I. THE REALIZATION
Every so often, I remember the humble existence of a rarely used app. The app is called ‘Days Until’, and it can either count down days, or track how many have gone by. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not counting down until my birthday or next Christmas; I am, in fact, tracking time.
As I am silently waiting for the app to load, I smile as I see the number pop-up on the screen. Two hundred and thirty-nine. 239 days. More than half of a year has gone by. Since I was 12 years old, this is the longest I have ever gone without engaging in any self-harm tendencies. I am proud.
I do a mini-salsa celebratory dance in my head, and think about how nice it would be to have some support. I think about how being in cancer remission is extraordinarily celebratory, and I think about how this is not. My friends will be happy for me, but the level of empathy does not go far beyond that initial excitement . I wonder why after 239 days of anguish — of fighting myself and my brain and my urges — my pride is overcome by a flooding emotion of guilt. I realize that it means something to choose recovery, and I will never get the same kind of credit — although I absolutely should.
II. A CHRONIC FRONTER
Since I was 14, the events of my life cycled through drugs, therapy, fights, anger, guilt, and suicidal thoughts. All of these things were part of some slow (often degrading) recovery process — the same way I went down, I came back up. Gradually and then suddenly. I didn’t understand a thing about how to move forward with my life in a productive way, and though I was slowly spiraling outward, I would be damned if I let this break me down.
At heart, I have always been a coper — call me functionally mentally ill. Call me a Fronter. It has always been important for me to not appear mentally ill. Blend in. Assimilate. Keep your shit cool when people are watching.
Fronting makes tons of sense — you can keep your job, maintain all your relationships, keep your shit together in public, etc. I’ve mostly been able to walk around with my wounds safely hidden, and I’ve always stored up my deep depressive episodes for the week off when there was time to have an abbreviated version of a complete breakdown. I would prepare for those moments — but in the end, I’d be able to get up and on with it, could always do what little must be done to scratch by.
We are praised for hiding. We are productive mentally ill people. Sadly, it wasn’t always like that. And it won’t always be like that — at some point, our fronts fall. We are not meant to be Fronters — we are meant to accept ourselves, and to recover in good graces.
III. HANDLING A DEPRESSED GIRL WITH NO WILLPOWER
I was seventeen, and no one knew what to do for me. The array of psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, and others that had been seeing me had essentially thrown up their hands. I needed to choose recovery, they said, and it was something I clearly wasn’t doing. Until I did so, there wasn’t anything they could do. I would recover when I was ready.
I have, of course, many problems with that viewpoint. For one, there’s the ability of someone who is acutely ill to actually choose recovery. The other issue is that recovery is a choice — a single choice that you make and then the magic can happen. The problem is that you don’t just choose recovery. You have to keep choosing recovery, over and over and over again. You have to make that choice multiple times each day. You have to make that choice even when you really don’t want to. It’s not a single choice, and it’s not easy.
Most medical treatments are predicated on a person seeking and wanting (or at least accepting) treatment. When it comes to mental illness, when it’s not infrequent for someone to have a hard time understanding just how warped their thinking and behavior has become, we do a pretty shitty job at treatment in part because the medical system doesn’t know how to cope with someone who has zero interest in getting well. Rather than re-evaluate a system that requires immediate buy-in from the patient, it’s much easier, cheaper, and more convenient to simply tell the patient that “we can help when you’re ready.”
The problem with this model, and with applying it to depression and OCD, is that one of the cardinal symptoms is that the sufferer isn’t always welcoming of treatment. The reasons are quite varied as to why sufferers are frequently less-than-enthralled with the idea of treatment, whether it’s not wanting to give up the adaptive functions of the disorder, being too terrified of stopping behaviors, or being afraid of the societal stigma strong-holding these issues.
So, we all sit back and wait for the person to be “ready” to recover. The problem is that the longer a person is left to the machinations of their sickness, the more difficult it becomes to choose recovery. The longer you’ve been sick, the more difficult recovery is, generally speaking.
Behaviors of OCD rapidly become reflexive. This is just what I have to do to survive. Those are the rules.
This is my new normal.
Amnesia rapidly sets in. You forget what it feels like to have energy. To not lash out at those you love for really dumb things. To not assess every bathroom you pass for its germs. You just … forget. Then, even those memories become so hazy that it seems life was always that way. You forget.
IV. DEPRESSED GIRL WITH NO WILLPOWER CHOOSES RECOVERY
The phrase “choosing recovery” irks me for any number of reasons, but a large part of that is because it makes recovery seem like a one-off choice. Like I chose to wear sweats today. I made the choice, it’s over and done with. Recovery isn’t that simple. It’s not just a single choice.
Take breakfast. There’s the ever-entertaining Shakespearian debate of to breakfast or not to breakfast. Then there’s deciding whether you have cereal, and if so, what kind. How much. Type of milk. With fruit or without. Juice or water. Anything extra with it. Coffee or not (actually, that’s a dumb one, because the choice is always coffee). And that’s just one meal on one day. What happens on those days when you really don’t want breakfast. What happens then? How do you make that choice?
As I finished freshman year of college, I recall all of the struggles I encountered. Parts of my life were fine, and some parts were really challenging. I do well when I have a routine, when I get into a cadence of work and food and leisure. College, as fun as it can be, disrupts that. For a really long time, Brown was a total disaster from a recovery standpoint. I was so overwhelmed with all of the other changes in my environment that dealing with the blow back of recovery-oriented choices just didn’t happen.
Just as my disorders were my new normal at one point in time, recovery has now become my new normal. Choosing recovery, time after time after time, has finally gotten easier. It has meant sitting with the discomfort of doing things I didn’t want and often didn’t feel were necessary. It meant having other people make my choices for me because I just couldn’t do what I needed to do. You don’t ever get to stop making these choices. It’s not exactly the most heartening realization.
V. WHAT IS RECOVERY?
Dictionary.com tells us that recovery is a restoration or return to health from sickness. While that may be suitable for some illnesses, it doesn’t work here. Recovery is not about getting back to the person you were before — you can not try to regain the same picture; the same story of success. Recovery is about re-establishing who you are, and finding another path. You still have all of those issues, but what you will do is figure out how to live within your spectrum. You can no longer see your limitations as limits — as things that are holding you back.
Definition 2: Regaining something lost or taken away. One of the most important concepts I have learned is that mental illness takes away the self. Recovery re-defines it. You will learn coping, signs, and what you can do better in order to take care of yourself. You won’t be fixed — it takes constant fixing.
VII. CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK
INSTEAD OF: Staircase with a destination goal of recovery: We often see recovery as staircase, taking steps toward the top (and if we take a step backwards, then we are failing). Recovery is an endpoint, and If I follow all the right steps and keep steadily working for it, one day I will eventually reach the top.
TRY: Walking a tightrope between healthy and unhealthy: Recovery is not a destination — it is a journey. Imagine yourself walking on a tightrope; some days you will be perfectly balanced, some days you will lean towards healthy, and some days you wont. And thats okay. You will constantly be on the tightrope.
INSTEAD OF: Do whatever it takes to get through therapy: A lot of times, we look at therapy as an inconvenience, or a block in the road. We think that we will say and do all the right things until we are freed from therapy. Once we finish, we believe we will go back to the person that we were, in the life that we had before, without changing a single thing.
TRY: It’s time for my depression to stop growing: If we do not take the opportunity to change ourselves, we will constantly end up in the same place, and in the same amount of pain. We need to realize that even though we are capable of doing something, maybe we are not supposed to be doing that at this time in our lives.
INSTEAD OF: I am below those I perceive to be normal: Upon leaving a treatment facility and being placed among those who have not gone through the same kind of journey you have, you may feel as though it is difficult to fit in, or difficult to be who you are when everybody else is looking. It may be a challenge for you to re-enter a social environment, and you may feel as though you are less than other because of your illness.
TRY: I can use my story to inspire and help others: Once you leave, you will be equipped with many experiences and skills that can be brought and shared with those around you. You can now use your knowledge, compassion, and abilities to make a difference in the lives of those around you, who may be silently suffering.
VIII. DEPRESSED GIRL WITH NO WILLPOWER GIVES YOU ADVICE
Your life, with all its ups and downs, has moulded you for the greater good. Your life has been exactly what it needed to be. Giving up, or ending your life is never, ever the choice to pick. When you kill yourself, you’re killing your baby, your grand baby, the love of your husband, a piece of your mother’s heart, your father’s mind. You’re killing the chance to change the world, or the chance to watch your daughter or son smile. It took each and every situation you have encountered to bring you to the current moment. And every moment of your life, including this one right now, is a fresh start. If you have the courage to admit when you’re scared, the ability to laugh even as you cry, the nerve to speak up even if your voice is shaking, the confidence to ask for help when you need it, and the wisdom to take it when it’s offered, then you have everything you need to get yourself to a better place. Take your struggles, and learn from them. Take that anger and build something beautiful from that passion. Turn something dark, into something amazing.