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The difference between treatment and recovery

Posted Nov 24 2010 12:08am

Are treatment and recovery the same thing? Is recovery just treatment with a less medical emphasis? They are normally talked about like they are the same thing, but is it really that simple? The answer, I believe, is clear. Treatment and recovery are not the same thing. I know people in treatment that I do not believe are in recovery and I know people that are not in treatment in any kind of formal way, but who seem very much involved in recovery. Effective treatment, in some sense, is an important part of recovery I believe. Recovery just doesnt stop there.

Treatment is a term most often used in a medical sense. It refers to cure or, if that is not possible, at least symptom control. It means, in the way I mean it, anything that gives you the tools to eliminate or, at least, stabilize, to a livable degree, a condition that is severely disrupting and attacking your life. Unfortunately, for far too many it has come to mean nothing more than a scary, frustrating and disappointing effort to find the appropriate medication which is supposed to make everything okay. I saw an interesting statistic the other day. It is dated and I am not sure it still totally accurate. A pharmaceutical company on average spends about 213 million dollars on developing and taking a medication to market. Every medication. In Tennessee the entire mental health budget for all services, all treatment, all help does not come anywhere close to what it takes to bring one drug to market. Is there any question about what way the deck is stacked?

The medical frame of reference is clear. Find the cause of an ailment and address that cause and you will, if you dont cure it, at least make it possible to live with. This is a great idea– but it doesnt come anywhere close to dealing with a serious issue. It is great to deal with the disease, but what about the life of the person who has it? What about the impact? What about the tragedy? What about the pain and destruction so often wrought?

Robert Neugeboren writes in “Imagining Robert”, “But even if we find cause and cure, what then do we do with the life lived, and the history–and fear, and shame, and doubt, and despair, and sheer misery– that has accompanied that life?” It does not begin and end with dealing with the mental illness, with the mental health issues (or whatever term you prefer). It is hard to find better life if you can not do something about the disruption of that life. But recovery also addresses the experience of having a mental illness does to people — what it tells you about life, about yourself, about other people, about meaning and purpose, about worth and dignity, and about faith and hope.

Treatment- if it is effective- helps you do deal with an ongoing disruption to life. Biological interventiion may for some be an essential part of this. But even if you believe that it is a chemical disorder it is not an automatic conclusion that it can be cured solely or even most effectively by chemicals. People are more than their chemistry. Meaning matters. We are social, emotional, cognitive, relationship, spiritual creatures and to assume all that is reducible to the right pill is not a scientific fact but a philosophical assumption.

Neugeboren writes later in his book, “…why, again, such an exclusively neurobiological view of mental illness, and why so much time and money being spent in the search for chemical and organic causes and cures, while back on the ward patients languish and die for the simple lack of human attention to their ordinary human needs?”

Recovery means going on with life. It means stabilizing or eliminating a condition as much as possible, but it means also recovering a future that condition may have told you was impossible. Recovery does not mean the end or cessation of symptoms. I know many who I believe are in recovery who have difficulty and hard times almost every day.

In an earlier post I talked about 4 steps. Finding hope life can be better. Becoming empowered to make that hope real. Assuming responsibility to make those changes real. And finding a new role or identity in life based on those changes which does not define you by what disables you, but by what ables you.

Treatment helps us to cope with the past, the accumulated experiences which have brought us to this moment. Recovery helps us to move to a future past those conditions. It is not just dealing with that condition, but what we make of the experience of that condition. It has to do with how we define ourselves and the possibilities life holds for us.

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