Rising up again from the ashes

It’s fall, so a short piece about how I spent summer seems in order. Last spring, I drafted something with the working title, “That time I had a full-on mental breakdown.” It was not a work of fiction. Its relevance today is in explaining how I spent my summer: recovering from a full-on mental breakdown.

And the big revelation of this column is not that I had a full-on mental breakdown, but that a person who has one needs time to recover from it. People tend to imagine that depression is a switch that flips, and you either have it or you don’t. Sometimes, it kind of is like that, but mostly it’s not. It takes work to recover emotionally and mentally, and at the same time, to put the pieces of your life back together.

When someone’s recovering from a physical injury or major illness, we don’t expect them to go from zero to 100 percent right away. We expect them to have good days and bad days. Energy enough for some things, but not for others. We allow them priorities, space, missteps, and time.

And yet, “I’m recovering from depression right now,” is not something we often say or hear. I think we should start acknowledging that there is a process associated with getting better after a period of mental illness.

For me, the summer was a much-needed opportunity to step back from some things and focus on getting better, and I have a lot of good days now. I also still have really bad days, though they are quickly getting fewer and farther between, and there are some things I’m not ready to jump back into yet. Unfortunately, there’s no responsible way to speed this process up. Like recovering from a broken leg, overdoing it or doing the wrong things can actually send you backward in the healing process.

But the tightrope that is mental health recovery is made trickier by having to manage everyone else’s expectations and their poor understanding of what recovery means. With a broken leg, it’s pretty easy to tell someone, “I can get through he work day without crutches now, but I won’t be skateboarding for a while.” It’s harder to explain the parallel limitations of mental health recovery. “I felt really happy on vacation, but it’ll be a while until I feel like going out drinking with you,” doesn’t go over quite as well with friends.

It’s hard to explain that I’m getting better but I’m not all better yet because we don’t talk about recovery — about the metaphorical limps and ice packs that go along with it. Acknowledging that you’re not at 100 percent can feel like you may as well be saying that you’re still sitting at rock bottom, incapable of doing anything reliably. But ignoring and denying recovery can slow it down.

Until we open up a conversation about what it’s really like on the sometimes bumpy road to mental health recovery, we can’t improve the outlook for people working hard to put their lives back together or the way we treat them. So I’m opening it.

Originally published in Our London on August 31, 2017.