What is recovery? What does it mean to recover? It depends what we are recovering from of course. And what we are trying to recover. People who are seeking to break free from addiction often talk about being “in recovery”. It’s not a destination, it’s a journey. Is it possible to say one is no longer an alcoholic? Perhaps – but more often people, however far along their journey they are, maybe prefer to acknowledge that it is something that takes work, that may present challenges, sometimes be hard, sometimes easier.
Recovering from illness can take different paths too. Sometimes that path will take us from the depth of sickness or injury, to 100% fitness. I’m sure you’ve had illnesses, colds, stomach bugs, even something worse – where you have felt utterly awful, bed bound, weak, emitting substances from all manner of places, and then a couple of weeks later been back to your usual self, hale and hearty. Some wounds heal without trace. But others don’t. Some scar.
Some injuries or illnesses leave lasting traces. Maybe we’re not as strong as we once were. Maybe we don’t have the flexibility, strength – maybe our lung capacity isn’t as good. Maybe we ache more than we used to do. Maybe there are things we can’t, or shouldn’t do anymore. Maybe some of these things we can work on – with physiotherapy, exercise, medications. But sometimes we can’t. It just is what it is. Some illnesses are chronic – ongoing. They may have fluctuating impact on our wellbeing. We don’t always recover. Sometimes that isn’t an option, given our current medical knowledge and technology.
So what about mental illness? The story is the same. There is no one shared experience of “mental illness”. Each of us has our own symptoms, experiences, diagnoses. And we each have our own recovery. Some of us, may find some treatment or path which takes us to the other side of our illness and find ourselves free of any symptom, able to embrace our lives once more with gusto. But for many more of us it is not that simple.
Recovery is a journey. One where there are many possible routes. Maybe some of them turn out to be dead ends – maybe we’re going along great, and then the path gets rocky and we have to find a diversion. Some of those paths might be uphill, with many challenges, rivers to cross. It can be hard work. But sometimes the view along the way is interesting too.
My recovery is ongoing. My journey has been long, and I don’t consider it over. But I have certainly come far. And this journey of recovery has taught me many things.
I suppose we don’t necessarily need to recognise we are unwell, before we recover. Sometimes we might suddenly reflect and realise that we are in a better place than we once were, and be thankful for it, whether it was our actions, or chance, which brought us there. But I knew I wasn’t well. I recognised in my teens that I had issues with depression, mood swings, self harm, suicidal ideation, – I saw something in myself that I didn’t see in others. (It may have been there but after all we didn’t talk about things like that then). I saw myself as broken, a depressive. That was just how I was, no way out of it. In later years I met kindred spirits, drowned it with alcohol, and leaned in to the nihilistic hedonism. I experienced wild flights of fancy and what I recognised later as hypomania. It took a while before I realised there was a pattern to it all. Eventually, with the help of a job in health, and some celebrities starting to talk about their own experiences, I figured maybe I had this bipolar thing people were talking about. It made a lot of sense out of things that never had. But it was still pretty vague, and not an official diagnosis. So I started to learn. And learning started my journey.
I went to the doctors several times over the years. First time at university, once fobbed off, another time dragged by friends – mid finals, mid breakdown – which led to an abortive counselling stint. Five or six years later I tried again, and had some fund and games with medication, discovering my love of side effects and that I responded slightly better to SNRIs than SSRIs but that neither made me “better” mentally, and both made me physically a wreck. So I came off them. And gradually got worse, so ended up trying again five more years later. Briefly. And then more counselling – stress classes, CBT, guided self help – my most recent batch in 2017. Maybe at some time I will need more.
All of this – so why do I not considered myself “recovered”? Surely if I don’t then none of the above can have worked? And yet, if I compare myself at my worst – at the mercy of suicidal lows or life destroying highs, self harming, obsessed with but terrified of death, riddled with health anxiety, hording, purging, finding every day a torment. I am better. So very much better than I was. At some point, depression stopped being a near constant. I let go of my horror at mortality, I no longer felt the need for some of my more troublesome coping mechanisms. I do still live with anxiety, which can sometimes be very problematic, and issues with self esteem and confidence which hold me back in my working life. And I do still, occasionally experience some nasty lows, sometimes very nasty – which I now know to be associated with stages in my hormonal cycles. So I’m not “recovered”. I still have issues relating to my mental health which interfere with my life, my ability to do the things I need to do, and my enjoyment of existence and relationships. I’m working on it.
What has helped me into this better place, is manifold. The things I mentioned above, the medication, the therapy. They were not without merit. The meds don’t work great for me but I know it might help me through a particularly dark patch if one returns. I’ve also learnt more since then about other supplements that help me chemically too – that boost dopamine, which seems to be more helpful for me than the serotonin/adrenaline routes. The techniques I learnt at the counselling sessions – like exercises learnt at physio – things I try to bring into practice as often as I remember to avoid old habits that don’t serve me. And I’ve learnt more about therapeutic approaches myself. Studying counselling helped me to understand myself more. Understand where all of this came from (maybe). Uncovering my past, revisiting it. Realising the patterns, their impact.
I had long known I went through some difficult circumstances – not the worst they could have been, but certainly not the best. Realising the ways I had been let down, or not had the emotional support any of us deserve, helped me to understand why I felt so vulnerable, aggrieved, never believing I was loved, always expecting betrayal, self-sabotaging and creating self fulfilling prophecies of doom. I was able to be gentle with myself, compassionate, merciful. Further along however, I also began to own some of the damage I must have done myself, and see the traumas which led the people who had harmed me to make the choices they had made. To see this endless interaction of trauma, us each colliding with each other like waves, building and building until we come crashing down somewhere. It makes me feel infinite compassion for this whole world of suffering.
Somewhere along the way, relatively recently, I was led to learn more about autism and ADHD, and realised that this may also have had a lot to do with “why I am the way I am”. Reflections stretching back to before my depression emerged, to a childhood feeling odd, and different, and trying to play a role to fit in with a world which made little sense to me. Now I see how I have sought out my tribe, understand why I can hear electricity when no one else can, and why a crowded bar or shopping centre is my version of hell. It doesn’t stop me getting anxious, or make interaction any easier, but I understand an accept myself now. I don’t have a diagnosis, but then I don’t have official diagnoses for a lot of the things I might qualify for – it’s not so easy to access them. And at the end of the day they are simply labels on a bunch of symptoms or experiences. Maybe I would “pass” or maybe not. Maybe the diagnosis would be more trouble than it is worth. If learning about these things, neurodiversity, trauma, whatever – help me to understand myself, and in understanding find a new road to my recovery, or key to my past – then that is enough for me.
Recognising and moving on from the past, I allowed myself to consider a future. I made material changes in my life. For all that the past was heavily involved in my illness, the present contributed too – painful journeys needed to happen to end an unhappy relationship, find a place to live that brought me joy, not sadness, break free of a job which was destructive, lessen debt, improve family relationships. Not all of these journeys are over, some of them are still sources of great sorrow. But it must be recognised that recovery in mental illness is often reliant not just on our ability to access treatment, or practice self care, but also overcoming material circumstances which add to our distress. Sometimes we are able to influence these things, sometimes we are not.
We do what we can. And so another part of my recovery is pro-active. Try to eat better, not drink as much, take supplements, build new friendships, enjoy nature, take simple pleasures, channel my energies into creating, painting, writing. Exercise more. Sleep. Learn. Help people.
When I am having a bad day, anxieties high, panic attacks – I try to lean into it a little. Explore it – find out what it is which is provoking that anxiety, because that teaches me what I still need to work on, to think about, to find a way through. Sometimes I find it is something I have worked on before, and I realise I have to try and practice some more. Sometimes it is a new revelation, another stage of the journey, and I am grateful for everything it is teaching me. Because in going through all of this, I learn more about myself, and the things which are important to me, and what I want out of this life. What do I want to recover? I don’t necessarily want to go back to the high stress, high responsibility job. I don’t value status. I want to be fitter, so I can live longer and also be able to get about more and enjoy this world we live in for whatever time I do have, even this square mile around me. I don’t need to be famous, or everybody’s friend. I want to sleep soundly and be at peace. I would like to be more confident, and able to reach more people, help more people. Maybe I will get there.
The greatest lesson in all of this for me was to keep learning, and keep moving. You are the greatest resource you have. Recovery for you may involve the care of others, medication, therapists, hospital. But that is not always the case. And it is certainly not usually the only thing that will help. Keep trying new things, learning new approaches, keep talking.
Sometimes, in the depth of chaos and despair it can feel hard to believe things can get better. Or even that we deserve for them to do so. But if you can’t feel that hope, that belief – then let me feel it for you. Let me hold it until you are ready for it. Let those around you help you. You just focus on one breath at a time. And then one step at a time. And before you know it you will be well on your way.