Redefining Recovery for #WorldMentalHealthDay

Today is World Mental Health Day and this is a blog post I first wrote most of on this day two years ago and then deleted, feeling that it was too personal. I’ve changed my mind again, at least for the time being.

The last decade has seen huge change in how we view health, chronic illness, and mental health. Those changes have been a long time coming. Now nearly every school and university campus will have some facility for people to ask for help.

While stigma has been reduced in many areas there is still a concern about how being open about your mental health will effect your career opportunities, friendships, and relationships. Some mental illnesses, bipolar, BPD, schizophrenia, are still viewed as ‘scary’ and dangerous. People are often accepting of mental illness in the abstract, but impatient and off-put by any expression of mental illness symptoms in reality.

In my teens when I was less open to talking about mental health. I saw everything as a physical illness, my panic attacks were actually fainting caused by low blood pressure, depressive episodes were fatigue caused by my chronic sinusitis. On the rare occasion I was able to admit that my self-destructive tendencies were something else, something at the back of my head told me that I would grow out of it. That when I was “stable” I was a real adult.

In college I was diagnosed with chronic depression. This is a long-term condition but one that can be treated. There was a chance that at the end of ‘recovery’ I would get to use the past tense.  It could ‘Get better’.

That didn’t work out. Four years and several ups and downs later, my diagnosis changed to  a bipolar spectrum disorder that is less well know called cycolothymia. This meant that I would possibly never grow out of it, never get to use the past tense, maybe never ‘Get Better’.

I’m not being defeatist. Recovery is still something that matters to me. However, like people with other chronic conditions or in addiction programmes recovery is a constant exercise in the present tense. Some days that can seem really exhausting and disheartening, like none of it matters since you’ll be just as bipolar sitting on the floor in your pajamas as you will at the gym or at work.

This is a very simplistic explanation of the differences in Bipolar Spectrum Disorders but it might help people understand.

Then things like World Mental Health Day roll around and you get to hear 700 slogans for getting passed depression and anxiety and know that they don’t really apply to you. You have to ration your ‘mental health days’ because they have to last you the rest of your life.

At the same time, I think it’s on all of us “in recovery” to make it clear to those still trying to get there that it is worth it. Even on the days when it feels like a punishment, the foundations you build for yourself in treatment make your life better and healthier.

You also deserve to demand proper medical treatment for your recovery. You should not be expected to fix a medical condition with positive thinking and yoga. I’ve spoken at length before about how Ireland is failing to provide adequate mental healthcare and I’ll say it again. Relying on Samaritans, on media campaigns that tell you to just talk to your friends more, is unacceptable for the national health authority. You are allowed be angry about this. You deserve to be supported.

Remember that your recovery is for you. As hard as the word recovery, always present tense and never past, can be to hear you have to hear it sometimes anyway. Recovery is building a life that can adapt and a support system that helps to to meet your challenges. And letting yourself be happy with what you can change.

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