From Distress to Recovery: How I got there
There was a battle raging within me. Did I want to change, or did I not? And if I did want to change, what were the steps I needed to take to reach it?
For the longest time, I was content in my distress. It may sound strange, but there was something familiar and safe about waking up and living the same day over and over. Doing something different meant doing something I wasn’t so certain about, and I wasn’t willing to take that chance. Changing also meant the possibility of feeling happier and freer, and to be honest I didn’t want that either. I believed to my core that I was evil and disgusting, and that I deserved to suffer.
Those were some of the many lies my head told me day in, day out. This relentless, authoritarian voice dictated exactly what I did. If I did allow myself to appreciate or enjoy an experience, or to connect with others, I would punish myself. I felt so depleted inside myself, like I was an empty shell. My one apparent source of comfort and stability was my ‘illness’ identity. I was terrified to leave it behind. And no wonder – it seemed to be all I had!
So how did I do it? How did I reach the point of truly loving myself and cherishing my life?
Well, it took time. I had to summon up every ounce of bravery and persistence that I had, to face the pain inside me. Looking back though, the journey has been worth it, because now; I feel free.
You’ve heard the saying ‘before it gets better, it may get worse’, right? I see this saying as being very applicable to mental health. Why is that? Well, when we constantly go to strategies that distract or distance ourselves from our emotions, we do not give ourselves the chance to feel them to their full extent. When we use unhelpful coping strategies, such as self injury, drug/alcohol use, disordered eating or oversleeping, we stop that emotion in its tracks. Over time, we numb our feelings – not just the negative ones, but also positive experiences such as joy, wonder, and connectedness.
Therefore, when we reduce (and hopefully stop) using our unhelpful coping strategies, we might feel more intensely, which can seem like a step backwards. I myself feared that these emotions would completely overwhelm me; that I would lose control, or get to the point where I had no choice but to act on them. But the more I leaned to sit with the desperation, sadness and terror, the greater my capacity grew to be able to tolerate them, and the more control I had over what I did with them.
Two emotions that were most difficult for me to feel and express were anger and jealousy. Even though I did a lot of angry things to myself, such as cutting and binge purging, and angry things to others, such as rejecting care, I didn’t identify as an angry person. This was because I did not let myself feel angry; I would act pre-emptively to get rid of it. When I first started to express my anger towards others, I damaged relationships through screaming and hurtful words. Fortunately, the people around me compassionately let me know the impact that my angry outbursts were having, and over time, I learnt to express it in a more measured tone and manner.
I also used to feel very jealous. I would constantly compare myself to others, like friends on social media getting their degrees, having babies and making a life for themselves while I sat in a psychiatric ward. I even felt jealous of people ‘doing better’ at having mental illness – even they were better than me, or thinner than me, or better at being sick and receiving care. Over time, I learnt to channel this jealousy into a healthy competitiveness and inspiration. I also told myself that what I was comparing to was others’ lives at face value, and if I dug a bit deeper, I would probably find just another human being, struggling and fighting in their own lives. I also acknowledged the poor choices that I made in the past. I got curious about the reasons behind my behaviour, and this helped me to make better choices in the now.
As I grew more well, I began to let go of my identity as a mentally ill person. This was a grieving process, as I had defined myself through my illness for the past decade. I was terrified that people would not care as much about me as a well person. I could not remember what it was like to connect with people outside of relating as a young woman with mental illness. As my self concept improved and I began to see myself as a worthy, loving person, I began to allow myself more positive experiences. I had been in the cage of my misery, and the whole time, had held the key. It was true for me that life improved beyond the point I could possibly imagine. I now feel a much deeper connection to myself and others, and have access to emotions that I had forgotten; like hope, contentment, and gratitude. Keep reminding yourself that recovery can be beyond your wildest dreams, it’s so important to stay motivated.
To conclude, change will not happen in the timeframe that you want, or that you expect. It will also not happen by magic. You will not be fixed by an amazing therapist or support person. Recovery is something you need to actively work towards. You’ll need the willingness and bravery to try something different, to commit to change and keep recommitting every day. After all, if you are not focused on recovery, then you are focused on being unwell, and while you are unwell, the world will not wait, and opportunities will pass you by. Change can be terrifying – just don’t let that fear determine your behaviour. Lastly, you are so not alone in this fight. Connect. Reach out. Heal.