The first time I saw a psychologist was nearly a decade ago now. I was just fourteen 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 that I emerged on the other side of all of this feeling whole and happy and fulfilled – all things that I never imagined were possible given the hand that I was dealt.
While not all neurodiverse people view their difference as an illness (which is 100% valid!), this framework has helped me personally in my healing; in this particular article, I am speaking to those who share that framework. However, everyone should use whatever language works best for them!
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 after trauma that has often persisted for decades.
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) that 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 instead of being stuck in survival mode.
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 gives zero fucks about your ambitions and only concerns itself with your ability at any given time.
And while you may have the urge to hit the ground running, in reality the best you may be able to do is sit up. That’s okay! Mental illness is trauma and trauma takes time to heal.
Be mindful of the pace that 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 with yourself as you navigate the initial recovery steps. You don’t need to take on the world right now. It’s true that this stuff takes a lot of patience, but giving yourself the time and space that you need will 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 that 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 struggling again – 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 – I’m not sure how that negates the amount of work we’ve put into our recovery since the last time we struggled.
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 off, it suggests that 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 am 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 by virtue of the work you’ve been putting in, big or small.
As a famous fish once said, “Just keep swimming.”
3. You are 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 that 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. That anger is necessary in confronting trauma.
You don’t have to pretend that you’re some kind of reformed, respectable survivor. While I do consider myself a survivor, I am, in equal parts, a victim. There’s this false dichotomy that we’ve created – you’re either a survivor, who has overcome mental illness and you are an inspiration to all, OR you’re a victim, wallowing in your own suffering with no intention of moving past it.
Why is it that victims get so much shit while survivors are celebrated? Is it because they don’t make as exciting or inspiring of a story?
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 and wallow in it and acquaint ourselves with it. Anger can be part of healing, but not if we suppress it. If that makes us victims, so be it.
4. Recovery, in some ways, is 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 all the medications I was trying came with a host of wild side effects that came and went with no warning. 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 – and when I was stripped of that, I came to realize that I didn’t know myself as well as I’d thought. So much of what I came to associate with “me” was actually just depression or mania talking. When I was no longer in the midst of it, I realized I had to start over and evaluate the very core of who I was.
So much energy went into just maintaining myself – when did I have the luxury of figuring out who I was apart from that? But when the noise quieted down, it felt like I was a stranger to myself.
The predictability of sickness – the flat line that 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 just healthy enough to feel a full spectrum of emotions and be fully present for it, 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 that 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 and get back to the living we were meant to do. 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 that as we share our stories – not just those of struggle but of healing, too – we can ensure that those who are on this journey will never have to feel alone, no matter where in that journey they are.
Sam Dylan Finch is a transgender activist and feminist writer, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his blog and labor of love, as well as a writer at Everyday Feminism and Ravishly. With a passion for impacting change through personal narrative, Sam writes about his struggles and triumphs as genderqueer and bipolar with the hopes of teaching others about his identity and community.