Confession: I hate recovery. It’s hard. And scary. And hard.
Before I can explain why, I need to tell you a bit about what I’m recovering from. “Mental illness” is an expansive term, and even when I break it into words like “depression”, “anxiety” and “BPD”, the picture is vague. So here are the broad strokes of my story.
I was diagnosed a couple years ago, November 2015, but I’ve struggled with my mental health since I was about fifteen years old. High school was hard. University was harder. Bad days bled into bad weeks which became bad months and in my third year I dropped out because my ability to function extended not far beyond shuffling my way out of bed to the bathroom a couple times a day, and maybe a trip to the kitchen at 2 am to compulsively stuff myself with whatever I could find.
Ninety per cent of the time, I believed I was a terrible person. The things I struggled with were things a good person should not struggle with. Sleeping too much. Skipping classes. Procrastinating. Not keeping my room clean. Not keeping myself clean. Depending on others for stability. Self harm.
I couldn’t let myself accept that I might have a medical condition. That seemed too easy – a cop out. I was just lazy. I was just selfish, a drama queen. I was making a mountain out of a mole hill. I was pathetic. I was bad.
I lived with unrelenting guilt, which ushered me to the brink of suicide more times than I can count.
When it finally became apparent that there was something going on beyond lazy and pathetic, when I was finally hospitalized and diagnosed, I clung to my new labels for dear life. The validation of a clinical diagnosis was an unparalleled gift, an acquittal, an absolved identity. I was no longer bad; I was sick.
“Sick” has been my savior.
I finally have a name for why getting out of bed is so hard. There is a reason I’ve struggled with close relationships. My tendency to get overwhelmed and shut down at the smallest trigger is now explained by the confirmation of my mental illness. This diagnosis explains what, for the past seven or eight years, has been my life. It gives me terms with which to understand my history – terms beyond “failure” and “loser”. It provides a structure within which I have found support and community. My labels have given me a freedom of conscience I didn’t dare to hope for.
THIS is why recovery has been/is still so hard. One minute my struggle was validated and my name cleared of charges, the next I am expected to begin dismantling the disorder and, subsequently, this brand new gift: my character-clearing diagnosis.
Of course, hesitation here isn’t logical. If my disorders can be righted and my quality of life improved, I shouldn’t need the labels of a diagnosis to protect me. The enemies, my mental and emotional struggles, should be gone, or at least no longer unmanageable, and I should no longer need protecting.
But these struggles have been my reality for so long. I can’t quite believe in life without them. And even if I could, such a life scares me. Beyond the chronic existential battle and the milieu of unhealthy behaviours, I don’t really know who I am. I’ve never been an adult without these issues. I was never even a teenager without these issues. They’ve taken up so much time and energy, I haven’t had much left over to discover who I might be beyond them. Or how to even live like a normal person. The concept of a 9-5, Mon-Fri job scares the shit out of me. If I find myself able to get out of bed before noon and not spend the rest of the day under a storm of fatigue and anxiety, what will I do with myself?? Am I capable of this “adulting” thing people talk about?
Will it even matter if I am? For whatever reason, I seem, also, to have internalized an idea that if I am not sick, I don’t matter. I suspect this has something to do with feeling invisible when I was drowning, and how the desperate situations and labels that followed brought some dearly-needed attention. Whatever the cause, it makes me very protective of my disorders and very competitive with others who have mental illness. Because if worth is predicated on illness, the sicker you are the more worth you must have, right? (This does not apply to successful people in the “real world” – their worth is in what they contribute: the first standard I was unable to meet.)
So I guess at its root recovery needs to be about establishing my worth and identity in something else. Probably something spiritual.
Right. Good. I’ll just get on that, then.
Here’s the thing: the world is BIG. People are unpredictable. Life is complicated and scary. Crazy as it sounds, there are ways in which mental illness seems preferable to facing these challenges. Easier. My bed is, at least, safe.
But mental illness is NOT preferable. Not really.
I’m 22 years old. I have dreams. I want to complete my undergrad degree. I want to travel. I want to write. I want to backpack across Europe or Australia or … something. I want to live. Depression and anxiety and living in my room offer a small, dark safety, but the cost is so high. The cost is depression and anxiety and living in my room. The cost is misery. The cost is hopelessness.
So I’m working on my recovery. I’m making myself go out. I’m engaging with the world around me. I’m making friends and eating and taking on small responsibilities. I’m taking my meds. I’m working at balance. I’m showering (somewhat) more regularly and, on average, spending less time in bed. And this is just the stuff that shows.
I feel useful, you guys. I feel alive, like I maybe have a place in this world. I feel hope. I have aspirations again, beyond mere survival. When left alone, my thoughts don’t always meander into darkness. Sometimes I host ideas and fantasies that are actually nice.
And the spiritual part? The finding-worth-beyond-my-accomplishments-or-diagnosis part? It’s coming too. I know a few places NOT to find it, so that’s something, right? I’m not going to be any sort of spiritual guru anytime soon, but I’m learning mindfulness and self-compassion. And theology, which is a whole other thing. I’m just at the tip of theology and discovering how it works and where it intersects spirituality and what it all means.
It’s hard, though. It really is. Recovery. Life. It’s all just fucking HARD. Sometimes I hate it. The further I get into recovery, the further I feel from the safety of my old fall-backs. Which is terrifying. Sometimes I’m not sure it’s worth it.
Those days, I slow down.
Sometimes I relapse.
You thought I was leading to a deep, profound conclusion, didn’t you? Nope. I’m not sure what I’m trying to convey, honestly. Recovery is hard. (I sound like a broken record, I know.) It’s also amazing. But hard. But amazing.
Thank goodness for small steps.