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4 Unexpected Lessons I've Learned About Mental Illness Recovery

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The first time I saw a psychologist was nearly a decade ago. I was just 14 years old, trapped under the fist of a heavy and unexpected depressive episode.

After bouncing around the mental health system for all of these years, I’m grateful to say I emerged on the other side feeling whole, happy and fulfilled – all things I never imagined were possible given the hand I was dealt.

We have plenty of narratives about struggling with mental health, and while those are crucial stories to share, I think it’s also important to have conversations (often!) about recovery.

Because for many of us, we don’t know what to expect, what our recovery might look like and how we can move forward with our lives.

So in the spirit of shedding some light on this topic, I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned throughout the process. Here are four lessons (of many) mental illness recovery has taught me:

1. Honor your own pace. 

Mental illness can make a person impatient. This shouldn’t be surprising – for many of us, our episodes have persisted for months, even years, and at the first sign of light we’re eager to reclaim our lives and finally begin living.

This can often lead to us feeling more overwhelmed, intimidated and downright exhausted. Ugh!

This is where the phrase “walk, don’t run” is critical. Because while it would be fantastic to address all of the neglected aspects of our lives after trauma – wilting relationships, weak finances, failing grades, returning to work – recovery doesn’t care about your ambitions. It only concerns itself with your ability at any given time.

And while you may have the urge to hit the ground running, the best you may be able to do is sit up. That’s OK! Mental illness can be traumatic and trauma takes time to heal.

Be mindful of the pace you’re setting for recovery. Are you pushing too hard? Are you punishing yourself for not reaching impossible goals? Are you setting yourself up for failure?

Keep realistic expectations and be kind to yourself as you navigate the initial recovery steps. You don’t need to take on the world right now. It’s true this stuff takes a lot of patience, but giving yourself the time and space you need can help make your recovery a more sustainable one. Trust me.

2. There is no such thing as “square one.”

This scenario might sound familiar to you. A lot of us, when we find ourselves struggling again after a period of relative stability, lament being “back at square one” and beat ourselves up about it.

I vote we eliminate that phrase from our vocabulary effective immediately.

What the hell is square one? I don’t think it really exists. Because even if we find ourselves “relapsing” – whether it’s having suicidal thoughts after years of not considering it, or having a huge panic attack after effectively coping with anxiety for some time – that doesn’t negate the amount of work we’ve put into our recovery.

I used to beat myself up every time bipolar disorder or anxiety made a “guest appearance” in my life after being booted off the cast. This is problematic on a few fronts. First, it suggests I’m somehow at fault. And two, it dismisses all the self-care, therapy and emotional investment I’ve put into my healing. It basically says, “I’m an identical copy of the person I was years ago.” Not true.

No panic attack or depressive episode can take away all the skills, reflections, epiphanies, support systems and tools we’ve gained in our recovery. There can be setbacks, to be sure, but it’s impossible to be exactly where you started.

As a famous fish once said, “Just keep swimming.

3. You’re allowed to be angry.

When I reflect on the amount of time bipolar disorder and anxiety have robbed me of – years of fighting just to stay alive – I feel a kind of rage and grief I can’t say I’ve ever felt about anything else. The sheer injustice of it makes me angry. To this day, despite mental illness having a very diminished impact on my life, I still have to take a moment from time to time to let myself feel that rage.

Give yourself the space to feel angry. 

You don’t have to pretend you’re some kind of reformed, respectable survivor. We’ve created this false dichotomy – you’re either a survivor, who has overcome mental illness and you’re an inspiration to all, or you’re a victim, wallowing in your own suffering with no intention of moving past it.

Trauma is real. And we all need to give ourselves permission to grieve. We need to give ourselves permission to acknowledge our own pain, and yes, to even sit in it, wallow in it and acquaint ourselves with it. Anger can be part of healing, but not if we suppress it.

4. Recovery, in some ways, can be harder than any episode you’ll ever have.

Depression, while it gutted my soul completely, in many ways felt safe to me. I knew what the rules were. I often knew what to expect. It was consistent, reliable even. Everything was easier without hope because there was never disappointment, never unpredictability, never ups and downs.

I was surprised by how much more difficult, in some ways, recovery really was. Physically, because the medications I was trying came with a host of side effects, and emotionally, because just when I thought I was making progress, I came crashing back down.

And intrinsically, too, recovery was hard because so much of who I was depended on my episodes. When I was stripped of that, I came to realize I didn’t know myself as well as I’d thought. So much of what I came to associate with “me” was actually depression or mania talking. When I was no longer in the midst of it, I had to start over and evaluate the very core of who I was.

When the noise quieted down, I felt like a stranger to myself.

The predictability of sickness – the flat line we never depart from – in many ways allowed me to revert to auto-pilot. That ultimately meant not dealing with the unknowable and unpredictable aspects of life. Sometimes it’s actually harder when you’re healthy enough to feel a full spectrum of emotions, but not yet equipped with the tools to cope.

The emotional labor that goes into recovery is very different from the upkeep that goes into survival when you’re dealing with a mental health crisis. It creates its own challenges – many of which we’re unprepared for.

But I consider these challenges to be growing pains. These are muscles that, after being out of use, will be stronger with time. The best advice I can give? Take it day by day, keeping in mind any major life change – good or bad – can still be disruptive and difficult in its own ways.

Recovery is a bit of a misnomer – because while mental illness is treatable, for better or for worse, it doesn’t just disappear.

Really, I think of it more like rehabilitation after an injury; we have to learn and relearn skills to help us get back on our feet. We aren’t trying to pretend the trauma didn’t happen – we’re trying to become more adaptable in the face of that trauma.

It starts slow, with small victories and of course, the setbacks, too. But with persistence, we can build a better foundation that allows us to become more resilient in the face of our struggles.

I believe as we share our stories – not just those of hard times but of healing, too – we can ensure those who are on this journey will never feel alone, no matter where in that journey they are.

Related: 23 Messages for Hope For Those Starting Their Mental Illness Recovery Journey

Originally published: October 19, 2015
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