Writer Reflects on Meaning of Recovery

Contributing Writer Katherine Volk reflects on conversations with staff at a community-based organization about re-imagining the notion of recovery.

My colleagues and I think a lot about recovery. How to define it. How to instill it as a value in organizations. Often, when I’m visiting a community organization, the conversation about recovery turns to mental health diagnoses and substance use treatment. Recently, though, I was having a conversation with staff at a small community-based organization that drove home to me that recovery is so much more. Working with families experiencing homelessness, the staff described to me dislocation and loss, regaining a sense of self, and discovering new ways of being.

On my drive home, my mind wandered to the families with whom I’ve worked, the kids I’ve played with in shelter playrooms, their mothers and fathers. I remember our conversations and begin to re-imagine them in terms of recovery.

  • “I’m recovering from the strange smells in the shelter,” says a seven-year old.
  • “I'm recovering from the shame of putting my children to sleep in our car, rather than in bunk beds in our apartment,” says a dad.
  • “I’m recovering from an abusive relationship, but more than that, I’m recovering from the realization that I didn’t know relationships could be any other way,” says a mom.

I then imagine these same conversations evolving into a reflection about what people now know.

  • “I remember the point in my recovery where my sleep patterns became normal. I slept soundly for the first time in years. Maybe ever.”
  • “Today, I invited a friend to my house to play.”
  • “I cook dinner for my family and realized that for awhile, I was too depressed to eat with them. Now I do–and it tastes so good.”
  • “Today I came home to MY place. I snuggled with my cat and read the newspaper.”

In other words, recovery is about the big things–kicking dependence on heroin, climbing out of depression, finding a healthy way to move forward after terrible violence–and also about the seemingly small ones. The simple moments. The small gestures. Recovery, too, is coming to terms with things that we still want to learn. “Humans of New York,” a story-telling art project made popular through social media, recently posted a quote from a young woman who captures this idea so well.

She says, “I think I need to learn discipline. I don’t think I ever learned it when I was young. I had one of those typical inner city stories. My mom was addicted to drugs so I had no bedtime. No wake-up time. No chores to do. Those sound like simple things but they aren’t. I’ve seen a lot of people in college who are able to work really hard at something even if they aren’t very interested in the subject, and I think that’s because they learned discipline.”

SAMHSA defines recovery as “a process of change through which people improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” Recovery happens in four dimensions: health, home, purpose, and community. My hope is that we help one another find these things–big and small; grand and simple; what we know to be true and what we still would like to discover.

This article was originally published on SAMSHA's Voices from the Field blog highlights the theme of Recovery. September is Recovery Month. Find the latest SAMHSA Blog posts about behavioral health and homelessness.

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Katie Volk
Last Updated: 04/19/2016