I’ve recently been corresponding with a woman, let’s call her Alice, who is concerned about the part of the Eleanor Longden story where Eleanor states that “Hearing voices is like left-handedness; it’s a human variation, not open to cure, just coping.” Alice pointed out that since some people do find a way to a place where they no longer hear voices, it is misleading to state that there is “no cure.” She went further to say that she considers complete recovery, from psychosis or trauma, to have happened only when a person no longer experiences any kind of disadvantage due to the psychosis or trauma. Since hearing voices has some disadvantages, this means she believes it isn’t appropriate to call it complete recovery if the person still hears voices.
My reply to her was as follows:
I share your problem with the “not open to cure” language, as I think it does convey an impression of having to resign to being stuck with a problem, and like you say, since we know some people are helped to transition to not having voices, why not hold out hope to everyone that this is at least a possibility for them?
However, I still am very much opposed to your definition of recovery, and I will try to explain why.
I’m not sure that there is any kind of experience that doesn’t have some kind of ill effect. For example, if one’s parents are too nice and one’s childhood too idyllic, one may later have the ill effect of feeling too overprotected and of being too unprepared for the world’s harshness.
Every way of living, and every way of organizing oneself, has some set of advantages and disadvantages. This can be seen for example in choice of geographic location. If you live in New York, there’s lots of culture and stimulation, but it’s hard to get nature and solitude, or any kind of small town feel. If you live in a small town or out in the country, you miss other things.
People whose lives are affected by trauma, and/or by psychosis, often end up places they would never otherwise be as a result of the trauma and/or psychosis. But later, upon recovery, they may choose to stay in some of those places, because they accept the set of advantages and disadvantages that come with them, or it just isn’t worth the bother of moving and getting set up somewhere else. Metaphorically speaking, it’s as though one were kidnapped and taken to a foreign country. The kidnapping was traumatic, but later perhaps one adjusted to the foreign country and found a way of living there that was successful, that made a move back to one’s original location seem not desirable.
Now imagine someone comes along and says “you have obviously failed to recover from the kidnapping, because you are still experiencing some disadvantages due to the kidnapping, namely all the disadvantages that come from living in this particular location.” What’s wrong with that logic? The problem with the logic is that it neglects acknowledging that the person would also have some disadvantages if they moved back to the town from which one was kidnapped, or to some other location. There will always be disadvantages, to whatever way of living. It seems to me that a person who felt a need to move, even to a less desirable location, just to show that his/her living location was not directly or indirectly a result of the trauma, would really be a person who was still acting like a victim of trauma, while the one who lived happily in the location where he/she had originally been taken due to the traumatic event/kidnapping might be the one who was recovered. Of course, some in their recovery might move back to their home town, but the key thing to acknowledge is that there are diverse ways of recovering, and that it is up to the person to define what recovery is for them.
“Trying too hard to be normal” incidentally is often a common problem in people who have been diagnosed with psychosis and similar problems. A more functional belief can be that “it’s normal to be different” and to accept differences that don’t cause unacceptable problems. We are all different as a result of our pasts, whether we are trauma survivors or not. All these differences come with a set of advantages and disadvantages. There is no reason that those of us who are trauma survivors should feel compelled to get rid of all the differences we have that might be a result of the trauma: such a compulsion in itself can screw up our lives.
My contention is that as long as the person has found a meaningful life, with a set of advantages and disadvantages that seem acceptable, without disability or need for treatment, that is recovery. That doesn’t mean the person has nothing further to strive for – life is full of things to strive for – but it means that “recovery from trauma” or “recovery from psychosis” is no longer the focus.
Incidentally, the woman, Eleanor Longden, in the news story I linked to in starting this discussion, in her chapter in the “Living with Voices” book, said “I am proud to be a voice hearer. It is an incredibly special and unique experience. I am so glad that I have been given the opportunity to see it that way because recovery is a fundamental human right and I shouldn’t be the exception. I should be the rule. That is why I want to be a part of this movement to change the way that we relate to human experience and diversity.”