You got there. Despite your lack of belief that it was possible, you fought your illness and came out of the other side. In some ways, it made you weaker. To fight every day against the overwhelming urge to just give up and retreat to your bed was exhausting. But in many ways, you are also stronger for having gone through it. ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is a phrase you have probably heard often. But in your case, it’s true.
Battling a mental illness can feel like you’re in a boxing match, with one hand tied behind your back, and all you can do is stand there and take punch after punch. But the important thing is to always get back up. And you did. But what happens now?
Recovery is hard work and it’s an ongoing process. You don’t just wake up one day and say ‘Oh well, I feel better so that’s that over with.’ You will still have your difficult days, but now you’re better equipped to deal with them.
When you were at your most ill, you were probably the last to know, and when you think about how low you were, it probably shocks you. But the insight you have into your illness now will help you to know what to look for to prevent a relapse. It’s important to think about what triggered your problems. What kept your problems and worries going? What helped you and what hindered you when you were working towards your recovery? What are the early warning signs that you might be starting to become unwell?
How did problems develop- was there one trigger or did it happen over time?
Sometimes there’s an obvious trigger for illness, like grief or trauma, but equally, sometimes it’s a build-up of smaller things that overwhelm us.
What factors maintained the problem/the worrying?
Maybe you got into a vicious cycle of worrying, ruminating and negative thinking which magnified your problems. Breaking the cycle is not about positive thinking, it’s about realistic thinking. Did your friend deliberately ignore your call because they hate your guts or is it possible that they were busy/had no phone signal? Consider how telling yourself the former makes you feel. Check your thoughts, they impact hugely on your mood.
Maybe you isolated yourself from others to protect yourself and really, all this did was to make you feel more alone when you needed support the most. Tell people how you feel, even if it’s just a close friend who can be trusted to be there for you if the going gets tough.
What strategies helped?
When you felt low, maybe you went for a walk, listened to music, painted, had a warm bath. Anything that lifts your mood even the tiniest bit and gets you away from living in your head for a while is so valuable. These are resources you can draw upon if you ever notice that you are starting to slip again.
How will I use these strategies to stop problems reoccurring?
Arrange to go for a walk with a friend if you’re feeling low or lacking in confidence. Look at joining small, informal groups based around your interests. You will widen your social network and learn new skills, so you avoid isolation and gain confidence. Focus on self-care, which is often one of the first things to go when we become ill.
Lifestyle factors I need to be aware of
Do you struggle to maintain a sensible work/life balance? Do you never make time to do the things you enjoy? Start working on this now. Everyone needs some ‘me time’ to replenish their reserves. Life is supposed to be enjoyed.
Don’t rely on alcohol or caffeine to get you through each day, as these bring with them their own set of problems.
Get plenty of sleep. The body and the mind need a rest. If you’re perpetually sleep-deprived you will become exhausted, unmotivated and your mood will plummet.
What are my early warning signs?
You can probably look back now and remember what happened when you first became ill. Maybe you didn’t sleep, maybe you slept too much, maybe you started to drink more or stopped doing the things you enjoy. These are what you need to look out for.
What to do if I notice the early warning signs?
Talk to a close friend or family member and ask them to keep an eye on you. If you feel like you are starting to struggle again, see your GP so you can access treatment sooner rather than later.
Whether it’s an isolated episode of illness or not, recovery means the same thing. Relapse is not inevitable but it is possible. After experiencing mental illness, you are not quite the same person again, but I don’t mean this in a negative way.
You become an expert on your own life, your own health and your own happiness. Maybe you became ill because there were imbalances in your life that you needed to address. Maybe you felt stuck in a situation that simply was not good for you. Now you have the knowledge and power to do something about these situations and to start writing the next chapter of your story. It’s not over.