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.
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.
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 🙂