Looking in the mirror, I see my many faces.
I see a woman, a daughter, a sister.
I see an employee, a volunteer, a poet.
I see a brunette with at least as many gray hairs as the years she struggled.
I see a person who is, at long last, truly in recovery—a person on a journey that I began as a disheartened client but now travel as an empowered consumer.
I did not always feel powerful. Long ago, I bought into a mental health system that encouraged compliance to norms dictated by service providers, many of whom never walked on a similar path. Never did they ask me what I wanted. Never did they ask me what I needed.
Instead, they diagnosed and prescribed according to what they thought I wanted and thought I needed. Eventually, they rendered me manageable. Despite their best intentions, they also rendered me helpless. It is no wonder that a revolving door of hospitals and institutions trapped me as I blindly submitted to electroconvulsive therapy treatments and an endless pharmacy of prescribed cures.
Then came a cold December morning in 2001 when the system with which I colluded for years no longer welcomed me. A psychiatric hospital cast me out, loaded me into a taxi, and dumped me in the parking lot of OPCC, formerly Ocean Park Community Center, a Santa Monica, California social service agency. Ironically, becoming homeless would be the beginning of my transformation.
Now, by definition, consumers have choices. Consumers make decisions about products and services based on what they want and what they need. Why, then, had no service provider ever before asked me what I wanted? Why had no service provider ever before asked me what I needed? Why had no service provider, even when I dared to open my mouth, ever taken me seriously?
The word “client” by definition denotes dependence and predisposes a person to being less powerful in any professional relationship. In fact, one definition goes so far as to state that a client is “one who depends on the protection of another.” Dependence, therefore, when built into a professional relationship, automatically precludes partnership. There is an assumption, even if unspoken, that we are clients because we did not know what we wanted or needed and so made counterproductive, often self-destructive, choices. Instead of becoming part of the solution, the solution usurps us. Cloaked in the role of “client,” others tell us we must comply.
Without collaboration there will continue to be no questions . . . without questions there will continue to be no collaboration . . . and that revolving door will continue to turn. When we become active participants in our own recoveries—not just passive recipients of services—partnerships evolve that catapult us from clients to consumers.
Initially, this partnership may challenge many long-held beliefs. Providers may feel somewhat threatened as they surrender control. They may feel concerned if our decisions do not fit their definitions of normal. They may feel uneasy when our decisions bring natural consequences they would like us to avoid. Consumers may feel overwhelmed by newly found power. Initially, we may feel intimidated as we begin to navigate a system that does not always welcome our independence. We may even doubt our hard-won knowledge. Everyone, though, will benefit by embracing the changing face of recovery.
As staff members stop telling clients what to do—and as clients stop following blindly—a culture of mutual respect develops. The definition of sanity is no longer compliance, and staff and clients do not collude to perpetuate dependence, institutionalization, and helplessness. Instead, providers and consumers are able to work together to develop lasting solutions.
When providers partner with us in both agency and personal program development, we learn—in a safe environment—to take ownership, to collaborate, to make healthy choices, to assume responsibility for our choices, and to regroup should our choices backfire. We learn to celebrate when our choices bring success. We learn to feel proud. Most importantly, we become our own voices and the voices of those consumers still to come.
We are not, however, the only ones who benefit. An integrated approach also builds stronger agencies and communities. The foundations we build within the safety net of our relationships with our providers are springboards from which we become full participating members of our communities. We then become an endorsement of the agency, providing proof of efficacy to both government and private funders.
Today, as funders require quantitative proof of effective fund utilization, our equal participation in recovery is even more crucial. The consistent application of best practices is dependent on good data. Good data consist of numbers, but those numbers are people. There is always the danger of forgetting the people the data represent. Democratic action and the unfailing integration of the consumer at all levels will insure that quantity and quality do not become mutually exclusive. When we look in the mirror, we will continue to see our many faces so that one of those revolving doors to nowhere never again traps us.