A lot of people in “the bizz” talk about “recovery” from mental illness. From mental health professionals to advocates, and also us poor sufferers of all those insidiously invisible diseases that plague our minds. I’ve been asking myself lately: Am I in “recovery”? Because it sure doesn’t feel like it.
It took me decades to figure out; firstly that I’m not, in fact, totally batshit crazy and that I actually have Bipolar Disorder, as well as OCD and PTSD, and secondly how to live with, primarily, Bipolar Disorder with its suffocating suicidal depressions and wild hair-raising manic rides without the use of prescribed medications. I ran screaming from doctors hovering over prescription pads threatening a lifetime of lithium and other chemical horrors. I was determined to find a way to stay alive without Big Pharma’s fingers in my purse, chemically altering the way I think about life, and inflicting all kinds of physical harm they brush off as the “side effects” of their poisonous medications. Instead of succumbing to pressure from those in the medical profession, I chose an organic route to sanity. It’s relentless hard work, but it works for me.
(If you’re interested, you can read details of my reasons to reject all prescribed mental health medications, and how I manage my own Bipolar Disorder in my book about coping without prescription drugs: I’m Bipolar And I Know It)
Over the course of several years, I worked really hard to learn new ways to manage all of my mental health issues. I visited all kinds of therapists, practiced new behaviors and reactions, radically changed my diet, made a morning routine, do frequent self-assessments, monitor my moods, emotions, mental state and physical health, and even follow my own advice. And yet, I still don’t feel like I’m in “recovery.”
What would “recovery” from Bipolar Disorder feel like, I wonder? It’s certainly not the same as that time I almost cut off my left index finger and had to have it stitched back together. In time, the finger fully recovered. It’s almost as good as new, and works perfectly, although it now bears a scar to remind me to be more careful with newly sharpened chef’s knives. I also don’t feel like my damaged mind is “recovering” in the same way as my body does after a nasty bout of the flu (when I definitely feel more dead than alive) or any of those other physical diseases that have slammed me into the pavement, made me wish I was dead, and forced my body into “recovery” mode so that I could get on with the business of living my life. So why won’t my mind “recover” from these mental illnesses in the same way? It seems to be less about actual “recovery” and more about “good management” that keeps me from toppling over the edge.
I still stack up coins in neat piles… make sure all the plates are lined up properly… check the door two, three, four times… count everything; my footsteps, lines on the road, fence posts, oranges in a basket, and struggle through a day if someone upsets my routine…. My OCD is nowhere near any form of “recovery” if we’re talking about cures for diseases. Out of necessity, I learned to stop going into a full anxious meltdown if things aren’t in their proper order. Breathe, breathe, breathe…. That’s called coping, not “recovery” and I’m actually pretty good at it. (Just please don’t put that cup there, thank you very much.)
There are PTSD triggers everywhere… a smell, a taste, a sound, a touch, a sight… Even after all these years of training and practice, I can still be cannon-shot back into the past faster than you can say “fart” and find myself reeling emotionally and struggling to cope. How do you ever “recover” from childhood and adult traumas? I don’t believe you do. Instead of becoming instantly traumatized by all the triggers, I have learned how to remove myself from them; sometimes emotionally, other times physically. Today, I will calmly get out of an elevator if someone enters wearing aftershave or perfume, and I will patiently wait for the next one. I may be a few minutes late, but I won’t be a ragged exhausted blubbering mess. I no longer become fidgety, agitated and inexplicably angry when faced with a trigger. As far as I can tell, I haven’t “recovered” from PTSD. Over time, I have learned how to recognize and react appropriately to triggers. Is it 100% foolproof? No… but I’m doing okay as long as no one brings lavender into the room.
With daily assessments (sometimes hourly, sometimes minute by minute) I no longer fall, plummeting into the great black abyss of depression without any forewarning. There are signs and signals, checks and balances, and an enormous tool box of coping mechanisms at my disposal which I can rummage through to find ways to pull myself back up before it’s too late. That doesn’t mean depression doesn’t happen. It does. But it feels like the deepest darkest suicidal edge has been taken off, and it’s slightly easier to get back up and get on with life.
To be honest, even though I can detect them, I do tend to let the manic phases go a little bit … they’re so much fun! Those crazy manic times are my most creative, productive, and inspired moments. Why would I want them to stop? However, instead of letting the manic roller-coaster race wildly out of control until I’ve suddenly become the Queen of my own country, I’ve learned to take breaks, to stop and eat something healthy, to meditate when my mind starts racing, to go for walks, to get some rest (even if I can’t sleep), to lay on the floor with my cats, and even to wash the dishes and focus on appreciating whatever I can see out the window at that moment. These things help bring me back to earth a little bit, and keep me grounded, without crushing my creativity. And the come down isn’t nearly as devastating as it used to be.
Am I in “recovery” from Bipolar Disorder? From OCD? From PTSD? I really don’t think so. There is no known cure for those afflictions (death is not considered a viable option here). My finger healed. My flu went away. I recently made a full “recovery” from a nasty bout of gastroenteritis. But, even after all these years of treatment, therapy, and practicing good management strategies, my mind is still terribly broken. Without proper supervision, it can’t be left to its own devices. It still needs its daily checks, exercises, activities, a good diet, and a whole lot of careful monitoring to keep going without collapsing into a screaming heap.
Maybe one day, with scientific research and all its advances, a full “recovery” from our mental illnesses will become a possibility. Scientists and health practitioners all over the world are searching high and low for those kinds of answers. I just don’t believe we’re quite there yet.