Recovering, Not Recovered
“By talking about recovery as a straight shot from misery to contentment, we silence people whose journeys are non-linear.”
When people ask me how I “recovered” after an episode of bipolar disorder, I sometimes feel as if they are inspecting a piece of ancient pottery. I am suddenly being examined for thumbprints, toolmarks. “Oh, there’s the long list of drugs that did more harm than good.” “Look, there is some evidence of electro-convulsive therapy.” “Wow, look at all those therapists who were too kind to be effective.” “Here’s a faint imprint of intensive outpatient programs.”
They can’t see it all — the hands that put me back together, the smoothing I did myself. They can’t see the full process that recreated the shape of me. But they like to try — not to be rude. They are just curious. They want to hear stories of transformation from people with mental illness. They want to examine the brain, hear about when things were bad and when they got better.
They want to know how the incomprehensible can be shaped and molded into something we can live with, thrive with.
We can thrive with mental illness. There is life after a mental health crisis. There is some steadiness despite the tremors. There is energy after the dense fatigue that keeps me in bed all day. I can finally find the words I want after days or weeks of searching. I select the right key after fumbling for five minutes with my thick, dumb hands.
When people ask me what it’s like to go back to my real life after a crisis, I tell them it’s the hardest and most unpleasant thing I’ve ever done. And people shudder. They don’t like to hear that. They want me to tell them it’s great, it’s so much better. They want to see the before and after shots. They don’t want to experience the “during” — the cognitive slowdown, the panic attacks, the lost memories, the restlessness — wanting to peel off your skin. Wading through goop. Seemingly aging 30 years overnight. Not being trusted to be alone. Crying, trying to remember your complicated medication regimen.
People are so uncomfortable with the “during” that those of us with lived experience often leave that special, slow-motion hell out of the story entirely. We skip straight to “recovery.” And in doing so, we do ourselves a disservice. We mischaracterize what chronic mental illness is actually like.
The concept of “recovery” is pervasive in mental health treatment. It’s plastered on the walls of hospitals and treatment centers. It’s a buzzword in groups. Individuals speak to audiences through the lens of recovery — having achieved it. Though the idea of recovery is positive, the way we define the word is often problematic. The clean lines and tidy edges can feel like a trap. We sometimes talk about recovery as a destination, rather than a process that includes periods of vulnerability, illness, and wellness. By talking about recovery as a straight shot from misery to contentment, we silence people whose journeys are non-linear.
Recovery is not as simple as “healing” and being done with it. It’s not as easy as taking a pill.
It’s a complicated table maze in which you shakily navigate an orange ball through narrow passages, avoiding holes and trap doors. Often, you don’t avoid them at all. You start over.
It’s cutting a watermelon with a butter knife. You do more damage to your hand than the fruit.
It’s looking at the trail in the woods ahead, seeing that some of the trees are on fire, then setting off, hoping you’ll have the energy to extinguish the blaze when you get there.
It’s a lifelong struggle for many. I know very few people with mental illness who consider themselves fully “recovered.” Mental illnesses are often chronic in nature. They are episodic. They flare up — for some people, they flare up often. They require changes in treatment. Though medication and other therapies can bring relief, some individuals continue to struggle with mental illness even after treatment.
I have used the term “recovery” in describing my own struggle with bipolar disorder, but the illness never completely goes away for me. The last two years in particular have been among the most turbulent of my life. I have written about the blinding, breathless white light of the highs, the deep, sticky darkness of the lows, and the mixed states, with their agitation and racing thoughts about death. I’ve written about how things got better for me.
And then, I got sick again. And again. And again. And again.
My story — my many stories — of “recovery” seemed to splinter, shatter on the floor with each consecutive hospitalization. My “recovery journey” began to feel invalid and inauthentic. I felt like a fraud. I made self-deprecating jokes about my frequent visits to the hospital, trying to hide the insecurity I felt. As my anxiety worsened and my mood became less stable, I felt I was constantly waiting for someone to call me out:
“YOU’RE NOT RECOVERED AT ALL! YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!”
And then it hit. I do know what I’m talking about precisely because I am not recovered.
I know what it’s like to live between illness and wellness. I know what it’s like to start noticing you’re slipping backwards. I also know what it’s like to observe that you’re controlling your moods better. Reframing your thoughts more often. Keeping your maladaptive behaviors in check. “I might have a hospital bracelet around my wrist,” I thought, my head swimming from my latest dose of medication, “but I have a better grasp on why I’m here. I have a better grasp on how to stay healthier longer.”
I began to see myself as someone gaining mastery over a complex illness, learning its ins and outs. I began to view my story of “recovery” as a long serial of many recoveries. A story of many relapses, many medication changes, many treatment options, and constant assurance that I don’t have access to a gun or other highly lethal means of suicide. All of these things have helped me get well or stay well. They are all handprints, patting the clay into form, shaping my story, keeping me safe.
Somehow, we have unintentionally made the definition of “recovery” so narrow that almost no one can fit into it. Instead of being inspiring, it can become oppressive, seemingly impossible to achieve, and incompatible with the realities of chronic mental illness.
Recovery includes relapse. Period. Stories of recovery should include stories of people who are struggling. We need those “in between” stories — all their beautiful, real mess, all their stops and starts, all the brain zaps, anxiety, panic, fatigue, nausea, tremors. We need to hear about side effects, relief, the steps people take to keep themselves safe, and the realities of walking into the world, branded “recovered,” yet still feeling fragile as hell.
We can thrive with mental illness. There is life after a mental health crisis. You don’t have to be recovered. Your story, too, is a serial. Recovering will do just fine.
Bryan Barks is the executive editor at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.