The Recovery Narrative and Why I'm Opting Out

Roughly two years ago, I wrote a personal essay about mental illness. I subsequently shared it on social media, shamelessly embodying my generation.

It was primarily a cathartic tell-all that detailed my own experience with depression, but it was also objectively informative in some ways. I made an effort to weave in some statistics and anecdotes. The piece concluded with a spiel about how mental illness is real and that I was “here to listen”. Which I was, of course (don’t mind those passive aggressive quotations), and continue to be – along with adamantly against the stigma and encouraging of others to share their own unique experiences. However, I think I wanted to feel justified more than create a platform for discussion. But that’s a whole other self-psychoanalytical can of worms.

Anyway, the internet applauded me. At least, it seemed like applause to non-Instagram model me. Are 2000 views in 40 hours objectively meaningful? Probably not, but it felt like something special at the time. It still does. Family, friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers alike reached out to share their own stories – some were so kind as to compliment and thank me. Ultimately, a conversation was sparked and whether or not I genuinely wanted it, I welcomed it.

Now, I’m aware that I recounted that dismissively. If you felt the aura of an eye roll, don’t worry, I wasn’t rolling my eyes at you. I was rolling them at myself.

The problem with what I wrote isn’t exactly what I wrote, or how I wrote it, or where or when or why so much as it’s all those basic factors combined in a specific sense. The problem is complex. It’s intersecting. And it’s one that I only recently accepted. So please, bear with me.

The gist of my essay was that I had just started post-secondary school at 23 years old. My initial attempt after high school had unfortunately coincided with my first major depressive episode. For that principal reason, I dropped out and spent the following several years struggling with and attempting to treat my mental illness (on top of the usual and pervasive young adult crises – speaking of which, what does it all mean and what is my path?!). Generally, though, it was about my determination not to hide, downplay, nor apologize for my mental illness and how it had routed my life. That bit, I wholeheartedly stand by.

At the time that I posted it, I hadn’t had any notable symptoms in quite a while. Let me put it this way: the only symptoms I had recently experienced could be more accurately likened to a common cold than a broken bone. Annoying, yes, but easily manageable. They weren’t debilitating by any means. On top of that, I had just made a significant and positive change in my life by moving cities and beginning school. I was basking in it. I was enduring and even enjoying the associated challenges.

I was feeling pretty great, and I emphasized it. I made a point of referring to my depression only in the past tense. I stressed that my mental illness was subdued, and that I was thankful to have reclaimed a healthy place. I stated that my brain was finally able to once again recognize dark moments as fleeting, and although I may be stumped, I would not be consumed or destroyed.

Essentially, I was back on track, back to normal, and back in control.  Unwittingly, I projected what I’m dubbing the recovery narrative, which goes something like this:

Now that I have recovered, I can begin my life, fulfill my potential, and succeed! I may fall down, but I’ll get back up! I can see that now that I’ve recovered!

And all exaggerated satire aside – that’s honestly what I believed.

But why wouldn’t I? Doesn’t illness imply that there is an objective health? Doesn’t treatment imply that recovery is a goal?

And why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t someone who hasn’t experienced mental illness applaud and admire me for getting better? Why wouldn’t someone who has experienced it be inspired to achieve the same?

The truth is, I have been nursing some dangerous thought-patterns, ones that I don’t think are adequately illuminated or discussed.

"Everything will always be terrible." "Everything will always be great."

Both of the above are equally extreme. Both are equally skewed. Both can be mentally damaging. But only one is celebrated as optimistic.

I subscribed to the notion that the proverbial summer would come (and stay) if I worked hard enough through the winter. But even in metaphorical terms, summer is just a season. Seasons are innately impermanent, and if that one book I read about Buddhism taught me anything, it’s that latching onto the impermanent is a recipe for suffering.

I wrote that personal essay in the fall of 2015. By the following winter, I was depressed again. The following spring, I was blindsided by my first panic attack. And guess what? I felt consumed. I felt destroyed. Those dark moments felt far from fleeting.

I fell, and I fell again. Each time, I felt like more a failure. Each time, I kicked myself while I was down. Each time, I wondered what I was doing wrong. Each time, I held onto the image of recovery. Each time, I swore would be the last. Each time, getting back up was increasingly draining and seemed increasingly pointless.

Currently, I’m attempting to manage a newfound anxiety disorder. This task is at the forefront of my daily routine. I am going to regular counselling, I am practicing and learning about mindfulness, I have ordered a cognitive-behavioral workbook, and I have some medication for emergencies.

But that sentence is tremendously more structured than the process feels.

Last week I found myself crying on the floor for two hours one morning.

"Why can’t I get better? Why can’t I stay better? I’m so tired of this. I’m so tired."

I was utterly exhausted, and perhaps that’s why I was able to find some comfort in what had previously been - without fail - an uncomfortable thought.

"What if I never get better?"

Well, what if that’s ok?

There is no romantic, recovery narrative. There is no magic to mental illness. It is sometimes terrible. It is sometimes beautiful. It is mostly mundane. It is day by day, month by month, year by year.

Yes, I have forgiven my past-self for innocently implying a false idealism. I don’t regret what I wrote, nor will I delete it. It’s a reminder of my own growth and furthermore, a reminder to keep an eye out for similar ideals in all facets of life. (Some people likely found a wholesome motivation in it too, which I’m not discounting or ungrateful for by any means.)

I used to think that I could only inspire others when I was filled with inspiration, that I could only benefit society when I was better, and that success was synonymous with recovery.

But now, I see the extremity in those stances.

Maybe, the truth is right where it’s usually hiding: somewhere in the middle. And maybe, the most inspirational thing I can write is that today I slept in, went to a counselling appointment, skipped my night class because I felt overwhelmed, and now I’m back in bed. I have a mental illness. Today, I got through it. Tomorrow, I’ll do the same. And that’s enough.