When I was in my early 20s I proudly said to a friend, “I think I’ve recovered from depression.” After many dark years involving self-harm, alcohol abuse, thoughts of killing myself and one attempt, I had emerged happy and healthy. I was in a long-term relationship, involved in mental health activism and spent more time happy than sad. I was very excited as I hadn’t expected to ever reach a point in my life where I felt good. My friend’s response cut me deep as she said, “You still get angry, you’re not recovered.” What do you mean I’m not recovered? I’m nothing like I used to be! Doesn’t that count? If I’m not recovered now then when?
Recovery is a loaded term. It is used a lot in mental health to help destigmatize (“these people can recover and be effective in society”) and describe treatment models (recovery-focused). Recovery is used to give others hope (“you can recover” and “your loved one can recover”). Recovery is a good thing and recovery is stressful. The more I spoke to people with lived experience I realized I was not the only one that felt the weight of recovery. Recovery seemed to mean never experiencing anything bad again. For a very long time, I thought being recovered meant I would always have to be happy and any sign of sadness was proof I was still “sick”. I felt like I was drowning, trying to keep my happiness going so people would know I was ok. It was exhausting.
About 4 years ago, I changed my language. Instead of recovering, I decided I would manage my experiences. I began taking life one day at a time. The skills I began learning skills supported me in becoming the best version of myself that I could be. I learned to show myself compassion and accept that my intense emotions are a part of my experience as a human. I will not always be happy, sometimes I will be so sad I will feel like my life is over. I will manage these feelings. They are not a sign that I am unwell or that I will stay down. The important part now is being happy with who I am. I cope effectively, do not try to rid myself of every negative emotion.
Before I was living self-harm free I had managed to reduce my self-harm from multiple times a day to once a month. I was ecstatic. Then, I learned about Non-Suicidal Self-Injury Disorder. At the time it was up for consideration in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or DSM 5 (in the end it was not included). I read over the criteria and was heartbroken that despite all of my hard work I could receive this diagnosis if it was included in the DSM 5. Two of the proposed criteria was at least 1 episode of non-suicidal self-injury in the past 12 months and more than 5 self-injury episodes in a lifetime. Cutting once a month still meant I was disordered by this definition even though I had overcome my behavioural addiction to cutting and learned new ways to tolerate distress.
I had to shift my mindset again. This information didn’t matter if it wasn’t going to serve to better my life. It was a huge accomplishment to decrease my cutting the way I had. That decrease was proof that I was coping well and becoming more of who I wanted to be. In this case, how far I have come plays a great role in demonstrating how effectively I can keep going.
There are few thoughts on recovery/managing experiences that I would like to leave you with.
- Use language that you feel comfortable using. If you like recovery then use it. If you prefer another term then use that. Another phrase I have started using is “get to where I want to be.”
- Do not let others tell you that you are not “better”. You define your experience. You know where you have been and how far you have come.
- Acceptance of who you are is a massive step towards feeling better about what you are going through.
About Kristen Bellows
Kristen lives in Southern Ontario with her partner and their new baby boy! She identifies as Mad and believes that her emotional differences are a part of who she is. Kristen is a registered social work, working as a dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) skills group facilitator. She is also training to become a birth and postpartum doula. Since giving birth, Kristen has become interested in exploring how mental health issues intersect with motherhood. Kristen identifies as Mad and believes that her emotional differences are a part of who she is. She loves cats, reading, singing, pickles and learning. You can read more of Kristen’s blog posts on her personal blog www.prideinmadness.wordpress.com