existing past.

This means that recovery through narrative isn’t just bad practice.  It’s bluntly impossible, without deep delusion.  Shiers, Rosen and Shiers (2009) [5] – speaking from a combination of clinical, research and personal experience – propose recovery narrative methods, specifically the ‘subtle’ incremental ‘woodshedding’ (166), for early intervention work with young people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, stressing the value of gradualism, discontinuous improvements and therapeutic optimism.  In the midst of this, in all apparent seriousness, they offer Poprischin – the titular madman in Gogol’s ‘Diary of a Madman’ (1834) – as a model of narrative recovery.  Certainly, in the closing moments of the story, Poprischin experiences a moment of serene clarity: ‘The path ahead is clear: everything is as bright as daylight. I don’t really understand why, but before this revelation everything was enveloped in a kind of mist.’  You don’t have to be a clinician to wonder whether this healing revelation is slightly undermined by the fact that it manifests as an (erroneous) belief he is the King of Spain.  Anosognosia and recovery may be absolutely indistinguishable.  Only by greater retreat into his delusions does Poprischin find respite from the sorrows of his condition; an ominous omen for what a recovery narrative might mean for schizophrenia.  Again, again, we hit on the temporal trap of the recovery narrative – it dazzles the present with a future offer of a recovered past.  But the future-past to be recovered is a myth of its own making, just as the recovery agents knock at the door to reclaim money that never existed from those who never had it.  The debt is due regardless of whether it was you who ever had the benefit of it.  Once taken, it is recovered.

Dr Michael J Flexer is the publicly engaged research fellow on the Wellcome-funded Waiting Times project. He is on Twitter @michaeljflexer


[1] G Thomas Couser, Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009)

[2] Professor Marius Romme, Dr Sandra Escher, Jacqui Dillon, Dr Dirk Corstens, Professor Mervyn Morris (eds.), Living With Voices: 50 Stories of Recovery (Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books, 2009), p.4

[3] There isn’t room here to consider how the pre-illness time itself in these narratives is always riddled with prodromal markers and risk factors serving to destroy the possibility of any prior pre-illness time and self to be re-covered.
[4] Pamela Spiro Wagner and Carolyn S Spiro, Divided Minds (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2005), p.34
[5] David Shiers, Alan Rosen and Ann Shiers, ‘Beyond early intervention: can we adopt alternative narratives like ‘Woodshedding’ as pathways to recovery in schizophrenia?’, Early Intervention in Psychiatry, 3 (2009) 163-171



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