It's a Long Long Road to Recovery

21.3.19

It's a funny word, "recovery". I'm not sure I'm really a fan. Something about the word - the "re" part, perhaps - suggests a sense of returning to a former self; of aspiring to what once was; of somehow restoring old parts and going back.

I'm not sure I like those connotations. They certainly haven't been my experience. In fact, for me, "recovery" has felt the opposite of that entirely.

I find it hard to pinpoint when I first began to struggle with my mental health, as long and steady a decline as it was,  but I can tell you almost exactly when things began to pick up.

18 and a half months ago now I was discharged from hospital after yet another lengthy admission, still void of hope and desperately struggling, but religiously taking a brand new medication. Things were tough. But around a month after that - the medication finally, properly kicking in - things began to improve, slowly and gradually. My concentration returned; my energy levels and motivation began to increase; and the darkness of my mood slowly began to recede.

I guess that was something of a turning point for me. But "recovery" has proven to be a far lengthier, hurdle-ridden, and still ongoing journey. 

Trust, it turned out, was the first hurdle to be overcome on the way: learning to trust myself to make healthier decisions; learning to open up and trust a professional in therapy, having been so badly let down previously; and learning to trust that, this time, my world wasn't going to crash back down imminently. 

It's hard, when the darkness has come and gone and come again for so long, to have any faith that all the pain and negativity won't suddenly come flooding back. It's hard to find the motivation to build a life when experience-based fear tells you everything will soon fall apart. One of the hardest obstacles to overcome was the overwhelming doubt that any of these improvements would last.

But eventually.. eventually I had to learn that the light was shining here and now and it would be too big a waste not to step out into all the potential goodness that comes with that. I could allow fear to cripple me, staying where I was just in case the darkness came back, or I could take the risk and move forward, appreciating the brighter days and hoping they might last.

And so I began to take that risk - to begin the process of building my life back up.

The problem was, contrary to all those going-back-to-a-former-self images that "recovery" conjures up, my life had been so impacted by my struggles with poor mental health that I felt as though I was starting entirely from scratch.

Not only did I have no job to go back to, a different place to live, and a social circle that had shrunk quite dramatically; I also found that, as all-consuming as my difficulties had been, I was left with no idea whatsoever of who I was underneath.

I had no sense of my own interests; no idea of my aspirations or dreams; no concept of my faith or beliefs; no vision of what I might want to do or what kind of person I might want to be. Basically, poor mental health had robbed me of my entire identity.

I felt like a teenager again, doing a lot of angsty self-reflection, exploring different interests and deliberately opening myself up to new experiences and opportunities - as scary as they might be - always with a questioning sense of, "What about this? Is this who I might be?"

Some of this was worked out in therapy - with input from the most helpful psychologist I've had the opportunity to engage with - but much of it could only be explored in the "real world," by dipping my toe in the water and putting things to the test.

And so it was that 2018 came to feel like something of an experiment. I may not have conquered many of the goals I set for myself at the start of the year, but I conquered different mountains and learned much about myself along the way instead.

I took myself on a solo adventure, visiting Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest in a week, and found that, yes, I do still have the travel bug - that exploring the world still appeals to me greatly. And so I set about stoking that flame with a week in Rome; a week in Lincolnshire; weekends in Inverness, Glasgow, Aviemore and Dundee; and a week in Spain more recently.

I joined a JogScotland group and learned that I was capable of mixing with strangers and that running was still something that produced an incredible buzz for me. I hurt myself and had to have significant input from osteopaths and physiotherapy, but found myself desperate to run anyway - that churning out those miles provided me with moments where I felt most at peace with me.

I participated in a walking group and found that fresh air and beautiful scenery lifts my soul immensely, and so I incorporated it into my life at every opportunity.

I tried my hand at roller derby and found that that is definitely not for someone as awkward and clumsy as me.

I sat down at the computer and tried to write, repeatedly, and found that blogging, for a time, was not willing to come to me, but that it still piqued my interest and called to me occasionally.

I went to gigs for the first time in years and rediscovered that - if I can get a handle on any crowd-based anxiety - live music has a powerful, joyful impact on me.

I tried going back to church - my poor mental health having disengaged me from my faith completely - and found it incredibly uncomfortable; tried attending different churches instead and came to the conclusion that, for now, Church is simply not a place that I can be.

I started thinking about work - whether I was capable of employment and, if so, what that might look like for me. I continued volunteering in the cafe while seeking out other opportunities. With a degree in Youth Work and experience of working with children long behind me, I tested old ground with a 6 month voluntary role - working with kids in a forest space - and found that though the work and ethos really resonated with me, it was a difficult place for me to be. The project came to a natural end and I continued to look for further opportunities. I took on some paid shifts in the cafe and learned that though I love it here and now, it doesn't feel like a long-term fix for me. I applied for another job, had my first interview in 4 years and found myself successful, picking up a relief post supporting ladies with physical and learning-based difficulties. It's both rewarding and challenging, but again not where I see myself permanently. Through it all, I've come to learn a little more about what does and doesn't appeal to me, and for the first time in about 8 years I have a goal in mind - a rough idea of what I might like to try, work-wise, and where I might like to be.

Perhaps most surprisingly to me, I began to explore the issue of relationships and sexuality. Having shut that part of myself down for years, entirely closed off to the idea that anyone would ever want to date me, I realised that I'd never actually tested out that theory. And so I joined a dating app, for the first time in my 30 years, with results that were horrendous, hilarious and everything in between. Of all the risks I took in the last year, this was the most scary - opening myself up to the possibility that people might be as disgusted and rejecting of me as I believed. It felt vulnerable and terrifying, but it taught me that I can engage with people more easily than I once thought, and that not everyone will run a mile when they meet me. Most surprisingly of all, I actually met someone I connected with and who has come to be incredibly important to me.

I could not have predicted many of these things back at the beginning of 2018. In fact, I wouldn't have predicted most as elements of  my recovery. And yet, looking back, it is these things that I consider the vital keys within my wellness journey.

Recovery, for me, has come to mean so much more than an absence of symptoms. It has gone far beyond overcoming behaviours that once wrought havoc and destruction. And it certainly hasn't been about going back to the life that I lived before facing these difficulties.

Recovery, instead, has been about exploring and figuring out this different, changed version of me; about learning to ride the waves of life more gently; and about allowing myself the opportunity to experiment, to fail, to learn, to grow and to dream.

Frank Turner wasn't wrong when he sang that it's a "Long long road to recovery," and I feel like it's a road along which I've still got far to journey ..but looking back over the last 18 months I can see that I've come a very long way and, for once, I'm excited to see where the rest of the road may take me.


Completing Great Aberdeen Run 10k
Rooftop views - Vienna
Lion King moment up Scolty Hill, Banchory
Frank Turner gig, Glasgow Jan 2019

xo