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Why I’m Scared of Recovering From My Mental Illnesses

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Recovery from mental illness is complicated. Figuring out what recovery will realistically look like is complicated. The actual process of recovery is complicated. And figuring out how you feel about your recovery can be more complicated than others may think.

My recovery is a lifelong process. Due to the nature of my mental illnesses, some, if not all, will be with me my entire life. What I’m chasing is stability, which, for me, is a state of mind where my thoughts and actions are not heavily influenced by my illnesses. Right now, I’m fighting to break free from severe symptoms of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizoaffective disorder. It might sound a little ridiculous, but at this stage, my recovery is full of mixed emotions. I’m excited, but also terrified.

In the beginning, things looked bleak.

In the last year, every step forward in my treatment ended with me knocked off my feet and stumbling 10 steps backward. Medication changes were making only small differences. I went from doing therapy once a week to twice, and then three times a week. At a certain point, my doctor suggested I consider leaving my job and look into Social Security disability benefits. And as I continued to spiral further downward, my doctor strongly considered hospitalizing me or putting me in an intensive outpatient program.

Fear wrapped around me.

I was afraid of so many things. I feared the unknown — hospitals, outpatient programs and also putting my needs first. The cost of everything had my gut in knots, unsure if I could afford the care I needed. And I was terrified I might lose my job if my ability to function became further impaired. So, my boyfriend and I worked together and came up with a plan that would ease us into reaching a point where I could go on disability benefits without entirely bankrupting us.

We were incredibly lucky to have abounding support from both of our employers, families and also friends. At this point, I’m working three days a week and doing therapy three days a week. I’m also avoiding driving right now due to the dark ideas that found space in my head every time I sat behind the wheel. Each step forward is still met with a forceful push backward, but a glimpse of hope is dancing on the horizon. But, I don’t feel entirely good about that.

I worry recovery will take more than just my symptoms.

I’ve been living with mental illnesses my whole life. I have no idea what life without them looks like. Will I like being happy? Would I forget everything I’ve been through? Will I be a different person altogether? Don’t get me wrong, I know I will never be mental illness-free. At a minimum, schizoaffective disorder will always have a place in the brain that it has physically altered. Chances are, I would still have residual symptoms of depression, anxiety and OCD as well. But, for some reason, I find myself worrying recovery will remove my empathy, humbleness and also my credibility as an advocate. It makes no sense, I know. But I can’t seem to convince myself that’s not what will happen.

I also feel guilty.

Here we’ve gone and told everyone I’m on the fast track to disability, and now, while there’s still a good possibility my journey on recovery will take me there, it’s slightly less certain. I feel like I’ve lied to people. My doctor assures me no one will be upset with me for getting better, but the guilt always hovers nearby.

I know my fears don’t make sense, but I can’t get them out of my head.

It’s confusing. Shouldn’t I be happy about the potential for reaching stability faster? Why would anyone be afraid of being happy? I know I don’t handle change well, but I thought a positive change would have been easier. But it’s not. It’s been so long since I’ve truly felt stable that it seems foreign to me. And happiness feels uncomfortable because I fear losing sight of who I am.

I can’t imagine a world like that — where life is a tiny bit easier and I’m not smothered by symptoms. Several years ago, when my boyfriend decided to move from California to Illinois to be with me, I felt so uplifted that the rough sides of life didn’t matter as much. I found myself worrying I was experiencing hypomania for the first time, but it turns out it was happiness. This isn’t to say I’m truly unhappy in life right now. There certainly are things that bring light to my world, but it’s different. It doesn’t feel the same.

My feelings around my recovery are not black and white, they are a rainbow of shades of grey, and that’s OK.

While I’m happy to be improving, my disorders have shaped my life and my views and I don’t want those to change. I’m used to turmoil. I’m used to pain. And I like I can use them as fuel to help others better understand mental illness or feel less alone with it. While I know I truly need not fear losing who I am, reaching stability and happiness would be a big change. And even though I do want to be happy and more stable, change always brings mixed emotions for me.

What I’m learning is it’s OK to be unsure and afraid of change, even if it is positive. From opening up to my psychiatrist and my peers, I also know I’m not alone in these feelings. And while I will not let my fears stop me from chasing recovery and stability, I’m sure they’ll be with me every step of the way. It’s going to be a battle, and it might be one I have to fight more than once in my life, but I will keep trying. There’s got to be more to this life than mental illness, and I want to see what that really looks like. So, with my fears by my side, I will walk through the dark in search of light. 

You can follow Katie’s journey on Not Like the Others.

Getty image by golubovy

Originally published: June 18, 2021
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