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Ruminations on recovery

by | 08/25/2014 | 6 comments

I understand and accept that we each understand the world using the concepts/lexicon most easily accessible to us—believe me, I’ve had it (read: my ass) handed to me over sharing what a reader believed was too much content supporting the medical model of mental illness—so please accept the following as my perspective about my own evolving experiences, and not a diatribe on how I think others should view the world.

I see the word “recovery” a lot these days. I know that twelve-step programs say that recovery is a lifelong process, but when I think about it, what I think of is a process of getting better, of healing, of putting aside what ails us. Completely and forever.

When I think of it in those terms, juxtaposed with the emotional anguish I feel regularly (even with very good treatment, which I’m damn lucky to have), it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel like something I’ll ever achieve. I will struggle and I will suffer—no matter the course of treatment, no matter how well-loved and fulfilled I am in my life and work. I will struggle. I will always struggle. And the older I get, the more terrifying and exhausting that struggle feels. The more terrifying and exhausting the prospect of having to do it over and over again, like my brain’s own sick version of Groundhog Day, feels. But the older I get, the more tools I have in my toolbox, the more friends to support me, the better I get at asking for help.

One of my primary concerns in putting my story—and the stories of other attempt survivors—into the world is honesty: honesty about what it feels like to be suicidal; what that can do to a person and their family; how many of us continue to struggle (and how some feel completely healed); how we cope; how we’re productive members of a society that, for the most part, shuns us or would rather we didn’t speak about our ailing minds. In general, I’m not in the business of partial-truths, false hope, or sugar coating things (for better or for worse). I’ll leave that to the other guys. Personally, I find hope in honesty, not platitudes.

Then again—let me just hit this one home—my reality and my truth belong to me, and only me. I full-well understand that at least one of you may be reading this and shaking your head.

I’m noticing the media’s tendency of portraying the problem of suicide either through the lens of the “fully-recovered” or not at all. That feels deceitful to me. There are those of us out there who continue to fight every single day, and it’s those of us whose voices need to be heard, who need to speak louder—it’s those of us who need to be given a megaphone. Some of us are lucky enough to recover; many of us are not. This can be a lifelong struggle. We can’t be treated with an an 8 session band-aid and some meds to cure our woes. We can’t be ignored, either. Things need to change or people will continue to die (at a rate of over 100 per day).

Our words and our experiences and our stories are important. They will, if I have anything to do with it, inform a future where stigma around the topic is minimized (hopefully to a point where it’s nonexistent, but I don’t know if that’s too ambitious an end to see achieved in my lifetime). They will inform a future where necessary and appropriate treatment is easier to come by; where we have a voice in that treatment and aren’t locked away like animals in cages, our only comforts taken from us. They will inform a future where children are taught that this is a real, true concern—a matter of life or death—and they’re educated on how to recognize it and who to go to for help, and where teachers, medical professionals, and most of all, mental health professionals have mandated training. They will inform a future where rubbernecking and sensationalism aren’t the first reaction we have when someone we know or love dies—or even when a celebrity dies—but our immediate reactions are about helping, community-building, and coming together to find solutions.

Sometimes, in doing this work, I feel like a hack. There have been times when I’ve almost canceled interviews because my mind and heart were so sore that I didn’t think I could sit and absorb another’s pain that day, but I didn’t because I know how scary and nerve-wracking it is to pump yourself up to tell these stories to a stranger. There have been times I’ve wondered why I do it at all. If I still struggle, is it fair of me to try and be a beacon of light for anyone else?

There’s the rub: life is hard to live, the work is hard to do, and recovery doesn’t necessarily feel achievable to me, but the world is still beautiful (even when it’s ugly). I know that. I’ve seen that. It’s in the little things, and it’s absolutely in the brave people who share their stories and the brave, loving responses of those who read them. That’s what makes life worth living for me. Acknowledging it is a big part of what keeps me alive, even when I don’t want to be.

Maybe this is exactly what recovery is supposed to be and I’m just arguing semantics (as usual). What does recovery mean to you?

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  1. Caitlin

    I see recovery as a constant overall improvement, though it does include setbacks. It’s odd. It’s been over 11 years for me, and for the most part I notice that when I have a "bad" day, there’s a reason now. Boy problems, a boss being a jerk, a sick pet, etc. But every once in a blue moon I’ll wake up in a "doom" mood and that terrifies me, because there’s no true reason behind it. Days like that don’t happen often. but when they do I get scared, because I worry about what it means. I also feel pressure to constantly be "better." Maybe this doesn’t make sense, but…I feel like because I’ve come so far and overcome so much, if I were to ever truly be in danger of relapsing I’m not sure I could share those thoughts because I present myself as somebody who has lived through this horrible thing and come out the other side fighting. And I will share my story at the drop of a hat, to whoever asks for details, because I want to put it out there that this is NOT something to be ashamed of, and coming through it fighting is one of my proudest accomplishments. I do consider myself "recovered" but I there’s always a fear in the back of my head of backsliding. It’s also probably one of the reasons I stay in "easy" restaurant jobs rather than pursuing writing or singing, or something that would be a risk. I’m constantly being told how smart and talented I am, and I do think I finally believe that, but the thought of actually pursuing something and finding out I couldn’t do it would be awful. And so I continue to do what is "easy." That’s another battle I’m fighting. And I think being mentally stable and letting go of toxic relationships has put me in a good enough place that I could start pursuing more "aspiration/dream" type endeavors.

    I have nightmares a lot. I have the same dream over and over. I wake up in my childhood home in Akron, and I’m trapped in the house. And my parents are there. And I tell them, I have to go home. I have to go back to my apartment. And they tell me no, you couldn’t hack it in NYC and you live with us now. I have that dream at least once a month. Sometimes more. And I’ve had it so many times, I know it’s just a subconscious fear….but it seems real.

    I also still have the urge to cut from time to time. Usually when I’m frustrated. I haven’t done it in 8 or 9 years, but even now sometimes I’ll "feel" it where it would be on my arm. I’ve never even picked up a blade, but sometimes I’ll just see the image in my head. I always stop myself and push the thought away….but I think it’s weird that the thought still occurs to me when I haven’t done it in so long.

    I guess, in conclusion, for me….recovery is an ongoing process. I’m light years beyond where I ever thought I’d be when I came out of the hospital. I am confident in the fact that I am a worthy person, that I’m smart, talented, and well loved. But the physical and emotional scars of an attempt never really leave you.

    That’s why I love LTT so much. I love being encouraged to share our stories. To talk. To listen. To say "you’re not alone."

    Any time you need somebody to help at an event, or guest blog, or speak at some kind of meeting or session, I’m there if you’ll have me because I think this is the most amazing thing I’ve come across in years, and I want to be involved as much as I can. It’s a catharsis for me, and I also want to help people.

    Those are my "recovery" thoughts in a nutshell.

  2. Ash

    Recovery is continuing to push on even when everything in you says to give up- and tries to make you do so.

    Recovery is continuing to push your own limits, even if it’s just a handful of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, etc past where you were before. It’s continuing to fight even when you don’t know, see, or understand what you’re fighting and have all the grace of trying to shoot fish in a barrel from ten miles away blindfolded.

    Recovery, to me, is finding that one thing at the end and beginning of each and every day… and realizing that I made it, even if I didn’t get to do/see/etc that thing.

    It’s taking a look in the mirror and seeing the me of now compared to the me "back then" and saying, "You made it past 25. You thought you’d be dead by 17. You tried to be dead by 17. But you’re alive. You’re alive, you’re still fighting, you’re still fucking frustrated as hell, but you’re alive and you’ve gotta keep that 100% lived through every shitty day score up."

    To me, recovery is looking back to the worst of it, and seeing and believing that my mindset "back then" was wrong, and being happy for it.

  3. Jeff

    You are not a hack. You are sharing YOUR story and not pretending to be an expert. I think the problem here may be in the medium.

    Eye to eye, person to person discussion of suicidal thinking and action is forbidden in the clinical mental health settings. It is especially forbidden amongst teens and young people deemed not responsible enough to be trusted. It is forbidden by professionals and taboo in the general public. You are going around that by publishing these stories. But, there it seems to me there is still a natural need to share this stuff eye to eye.

    And yet here you are, sharing some very dark shit. And I congratulate you for that.

    I attempted suicide once, 35 years ago. "What does recovery mean to me", you ask? You know what it means to you and you express it very well, Dese’Rae. Not coincidentally, it means much the same to me. Like "happiness" it is not an achievable state of being. It is hopefully a long series of lessons, events, losses and wins. It is simply a life lived to a natural death.

    I don’t know how you keep this work up, but I admire your strength. I have dabbled in it a bit just the last few years as my skeletons have slowly come out of my closet. Every suicide story I read, every time I type about it, every time I (gasp) speak to someone about it eye-to-eye it hurts. Sometimes more than others. The Robin Williams story came at the tail end of a very minor period of telling my story in fairly safe and controlled confines. It was painful, and the Williams chatter has left me exhausted.

    I’m not cheering you on to do more than you can handle, because we all need to know and follow our limits. But here’s a little virtual pat on the back.

    Jeff House

  4. Bradley

    Some days recovery means tomorrow is a little easier. Some days recovery only means confidence I’ll be around to find out.

  5. Mindy Schwartz-Brown

    You are certainly not a hack, and your experience and expression ring true for me.
    Having spent a career sitting with people’s stories, I understand the ups and downs,
    the honor and the burdens.
    For me, recovery is getting out of bed each day and wanting to get on with life.
    Having no expections, I’ve found, has been liberating for me. I just try to take
    things as they come, treasure the wonderful and not overthink the
    negative. Easier said than done.
    If, at the end of the day, I can go to bed and not dread the next morning,
    that’s a victory.

    Mindy Schwartz-Brown

  6. Sabrina Strong

    So, oddly enough, this was is the draft of a blog post that I wrote Friday night and never posted.

    It’s lengthy, so bear with me:

    I think the trickiest and most humbling part of ‘recovery’ is the ‘relapse.’ These words are so simple, yet they are so misunderstood, especially amongst those of us who advocate on behalf of people with Lived Experience of suicide attempt and suicidal thinking. We’re still trying to convince the mental health community that we can recover, so how on earth do we make them see that how we survive and thrive on the bad days is paramount?

    Many of us with Lived Experience are still working on our ability to be vulnerable with each other on our bad days. Recovery was supposed to mean we never had to feel this shitty ever again. No more wrestling with “The Voice” in your head – you know the one. It might as well be a demon whispering in your ear, telling you that “you’re no good. You should just give up. Ha ha ha – did you actually think you were better? Sucker.”

    Until I began meeting and connecting to other suicide attempt survivors across the country, I thought I was more the exception to recovery than the rule. I seldom shared my relapses, and I am eternally grateful to the other survivors in my life who have been my sympathetic ears during those times because it was the only time I never felt judged, even by myself.

    But what do you do once you’ve thrown yourself into the position of being an advocate? Well, so far I’ve tried quietly folding in on myself without asking for any help whatsoever, and I don’t recommend it. Because I didn’t just do damage to myself, as I assumed. Instead I managed to let my mood infect my working relationships with my peers – the very people who would have rushed to comfort me had I not been so ram-headed and refused to ask for help.

    But every once and a while, someone models the proper way to deal with their relapses. They choose to be vulnerable, and let the rest of us know what they are feeling. Doing this terrifies me, and it shouldn’t because my response to those who show vulnerability is one of relief. Because they’ve normalized something that so many of us have experienced.

    It’s a humbling feeling, to have another peer remind you that we are all in fact peers. Just because I’m advocate, doesn’t mean I am or have to be above anyone else. That’s a ridiculous amount of pressure that I put on myself, and it models the exact behavior that we’re all trying to fight against in the mental health field.

    So for any of you who are struggling with all the messy feelings that come along with relapse, please know that you are far from alone. It’s 3:00am right now, and all I want to do is sleep. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to grab at least a two hour nap before I have to be awake and functional again. My eyelids are obscenely puffy because I accidentally cried myself to sleep earlier in the night while still wearing my mascara. I will have to come up a plausible reason for that later in the day.

    Why was I so upset? Because for the first time since I had to disclose to the ER staff what I had done nine years ago, I’ve had to be vulnerable with someone whose reaction could not be anticipated.

    I’m not coping well. It’s too early to tell if I’m psyching myself out or if I’ve been rejected. Now that the hysterical crying has died down, I still give it 40/60 odds. This sucks. Every thought you can imagine has run through my head. How long do I have to pay for something that happened almost a decade ago? Why am I bothering, this will always happen in the end. I’m obviously not better if something so common in life can set me off. And now a new fear to add to the list – has coming out as a suicide attempt survivor and having an online presence marked me as an unstable person to the world that exists outside of my safe little bubble?

    And how do I deal with the resulting anxiety while I wait for either relief (and then comes the shame spiral about how badly I freaked out for no good fucking reason) or for the axe to fall? What’s worse is that it may be neither, and while silence would allow me to preserve my dignity, I’ll never have a chance to really know if it was truly because I’m an attempt survivor or some other totally unrelated issue.

    What if this is not even about me at all, and I’m being a ego-centric drama queen?
    I care for myself by honoring my feelings. I indulged the ridiculous, childish rants. I cried as hard as I could, trying to feel my feelings instead of naming them. I’ve slept a little. I’ve accepted that this situation may not go the way I want, and after a minor temper tantrum spewed at the heavens, I’ve acknowledged that that wouldn’t be the end of my world. Or my commitment to myself. I’ve surprised myself to find that despite my best efforts to settle into dramatic self-loathing and get comfortable, my soul has become too buoyant to sink. Things are different now – not in the outside world, but inside me.

    The world still more or less sucks as much as did eighteen years ago when the depression first set in, but I’ve done the work to get better, and the lessons have stuck. I don’t know what will happen later today, when continued silence will force me to drop my mental math to a 10/90. If the rejection comes, I’ve mentally concocted a graceful concession statement. I may call a friend, but I doubt it. I don’t expect to be that much more evolved between this morning and later tonight. I may be brave this time and reach out to an online friend. Or maybe it will be just me and the cat, eating Three Twins Ice Cream and marathoning the Netflix.

    Update: Later that day, I pulled up my big girl panties, and called a friend to relieve me of the excess prescription drugs that had been piling up; It is looking 99.99% possible that I did freak out for no.good.fucking.reason, but I have also decided that if .01% happens, I will grieve it, and move on.

    No one said it would be this hard, but at least I’m not so alone anymore.



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