6 Things Mental Health Recovery Has Taught Me

When I say that I’m in recovery, I mean it. It’s basically my part-time job.

My recent psychiatric hospitalization flipped my entire world upside-down. When I saw the aftermath of my breakdown, I knew it was time to confront my bipolar disorder and make a real commitment to my wellness.

So I went all in, taking advantage of every resource available to me (which I recognize is not the same for everyone).

Three days of the week, I am in intensive outpatient, which consists of mindfulness exercises, meetings with psychiatrists and social workers, group therapy, and skill-building.

Additional hours are spent in support groups around mental illness and sobriety, workshops on triggers and crisis management, reading every book on bipolar disorder that has ever existed, journaling to reflect on what I’ve been learning, and meeting with other folks in crisis to do some co-supporting and processing.

I couldn’t guarantee that I would never have another episode. But I could do everything in my power to make sure that I was ready for whatever this disorder threw at me.

Recovery has taught me more than I could possibly compile in a single list. But I did want to share just a handful of the things I’ve been reflecting upon lately as I start to emerge from the other side of this crisis.

Here are six things I’ve learned as I navigated my recovery:

 

1. Ignoring your illness doesn’t make it go away.

I can’t restate this enough. I spent the last two years evading the reality of my illness, which ultimately meant that I missed all the red flags as a major episode approached.

You can pretend that your mental illness doesn’t exist, and you can put it on the back burner if you’d like. But you can’t outrun it – it will always catch back up to you.

 

2. You are not helpless in the face of mental illness.

This can seem completely counter to everything our illnesses are telling us, especially if we’re feeling particularly hopeless.

But it is absolutely untrue that there’s nothing we can do to manage our illnesses. There are countless forms of therapy (both in human form and in the form of very accessible workbooks), coping strategies, self-care, and mindfulness practices that can help.

We can track our moods and sleep patterns, we can find communities of support, we can become aware of and minimize our triggers.

This is not to say that we control our illnesses. But we can certainly mitigate the kind of control that our illnesses have over us, and become aware of the warning signs that we need to prevent acute episodes as they approach.

 

3. Plant your feet firmly on the ground, in the here and now.

You can run on the hamster wheel of the past, overanalyzing what you could and should have done. You can ruminate on the future, and how seemingly impossible and overwhelming it really is.

Or, as they often tell us in recovery, you can take it one day at a time.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was in a support group, when I was rambling about how much remorse I felt about the way I had handled my breakdown, and everything I should have done differently.

Suddenly, someone interrupted and said to me, “Sam, is this helpful?”

I paused, taken aback. It wasn’t helpful at all.

And I highly recommend, when you find yourself ruminating on the past or panicking about the future, that you ask yourself who it serves. If it’s not helpful, opt for some good ol’ self-care instead.

 

4. Grief is an absolutely valid (and expected!) part of recovery.

I remember telling a social worker that I was worried that I was getting depressed again. I was having frequent spells of sadness and rumination, and I thought it might be an indication that things were taking a turn.

She asked if it was possible that I was experiencing grief instead, gently suggesting that instead of trying to push my sadness away, I should let it be.

“You’re used to fighting sadness,” she said to me. “With bipolar disorder, sadness always meant an impending crisis. But you seem perfectly stable to me. Maybe it’s time to get acquainted with sadness, with grief, instead of pushing it away.”

Grief is an expected part of recovery, especially if you’re coming off of a crisis. There’s so much to grieve – the loss of trust in yourself or your reality, a deep sense of vulnerability or even mortality, the shattering of your own security or feelings of normalcy, and any trauma that was endured.

When you’re mentally ill, you may be conditioned to fear sadness and grief – but it’s okay to sit with those feelings instead of resisting them, knowing they are simply a part of the recovery process, and that they are, in fact, transient.

 

5. Returning to your “normal life” is overrated. Build something better instead.

For the first two weeks of recovery, all I wanted was my “old life” back. I wanted to go back to work, I wanted to finish outpatient and go on my big East Coast trip, I wanted everyone to act as if it hadn’t happened.

I was reading a book on bipolar disorder – it had an entire chapter on lifestyle changes – when I realized two things.

The first was that my “normal life” would never be the same, and that it wasn’t something I could return to.

But the second more important realization was that it wasn’t something I wanted to return to.

My recovery was now an opportunity to build a life that was better than the one I had before – with more mindfulness, more resilience, better coping strategies, a real commitment to sobriety, and better boundaries.

Instead of seeing recovery as the road back to “normal life,” I saw it as a chance to create something better for myself.

I think that has been an incredibly important realization for me.

 

6. You have never been in a better position to change your life.

When did I get so disgustingly optimistic? (Y’all, they put me on some really great medications…)

I know, I know. But listen, it’s true – there has never existed another moment in your life where you’ve had the same awareness, knowledge, and lived experience that you do now.

So really, in this moment, there has never been a better time for you to make a commitment to your own wellness and recovery.

Dive in. Read everything you can get your hands on. Watch as many videos on self-care and coping strategies as you possibly can. Get yourself a good shrink if you’re able to. Give yourself 90 days of sobriety. Seek out a support group, online or offline, and pour your heart out.

Check out your local community college and see what classes they offer; get in touch with your local NAMI chapter and see what resources are available to you. Study yourself, study your illness, delve into your history with complete conviction – study like it’s the last class before graduation and you need to ace the exam.

Recovery is not about going back to the way things were. Recovery is about shaping your life to resemble the way you want things to be.

And there’s never been a better moment to do that than the one we’re in, right now.

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16 thoughts on “6 Things Mental Health Recovery Has Taught Me

  1. eagoodlife says:

    So very glad you have come to this place. Someone close to me recently did the very same thing, grabbed it all with both hands and ran with it. Discovering what was useful, what was not helped build a great toolbox. 6 months down the track things look very different. Very best wishes xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. suziwalks (@suziwalks) says:

    Awesome! I’m about to go into an IOP so a friend sent me this blog link! I’m going to have to start following this blog. Question: which book are you referring to in #5, paragraph 2? (I find that a lot of books on bipolar are the opposite of helpful, so I’m always glad to find one that IS.) Glad to have found this blog and you!

    xo,
    Suzi

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      My favorite book on bipolar so far has been Bipolar Disorder for Dummies (terrible title, but yes, seriously). It has SO much information in it and I have been really impressed by it so far. 🙂

      Like

  3. bobcabkings says:

    Sam, these 6 things are huge. I think the one about the difference between depression and grief is especially important. In “What Took You So Long,” Sheldon Kopp wrote, “If you stubbornly refuse to mourn your losses, you get depressed.” I agree that grieving losses is essential to recovery. All in all, a great post. reblogging

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Bipolarbrainiac says:

    I’m all in as well. I would do anything to avoid or end a bipolar depression relapse. I did the sobriety thing for years and found it not a good fit as I developed tardive dyskinesia and at times needed to share mental health stuff. At my local drop in center (have you looked for one? I have a state by state directory if you want it)….I developed 2 self help groups, nurtured them and they are still going strong. Also write for bphope.com, the digital wing of bipolar magazine and IBPF. This helps. They say lifting weights helps and learning new things like I learned Pilates (a struggle for me) and also jewelry making (also a struggle for me)…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      I’d love to see the directory! I’m happy to hear about all the work that you’ve done and I’m wishing you all the best in your recovery. 🙂 (And sobriety isn’t for everyone – I just have a tendency to misuse substances when I’m in a bad place so I finally decided to stop them altogether!)

      Like

  5. vjknutson says:

    As always, a very pertinent and helpful post, Sam. I have lived with depression (sometimes acute) and it was only when I finally recognized it wasn’t going away and learned to “work” with it (for lack of a better word) that I felt more in control (also a bad word – sorry, suffering brain challenges right now.)
    The point is, you are right on the mark with all your advice, not to mention your writing style makes the information easily accessible.
    Now a request. What is the best way for family members and loved ones to respond/ help you during a crisis. You may have posted about this before, and if so, I apologize. Just point me there.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. mariner2mother says:

    Sam, I was only recently introduced to your blog, and am so very impressed by you. My mother was bipolar, and if there was one thing I have regrets about, it’s that she never shared her mental illness with us, her family. She would meet with her therapist and would meet with her psychopharmacologist, but she never talked about any of it with my Dad or with us. (Well, she talked a very little bit about it much later on in life). And unfortunately, because of that, it took until just the few years before her death (at 81) for me to get a really good sense of her moods. I could help been really helpful for her, as I got quite excellent at knowing when she was up or down, and how much. If she had confided in me and trusted me, I feel like I could have been a valuable asset for her, one more tool in her tool bag. I hope that you have at least one person in your life who knows you very well, who you can always trust to have your back. Even when my mother became paranoid and delusional and thought my Dad was trying to kill her and that other people were trying to do her harm in one way or another, a part of her always knew that we, her kids, wanted the best for her.

    One thing I noticed with Mom, was that over the years, the friends that she had that stuck around were solid true friends. Sure, she had acquaintances that came and went, but a true friend will hang in there with you through mania and depression, especially when they know you are doing the best you can. Thank you so very much for writing about your experience, for allowing us in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Dylan Finch says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m still trying to figure out who my “people” are through all this. I do have some terrific friends, and we’re trying to negotiate boundaries. My partner, R, has stuck by me for over four years through the worst of it, so I’m lucky in that sense, too. I’m definitely not alone.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ivy Willow says:

    Oh Sam. How much, once again, I need to hear (see… whatever) the words that you write! I just got out of the acute treatment unit yesterday after I had broken down into a suicidal depression for the second time in two months. I’m trying to wade through many of the things that you are talking about in here, including the ruminating on the past and fearing the future. Being afraid of being sad. Everything, everything on here has been so important to read.
    I’m currently trying to figure out what the next steps in my life should be, and I’m just not sure. I’m currently still working full time, but it’s dragging me down, on the flip side of that, I need the cash, so it’s a pretty nasty catch-22.
    I’m very glad, as always, that you are around and that you are willing to put your words and experiences out there. I know that you have continually helped me, and I’m sure it’s the same for others.
    Have a beautiful day sunshine, and thank you for being such a bright and beautiful person. *hugs*

    Liked by 1 person

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