The things nobody told me about recovery (Brain Storm Issue III)

The third issue of Brain Storm came out at the beginning of this month, with the theme ‘on the road to recovery’. I chose to write about the things nobody told me about recovery, to give an insight into the ups and downs of recovering from a mental illness. I wanted to show people who’ve never had an experience with mental illness how much work goes into getting through it, and potentially help people struggling with their own demons be better prepared for their own recovery. You can read my piece here, but the rest of the issue is packed full of phenomenal work by incredible writers and artists, and brilliantly put together by Hana, so if you like my piece please check out the rest of the issue here.

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So, you’ve realised that you need help, and you want to get help, but where do you start? Do you talk to somebody close to you, do you go to the doctors, do you try to find a counselling service? The truth is, there’s no right way to about getting help. Different sources will tell you different things, but recovery isn’t a linear process. Recovery will send you on a bigger and crazier rollercoaster than your illness ever will, and sometimes it’ll feel like it really isn’t worth it, but it’s all about finding the course of recovery that’s right for you.

In February 2016, I went to see my GP about my mental health problems. I’d been finding comfort up until this point in my closest friends and my incredibly supportive boyfriend, and knowing that there were people close to me who genuinely cared about me and wanted me to get better gave me that push I needed to start caring about my own recovery and drag myself along to the doctors. I left the surgery that day in floods of tears, with a couple of web addresses and an IAPT leaflet (a UK NHS mental health service), feeling disheartened and as if I’d wasted my time.

I felt ready to give up, but with a little help I got an assessment appointment with IAPT, and sat for an hour while a psychiatrist dug around in my past with a shovel that went straight through my heart. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and many parts of recovery are incredibly difficult, but I did it, and to this day I am proud of myself. I’m proud of myself for telling a stranger things about my past that I could barely even admit to myself. Recovery will give you moments when you are proud of yourself. A blissful, encompassing feeling of pride that makes you remember why you’re putting yourself through this. But recovery will also give you moments where you hate yourself more than ever, because you feel like you should be getting better and better but it’s far more likely that you’ll get better and worse and better and worse or better and worse and worse still and even worse and then better again and then worse again and better again.

At the beginning of May, I was prescribed citalopram – one of the most common antidepressant drugs in the UK. The thing I wish I’d known the most about recovery is that medication is not an instant fix. The side effects that most people get when they first start taking an SSRI (the most common type of antidepressant) are hell. They are physical and mental hell and they will more than likely make you want to give up. I took citalopram for about 3 months, and they did absolutely nothing for me. They took me to hell and back for a week and then they did nothing, but nobody told me that some medications might not just be right for me. Nobody told me that the way I was feeling when I was taking citalopram was because they weren’t working. I thought that maybe that was the best I was ever going to get, and that made me feel so, so hopeless and defeated that I considered giving up.

I did a lot of things I regret last summer, but the thing I regret most is that I did give up. I stopped taking my medication, I didn’t go back to the doctors, and three days after my 19th birthday, I wanted to kill myself. For the first time in months, I wanted to be dead. I didn’t want to get better, because I thought I was getting better, and I thought recovery meant wanting to die. Nine days previously I found out that despite battling some of the worst symptoms I’ve ever had while completing my A Level exams, I had gotten into the university of my dreams, to study the course of my dreams, yet all I dreamt of then was death. Because depression doesn’t care about achievements and goals, depression only cares about engulfing you until you take your very last breath – unless you decide to take the steps to stop it. I stopped this journey in my tracks, and I let it engulf me.

I let it take me over, to the point that when I eventually moved to a different city for university in September, I was miserable beyond belief. I was miserable every single day, because nobody told me that if you stop taking your medication you are not recovering anymore. Nobody told me that taking medication doesn’t mean you even are recovering, but I definitely hadn’t been. I hadn’t even started my journey, and yet I felt like I’d failed, because nobody told me that recovery is personal to you and that you need to find the right path to follow. Eventually, I decided that enough was enough. The things I do at university will affect my future, and knowing this brought about the realisation that I really do want a future. I want it more than anything, and now I know that I’m not going to stop trying until I get it.

I moved home from university at the beginning of November, and made the decision to commute to my lectures instead, as I believed this would make recovery much easier. This was the first real decision I made about my recovery, and it is probably the most important one I’ve made so far. Nobody told me that a huge part of recovery is making your own decisions. I thought I’d just turn up to the doctor’s office and they’d sort it all out for me; I thought they’d tell me to jump and all I had to do was ask how high, but recovery is about choosing when and how high to jump yourself. Doctors and therapists cannot fix you, they can only help you to fix yourself. Nobody told me that I would have to fix myself.

I went to my GP again at the end of my first term of university, and he recommended that I try sertraline (also retailed as Zoloft) to try and get myself back on track before thinking about counselling to resolve the cause of my illnesses. He prescribed me two weeks’ worth of the drug, but after the experience I’d had with citalopram I was hardly optimistic about taking them. Two hours after taking the first pill, I developed the most painful headache I’ve ever experienced, I felt sick, dizzy, and incredibly shaky, and although I had been sleeping at around 10pm in the previous weeks, yet another side effect meant that I didn’t get to sleep until 5am, and woke up three hours later. It took so much self-motivation and encouragement to take the second pill the following afternoon, and the side effects were just as bad that day, so horrific that I considered just throwing them away and giving up again.

But I didn’t. I didn’t give up, and I won’t give up. I took my medication every day leading up to my next appointment, and I didn’t realise until a couple of days before my appointment that I hadn’t had a panic attack since I started taking the sertraline, nor had I experienced one of the haunting nightmares that I usually have around 4-5 nights a week. I had gotten so caught up in the side effects that I hadn’t realised that these pills might actually have been working. I’ve only been taking sertraline for just over two weeks as I’m writing this, but right now I am on the biggest upward curve in my recovery I’ve come across so far. Nobody told me that recovery is full of upward curves and downward curves; nobody told me that the downward curves will make you want to give it all up, but nobody told me that the upward curves will give you a feeling so euphoric that you almost forget you aren’t well in the first place.

There are a lot of things that nobody told me about recovery, but the most important is that nobody told me not to give up. This is something you have to constantly tell yourself. You have to tell yourself that it is worth it, that it will be worth it, that you will get there one day, even if it takes years. Because chances are it will, it will take a long, long time for you to reach the same level of stability you were at before you got ill, and you may never reach the same level of stability you were at before you got ill, but it is almost certain that with the right course of action laid out, you will get better than you are now. You will be happier than you ever thought you could be, and this is what will give you the motivation to carry on. This is what will give you the motivation to be strong.

Nobody told me that I’m strong. Nobody told me that I’m strong enough to push myself through some of the worst things that I’ve ever felt, even though doing that has led me to feel some of the best. Nobody told me that I can do it, but I can, everyone can, and everyone needs to be told that they can. So if you’re in recovery right now, or you’re not quite there yet, or you’re looking for the motivation to start, then you can do it. You can recover. And when you get there, you can say that somebody told you that you’re strong enough to push yourself through. Somebody told you that some things may not work for you, and that’s why you never gave up when one method didn’t help you. Somebody told you that recovery is a rollercoaster, and that’s why you didn’t get off when it started to hurtle towards the ground. Somebody told you that you had to make your own decisions and you had to fix yourself, and that’s why you did.

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