Relationships Can Heal

recovery Jan 23, 2005

I have had the privilege of interviewing many people about their journey of recovery. One of the most consistent themes that has emerged in these recovery narratives is the importance of relationships. Relationships are the cornerstone of the recovery process for most people. Relationships that are marked by kindness and compassion can heal. Sometimes healing relationships are developed with professionals, but more commonly, people in recovery mentioned healing relationships with a friend or peer. Some people even reported a beloved pet was a significant part of their recovery. In a culture steeped in the belief that there is a "pill for every ill", it can be important to remind ourselves of the healing power of human relationships.

The people I have interviewed mention certain important characteristics of people who were experienced as helpful in their recovery. Many said the helpful person showed fortitude, patience, and love. For instance, John said:

"Relationships helped me. Patience. Sticking by you regardless. Like my wife. Sticking by you through thick and thin. Constant support. Constant encouragement from the outside. That's what I think a person needs the most. And love."

Fidelity, patience, and fortitude are evident when the helpful person is present during the most difficult of times and does not simply come around when recovery seems promising. People who are experienced as helpful are able to hold the relationship during times when the other does not reciprocate affection and care. This holding of love and relationship, even during the most barren and anguished winter of recovery, requires compassion. The word compassion comes from the Latin passio, to suffer and com, to be with. To be compassionate is to suffer with the person in distress. To be compassionate is a way of being with the other without an agenda to change them, to relieve their suffering or to suffer for them. Through compassion, we can reach out to the other even when they refuse to reach back. With compassion, we see the person, not the diagnosis or disorder. Nancy described this experience as follows:

"Sam was the kind of person, although he is a physical scientist, who has a lot of humanism and feeling towards people. He encouraged me to take a couple of courses at a time. And he always believed I was never mentally ill. He saw me as ordinary Nancy. Whether I was classified manic depressive, depressive, paranoid schizophrenia; I had every diagnosis over the years you could name and every medication and treatment that went according to that individual diagnosis. But Sam would say he thought I had a behavioral problem and was trying to find myself. He encouraged me and went through all of the hard times with me."

Another characteristic of people who are helpful to the recovery process is that they believe in the person in distress, even when that person does not believe in themselves. Believing in the other is not expressed in optimistic rhetoric such as, "I just know that in time you will do better." Shallow optimism ignores the challenges and difficulties that the person in distress faces. Optimism may help us feel better, but it leaves the other alone and distanced. Believing in someone, on the other hand, takes the form of a fundamental affirmation of that person's goodness. It is a hopeful stance that admits the future is uncertain and ambiguous while simultaneously expressing a willingness to walk together into that unknown future. Janet told of this fundamental affirmation when she said:

"Finally I was put on this one ward in Building 20 which is the chronic ward. There was this one staff member that just did not give up. I'll never forget her. She just didn't give up. She kept telling me that, no matter what, I had a lot of potential. And every time she would come on the ward, she'd come up and give me a hug which, at least from my experience in the mental health system, is not allowed. But she would always come up to me every morning and give me a hug and ask me how my night went."

People who are helpful to the recovery process are able to convey feelings and are experienced as being very human. No one reported that professional distance and demeanor were helpful. Instead, our own humanity is the bridge that connects us to people in distress. Sometimes humor can form a connection of warmth, joy, and affection. For instance, Leonard talks about spending two years at a state hospital and the only person he felt connected to was an attendant:

"Most of the world couldn't connect with me at all. And I didn't want to connect with most of the world. But once in a while, there was that special person who could get me past the numbing medication and connect…I remember one of the attendants used to like to talk about basketball with me all the time. He was a big Danny Ainge (basketball star) fan. He would come onto the ward and say, 'Danny A-A-I-I-N-N-G-G-E!!' and I would always be happy to see him because he would keep me laughing when I see him when he would say that. He made laugh."

Sometimes helpful people convey their humanity by expressing sympathy, listening, and respecting the issues and concerns of the person in distress. Importantly, they avoid being judgmental and are accepting. Sarah described such a person as follows:

"I was working closely with Dr. Smith, my therapist. Actually, he was the first person I encountered out of the whole ordeal that actually had some sort of feelings. He was like sympathetic at least and was understanding above all. He was really helping me out and motivating…Motivating me to keep fighting. Don't give up with the court system. Don't let them just have their way. Just keep fighting. And school. And just talking. Just to be able to talk and not be judged by whatever comes out of my mouth. And knowing that what's going to come out of my mouth is going to stay between me and him. It's not going to go into someone else's ear and say 'This person needs medication'."

Relationships include the idea of mutuality and reciprocity. This can be very healing for people who have been in the patient or client role for a long time. That is, being socialized into the role of a "good" mental patient often means learning to become preoccupied with matters pertaining to "me". Socialization into self-preoccupation starts in the hospital where each day begins with a nurse asking you if your bowels are moving, if you slept that night, etc. Socialization into me-ness proceeds on through the years as each and every case manager, therapist, residential worker or vocational rehabilitation counselor asks, "How are you doing?" Unlike normal social discourse in which 'how are you doing' acts as a perfunctory greeting, mental health discourse requires the client to take the question seriously and to answer by revealing more about "me". In addition, in most mental health settings, clients are not encouraged to help each other or anyone else. In this sense, the currently popular term "consumer" seems apt. It conjures the image of a large mouth consuming and consuming without a hint that it would be possible to contribute something back.

Socialization into me-ness, self-preoccupation and being a consumer means that many people are denied the opportunity to discover they have something to offer to other people. This iatrogenic wounding is another reason relationships can be so healing. It is healing to learn that one needs and is needed, cares and is cared for, and can receive as well as give. For example, after years of terrible isolation and loneliness in her apartment, Alexa found herself being needed:

"I had a service dog now. Of course, he helped me but he also needed me too. I was the one who filled his food bowl and gave him water. I was the one who exercised him. I mean without me to care for him, he could die. I had never experienced this before. He needed me and depended on me. I couldn't let him down. I had to get up in the morning or he wouldn't get fed. I couldn't just go off and kill myself because I had to walk my dog later that day. That's powerful. That made all the difference for me."

I'm interested in hearing more about how relationships have helped in the recovery process. Feel free to add your comments and experiences.