The calm between the storms

Mental health recovery is a funny thing. Sometimes I even wonder if it’s even a thing at all. Research on clinical depression shows it’s something that tends to recur, and anxiety will always be there. So maybe “recovery” isn’t the right word.

But regardless of terminology, there have definitely been some beautiful periods of my life where I have been neither anxious to a disordered level nor depressed. Whilst the descent tends to be slow, recovery can begin with startling suddenness. One day, out of the blue, I feel OK.

I’m very bad at recognising when I’m depressed. Unfortunately, CBT taught me to get better at that. I say “unfortunately”, because there is a level of self-protection in denial. If I don’t know I’m depressed, I don’t have to fight it. I can just get on with stuff. Ever more slowly, and with ever less interest, but it avoids the pain of actually acknowledging I’m sick – something that at that point, of course, just feels like one more thing on the endless list of things that I can’t deal with. The worst bit isn’t even knowing things are bad. It’s when you realise you genuinely can’t remember what it felt like to be OK.

When I’m starting to get better, it’s a positive spiral. Contrary to what your shrink may tell you, if you are autistic, chances are behavioural activation has f**k all to do with this. When my senses are already more sensitive to overload than usual, setting goals on doing more things and “connecting” with my peers tends not to improve either my mood or my energy levels! But when something finally does go right, it works like they tell you behavioural activation is supposed to.

There’s a storyline to getting better. It starts with being bored. Not that horrible empty feeling you have in depression, where you don’t want to do anything but you don’t want to do nothing either: just solid, healthy boredom. I’ll have got used to being depressed by that point, so my schedule will be skeletal, covering only the bare minimum of activity required to keep myself physically intact. But one sunny Saturday morning, I’ll get out of bed and think: I have nothing to do today. Well that sucks. Let’s do a thing!

I’ve done this enough times now to become passable at navigating the next stage, which involves doing ALL THE THINGS! Literally. I look at the schedule and realise how empty my life has become, at the same time as I’m remembering all the fun things I’ve missed. I’ll suddenly realise I want to start running more; and driving to choir; and visiting that exhibition that’s been on my list forever; and I can totally fit in a couple of social activities this week too … except that I can’t, of course, even though my brain is telling me how much it’s totally up for this! Having done this a couple of times, crashed and burned, I know now to start off a bit more slowly and build up to a full schedule.

But the next bit, regardless of caution or care, is where things can go off track. That first glorious rush of unicorns and rainbows, where you’re utterly ecstatic at the sheer unbelievable amount of energy available when you don’t have to spend it all dragging your arse out of bed in the morning, is winding down. You’ve fully realised just how bad a place you were in before, but you’ve got a handle on things now, and you’re feeling whole a lot better. You’ve settled into a routine where you’re happy and motivated – maybe even thinking about a challenge. And then something bad happens.

Words are inadequate to describe the horror of this moment. All of those bad feelings and negative thoughts that you’ve just shaken off come flooding back with the intensity of a pre-dawn nightmare – only you can’t wake up. You’ll never wake up. You’re terrified and not ready for this and it’s hopeless, because after just a taste of the life you almost didn’t remember you’ve been shoved right back to the hell you were in before. (You haven’t, of course, but right now it feels just the same.) You thought you’d finally escaped; but no. You thought you could do something fun, even something challenging – but as you’ve already found to your cost, when you don’t even know if you can rely on being able to feed yourself next week it’s just not practical to plan for anything more. The memory of the last episode is still fresh in your mind, and you’re exhausted just thinking about it. You don’t know if you can find the strength to dig yourself out again.

From there, it can go either way.

I am writing about this now because two weeks ago, this is where I was. Two weeks ago I drafted this piece, and two weeks ago I couldn’t post it, because I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen. I spent most of last year lurching from crisis to crisis, constantly on the brink of exhaustion, bouncing along a mental health gradient that was definitely positive but never quite got me to feeling fully human again. So I didn’t want to post something optimistic about recovery just before I sank.

Today I am OK. I took a break last week to get some perspective; now I’m clear-headed and angry and ready to fight. This isn’t about me being weak or useless (neither is depression, but it tells me both are true). The problem that burst on me with the force of a nightmare is not in my mind; and by its very nature, a “real” problem has a “real” solution. Soon I will be scared – scared of pushing too hard, scared of gas-lighting tactics, scared of being misunderstood – and I’ll convince myself that really my wellbeing isn’t that important after all. But not today.

Recovery isn’t about everything going well for me. It’s about having the strength and the self-belief I need to fight. And it lives nowhere more than in that calm before the storm, when I’ve got the firmest hold on what I’m fighting for.

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