When it comes to mental illness, recovery means something different to everyone.
When I was initially referred to the Community Mental Health Team several years ago, my idea of what my recovery would look like was completely different from how I see it now.
Back then, I was basing my recovery on things I thought I had to do; things I felt were expected of me.
I’d be completely cured of all mental illness. I’d get a better job, make more money, buy a house, get married, have kids, and live happily ever after.
I find it quite funny now.
For one, being completely “cured” of mental illness isn’t necessarily possible for all people. While some feel they no longer meet the criteria for a diagnosis, some (like me) believe they will always have the mental illness but they can develop skills and strategies to cope and manage their illness.
Secondly, pretty much everything else I saw as a symbol of being recovered, actually doesn’t matter to me at all now. Somewhere along the way, my perspective changed.
I realised that basing my idea of recovery on what I thought was expected of me, rather than what I actually wanted, meant that I would never achieve true recovery. I realised that forcing myself to live a lie, and relying solely on external validation to feel “recovered” would only make my mental health decline, not improve.
So I ripped up my recovery plan and started afresh. I started to think about what I really wanted out of life; what would recovery look like for me?
Money can’t buy happiness
I’ve never been particularly interested in being obnoxiously wealthy, but I did feel a certain amount of pressure to earn more money than I was doing, to seek promotions I didn’t really want, to stay in jobs that were making me ill. I realised that pay rises and promotions weren’t important to me and endlessly chasing them was destroying any chance I had at recovery. Letting go of the pressure and the perceived expectations around money and conventional “success” has cleared a path for me to find true peace.
Platonic relationships > Romantic relationships
I’ve always had this intense fear of growing old alone. As such, I stayed in toxic relationships way too long, accepted being treated poorly, and became terrified of losing people who didn’t have my best interests at heart. Until very recently, I always prioritised a dysfunctional romantic relationship over my platonic relationships with friends and family. Yet, when the shit hit the fan (again), it was my friends and family that rallied around me, listening, supporting, extending a hand to help pull me out of the darkness. I suddenly realised that being single didn’t mean I was alone.
Recognising this means that I have a much deeper appreciation for my platonic relationships and no longer feel the need to attach myself to someone romantically simply for fear of being alone. For me, a romantic relationship, engagement, marriage, are no longer a symbol of recovery – nurturing and enjoying the relationships with my friends and family is more important to me.
The little things
Looking back at my earlier ideas of what recovery would look like for me, I can see that I was focusing on the big things: work, money, marriage, and so on. I had completely overlooked the little things; being able to sit in peace with my own thoughts for ten minutes, finding pleasure in my hobbies, smiling at strangers in the street. I’d lost all these little things and starting to find them again felt like what I wanted my recovery to be.
Traditional norms of financial success and upskilling and fast-paced living no longer feel like something to which I need to aspire in order to feel “recovered”. I’m building my mental health on a foundation of the small, yet significant things, and it feels so much more stable.
More good days than bad
While my initial instinct was to seek an absolute cure for my mental illness, I’ve come to realise that it may be something that I have to live with for the rest of my life. However, with therapy, support, and medication, I am learning how to manage my mental illness, and if I can get to a point where I have more good days than bad, that will be good enough for me.
Similar to the previous point, I’ve come to understand that recovering from mental illness isn’t about reaching a destination; it’s a lifelong journey of personal growth. Maybe I’ll never be “recovered”, but I can live “in recovery”. Life won’t always be smooth-sailing – it isn’t even for those without mental illness – but if I remain open to learning and developing the techniques to effectively cope with my illness, there will come a day where mental illness no longer has a complete hold over my life; it’s simply a quiet companion with whom I learn to manage and live.
What does recovery look like to you? Have your ideas about recovery changed over time? Let me know in the comments.