When you go through a mental illness, reach your rock bottom and get help, the goal is often to reach the shiny, happy place called recovery. You do all the hard work you need to glue yourself back together again, build up your strength and re-enter the real world.
You go back to school/work, you see friends, do boring things like food shopping. You take each day as it comes, with the label of recovered on your back.
But of course, the work doesn’t stop here. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
It can perhaps be quite easy for the friends and family of a recovered person to breathe a sigh of relief when they receive the label of ‘recovered’. They no longer have to worry. Things can go back to ‘normal’ (whatever that means).
I’m not saying friends and family of someone who’s in recovery should always be worried, but I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t assume because someone is seen to be ‘recovered’, the hard work is over.
Recovery isn’t linear. There are highs, lows, relapses and shifts in different directions. From my experience, if you’ve got a tendency towards one mental health issue, you may well have a tendency towards others.
I’m not sure I would go so far as to say if you’ve experienced a mental health problem, you’ll be battling it forever, but I think it’s very important to be aware of your tendencies and to have the tools in place to counteract them if they rear their heads again.
And for the friends and family, I think it’s important to stay aware of the recovered person’s tendencies and to reach out now and then to see how they’re getting on.
I’ve been recovered from my eating disorder for over 10 years now, but I still have moments that test me. Recently I posted on Instagram about how happy I am with my body and that it’s the biggest it’s ever been. The very next day I went clothes shopping, found a dress and nearly didn’t buy it because of the way my belly popped out through the fabric.
It’s been so ingrained into me (and society) that women’s bellies should be flat, a familiar voice piped up telling me to buy a different dress, something more flattering.
After some internal deliberation (read: arguing), I decided if the only thing stopping me from buying a dress I like is a stupid voice, feeding me lies about women’s bodies… I HAD to buy the dress. So I did. And I celebrated with a blueberry muffin.
A win, yes, but also an important reminder that no matter how far into my recovery I am, no matter how happy I am with my body or how invested in the body positivity movement I am, there will always be moments like this to come along and test my resolve.
For those in recovery from eating disorders in particular, fighting back against a view held by the majority of society (i.e. thin = good) is fucking hard work. It’s a constant battle.
So I guess I wanted to write this blog as a reminder to anyone out there who considers themselves to be in recovery or to friends and family of a recovered person that it won’t always be easy. But, the good news is, you are hella strong because you’ve already pulled through something indescribably hard and you can keep on pulling.
My advice to you would be:
Know your tools
Understand what helps you in recovery and keep that toolbox close to hand. For me, this means talking it out with someone, writing in a journal, meditating, practising yoga, being kind to myself and sharing the experience.
Don’t be afraid to reach back out for support
When I started struggling with anxiety last year, I didn’t hesitate to go to the doctor. I knew my past and knew speed was important if I didn’t want to let things spiral. I got some therapy and now have a whole new set of tools and resources to help me. Know what your resources are, know who to call, when to make appointments, where to find support. There’s no shame in asking for help again.
Take the pressure off
There’s a weird sense of pressure when you’re recovered to always be ‘OK’, and even more so if you become an activist, talking about mental health and supporting others. Remember to practise what you preach – it’s OK to not be OK.
Personally, as someone who writes and shares a lot about mental health online, I find it helpful to share these moments when things aren’t OK. It’s helpful for people to see mental health for what it really is – as complex and ongoing as physical health. We’ll all get dips from time to time and it’s refreshing sometimes to share the not so shiny, happy moments.
Keep on top of your self-awareness
This has been the most important thing for me that underlines everything else. Daily journaling (I use the Happiness Planner) helps me reflect on my day and spot any patterns or spiralling thoughts. I’ve also tuned into my body so I know when I need to slow down and prioritise self-care. A tight throat, chest pain, headaches and restlessness are all signs for me to take time out, breathe and re-group. Do whatever you need to stay aware and tuned in.
It’s work, but it’s fulfilling work that gives you a whole lotta insight. And yeah, sometimes it sucks too. It can be tiring and frustrating. Know that you’re not alone and know that the strength you have inside you is infinite. You can always draw on it and you can always draw on your resources to get you through.
Here’s to you, whatever stage you’re at – you’re incredible.
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