9 Unrealistic Expectations I Had About Mental Illness Recovery
I remember the day I entered adult mental health services. I remember the exact date: Dec. 23, 2010. I remember that I was 19 years old, and I was secretly proud that I was wearing a top that was aged 14 to 15 from the kids’ section in New Look.
“They might think I’m mad, but at least they couldn’t say I was fat,” I told myself.
I had encountered other services as a child, but this was the first time I had contact with the adult community mental health team. I had been referred to the adult service because I had been looking for ways to try to end my life and somehow, I was an adult now.
But I didn’t feel like an adult, and as I was talking to the nurse about recovery, I couldn’t help but think of it in terms of “when I grow up I will be/feel/do…” When I “grew up” I was very disappointed that recovery was not like that at all, and I grieved for the life I had dreamed for myself.
We never talk about recovery. We talk about the process of getting there, but we never talk about what happens when you are there. How can you tell if you’re there yet? What happens when you get there? How do you stay there?
What I am going to talk about is very much my own experiences, and I do not speak on behalf of everyone who has experienced mental illness.
I have been through a lot to gain this knowledge, and I hope I can help anyone reading this to avoid expecting so much more of themselves than they would expect from someone else in recovery.
Here are the unrealistic expectations I had of myself and recovery when I “grew up,” and what I have learned so far.
1. I need to change my personality, so I can stop being mentally ill.
I genuinely believed that the reason I was mentally ill was due to my “horrible personality.” I was certain that if I had been born less sensitive and more outgoing then I would have never become unwell.
The truth is that mental illness does not discriminate, and I could still have become unwell if I had been thicker skinned and full of confidence. My shyness and sensitivity have actually held the key to my recovery, along with the rest of my personality traits.
A huge part of recovery is having your own identity outside of your mental illness.
You are not a diagnosis or your symptoms.
A diagnosis and a set of symptoms may be a big part of your life, but it doesn’t have to be a big part of you.
Getting in touch with who I am is still something I am working on, but I have learned that denying who I am is something that keeps me unwell.
2. I will know when I am recovered.
I thought that recovery was a definite point in someone’s life, like getting to the top of a mountain. I was very disappointed to find out that no such point existed, and that recovery is an ongoing journey.
If you think about it, nobody is fully “well,” whether it be physically or mentally. Nobody knows it all or gets to a point where there is nothing left to learn. Recovery is no different.
Life is full of peaks and dips for people who do not have mental health issues, so having peaks and dips in your own life shows you are normal. This was very difficult for me to grasp, as I would never have put my name and the word “normal” in the same sentence.
Now I am “grown up,” I realize that reaching the top of the mountain would have been disappointing in itself. What’s the point if that would be the best it ever gets?
Because recovery is a journey and not a destination, it means bigger and better things can happen and that your life isn’t limited to one place.
3. Recovery means I will be the person I used to be.
I found myself wanting to be a totally different person, but at the same time, I wanted to get back to the person I used to be. I grieved for the girl I once was, and if I am honest, there are times when I still do.
This is perfectly normal, but it is so hard to deal with and very difficult to explain to people. What I have realized is that without mental illness, I would still not be the person I used to be. People change all the time and it is a part of life.
I have met people from the past on several occasions and noticed that they had changed a lot over the years. Some change is necessary for recovery, such as changing your coping strategies, so they are healthier.
You are still you; just a different version of you, and you and that version can still be great. Mental illness does make the change feel harsher and out of your control, which is why I think it was harder for me to deal with.
I felt I had changed at a much quicker pace than I was comfortable with, and it took time to adjust. In some ways, I was looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses as the present was so horrible, and the only thing I had to compare with was the past. The past was awful too, and is what contributed to my mental health problems, but somehow it seemed like the better option.
What I wanted was to be able to do the things I used to do, such as leave the house and form friendships, rather than be the person I once was.
4. People will like me more.
There is no correlation between mental illness and people liking you. However, there is a correlation between learning to like yourself more and having more positive relationships.
I had assumed that by “curing” myself I would be more loveable and that all the people from my life that had shown me unkindness would be able to learn to love me.
When I realized that moving forward in my recovery meant leaving some people behind, it really came as a shock. The only thing I can liken it to is when you are winded, and it feels like you’ll never breathe normally again. It’s a very difficult lesson to learn, but you will learn to breathe again.
A lot of my relationships were based on me having low self-esteem and the entire set up being unequal. As I moved forward, I realized I was an equal and this did not sit well with some people.
If someone cannot celebrate your success, then that says a lot about them. Their departure just makes room for people who will see you as an equal and value your friendship.
5. Recovery means I won’t become unwell again.
You will have bad days. Sometimes they will be weeks or even longer. I have found that this is dependent on what is happening in my life. We can easily panic that we are relapsing when our reactions are very human. It can be helpful to ask: “If my friend was going through this, would they feel stress?” Often, I find that the answer is yes.
Sometimes we do become unwell, and that is OK. It happens to the best of us. But now you have valuable life experience from the previous relapses. Have faith that you know more than you realize.
I had a relapse in 2015 and sought help a lot quicker. In 2016, I was heading for relapse and I got help before it developed into anything more. I had a baby in July of this year and spotted the signs of postpartum depression. I contacted the perinatal mental health team and asked for more support. I would not have understood the importance of seeking help as soon as possible if it weren’t for my previous experiences.
We can’t control how mental illness makes us feel and when it will strike, but we have some control over what we do about it.
6. I can’t do certain things in case they make me ill again.
It is very easy to fall into this trap, and while it’s important to pace yourself, it’s equally as important to challenge yourself, too.
I remember thinking “I’ll do that when I’m more confident,” and putting things off and avoiding anything that might make me feel anxious. Soon I found that if I waited to feel confident it would never happen because confidence comes from doing things. The more you do something, the more desensitized you become to it. This can be anything from leaving the house to trying something new.
It’s important not to push yourself too much, but breaking things down into manageable chunks is very good for you. I still have to do this now even though to an outside observer it would seem like I live a “normal” life and have no mental health struggles.
7. Other people are doing better than me.
People only ever show you what they want you to see. Someone may seem like they’re fine, but both you and I know that it’s easy to hide what’s really going on.
A lot of people think I’m fine and have no problems, but that is not the case. We cannot possibly have any idea what sort of battle people are experiencing inside, so comparing yourself to others is unwise as you don’t know the full facts.
8. If I relapse, it means I have “failed.”
No, no and no.
It is not your fault. You have not failed. It does not cancel out any progress you have made.
During my last relapse in 2015, I felt like a failure and was intent on ending my own life. I have come out of that relapse a stronger and wiser person. I recognize the early signs of me becoming unwell, so I can prevent relapse. I have learned from my previous relapses that I must tell someone as soon as possible.
If I had not experienced relapse, I would not know this. Relapse was not a waste of time. I thought it was at first, and I was conscious of the time I had lost. I may have lost time, but I have gained a new understanding of my symptoms and triggers. This understanding is what keeps me well.
9. I will never be able to stay well.
This false belief was the biggest obstacle in my recovery. What was the point in getting better if it wouldn’t last?
My expectations of being well were that it had to be perfect 100 percent of the time. I know now that bad patches happen to anyone and it always passes. It doesn’t necessarily mean I have relapsed, but if I do relapse it’s not a failure, and that will pass too.
Wellness is individual to the person, and I have learned that my wellness means having control over my recovery. This means understanding how to spot the early signs of me becoming unwell and what I need to do if I become unwell. It also means understanding what keeps me well and engaging in good habits as part of self-care.
Who knew that when I “grew up” I would be a flawed human being with symptoms of mental illness? Who knew that I could find happiness in this imperfection and that I would one day be thankful that recovery didn’t meet my unrealistic expectations?