Review: “What Recovery is Not” – Tollefson

I asked my therapists – what is recovery? What is this mysterious “process” that you all talk about? Tell me the steps I have to go through to get all these memories out, get “integrated’ – whatever the heck that means, and then get on with my life.

But I found an article that gave me some answers I wasn’t expecting – a view of what recovery is not.

The process

A good friend keeps telling me, “It’s not a race, it’s a marathon.” I didn’t like hearing it because I didn’t want to believe it. But he was right.

I’m an engineer, and I want the specs. The recipe, the list of instructions, the schematics. Tell me where I am now in the process and where I need to get to. How much longer is this going to take?

I am not happy with their answers.

I identified mightily with the struggle of Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) in his quest to find his lost self, his lost memories. That the process takes time – not too fast, and not too slow.

He spoke of climbing the mountain – to stop looking for the top, but to observe what appeared along the way. At the right speed.

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion.

Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock is loose… These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. …But of course, without the top you can’t have any sides. It’s the top that defines the sides. So on we go…” [Pirsig p 258]


I looked around for what “recovery” means for trauma/DID. I see many references that recovery is optimistic, and requires skilled caregivers. [Waseem] That it means when all the alters integrate.

Trauma recovery deals with reworking the trauma based attachments to form healthier adult coping skills … to bring these attachments into consciousness and learn new coping skills. “That was then, this is now – today I can take care of myself and make healthier choices.” [blog]

Recovery is … about moving along a continuum…that begins with the initial acute stage of illness, with loss of function and symptomatic distress. It includes efforts to stabilize this acute phase,…moving beyond stabilizing symptoms and relieving distress, to regaining major life roles, such as living as independently as one wishes and is able, doing work that is meaningful and rewarding, and having social relationships that are satisfying. [lecture]

Just like a rice cake – perhaps healthy, but so unsatisfying.

Or, I can get into the real research articles and we will quickly descend into specific courses of treatment, etc.

Nah, don’t wannt do that here.

Which instead, brings me to the meat of this article…

What recovery is not

William B. Tollefson wrote in 2006 (bolding is mine):

Much has been written on recovery from trauma and abuse through the last ten years. … I believe that knowledge and understanding of recovery is crucial to forming a successful recovery mindset.

An understanding of what recovery might look like going forward is essential to reduce fear and anxiety, but sometimes it’s just as important to know what recovery is not.

Ahhh, some boundaries! By process of elimination, we may get somewhere!

He faces the unpredictability of recovery right in the face – there are no easy answers:

At the time a survivor is deciding to enter into recovery, he/she is faced with staying with the familiar or dealing with unpredictability.

There are situations where there are no answers, just feelings; no familiar automatic barriers, just new boundaries; no black or white, just a lot of gray; no familiar guarantees, just healthy fear.

Wow – that’s a heavy. “There are no answers…just healthy fear.” I really really like this one.

So, this practicing clinician goes on to state even more heavies. He presents the article as a series of succinct statements about recovery, followed by a paragraph of explanation. While it is a “quick and easy” read, the message is both hard to hear, but strangely right.

Let me quote a few of the statements in green; the first in its entirety because of the boldness of its assertion. For the remainder, and accompanying paragraphs, please see What Recovery Is Not:

Recovery is earned, not a given. Recovery is not just given to a victim as a rite of passage. It is not an entitlement. A survivor has to earn the right to be in the process. Recovery is a very fragile state and needs to be nurtured or it could slip away. Recovery is hard work that involves firm decisions, commitment, investments and giant leaps of faith.

Recovery is never owned. No person can buy their way into recovery.

Recovery is not the same for everyone…listen internally and create your own path.

Recovery is not quick. The hardest lesson to learn about recovery is that it’s a process….inherently time consuming.

(But the flip side!)

Recovery is not a literal process...survival did not happen through a literal process. It makes sense that if survival is a creative and symbolic process, then recovery will be a creative and symbolic process.

Recovery is not easy.

Recovery is not without sacrifices. Recovery is a sacrifice … Everything the survivor has could be lost…close friends, a partner, family members. Be willing to move forward even with the possibility of losses.

Recovery is not a reason to display pain… it is an opportunity to finally recognize the pain, allow it to pass by, grieve the losses, and then accept the trauma information into your normal memory bank.

Closing remarks

I am not quite sure what to make of this. It does not help me define what I have felt the need to define. Even by omission, it does not give any more concrete insight into the mechanics of recovery.

But it is right in a different way. It has a goodness about it, a concreteness of commitment. That there really is no plan or recipe, and since we all survived our traumas in different ways, that our recoveries will be different as well. That the process will take more time than we’d like and that it will be harder than we’d like.

That we don’t really know what will come out the other end, and who will still be with us. And what new people we will find along the way.


Pirsig R. (1974). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Publisher: William Morrow. Available from Amazon.

Tollefson WB (2006). What Recovery Is Not, Enlightened Choices Newsletter, May 2006 – Volume 10 – Issue 1, accessed from

Waseem M. (2007). Child Abuse & Neglect: Dissociative Identity Disorder, Medicine from WebMD. Nov 28, 2007, accessed from



  lookingonthebrightside wrote @

I was diagnosed DID/MPD some years ago.
I think I’m pretty far along a bumpy recovery path.
I’ve been thinking again these week about what recovery means to me.
A good read.
Cheers 😉

  emilylonelygirl wrote @

Dear lookingonthebrightside,

I am heartened to see that you have chosen an uplifting username – that says something about your feelings of self-worth.

Good luck with your recovery – I know we have a bumpy road, and our level of commitment to it wavers at times, but keep at it.

Thank you for your feedback!

My best,

  Tigerweave wrote @

When I first started getting treatment for “severe anxiety disorder”, back when that was the dx, I asked the treating psychiatrist “How long is this process, where does it take me and what is its finish?”

If he answered the length of time, I don’t remember. But I do remember the answer to the rest.
He said that you just keep working at it until one day you just feel … better, and you no longer feel the need for therapy, because things are ok. They won’t be “perfect”, but they will be good enough that they don’t get in your way and you just don’t care about them any more.

I think he was essentially saying that you know recovery when it happens because you have lost focus on it … and I add to this from my experience… because you have got yourself to the point you CAN just forget about it because it isn’t drawing you back and it isn’t poisoning your experience of life.

I think I hit this point about 5 yrs ago, after 3 yrs work. But after a traumatic event a year later it was obvious only some of my personalities were healed. So now we go back and get the other personalities through to this point 🙂

But in an odd sort of way, since then, even though there is still trauma and hurt personalities, I have always held that sense of “Yeah, I am there.” inside. The healing of the rest is just work to be done. (And work I know well how to do.)

Everything I read on recovery, I keep thinking “Yeah, but the point is each day/week/month is better than the last, so even if it is an 8 yr, work-heavy journey, it is better, and better and better each step I take. I do wonder if this is what Robert Pirsig is alluding to?

But thinking back, I don’t think I experienced that sense of steady improvement until I got to that point where I felt “recovered”.

Don’t quote me on this one! I may change my mind any moment, but yeah…

  emilylonelygirl wrote @


The answer your psychiatrist gave is one of the best I have seen. “you just keep working at it until one day you just feel … better, and you no longer feel the need for therapy, because things are ok.”

And that your experience mirrored that – “that things “won’t be ‘perfect’, but they will be good enough that they don’t get in your way and you just don’t care about them any more.”

Thank you for the insight. It is a hell of a lot better than what I have gotten lately from my therapist. Perhaps that will be the topic of my next vent. (grins)

[…] thing reminded me of this post.   That we have to actively work on own healing.  Like Tollefson said, Recovery is earned, not a given….Recovery is not easy…Recovery is not a reason to […]

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