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What Mental Health Recovery Means If You've Never Experienced 'Normal'

Recovery (n):

  1. the act, process, duration, or instance of recovering.
  2. A return to a normal or healthy condition

When my therapist asked me if I consider myself in “recovery” from my panic disorder with agoraphobia, I immediately and excitedly said yes. Like waking up from the deepest sleep I’ve ever had, I felt refreshed and giddily optimistic about the life that lay before me. I’ve hit the milestones I set for myself two years ago when I finally took the step to enter treatment. But the more I thought about the word “recovery,” the more dissatisfied I was with it. According to the definition of recovery, I was returning to my “normal” or “healthy” life, reinhabiting my body pre-panic. But what if you’ve spent your whole life in panic? What if the only thing you knew was heart racing, brow sweating and blurred vision? What if you were a “what-if” warrior, designing back-up plans and getaway schemes like a trained assassin, holding onto your mental blueprints of danger like a child’s blanket? What if you don’t know how to live with this newly quiet mind, one that wants to sleep and laugh and smile? Because I don’t.

Only now, embarking on my effectively new life with my effectively new mind, do I realize how debilitatingly depressed my condition had made me. There’s no “pre-panic” life to resume. Though I was a functional being, my mind was gray for as long as I can remember. Everything felt underwhelming, like I was waiting for something bigger and better to prove to me life was worth the effort of waking up every morning. I struggled to find purpose in the monotony of yet another day of worry. So much of my mental energy was spent avoiding the seemingly endless dangers in my path, I had nothing left for me. The saddest part? When I look back and realize I actually thought that was as good as it gets.

So now I’m here, “in recovery,” but really just relearning who I am and who I want to be, while reintroducing myself to my family and my friends. I’m going places and doing things I couldn’t have envisioned before. But my brain is hard-wired to prepare for the worst, to expect nothing can be as great as this new life seems. This condition and I are fundamentally intertwined. I’ve suffocated it for now, but it constantly tries to reignite itself. That leaves me here trying to merge my old life with my new one — and it’s harder than it seems.

If you too are struggling to figure out how you’re supposed to bridge the gap between you’re pretreatment life and “recovery,” you’re not alone. I don’t have the answer, either. So share your story. And if you’re not quite here yet, and you’re still waking up in the morning exhausted by the idea of living another day in your mind, I urge you to seek out the help you deserve. Go to your school’s health office or your doctor and ask for a therapist, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, someone; go to your parents or your closest friend and tell them what you’re going through. You are not alone. You are not a failure. This isn’t as good as it gets. You deserve so much more than this. And then, if my mind gets swallowed up by the panic again, you’ll be there to say, “Hey, trust me. It’s not supposed to be like this.”

Jackie is a Peer Counselor at Project LETS, Inc. Click here to learn more.