A lot of folks are surprised when I tell them that, despite having a great combination of meds and coping skills, bipolar recovery, for me, does not look like complete and total stability.
I still have ups and downs, and sometimes those mood swings are more intense than you’d expect for someone who calls this phase of their disorder “remission.” I wallow, and I cry, and sometimes it takes a minute before I’m back on my feet.
I say this because I want people to understand something: There’s this idea that mental health recovery is supposed to be some kind of fantastic, magical place where we never experience a negative emotion ever again. But it’s a myth — and a lousy myth at that.
I will probably always feel more intensely than neurotypical folks do. I will have some inexplicable sadness from time to time. I might find myself anxious about a worst case scenario that I know isn’t going to happen. I may even have to take a day or two off work to get my shit together again.
My recovery has not been daisies and puppies and rainbows. And to my surprise, I’ve found that most recovering folks I’ve talked to have not experienced the puppies or rainbows, either. We’re all just doing our best to cope — we are, by no means “cured.”
One question I get asked often is, “How do I know when I’m on the right track?” We try out so many different coping skills and therapies and medications that we start to get a little lost; our baseline can change so drastically that it becomes difficult to understand at what point we should seek out help and at what point we can call ourselves “normal.”
What is normal for mental health recovery, and what isn’t? It’s a question I think about a lot.
My recovery goals have changed significantly over time. I used to crave a kind of recovery that meant I would never have to think about bipolar disorder or anxiety ever again. But I’m not the poster child for “normalcy” as I’d once hoped I would be, and having had years now to reflect on this, I’ve learned to be OK with that.
What does recovery look like for me? It’s a series of questions:
- Do I have enough stability and energy to meet my needs and pursue my desires (within reason)?
- Do I feel like I’m in the driver’s seat of my life? Do I feel like I am in charge?
- When my mental state shifts, am I riding the wave or do I feel like I’m drowning?
- Am I able to cope effectively when confronted with a stressor? What do I do when I’m stressed?
- Am I in survival mode, or do I feel like I’m truly living my life?
Ideally, I’d bring these questions to someone who is involved in my recovery to talk it out – whether it’s a partner, a best friend, a therapist, a doctor, a healer. I need to bounce my answers off someone who can help me think through them and let me know if they’ve seen red flags I haven’t.
What does my mental health recovery look like right now? Here are my answers:
Lately, I’ve had enough stability and energy to meet my basic needs. I’m able to perform at my job, make myself food if I need to, get myself to appointments, and I’ve been showering regularly (for those of y’all who have lived through it, you know how big of a deal that is).
I also have enough energy to pursue my desires – I’ve been applying for better-paying jobs, going out with friends, taking on new work responsibilities, seeking out new volunteer and travel experiences and finding a lot of satisfaction in the activism that I’m doing.
I feel, for the most part, that I’m in the driver’s seat; when a mood shift happens, I feel like I’m very much on top of that wave. When I’m stressed, I have plenty of ways that I can deal – Netflix, coloring books, talking through it with my partner, going for a walk, reading a book.
And now more than ever, it feels like I’m living a life I’m proud of, instead of surviving within a life I don’t want to be living.
So for me, my bad moods lately are more like bugs. I still have mood swings, but they are more like your common cold – annoying and sometimes messy, occasionally so much so that I need a few days off – but not-all-consuming, infrequent and nothing I’m worried about.
Do your episodes feel like an ongoing disease you’re battling or like a bug you pick up from time to time? There’s a big difference between a disease and a bug. Namely, the impact, the frequency and the severity.
Who knew that figuring out if we’re healthy could be so complicated? Physical health might be less complicated for most of us because we have a baseline we’re familiar with. But when it comes to navigating mental illness, sometimes we aren’t sure what an acceptable baseline is if we’ve never actually experienced one before.
I spent the longest time unsure of when I could call myself “recovered” because I couldn’t remember the last time I was mentally healthy, if I ever was. Not to mention, there weren’t many resources that could confirm what “recovery” feels like.
When you have no sense of an acceptable baseline, it results in creating unrealistic expectations – that we’ll never feel intensely about anything, that anxiety is a thing of the past, that we’ll be able to get out of bed every day with a spring in our step.
You’re not Mary fucking Poppins, OK?
Are you setting up some of those expectations? Because it’s time to let them go.
I can accept my sensitivity, my moods and my intensity, as long as it still feels manageable. This is subjective to some extent and scary, too, because mental illness often teaches us not to trust our instincts. But here’s the bottom line: If it isn’t disruptive, dysfunctional or distressing, it’s likely just part of the process.
It was a relief when I realized that mental health recovery does not always look like complete and total reformation. Sometimes there are bumps in the road, sometimes there are hiccups – it doesn’t mean you’re back at square one.
After all, a mental health crisis can be traumatic – and even after we’ve leveled out, there’s still trauma to unpack and deal with.
The fun never ends, right?
Let go of the expectation that you should be aspiring to some kind of “normalcy.” Because, hey, there are plenty of repressed folks who would swear up and down they feel “normal” until you get them to start talking. There are lots of “normal” people who wait until the divorce to fall apart. Appearances aren’t everything.
I promise you, “normal” is really deceiving.
Give yourself permission to have ups and downs; give yourself permission to still have “issues.” Give yourself permission to be a flawed, confused, and feeling person. As long as you’re in a space where you can deal with it in a way that doesn’t consume or harm you, I’d say you’re doing just fine.
The reality is – pardon the cliché – that recovery is a journey and it’s not a destination.
It’s especially not a destination that resembles a tropical island or a luxurious resort.
It’s OK to be unsteady. You’re not doing a “bad job” at recovery and it’s not a “setback.” It’s all part of the process, and it’s totally, 100 percent fine. Every journey that’s worth being on is a little messy. Take it from somebody who knows.
Follow this journey on Let’s Queer Things Up.
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