What Is Recovery? 3 Underrated Ingredients

Reading Time: 7 mins

Word cloud showing the factors of recovery.

Mental Health Awareness month is nearly over and this year it’s been awash with debate.

One of the things that has been brought up time and again is the subject of recovery. Many charities have spread “success stories” to help raise awareness. This has led to a backlash, with legitimate criticism that these stories whitewash the ugly side of distress.

Often, these stories can make people who are still struggling feel like they’re doing recovery wrong. Like if you don’t go “back to normal” or “back to work” or “back to your old self”, then you’re a failure.

I think it’s time we changed the conversation.

In this post, I want to offer an alternative view of recovery. I want to show you what it means to me, what I think the main ingredients of recovery are, and how this view has helped my recovery.

I hope you’ll be able to take some of this away to help you too.


Definition of Recovery

Most definitions of recovery talk about returning to normal or getting back to a previous position. But this definition rarely works regarding mental illness.

1 – Recovery can’t mean being “who we were before”.

The truth is, after serious mental illness, we will likely have seen a side of ourselves and the world that we never knew existed. We will have felt pain, sadness, and fear.

Humans are creatures of change, and each moment we spend on this earth leads us to evolve. Suffering is part of that change, and we cannot expect to go back in time.

Recovery must be about finding out who we are now and looking to the future, not the past.

2 – Recovery is not about “being normal”.

There are over seven billion people in this world. Seven billion different perceptions. It’s clichéd, but is there such a thing as normal?

By its very nature, serious mental illness puts us outside of normal. We are outliers – anomalies. Comparing us to “normal” people will only deepen our pain, and faking normality does not work.

Recovery must involve looking at ourselves – what we need and how we have value – not others.

3 – Recovery might not mean “going back to work”.

Work can be part of recovery, sure. It certainly was for me. But not everyone will want or be able to return to employment.

As humans, we are social beings. There is, therefore, a drive in us to pursue something greater than ourselves. Most people desire to contribute and want the world to be better.

But this doesn’t mean a job necessarily. There are other ways we can add value to our families, communities, and society.

Recovery must be about finding our skills and bringing our talents into the world.

A New Definition

I propose a new definition of recovery that I think aligns more closely with those of us who have been through the wringer of mental illness:

Recovery is the process of rediscovering value and purpose in our lives.

Why do I think this definition would help people? There’s no time limit; it is person-centred, and this definition emphasises the process. Recovery is not a destination. Trying and failing lead to growth and learning, and this definition makes room for that. We can have goals within that, of course. We should!

But recovery is not static – our recoveries will all look different because we are different.



Diagram of recovery showing the ingredients of Stability, self-awareness and service

My 3S Model of Recovery

So, with the new definition in mind, how do we recover? What is recovery made of?

In my own experience, I’ve found three aspects that I think are vital to recovery. Each one builds off the others, and each has been distilled from my own experience and my takeaways from other literature, such as AA’s “12 Steps” and Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”.

The first is Self-Awareness.

magnifying glass representing self-awareness

This is about knowing yourself – deeply – and understanding what makes you tick. What do you value? What are you passionate about? What hurts you? Who are you now? Who could you be?

The second is Stability.

scales representing stability


This is about finding balance in your life and building resilience, so the inevitable setbacks don’t knock you sideways. How can you feel a little better each day? What do you need to prevent a crisis? Medication? Therapy? A change of jobs? What is your support network? If you do hit a crisis, what safety nets do you have?

Finally, there’s Service.

clasped hands representing service

This is about what you can put out into the world to help you grow and give you a sense of worth. How can you use your skills right now? What strength do you have that could help others? How can you build on these?

Questioning Ourselves

The overlap between these three areas raises important questions which we also need to consider, and will give us a useful map to ourselves. For instance, when thinking about service we also need to be thinking about stability – we are no use to others if we once again find ourselves at the bottom of the well after working too hard. So, this brings up questions such as: what boundaries do I need to put in place to protect my wellbeing? What supportive routines will I need to enable me to pursue meaning?

In short, to enable recovery, we need to explore who we are, what we need, and what value we have. These three things when united will give us a bedrock so that, if another earthquake hits, most (if not all) of us will be left untouched. They give us something to cling to in the bad times and something to cherish in the good.



My Recovery Journey

Many setbacks, big and small, have marred my recovery and after eight years I’m still learning what works for me.

My first step was medication to control my psychotic symptoms. Medication will likely be the first step for many in getting a sense of stability, and for me it was essential.

After this was in place, in 2017, I began therapy, which made me explore myself. Therapy has been the core driver of my self-awareness. For instance, I care deeply about being a “good person”. I want to be helpful. I get a real sense of achievement and purpose from helping others and seeing them grow.

I knew I wanted to get back into work to be an equal partner in my marriage (self-awareness again). I needed that sense of accomplishment. So, I got a low-level admin job. It was tough to manage, and I often panicked about it at first. But it gave me a sense of security financially, and the company’s ethos meant I felt like I was helping others. Bam – stability and service all in one.

My stability was tested heavily in 2019 when my Nan died – the adult I’d always looked up to, my cheerleader. She’d been such a massive part of my life, and I didn’t know what I’d be without her.

I’d spent two years at that point cultivating my recovery. I’d built supportive relationships, been to therapy, and took medication. It was still tough. The voices became quite strong for a while – and repeatedly told me I’d caused my Nan’s death.

But I didn’t break the way I thought I would. I was able to roll with the tide more easily. I began to heal from my grief, and the voices began to abate once again.



My definition of recovery may work for you. It may not. Regardless, we need to change the conversation of what recovery entails and how we as a society help people with serious mental illness discover their value. Anyone can recover, but very few people in the UK get the opportunity to. This needs to change.

So, to finish up, firstly I want to thank you for reading. I hope this post has given you some helpful things to think about for your own recovery journey. What do you think about the 3S model? Has something in there already played a part for you? Or is there anything I’ve left off that you feel is vital? I’d love to hear your thoughts below – or if you’d rather get in touch directly, please contact me here.

So, until the next post!

Bronwyn @ LBT x