QUESTION: is the idea of ‘recovery’ helpful?
I have mixed feelings about recovery. Whether it is a help or a hindrance when so many people present it as an ideal which feels distant and unattainable to people who are in the midst of any type of illness. Sometimes when people reference recovery or being recovered, it just makes me feel more lost and hopeless than I was before. However, other times it can inspire me and give me the courage to keep moving forward with the comfort that others have weathered similar storms.
What is probably most frustrating to me about the idea of recovery is that it is so vague by virtue that it is subjective and hard to pin down in what it means to each of us individually. There is no specific route or journey that will lead you straight to recovery, the same steps and challenges do not work for anyone. Recovery does not look the same for everyone either, leaving me in the strange position of never being entirely certain of what I am aiming or working towards, meaning that my motivation begins to dwindle behind my uncertain mind.
Whenever counsellors or therapists have mentioned recovery to me I have felt myself recoil into my seat. Even the word seems so intimidating and far off in the distance. Also, I find the use of the term frustrating because who has the right or the knowledge to determine exactly what recovery is, what it looks like and what the time period for recovery should be? However much I want there to be a finish line I also do not know who I am without mental illness because I have let my mental health define me for so long. How do I separate myself from the characteristics of my illnesses and how will I know when this process is complete and I have recovered?
This post is a mess of rhetorical questions and abstract thoughts but what I have learnt from it is that I need to narrow down the specifics of what I am striving towards and what progress I will be satisfied with so that I could call myself recovered. Abstract and vague goals only lead to more frustration and motivation leaving me like a deflated balloon.
“I wanted to tell her that I was getting better, because that was supposed to be the narrative of illness: It was a hurdle you jumped over, or a battle you won. Illness is a story told in the past tense.” – ‘Turtles All The Way Down’ by John Green
Progress isn’t always linear. There’s not always a finish line in sight. Things that we labour at in life don’t necessarily work-out mathematically, we can’t time ourselves and set concrete targets for when to hit our next milestones. Some things just have to take as long as they take which is probably why the intangible frustrates the human brain so much.
Neither my anxiety nor my depression can be measured. I can’t draw a pencil line on the wall to set my bench mark and then keep drawing lines until I flourish to the point of blooming five feet above my initial line. Wouldn’t that be quaint? Instead the journey with mental illness often seems a lonely and meandering one in which fog fills-up my mind so frequently that I become disorientated and wonder whether I actually have a final destination to keep moving forwards to. My illnesses aren’t visible, so cannot be judged on their reduction of prominence over time. Instead, they are confusing swathes of thoughts and feelings which ebb and flow in how much they cover and suffocate my mind and body. Sometimes it feels like I take two steps forward then three steps back.
Today the pessimistic route presented itself as the easy one to take. Time has felt like sand slipping through my fingers recently and the hum of everyone moving past me, their progress whistling in my ears, only felt louder the more I pushed towards the positive route. Today and writing this blog post reminded me of the importance of having goals and a picture of where you want to be, not just in one or two year’s time, but tomorrow and the day after that. When the possibility of progress seems to be so distantly set in the faraway future, it is difficult to find the motivation to continue onwards on the right path. So, I set myself short-term goals, literally for the next day, like waking-up and telling myself that it will be a good day, getting to my seminar a couple of minutes early, smiling at whoever I sit next to in class, holding the door open for someone or managing to get myself to say even just a couple of words to whoever will be near me in my lecture hall (this is the most ambitious as my words dry-up in my mouth when I am around people). These things may seem silly and inconsequential but I need the reassurance that work can always be done on some aspect of my mental health and the route which will take me looping backwards to my darkest place isn’t the only one available to me.
I have been told an obscene amount of times that I will ‘grow out of’ my mental health problems.
I find this one of the most annoying common phrases that counsellors, relatives and family friends tend to say to me when they find out about my mental health issues. They try to convince me that as I get older I will leave my depression, anxiety and OCD behind because to them it is obvious that no mature adult could still struggle with such immature issues.
Note to people who say this: you are being incredibly patronising. You are telling someone whose life is consumed by their struggles with mental health that their problems are childish and once they have seen more of the world and gotten older they will simply forget about their immature issues. However much you want to, you cannot dismiss someone else’s valid feelings out of hand because of your own ignorance and lack of understanding, telling someone that what they are going through is essentially just a phrase is extremely demeaning.
Other people have told me “Oh, when I was your age I was shy too but I soon grew out of it”. I appreciate that people who have said this to me were trying to show that they could empathise with me and give me a sense of comfort but it is so frustrating when people think that being shy is the same as suffering from anxiety (social anxiety and generalised anxiety in my case). Equating these two issues and taking them to mean the same thing means that you are dismissing the experience of panic and anxiety attacks, the daily struggle of leaving the house and the constant worry anxious people have to battle about what others think about them, as well as the isolating effect of having trouble travelling on public transport. People who say that having anxiety is essentially just being shy are telling people that they do not believe all of the serious effect which this mental illness can have as well as the incredibly varied experiences people with anxiety have, as it should be remembered that we cannot be all lumped together and told that the way we see and live life is exactly the same.
In essence, I wish people would take anxiety more seriously rather than just dismissing it as a phase to grow out of. How do you think that makes people who are older than my own 18 years of age feel about their own experiences with anxiety? Be sensitive to the overall effects that anxiety can have on our lives rather than just shrinking people who suffer with it to the image of your own slightly quiet self when you started secondary school; it is not the same thing.