With COVID-19 continuing to dominate the news, I found myself wondering if I could somehow draw upon our growing knowledge of this disease as a point of reference for an article recognizing National Recovery Month. It turned out to be fairly simple, really, especially as some people who have had COVID-19 illness are now experiencing ongoing complications.

In an online article published last month by University of Pennsylvania, medical researchers found some COVID patients experience lingering deficits in lung and cognitive function, kidney and cardiovascular function, as well as psychological effects such as depression. How long such after-effects might last is unknown, but doctors are recognizing they will need to be treated as chronic conditions.

While we have much to learn about long-term health impacts of COVID-19, we do know managing almost any chronic disease – diabetes, heart disease, COPD – usually not only requires medication, but more important, involves a great deal of personal responsibility by the individual with the disease. And this is where I see the clearest link to the actions and activities we celebrate during National Recovery Month.

On one level, living in recovery is about managing a chronic disease. Often it means taking medications to manage the disease process – just as a person might take insulin for diabetes or statins for high cholesterol. But recovery is also about developing coping mechanisms for when symptoms may flare up (despite medication), about identifying potential triggers and situations that might cause stress, or distress, or an urge to use substances,. It is about making personal choices that not only protect but enhance health and wellbeing.

For people living with mental illness or a substance use disorder, recovery does not mean getting back to the way things were “before” – which is how we tend to think of recovery (for example, recovering from acute COVID-19 illness).

For a person with a chronic mental health condition, “before” might mean feeling too depressed to get outof bed, being afraid to leave your house or talking back to the voices you hear in your head. For someone with a chronic substance use disorder, “before” might mean going to jail, losing your job or family, or staying up for days using drugs and not eating. None of those are circumstances to which people want to return.

Rather, living in recovery is about going forward, with purpose. People begin the recovery journey by first acknowledging they have an illness, and admitting they are powerless to change that. But by doing that, individuals become empowered to change the things they can, such as how they react to their illness, how they learn to cope with challenges, and how they choose to manage their symptoms – and their life.

By leaning to cultivate a personal mindfulness each moment of the day, living in recovery is something each of us can work toward, even if we are not living with mental illness or a substance use disorder.

Yes, it requires work, every day, and support and responsibility, but really, isn’t that what we all want for our lives? To be productive, independent, to live our best life? That is the power of recovery, and it is possible for everyone.

One of the individuals who participates in Highland Rivers’ mental health peer support program, Phillip, offered a perspective on living in recovery that I want to share here – because it is straightforward, based on lived experience, and a great thought to leave you with:

“I like to think it’s a three-step process – you develop coping skills, the skills become habits, then those habits progress to behaviors. That’s what I consider recovery, and I am living it moment to moment.”

Congratulations to you, Phillip, and to individuals everywhere who are living their best life in recovery.

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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