First story for 2015!

I apologise for being MIA in January. As those with depression and anxiety would know, December and January are the toughest months of the year because it is loaded with stressors mixed in with the merrymaking.

Things have been a bit rougher than usual recently. After attending two family funerals within one week, coupled with a sudden spike in workload and a nasty client, I had to take some time off for myself in order to recalibrate.

I wasn’t coping too well so I scheduled an appointment to see the psychiatrist, although I’m still seeing my therapist.

So, after being off medication for the past 18 months (which is pretty good, according to the doctor), I’m now back on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication.

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This prompted me re-explore the notion of recovery. But more specifically, I questioned my own ability to recover.

Am I still recovering even though I’ve had a relapse? What does recovery mean for people with mental illness, as opposed to physical illness? Does it even exist?

Here are 5 things I’ve learnt from this episode:

1. Being back on medication does not make one a failure.
I was hesitant to resume medication because I didn’t like the side effects – the acne, stomach upset, sleepiness etc. (these went away after a few days for me).

Having to resume medication also had a psychological impact on me. Maybe even a philosophical one. I felt I had failed myself and disappointed people.

Fortunately, months of CBT prevented me from going down that rabbit hole of self-condemnation. Believing you’re a failure for being on medication is a case of cognitive distortion— having “all-or-nothing” thinking i.e. I either have it or I don’t, I’m either well or I’m not.

In reality, nothing is ever black or white.

Which brings me to my next point:

2. Relapse and recovery are not opposites.
Someone once asked: how can it be recovery if a person still relapses. The reason for this confusion is that she wrongly assumed that the two (relapse and recovery) are diametrically opposite of each other.

The presence of a relapse (or symptoms) does not indicate an absence of recovery.

The truth is, the two can co-exist on the same continuum. Think of recovery illustrated as a chart that has its ups and downs, but exhibiting an upward trend.

3. Redefine recovery for yourself.
In the face of relapse, it is hard to believe that recovery is possible for yourself.

We traditionally think about recovery as getting back to the way things were before the onset of illness. But mental health recovery doesn’t quite work that way.

In fact, instead of being restored back to “original baseline”, a person-in-recovery actually sets a new baseline that is better than the original.

You become even more resilient, more attuned to your strengths, more compassionate and more emotionally intelligent.

I’m not a scientist or a doctor, but the way I see it, recovery for mental illness is like recovering from a flu. Having recovered from the flu once doesn’t mean that you won’t ever get it again. Yes, there are different strains of the flu virus, but the symptoms are the same – fever, sore throat, runny nose etc.

And that cluster of symptoms are what defines a flu. Therefore, being relieved of those symptoms indicate recovery from the flu.

Different people exhibit symptoms slightly differently. This applies to mental illness as well.

So therefore, it is important to recognise and redefine what recovery means for you on a personal level.

Here’s a story on what recovery means to me.

4. You’re not your relapse.
We are so much more than our diagnoses. And the same goes for relapses. Just because someone relapses doesn’t mean they become useless and without talent. Moreover, relapses don’t last forever. But hope does. People and circumstances do change for the better. You can own your recovery.

5. You still gain in the end.
Because of this, I’ve grown more aware of what my limits are and where my abilities lie. Having been on the same medication as before, I am now more familiar with its effects on my body. This understanding has allowed me to discuss my treatment plan with the doctor. I find that I’m more in control of things this time around.

“My strength did not come from lifting weights. My strength came from lifting myself up when I was knocked down.” ― Bob Moore

With encouragement from friends and family, I made the decision to place my wellbeing as top priority. If being on antidepressants for this season helps (which I know it did), then so be it.

So is recovery a reality for people with mental illness? Most definitely.

I know I’ve made progress in spite of this bump in the road. And I’m still believing in my recovery and others’. What about you? :)

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