It’s okay to be okay (recovering from mental illness is confusing)

cn: mental illness, suicidal thoughts, depression, recovery

There is a lot of messaging around these days telling us that ‘it’s okay not to be okay.’ This is incredibly valuable and the more times more people hear it, the better. But where do I stand once I’m past that? When I’m over the hump of the worst of it and no longer the target of reassuring words? Arriving at this stage of recovery should feel like a triumph, and sometimes it does – but at other times, I feel isolated and confused.

There is a comfort to being mentally ill, as bad as that sounds.

There is a comfort to being mentally ill, as bad as that sounds. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it’s as if depression is a big fluffy blanket – when it comes again, it is familiar and I can ease back into it with something like relief and release. Almost as if the pressure’s off; I don’t need to make an effort to be happy or pretend that everything is fine. I am back in a dark place, and I don’t know why, but a part of it feels good.

It obviously doesn’t all feel good; the core of it is still pretty awful, but it’s kind of like when you’re little and you have a cold and your mum lets you take the day off school. You might feel like crap but you get to stay in pjs all day, watch Bargain Hunt and eat soup. There is a comfort in leaning into that.

Speaking like this feels like a luxury. I don’t want to trivialise how crushing mental illness is and how very privileged I am to have received the support and medicine and good luck to be getting better at all. But I think in telling the inspirational recovery story, the lingering confusion and disorientation need to be addressed too.

Mental illness: comfortingly crap (but always better with a dog)

A sinister and confusing thing about depression is that it often convinces you that you’re faking it, so that you ignore the illness and don’t ask for help. It takes so much work and hours of reassurance from others for you to allow yourself the kindness of accepting that you are sick. Another confusing thing about depression is that after all that, sometimes it makes you think that you don’t want to get better. It sucks up your sense of self-worth so that it feels like either:

1. feeling awful is all you deserve because you are an awful human being;

2. you prefer feeling awful to feeling good because you are a broken human being who wasn’t built to be happy; or

3. feeling awful makes you special, and if you don’t have that, then what do you have left?

There is a fear that I’m not ready to be recovered, that I don’t quite trust that I can hold myself up alone. I am lucky that I had such good support when I was at the lowest of the low, but in some ways, that was an easier concept for people to digest. Most people can feel sorry for you when you’re a sobbing pile of depression, but you need people who stick with you past that point too. The start of recovery, the sudden leaps and bounds you might make, are moments of hope and relief for everyone. But when recovery hits a stumbling block and starts to plateau or backtrack, patience is tested and/or lost.

Puppy is confused by recovery too – ‘they say the cone is meant to help me get better, but so far it’s only been a bother’

After a little while of positive recovery, it was as if I’d passed a milestone and beyond that point I was considered ‘Better’ forever. It was hard for me and others to understand that there were still times when I was too depressed to pull myself out of bed, or when a tiny argument would trip me back into feeling suicidal. It looked like I was being lazy or overreacting, which generated frustration that I was just not trying hard enough anymore, an expectation that we’d got through the hardest part so it should be plain sailing now, and irritation that it wasn’t.

It was quite a lonely time because it felt like people’s patience had run out and that I was taking advantage of their previous sympathy when I shouldn’t need to anymore. And it’s true that I didn’t need it as much, but I still needed (and need) help sometimes, and for people to understand that things were (and are) still hard, and to forgive me if I can’t meet promises I’ve made.

I think as a result, I still mention mental illness, almost as a defence, whenever I feel like I’m not doing my best. Sometimes it does feel like making an excuse, but mainly it’s a feeling that I have to actively remind people I’m still unwell. Like if I’m tired or in a low mood, my mum’s first question is always ‘are you on your period?’ Or when I’m in a happier mood, she likes to observe this out loud in a very resolute tone:

‘Ah, you are all better now, aren’t you? Back to your old self.

For some reason, this sounds like a threat. ‘I’m still depressed though,’ I reply, sounding out each syllable very purposefully to make sure the message gets across.

I get it, a mother wants to reassure herself that her child is healthy, but I wish she wasn’t so categorical about it. Recovery is not instant, nor is it linear, and it might even be a process that lasts for the rest of my life. I think if we were better at understanding that people still need kindness and support even when they’re no longer in crisis mode, then I would feel less afraid of admitting the progress I’ve made.

But I have to give credit where it is due – having been through the ups and downs a few times now, the people in my life continue to be amazingly supportive and are now much more open to the fact that it wasn’t all going to be good times from the moment I stepped out of the hospital gates. I am still learning to trust that they understand, and that I don’t need to constantly prove to them that I’m ill in order to earn their support.

When recovery hits a stumbling block and starts to plateau or backtrack, patience is tested and/or lost.

There might also be some romanticisation at play. As much as I hate romanticisation of mental illness, it doesn’t mean I don’t fall prey to it. The fifteen year old emo girl inside of me who listens to All Time Low and Fall Out Boy longs to be a misunderstood, mysterious depressed girl who is only truly seen by American punk rock boy bands. So when I feel depressed, I feel a little bit special. This is, admittedly, moronically stupid, but I am more than a little bit afraid of what would be left of me if I were totally well.

Here, in particular, is where conflicted feelings come in. I don’t talk about resisting recovery and the part of me that likes and wants to be mentally ill because I feel very guilty about it. I feel sheepish and ashamed for having such flippant thoughts when there are so many people who are so much sicker and just want to be okay, and here I am refusing to celebrate my wellness and missing my worse days.

I feel sheepish and ashamed for having such flippant thoughts when there are so many people who are so much sicker and just want to be okay.

It is hard (perhaps impossible) to know at what point I could say I have ‘recovered’ from mental illness full stop. Yes, there are noticeable improvements – I can mostly function day to day and I haven’t had a panic attack in quite some time. But I also have not returned to who I was and how I was before I got sick. That is okay and completely natural – obviously I’ve changed in the past five years – everyone has. But mixing up mental illness in all that confuses things – I don’t know which changes I accept as personal growth and which to attribute to mental illness and should expect to change back, which makes it hard to measure recovery. It also means that I have to take responsibility for some changes which maybe I don’t like so much.

A big reason I’m scared of recovery is that it means I can’t blame everything I don’t like about myself on being ill. There is a little voice in the back of my head who whispers that if I lose my mental illness, all that will be left is… me. All the ways I fall short and all the ways I don’t quite fit in won’t be explained away by saying ‘I’m just not myself at the moment’; they will just be who I am, and I am terrified of that.

There is a little voice in the back of my head who whispers that if I lose my mental illness, all that will be left is… me.

I see becoming ill as a very clear line in my head, of Before and After, and I worry that now I’m just not able to be unconditionally happy anymore, like getting ill has robbed me of the privilege of believing that everything is good and the privilege of feeling carefree. Feeling happy feels unfamiliar – insecure and liable to be pulled out from under my feet at any time.

Before, I would never admit that things were any less than perfect, but the denial of all the imperfect things meant they were bubbling away beneath the surface, poised to attack in the form of a mental health crisis. Now, I find it hard to say ‘I am happy’ out loud without some sort of caveat; it is always dampened by a niggling apprehension that I might just be kidding myself again, and that a more forbidding reality is just beneath the surface.

I am always comparing and thinking, ‘I’m not as happy right now as how I was Before’ – but then again, I wasn’t always as happy as I had convinced myself that I was Before; so maybe I’m just feeling from a different perspective now, which is okay. I am trying to remember that just because I am now willing to acknowledge when I feel bad, that doesn’t mean that I never feel good anymore. I’m also (as always) trying not to overthink, to accept that each moment does not need to be inextricably linked to another and that a happy thing can be just that in isolation, and isn’t necessarily tainted by any and every negative emotion that might occur later down the line.

For someone who tries to appreciate the nuances and to not judge so hard, I still see a lot of things in black and white. Good / bad, Before / After, well / ill, me / illness. My therapist said I should see it as more of a sliding scale – we all have days where our mental health is higher or lower, and some people have deeper dips than others. There is no bright line into illness or health that can only be crossed once and never again.

There is no bright line into illness or health that can only be crossed once and never again.

It is easy for one good day to invalidate any bad ones that have come before, and to convince yourself that you’ve made it all up after all – or vice versa – but that just isn’t how things work. 

I moan about other people and – society – needing to learn these lessons (and to be honest, lots of people probably do need to), but fortunately, many people in my life are very understanding of these things, and it’s me who needs to be a little less judgmental of myself and a little more open to the idea that things fluctuate and cannot all be neatly compartmentalised into binary distinctions or even discrete points on a scale. I find it hard to think that way; I’ve never been a very ‘go with the flow’ kind of person, but that’s okay.

Things can be okay, and I am learning to be comfortable with that.

What are your experiences of recovery? Are you waiting for it to come or some part of the way through? Can you celebrate your progress, and if so, how? Or do you feel bad for feeling good? Are you as endlessly confused and lost in your thoughts as I am?

I’d love to know, and whatever the answer – thank you so much for reading 🙂

11 thoughts on “It’s okay to be okay (recovering from mental illness is confusing)

  1. I think in a way it’s kind of like the pandemic, in that things may eventually go back to normal, but it will be a new normal, not the old normal. Things will be different and there’s something scary about that. There’s the whole process of re-establishing identity and what that looks like with and without illness dominating the picture.

    After my first couple of episodes, I did end getting into full remission and pretty much went back to normal, but that doesn’t happen for me anymore, and that’s definitely been an adjustment. Now I think of recovery more as a direction that I can work towards, but not an endpoint that I can reach.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The pandemic is a really interesting parallel – I think lots of people who have been fortunate enough to work from home have found benefits from that, and want to keep some of those benefits when things get ‘normal again’ – it’s easy to feel guilty for finding comfort in such a difficult time.

      It’s nice to think of recovery as a direction. I think I’m similar in that I’m not planning to get to some endpoint and be ‘back to normal’, and maybe all these thoughts and finding comfort in mental illness are part of a process of acceptance that they’ll be part of my life for a long time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Exactly! Those are wise words, and necessary ones. “Recovery” is such a loaded concept, but something we do desperately need. I guess we just keep trying, and live one day at a time. Maybe the rest of the world will understand that “Depression” is a real, chronic, serious illness that does need treatment and utmost care, but that our human nature is also to heal. Healing is a lifelong process for this particular affliction. Our minds are so complicated, and unknown. Hope you stay well. Hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! ‘Human nature is to heal’ – I love that! And it’s very true 🙂 It’s definitely confusing to see mental illness for what it is, as an ongoing condition rather than something that comes and is completely cured – but yes you are right, just trying to do one day at a time rather than always measuring my life up to some big concept of being recovered or ill.

      Hope you are well too! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The first thing I ever read about mental health recovery was that relapse is to be expected. It seems so disheartening that we have backsides or still have difficult or confusing feelings after we’re “better.” The people in our lives may never understand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My doctor told me ‘you’ll probably make a full recovery within 6 months’, whereas my personal tutor said I might never get better – fast forward 5 years and look where we are..!

      It definitely feels disheartening when you first learn that relapse is normal, but I think once I accepted this, it feels kind of comforting and constant? Like I can learn to live with it – we know we’re strong enough to get through because we have done it before!

      And it’s true it’s hard for the people who care for us to accept that we’ll have more bad days, but at least you understand! Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I resonate with so many of the ideas in this post. I have come to realize that I am scared to ever admit being happy. I feel like as soon as I admit that out loud I will be jinxing myself. I also tend to think in black and white a lot of times. My therapist in college tried getting me to change my mindset which is a work in progress. You wrote an extremely insightful and engaging post. Well done and hope you are doing well! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry it’s taken me forever to reply – I’ve had a long break from the blog! Puppy is all recovered, thank you!! A lot of the pictures are from walks near where I live, but a lot are also from holidays – I like posting pictures of little moments that are unexpectedly beautiful 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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