Life after Mental Illness: New Thoughts, New Challenges
I am at an odd point in my life. Gradually I have ‘woken up’ and re-joined the land of the living, and suddenly my future rests in my hands. I am no longer tethered to an inner authoritarian voice... but the choices! Where in the world shall I live? Which relationships should I nurture? And what about work? Study? Hobbies? I feel overwhelmed by the decisions before me.
As I move into this next phase of my recovery, retreating back into my mental illness is appealing. I would describe the pull to unwellness as being like the mythical sirens. In Greek legend, sirens were creatures on the shorefront that would call sailors into the shallows. Their boats would crash upon the rocks and they would perish.
For me, facing the next stage of my life in the current uncertain climate of covid-19, I am facing some difficult choices, and feel tempted to steer my boat towards the rocks. I feel called to the familiarity of sabotage, and the paradoxical control gained in giving in to the demands of a dictatorial mind.
It may sound strange, but as well as there being much to lose in being ill, there is also much to be gained. The identity of someone with mental illness is familiar, it’s how I’ve learnt to relate to myself and others. It ensures care from those around me. It stops people from leaving me, and at the same time, prevents them from getting too close. I do not have to try so hard to rise to challenges, because I already have an excuse ready if I fail.
I am not so practiced at living a meaningful, happy life. For one thing, I cannot remember a time before mental illness. For another, I am not sure if anyone else remembers how I was either, and that terrifies me.
Might my smile be too large now? Might I laugh too loud? Maybe the strength of my presence and my opinions seem threatening? I am not sure how others will react to this changed me.
Allowing myself to fall in love with life again has been a courageous step. It has meant facing not only the beauty of life, but the fact that it will end. As a child, I harboured a deep fear of death. As I grew older and developed suicidal thoughts, I no longer cared whether I lived or died. Some of the attempts on my life were based on the firm belief that I was so utterly worthless and evil that I didn’t deserve to breathe.
As I’ve grown to love myself and my life, I have had to once again face its transience. I now see a future for myself, but a future that will involve pain, such as the loss of loved ones I once believed I would die before. This awareness of the precious shortness of life allows me to be more grateful in the moment, and to make the absolute most of what I have.
Life is too short to spend it punishing and diminishing yourself. We are called to rise to challenges and learn to live with ourselves in a way that honours the gift of life we are given.