Seventeen years ago, Norma Levorson fell into a deep blue funk. She and her family had left their home in Albert Lea, a small farming town in south-central Minnesota, to go on vacation. During the Levorsons' absence, rain swelled the front door to their house, and it popped open. A neighbor who had agreed to water their flowers saw that the door had come ajar, but she didn't give it the strong shove the door needed to close. The open door was an invitation to thieves, and when the Levorsons returned from vacation they found their home had been robbed.
Levorson was devastated. She felt betrayed by her friend. To make matters worse, she thought the police weren't taking the burglary seriously. Immobilized by depression, she would spend her days sleeping, crying or staring out the window. She wasn't taking care of her house or her family. She wasn't getting over the emotional blow of the burglary.
Then a friend suggested that Levorson attend a meeting of a community mental-health organization called Recovery Inc. She went but didn't plan to return--she felt she hadn't related to the group's message, which is based on evoking one's will to control emotional symptoms such as nervousness, fear, anger and depression.
But then Levorson read "My Dear Ones," a biography of the late Recovery founder, Dr. Abraham Low, first published by Recovery in 1971. In the book she found a description of panic attacks and realized that she had been suffering from similar symptoms for 30 years. She also believed that she could use the same coping tools described in the book to control her own symptoms--which included fear, heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath and the bizarre sensation that her body parts were elongated or detached from each other.
Reading the book "finally gave me some answers to the problems I had been having all along," she said in a recent interview. Encouraged by what she read, Levorson decided to attend another Recovery meeting.
Now it's 17 years later, and she's been going to the weekly meetings ever since.
Today she feels no malice toward the neighbor who left the door to her house open. In fact she sees the experience as a blessing in disguise because the incident led to her getting help for emotional problems that had plagued her for years.
"The hard part is going to that first meeting," she said. The initial gains are like an appetizer, "but if you keep going you get the smorgasbord."
Levorson is one of thousands of people whose mental health has been strengthened by Recovery. The group and its methods--which are based on patients talking to each other and applying Low's advice to their lives--may be more valuable now than ever, as managed-care insurance systems have cut doctor-patient contact to almost zero.
Recovery meetings are led by patients who receive monthly training in Low's techniques; no doctors or health-care professionals are involved in the weekly meetings. (The cost is a donation that's within the patient's budget.)
The program is an adjunct to professional mental health care--not a substitute for it. "Recovery can help people listen better to professionals," said Shirley Sachs, executive director for the group's headquarters in Chicago.
Dr. Maria Lymberis, a Santa Monica psychiatrist and a member of the American Psychiatric Assn.'s board of trustees, said one of her patients improved dramatically through a combination of psychoanalysis, medication and Recovery meetings.
"The Recovery meetings helped to de-stigmatize her illness for her," Lymberis said. "She saw that her condition wasn't the most shameful thing in the history of mankind."
Low founded Recovery in 1937, when he was an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois Medical School in Chicago. At the time he was working with patients who had recently been released from hospitalization for emotional problems. Many of the patients had a tendency to relapse, and for them the idea of being recommitted was a horrifying nightmare.
The Recovery method is based largely on reassuring phrases that patients repeat to themselves. These mantras and aphorisms are designed to give patients perspective on their symptoms and help them control their emotional episodes. When confronted with circumstances that seem frightening--being stuck in an elevator, for example--nervous patients are urged to remind themselves that the situation is "distressing, but not dangerous."
Patients are taught to be "solution-oriented." They are encouraged to "spot" their mentally unhealthy tendencies, to recognize and diffuse such impulses before they have a chance to become overwhelming.
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Getting in Touch With Recovery
Recovery Inc. is widely credited as the nation's first self-help organization. More than 800 Recovery groups meet weekly in locations across the United States, and additional chapters have popped up in Canada, Puerto Rico, Ireland and Britain. To find the chapter nearest you in Southern California, call (213) 651-2170; write to Recovery headquarters at 802 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL 60610, or call (312) 337-5661.