Recovery is a state of mind which is as convoluted as the philosophical question “how long is a piece of string?”
By definition it should be simple, recovery is a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength nevertheless this is not as straightforward in reality, recovery is dependent on many factors which hold different meanings to us all.
The one resounding similarity is that recovery exists due to there having been something in which to recover from, a commonality which is rarely spoken of. Whether it is from physical injury, a traumatic event or mental illness, recovery is a state which starts after the fact that you survive whatever it is you lived through.
Two words get uttered when speaking of recovery and get misunderstood within the context; these words are: victim and survivor. Like bickering children these words are seen as opposing cliques, in which one belongs to one or the other with no cross over, creating a divide between two almost identical groups which in all seriousness could do with one another’s support and solidarity.
Victim has become a dirty word, an insult or indication of weakness; we hear sayings like:
“Don’t be a victim” and “victim mentality”. A common rhetoric which flippantly dismisses people’s trauma or ability to cope.
Whereas a celebratory inclusivity is given to people who present themselves as survivors, it is marketable, a destination is created called “recovery” which only those accepting themselves as survivors are welcome. A whole industry of self-help has been created to cash in on this concept, to extort a person’s vulnerability for profit. An often ineffective method, with results which can be damaging to the individual as well as societally. When a state of mind can be sold to you, it is often the case that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The reason for this is because “recovery” is not a fixed occurrence, so if a book or seminar states “ your road to recovery starts here” then I would urge you to question what recovery is to you, and where and when is the “here” they speak of? Do they suggest a quick fix, or a progressive steps plan? If so, ask yourself why they have felt the need to structure this strategy in such a way? The answer is sales and profit, something which has no bearing on your recovery or needs as an individual. It may seem adorably bite size and alluring with its set time frame, but is this reality?
On the opposing side there is no glory when you are thought to be the survivor, you do not “win” with this label. The identification as a survivor brings about just as many pitfalls as that of the victim. Your survival can become a prison, with the bar set exceptionally high, the expectations for the survivor to be a pillar of strength is a heavy crown to wear. With this pressure, further survival tactics are employed, such as camouflage and a new skin is created to conceal the pain and inevitable ups and downs which follow suite with recovery.
This means that victims and survivors are drowning in a sea of social etiquettes, marketing tricks and the usual pressures of life; all the while being expected to challenge or maintain labels which society has deemed for them to uphold.
The reason I know this is because both these labels have been assigned to me throughout my life. As a victim of child sexual abuse, teenage sexual violence and rape, abandonment, neglect and emotional abuse I survived. However my battle scars did not heal dependent on my label, these wounds are now an ongoing illness called Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) which is defined as a psychological injury which results from ongoing or repeated trauma in developmental stages of life such as infancy but including all ages before adulthood. It is a visible injury as it can be seen on MRI scans, C-PTSD causes an exaggerated response to threat-related stimuli causing increased appraisal of danger and fear responses, whereas activity is decreased in parts of the brain responsible for memory, decision making, reward anticipation, rational thought and reality.
As a child and adolescent I was referred to by family friends, doctors, therapists and social workers as a victim of circumstances, which just confused me further; however in my early twenties the label victim was disgusting to me, in fact so was survivor, which is why pretending to not belong to either group seemed the best option. In my late twenties my awareness grew on the matter of trauma, which led to self-identifying as a survivor, my past became more and more present in my day to day life, overlapping past, present and future; leading me to dissociate with the world.
One day during this period I walked a short distance to a letter box outside my home, which for me as an agoraphobic was a challenge and part of my exposure therapy, when suddenly I saw my rapist walking without a care in the world towards me. Panicking I ran to my house having not posted the letter, sweating, crying and feeling as if my front door was Fort Knox, I dropped my keys franticly rooting around on the floor, my heart felt as though it would explode out of my chest before the door became unlocked. Eventually the door was opened, falling in the hall way crying like a small child on the floor, realising that my worst fears were realised. This event sparked off a new explosion in my mind and a break down ensued.
Now in my early thirties as a housebound person with many other mental illnesses which are symptoms of the CPTSD, I accept myself as both victim and survivor, these two states do not exist separately in me, but simultaneously, side by side; two parts of me holding hands. Accepting of one another existence; the victim reminds the survivor not to be so hard on them self and to allow for fragility and comfort. With the survivor reminding the victim of their strength and ability to fight for their life.
My aim in this article is for a different view on the spectrum of what recovery is to us as humans coexisting; for those of us in the process, or those who have recovered, and to those who have not experienced this kind of suffering, there needs to be a sense of community; a new way for us to discuss these matters without the quick fix mantra or the stigma of victimhood, self-identity should be just that, personal and kept as a choice not a label.
Most people in this world are recovering from the atrocities which impact so many lives; such as natural disasters, war, poverty, terrorism, rape, serious illness and homelessness. Many do not have the luxury to think of their “recovery” as every day is crammed with trauma inducing scenarios leaving them on the brink of survival.
Next time someone says to you, “I am in recovery”, simply listen; do not project any of your own ideas on the subject unless asked and offer support unconditionally.
As a victim I survived and recovery is my trajectory for life.
Fani, Negar; Jovanovic, Tanja; Ely, Timothy D.; Bradley, Bekh; Gutman, David; Tone, Erin; and Ressler, Kerry J., “Neural Correlates of Attention Bias to Threat in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder” (2012). Psychology Faculty Publications. Paper 124.
Rauch SL, Shin LM, Phelps EA. Neurocircuitry models of posttraumatic stress disorder and extinction: human neuroimaging research–past, present, and future. Biological Psychiatry 2006;60:376-82.
Elzinga BM, Bremner JD. Are the neural substrates of memory the final common pathway in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Journal of Affective Disorders 2002;70:1-17.