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The Marketing of 'Recovery'

AT first glance they look like ordinary greeting cards, with their contemporary designs, rainbow-colored inks, and pastel envelopes. But look again. Tucked inside the latest line of cards from Hallmark are messages for a very select group of people: those who are "in recovery" from addictions to drugs, alcohol, and "other dependencies."

"In this dysfunctional world, it's nice to know I have someone I feel functional with. Thanks for understanding," reads one card in the company's "Just for Today" collection.

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Another says: "You expected a miracle, and you got one! Congratulations on this anniversary of your recovery."

What can a recipient expect next - a cake, some candles, and a group of friends and relatives singing a rousing chorus of "Happy recovery to you"?

On the most benign level, the cards can simply be taken as a sign of another national addiction - to greeting cards. Talk about dependency! Is there no message, however private or sensitive, that can't be conveyed by an impersonal greeting? How positively old-fashioned to write a personal note.

At the same time, the cards serve as the latest indicator of the extent to which "recovery" has become a highly lucrative industry. Hallmark estimates that 15 million Americans attend weekly support groups for chemical addictions and other problems. Another 100 million relatives and friends are cheering them on, according to the company. If these figures are accurate, nearly half of all Americans are either "in recovery" or helping someone who is. No wonder Hallmark dubs this vast audience "the recovery community."

In addition to its 51 recovery cards, the company offers a virtual souvenir factory of recovery bookmarks, buttons, key chains, framed prints, mugs, journals, magnets, T-shirts, and even self-stick notes. Mottos range from "Sober is sexy" and "Pardon the dust ... a new me is under construction" to "Vulnerable" and "Survivor."

All that's missing, it seems, is a mug emblazoned with the words "Former Victim."

"I'm a victim" and "I'm a survivor": These have served as the two great rallying cries of the past decade. They are also the two great excuses for writing a tell-all book and appearing on TV. Where would Oprah and Phil and Geraldo be without these confessors, eager to expose the most painful and intimate details of their family life to nationwide audiences?

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This month Patti Davis is on the road plugging her latest book, which is yet another account of the abuse she allegedly suffered as the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Similarly, Frances Lear, the founder of Lear's magazine who is currently making the rounds on a book tour of her own, seems to delight in telling reporters, "I was a victim for 50 years."

"Normal" has become boring. "Dysfunctional" is chic.

Yet if "suffering in silence" is no longer appropriate, is suffering in public - not to mention "recovering" in public - necessarily the best alternative? The national tendency toward public finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and parent-bashing - making excuses for everything that is not ideal in one's life - practically enshrines helplessness. Whatever happened to the old ideal of taking responsibility for oneself?

At a time when the extended family appears to be an endangered species, the act of receiving comfort and encouragement from strangers in support groups helps many participants. Relieved of the burden of secrecy and shame, they find new strength and freedom in knowing they are not alone.

But there is a terrible irony to the process. In the name of becoming a stronger individual, the "I" turns into a "we" whose problem is framed to fit into a labeled category by a veritable committee of experts, with of course 12 or 20 standard steps to recovery.

At its worst, this can become prescription medicine for the soul.

Those who are in trouble need and deserve the proverbial helping hand. But orchestration can go too far. The mass marketing of recovery cards and the institutionalizing of recovery serve as a warning reminder that healing finally is an individual rather than a group experience.

It would be dangerously misleading if the trend to collective diagnosis, collective therapy, and collective recovery made anybody forget that prayer and self-examining meditation - whatever cleanses to the bottom of the heart - will never resemble the consensus reached in a public meeting.

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