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.
A note on labels: Like many people with mental health struggles, I’ve experienced my fair share of misdiagnoses. Since writing this piece, I’ve finally been correctly diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and complex PTSD, which have been life-changing realizations for me. That said, I hope that the resources I created in the past can still be helpful. (Jan 2019)