What Recovery From Mental Illness Really Looks Like


     It is so easy to think, wish, or assume that coping with anxiety, depression, bipolar, addictions, or any other mental health issue looks like a steady incline in progress; that after one depressive episode, one manic episode, a few months of anxiety, getting a diagnosis, one course of therapy, a few months of medication, going once to rehab or residential, or after a slew of other things that a one time once and for all recovery will be achieved. Unfortunately, it is often not this easy.

     Recovery is more of a rollercoaster, a line of recovery that inclines, then declines, then inclines again, and so forth. Recovery and coping with mental illness can look like several years out of therapy, followed by many more periods of having to return to therapy. It can look like resolving one issue then later dealing with a different mental health issue. It can involve life stressors exhausting the coping skills one has developed in the past. 

     Here is an example based loosely off of real life: A person can go into therapy for generalized and social anxiety, start seeing improvements, leave therapy, a few months later have difficulties again with the anxiety and return to therapy, learn to cope with it and leave therapy, then years later experience anxiety and difficulties that appear to indicate concentration problems or ADHD, return to therapy, start feeling worse instead of better, become depressed, go downward, after months finally start improving, stop therapy, return because the anxiety isn’t managed although the depression is, stay about the same or experience slight improvement, experience depression again, then get through the depression quicker, then take longer to cope with the residual anxiety, then after doing good for a while, have a couple days here or there where anxiety or depression flair, then experience some decrease in these symptoms.

     I have learned both through working with others and my own experiences that coping and recovery are about becoming better able to deal with and bounce back from setbacks and difficulties rather than experiencing an absence of these. Sometimes certain stresses, thoughts, and situations trigger strong reactions in us, other times hormones, chemicals, and  physiological reactions trigger old symptoms and patterns of thinking & feeling. Regardless of the specific trigger, triggers will exist. It is easy for those with mental illness to see this as slipping or even failure. Perhaps those closest to them are even shocked, confused, surprised, or angered when this happens. They may wonder how someone was doing so good, yet was so fragile and reacted in old ways to a trigger. It should be made known that sometimes the person with the mental health issue is as shocked by their reaction as their loved one is.

     The complex nature of mental health issues can be confusing, frustrating, and exhausting for all involved. Nonetheless, recovery and coping which includes having a good quality of life much of the time, especially when well managed, is also possible. 

     Those with mental health issues can accomplish a lot both because of and in spite of their mental illnesses. There are writers, actors, and even counselors who are well-known and successful who also have mental health diagnoses.

     Recovery and hope are possible but they are not steady or linear. Rather, like much else in life they are a journey, a rollercoaster style journey.


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