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When You're Past the Crisis Stage of Mental Illness

There’s a tendency, once you’ve started to heal from the wounds that mental illness has left you with, to forget how bad it really was at the time. It’s not that time heals all wounds. It’s just the memories fade as they flow backward into the past.

You find yourself asking, was I really that miserable? That irrational? That out of control? Once therapy and medication — or whatever works for you — have gotten you past the crisis stage, it gets harder to remember what it all felt like at the time.

Nor do we want to. Going through an episode of serious mental illness is hard enough when you do it once. Reliving it is to be avoided, if possible.

Still, the memories get a little fuzzy around the edges. Now that you are mentally healthier, you know you would never tolerate the kind of treatment you used to, or be so self-destructive, or put yourself down so thoroughly. The times when you did those things, when you felt those ways, seem in some sense unreal.

I think that’s one reason some people go off their meds. It’s not just that they feel better or think they’re cured. It’s that on some level they can’t remember how bad it really was back then. So why should they need psychotropics?

Well, I’m here to tell you that, yes, it’s much better now, but yes, it was that bad back then. You may not remember the weeping and wailing and total despair. You may not remember that you were immobilized for months at a time. You may not recollect pushing away people who were trying to help you. But all that happened.

Perhaps you don’t recall what it was that led you to consider self-harm or suicide. You wouldn’t think that way now, of course — you’re so much more stable. Perhaps you think to yourself that an abusive partner wasn’t really all that bad. After all, you got away from them. It was survivable, so it must have been not that big a deal.

But it was that big a deal. Denying the experiences you’ve had and minimizing their effects on you make it harder to see the long way you’ve come. It’s hard for me to remember now the major bipolar depressive episode that lasted for literally years, when I wasn’t able to work, or write, or read or be there for my husband or even myself. But it happened, and I can’t deny it. I’d be lying to myself if I tried.

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I’m not recommending that you wallow in the memories of the horrible times. I’d rather think about it as keeping little bits of them in a box on a shelf. Every now and then, on a day when you feel particularly strong, you open the lid and peek in. It may be shocking to realize how bad off you were, but a positive relief when you consider how far you’ve come. As the saying goes, the bad times make the good seem so much better.

Bad and good, your experiences have made you who you are today. Denying or minimizing the bad makes it seem like your journey was less long and hard than you know it was. In a way, mental illness is the yardstick by which we can measure mental health. Moving onward and upward are important, but so is being realistic about the past.

Yes, it was that bad. And yes, you made it through anyway!

Getty image by Victor_Tongdee