Relapse, recovery and tomato soup.

I’m in unfamiliar territory and feeling rather strange. Life seems to be going well: weird or what?

If I look back at the past few weeks I can’t get away from the fact that things seem to be turning around for me. By virtue of thousands of imperceptible steps, I’ve started to rebuild my life. It’s a very different life now and I’m glad about that. I’m more at peace with some of my nightmares than I’ve ever been before. Memories of people who have hurt and abused me are just that – memories. They’re not locked away, shut tight around my heart and constricting every beat, but neither are they out and uncontained, eating away at my soul and making me cry out in my sleep. I’m OK with them, or as OK as I’ll ever be. Some wounds don’t entirely heal but you can learn to live with them.

My career’s going well, I’m socialising more and I’ve had opportunities to do things that I love but thought were lost to me when I became ill. It’s true – things are great. So why am I so anxious? I went to bike over to my friend’s house this afternoon and my legs turned to jelly before I’d reached the porch door. Leaving the house is really difficult for me right now. Negative self-talk is back with a vengeance and I’m being truly horrible to myself. Nothing I do is ever good enough and I blindly ignore evidence to the contrary because it doesn’t fit in with how I see myself.

I didn’t know why this was happening until I shared my feelings on Facebook. I was writing for a new client and my head had managed to reduce the situation down to “screw this job up and you’ll end up homeless”. That was the only possible outcome. None of my friends would give me shelter when my house was repossessed and I’d have to give my dogs away. And so I shared how I was feeling and asked for inspiration. My friend Danny, beautiful inside and out, posted this:Danny

As I read it, my head filled with a familiar white noise that means I can’t deal with whatever I’m thinking about. After finding some distance and calming down, I realised that Danny had hit a nerve – in the very best of ways.

When I was at my lowest, I had nothing to lose. I didn’t care about paying bills or keeping a roof over my head. I was at peace with the thought of never again seeing any of the people I love so very much. Every waking moment was taken up with thoughts of survival – or more often, the comforting idea that I didn’t have to see another day if I chose not to. I spent vast tracts of time planning my suicide or trying to put my life in order so it wouldn’t be too messy for those left behind.

Slowly, very slowly – over a period of nearly two years – I’ve started to emerge from that dark place. It’s not been pretty. People always tell you that recovery isn’t a linear process but I’m guessing I’m not the only one to think that it would be for me. Bearable days just set me up for devastating disappointment as my mood fell again. To my mind every tiny triumph (remembering to put my shoes on before walking the dogs was a particular favourite) was the herald of a new life, a sign that I could put the bad times behind me. In reality, it just meant that every setback, however small, felt like my world was ending. Every disappointment turned into absolute, unshakable evidence that I was broken beyond repair. I stopped hoping for recovery.

But now I have hope – and not only hope, but firm evidence that life is getting better. It’s more than I ever dared dream, but with the wonder of falling back in love with life comes a downside. To quote Spiderman (love a random quote), with great power comes great responsibility. I once again feel responsible for my own life, my own future and the quality of every single second I’m alive on this beautiful planet. I have to try to pay bills. I have to keep a roof over my head. I have people who have invested so much love and care in my recovery that I feel a responsibility towards them too.

What if I can’t do it? What if I fail? I’ll be letting everyone down. My world, the world I’m comfortable with, is no longer the size of a postage stamp. It’s growing and filling with opportunities and people. I can – if I let myself – grab my keys, step out of my front door and go and spend time with them. And when I manage to do that I cherish every minute, however mundane it seems to others. I’m even starting to think about relationships, although most of the talk is about reasons why I could never possibly get close to anyone ever again.

Nobody told me that recovery is just as painful as relapse. My therapist might have, but when I think about anything hopeful my head fills with that white noise I mentioned and I can’t take in what’s being said. Recovery is scary. You’re raw, so very raw and fragile. I feel like a baby bird that’s been born at the wrong time of year, trying to grow and thrive when conditions are dead set against it.

Something else nobody really talks about is the comfort of relapse. I can’t even believe I’m typing those words. Relapses are devastating, they’re at the threshold of emotional pain that a human being can endure, but there’s a familiarity to them and if that’s the case, there must be some comfort too. A relapse serves a purpose – our mind is trying to tell us something. In my case I think the message is that I’m frightened. I’m frightened of succeeding, frightened of my own power – which I must have in abundance to have got through the past few years. I’m frightened that my dreams might actually come true and honestly, that’s terrifying. I dreamed of being loved and cared for and now I know that I am. I was all along, I just couldn’t reach out to those who cared. I still find that infinitely difficult, scared that I’ll hurt someone and lose them forever.

I started this blog with a working title of “My road to recovery”. If only it was as simple as that. The hardest fact to accept is that recovery and relapse go hand in hand – they share the same path. To recover you have to try something new. You have to expose yourself to things that feel incredibly dangerous and in doing so you leave yourself open to hurt, disappointment and setbacks. But you can’t have one without the other.

If I’m going to give this whole living thing a go, I have to accept that it’s going to hurt – a lot. I need to find ways of being kind to myself, of looking after myself while I’m going through it. It’s a bit of an alien concept to me, being nice to myself, but an image my therapist put in my head was one of being snuggled on a sofa with a bowl of tomato soup. Maybe I’ll start there – I think I’ve got some in the cupboard.

I’ve accepted the fact that depression and anxiety will always be with me, but I know I can manage them more than I have ever managed them before. They will have to live with me, not the other way round. I’ll try to ‘put myself out there’, even if it’s just for a short time each day. I’ll do things that scare me and challenge the distorted views I have of myself, but I’ll make sure I have a tomato soup moment every day as well.

The road to recovery: terrifying, painful and full of exquisite wonder. It truly is the ride of my life. I hope you’ll continue to travel it with me.

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