Everyday Recovery

On the path to healthy recovery.

"Each time I recover enough, I borrow a dog"

Recovery can be found in the simplest of places.

The exact quote from which the above title was taken was: "Each time I recover enough, I borrow a dog and go for a walk." These were the words of an older British gentleman with schizophrenia who had been asked what the notion of recovery meant to him in the context of this illness. I came across these words in a brochure for a recovery program in the UK that consisted of what have come to be called recovery narratives; otherwise known as autobiographical accounts of experiences of significant improvement in the lives of persons with serious mental illnesses.

Were I a Talmudic scholar, or perhaps a psychoanalyst, I might want to parse this one sentence into its constituent parts. For example, I might ask what it means to say "recover enough," why the dog had to be "borrowed," or why the speaker said "go for a walk" instead of "take him or her for a walk." Being neither of those, however, I opt for the more direct, if less rigorous, route of identifying with this sentiment through my own life experience. This is something I strive, as a qualitative researcher, to teach trainees to do, and something I think is at the heart of clinical practice-building "empathic bridges," or using what my colleague Michael Rowe describes as "social imagination." It just so happens that given my own life experiences, I can well appreciate the pleasure of dog walking. Even before coming to own a dog myself, I had derived that pleasure from walking other people's dogs. Why it took me so long to get my own dog is the topic for another story.

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What is of interest here is how this statement captures so well the reality of recovery for many people with serious mental illnesses. Owning a dog involves a lot of responsibility. In fact, one of the most significant sources of comfort that some people derive from developing their own psychiatric advance directive comes from being able to arrange for who will take care of their beloved pets should they need to go to the hospital. But, obviously, this is only for those people who own pets. Apparently, the gentleman quoted above did not feel up to, had not recovered "enough," to own his own dog. But whenever he does "recover enough," he is able to take pleasure in borrowing someone else's dog and going for a walk. Readers of this blog who are dog-lovers will get the significance of that immediately. For others, allow me to explain.

Dog walking is both a pleasurable and a purposeful activity. It is purposeful because dogs need exercise, need to relieve themselves, need to use their sense of smell to explore the world, etc. People who are walking dogs therefore are obviously fulfilling some purpose, and no one need question their reasons for being in this particular place at this particular time. In addition, and as a result, dog walking offers the person a sense of identity and a related sense of doing something worthwhile, contributing in some way to the lives of others, even if the other happens to be a dog. Walking alone down a sidewalk, dog-less, I am at the mercy of the perceptions other people have of me. Especially if I am not wearing exercise clothes, especially if I am not so well-kempt, especially if I walk slowly or with considerable caution, especially if I do not know any of the people I encounter and do not make eye contact with them, and especially if I do not appear to be on my way to somewhere else (to do something else presumably important), people can and will question my reasons for being here, on this sidewalk, at this time. Are they leery of me, are they going to tell me to walk somewhere else, are they going to call the police? In addition to being lonely and perhaps feeling even more of an outcast than I did sitting alone in my apartment, walking alone can provoke all of these worries.

On the other hand, walking a dog indicates that I am a dog walker rather than a vagrant or potential pedophile. Even if I am not the dog's owner, I am still showing that I am a responsible citizen who is taking care of some kind of "business." In addition to enjoying my stroll because I am no longer alone (dogs provide good company), I am doing something useful, I am fulfilling a purpose, I am being worthwhile. And because I am being useful, I also can indulge more in the pleasure of the moment-because at least in the United States many people feel that they are not worthy of having pleasure if they are not doing something useful. So for that 15 or 30 minute stroll, at least for that period of time, I can take pride in doing something useful and take pleasure not only from the walk itself but also from being engaged in a meaningful activity.

Perhaps this is why our British gentleman, when he feels up to it, will "borrow a dog and go for a walk." Because many people with serious mental illnesses suffer not only from the mental illness itself, and from the cascade of losses associated with it, but also suffer from a deprivation of pleasure, both sensory and emotional. If all I am is a "mental patient," then I am not entitled to experience pleasure. If I have no disposable income, I cannot treat myself to any of the other little pleasures that reaffirm for us that life remains worthwhile; such things as ice cream cones or iced tea on a hot summer's day. This is one of the injustices done to people with serious mental illnesses that should be relatively reversible. We can't yet cure the illness and it will take time to eliminate the stigma and discrimination. But even now, whenever they "recover enough," we can encourage people to borrow dogs and go for walks. We can assure them that even if they are not feeling up to attending school, working, or doing any of those other things that other people consider important and worthwhile; they still can take pleasure in the little things that remain available to them. And when they do, these little things may no longer seem so little.

 

Larry Davidson, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale.

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