Mental illness recovery stories: this too shall pass
Credit: ©julymilks / Adobe Stock
Mental illness recovery stories: this too shall pass
Weathering the Storm
“This too shall pass,” a friend once said to me, when we first met in the hospital over four years ago. Even though my recollection of my hospital admissions is fairly poor, the phrase “this too shall pass” has become ingrained in me.
On my eighteenth birthday, I meticulously painted the “this too shall pass” mantra onto a bowl at a pottery studio while on afternoon leave from the hospital – I was an inpatient at the time – with my dad and my best friend, Gigi. It has since become one of my mantras, part of my collection of inspirational phrases that I repeat to myself (as a form of meditation) when I am going through a rough time.
When dealing with mental illness it can be difficult to not be entirely consumed by it. I have struggled with mental illness since the age of fifteen. My mental illness recovery stories are filled with various combinations of therapy, medications, and hospital admissions. I have become better at managing my illnesses, but still, this management is a draining, full-time job at times.
Over the past few years, my life has been so completely consumed trying to juggle university and my mental health that everything else has fallen by the wayside. Due to my depression, I can no longer enjoy many of the activities that I used to love, such as horseback riding, spending time with friends, and eating out.
My anxiety disorder and anorexia resulted in all of these activities becoming sources of stress for me, and doing them became such a chore that I eventually gave up trying. My relationships have also suffered due to my mental illnesses. People get tired and frustrated when I don’t return texts or ever initiate contact with them, so many eventually stop trying. My mental illness recovery stories are littered with the memories of lost friends.
In fear that I would become a stereotypical mentally ill person living on the streets, I pushed myself extremely hard academically, even when I was mentally and physically unwell, and even during periods when my psychiatrist strongly recommended I take time off to look after my health. Since my illnesses disturb my concentration and memory, when I am unwell the effort required to do simple tasks such as reading and retaining information is monumental.
The lowest period in my mental illness recovery story was in the spring of 2019. My mental health deteriorated to such an extent I had to put in a herculean effort to even get out of bed in the morning. Research and writing were mostly all I did from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed, in a state of exhaustion and drugged confusion (I was on a high dose of a sedating antipsychotic at the time).
After my weight dropped to 70 pounds, I developed a rare condition known as SMA (Superior Mesenteric Artery) Syndrome and a string of other medical complications due to my poorly managed anorexia nervosa. Because I was on death’s door (to the point that my body was rejecting food, needing IV nutrition, a feeding tube, and close medical monitoring), I was deemed incompetent to be able to keep myself safe, so I was involuntarily admitted to the hospital.
My mood, motivation, physical health, and cognitive functioning (such as my memory and concentration) were so poor that I was absolutely unable to do anything for myself. Necessary activities such as showering, changing my clothes, feeding myself, and leaving my apartment had become rare occurrences. I was too consumed by despair, shame, and exhaustion to care about these things anymore.
In the months leading up to my admission, as the weather started to become warmer and spring took hold, I was withering away to a skeleton of my former self. I constantly felt like I was dragging myself through thick mud to do the bare minimum: to get myself out of bed and do my research. All of my energy/motivation, which was very limited, to begin with, went into my research, and I had nothing left over for anything else.
By that point, I had lost everything in my life and was about to lose my life itself if I didn’t gain weight. I was too scared, tired, and weak to leave the house much of the time, most of my friends had given up on trying to contact me, and my mom couldn’t even spend time around me. She said my appearance gave away how depressed and deathly ill I was – my demise was too devastating for her to watch. At this point in my life, there were no mental illness recovery stories or anecdotes to share.
Mental illness had clouded my view of the world and narrowed it down so that I couldn’t see the people I had around me who actually did care and wanted to help me, but just didn’t know-how. All I could see were the negatives and the darkness in my life because my illness was constantly whispering awful things to me, feeding me lies 24/7. These lies eventually consumed my reality because they wouldn’t turn off. I would repeatedly hear derogatory phrases: “you can’t enjoy anything anymore”, “you’re a defective, broken balloon of a human being that doesn’t deserve to live”.
For the past few months, since my last hospital admission, I have been relatively stable. I am currently in a place in my recovery where I am well enough to not be in the hospital. l am functioning better in many aspects of my life, such as my self-care and maintaining a nearly healthy weight. My mental illness recovery story is starting to take shape: albeit slowly.
However, I struggle with depression and anxiety. Although the “this too shall pass” mantra has been helpful for me, the bigger question I sometimes ask myself is what do I do after the storm has passed? How do I get my old life back, or do I even want my old life back, considering that this high-stress environment may have triggered my deterioration in the first place? Will my mental illness recovery stories being nothing more than a series of vignettes about being well and unwell?
Recovering from a mental illness
One thing I know with certainty is that I want to be living life, not merely existing in a state of constant fear and paralyzing dread over what the next day may bring. There are still so many things that I can’t enjoy, such as being able to go out with friends without drowning in anxious thoughts and feeling guilty for isolating at home. Some days I still feel hopeless, sad, and overwhelmed with worry that I will never be able to fully recover and rebuild my life into one worth living.
Recovering from a mental illness is a hard and painstakingly slow process, but it is also a journey of self-discovery. During my recovery, I have met many amazing and inspiring people, both in the hospital and through community support networks. These people are deeply embedded in my mental illness recovery stories. Living with mental illness has taken a lot away from me, but it has also given me a different outlook on life. I have learned to truly cherish the positive moments, such as enjoying a rich cup of coffee with a friend or sitting on my deck soaking up the sun and never take anything for granted.
Recovery for me is a series of small steps, taking life one day at a time to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the bigger picture, and trying to stay focused on the present. On days where I feel sad, discouraged, and lacking in motivation, I remind myself of how far I have come and hold on to hope that things will get better.
As Emily Dickinson said in her poem:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul
and sings the tune without the words,
and never stops at all.”
Athena Milios is a psychiatric researcher based in Halifax, Nova Scotia