Often in these columns I write about a particular topic in the context of recognizing a national health observance relevant to the work of Highland Rivers Health — for example, Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, Alcohol Awareness Month, or Children’s Mental Health Week.

I say that we “recognize” these observances in order to raise awareness of how a particular issue impacts individuals in our communities, as well as the resources our agency provides to help.

September is one such observance, National Recovery Month, but we don’t just recognize it, we celebrate it! Recovery, in a word — one word — is Highland Rivers’ mission, and we are passionate about it. More than that, individuals in our communities who are seeking, working toward and living in recovery should be celebrated — along with the therapists, addiction counselors, case managers, peer specialists, doctors, nurses and other behavioral health professionals that help them achieve it.

It is perhaps natural to understand recovery first in the context of physical health — and we’ve heard a lot about it especially during the pandemic. It is heartening to hear that someone who contracted COVID recovered. But we’ve also learned that recovering from COVID doesn’t necessarily mean a person is healthy again. Although they may no longer have acute illness, there are thousands of people living with longer-term impacts of having had the disease — respiratory and neurological disorders, organ inflammation and PTSD.

Would we say people living with long-term effects of COVID have recovered? Perhaps not. But we know many of them are likely working with doctors, rehabilitation specialists and other caregivers to be as healthy as they can, to be able to carry out the functions of daily living, to go back to work, to care for their family, to do the things they love. They may struggle some days, but they are also likely learning that even if they can’t control having these conditions, they can control how they react to it, how they manage it, and how they live with it.

This example is a good way to understand recovery in the context of behavioral health conditions such as mental illness or substance use. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery as a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.

There are two things about that definition I really like. The first is it recognizes recovery is a process — not a state of being or discrete event with a before and after, but an ongoing process of change and improvement. That’s why individuals living in recovery speak about it in the present

tense.

The second part I like is about reaching your full potential. This means recovery is a very personal process. Think about it…if someone asked you to describe your ‘full potential,’ what would that be? Everyone would likely answer that question differently, and everyone’s answer would be unique and personal. And really, there is no wrong answer; the right answer is your answer.

So it is with recovery — because ultimately, recovery is a process of self-actualization, of becoming the best you. Individuals living with mental illness or addictive disease (or both, as many people do) must work to manage their illness, to learn to live with it, as part of reaching their full potential. That can be hard, it takes work, and that’s the reason we celebrate individuals on their recovery journey.

Ultimately, when we think about recovery, and especially if we think about how broadly it can be defined, we may recognize it could just as easily apply to individuals with long COVID as it could to individuals with mental illness and addictive disease. In fact, it could apply to almost anything and, more important, anyone. Or really, everyone. And that’s something worth celebrating.

Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in the 12-county region of Northwest Georgia.

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