On the Burden of Recovery

Recovery is often talked about as the ultimate destination for a person with a mental illness – a place where equilibrium has been achieved and the patient demonstrates a mastery over their illness, where the patient’s illness no longer defines them. And while it is a blessing, it also carries with it a distinct burden.

I find it difficult to put a date on exactly when I entered recovery, things have just kept getting better and better as time has gone on; I feel as though I’m always breaking new ground, having new revelations and so it seems like I’m constantly just now entering recovery. The whole journey started when I decided to start taking my pills. The long road to finding the perfect combination of medicine that works for me was fraught with many setbacks and traumas, but I slowly improved every day until my psychiatrist and I at last stumbled upon the perfect combination of pills. Seeing my Cognitive and Behavioral Therapist was a difficult thing to do – requiring much more work out of me than a regular therapist – but I saw gradual improvement with each new trick she taught me.

Throughout my journey with recovery, I’ve become more stable, I’ve been able to take on more responsibilities, and I’ve been able to go for longer periods of time without major psychotic events or other such traumas. The penultimate improvement, it seems, has been moving from my tiny 350 sq./ft. studio apartment to a much larger one bedroom apartment on the second floor of my apartment building. I’ve been living here for about three months and haven’t had to have my parents come and pick me up once, the number of panicked phone calls to my parents has dropped dramatically, I haven’t had to call my mom in the middle of the night because something terrible has happened to me while I’m asleep – my mood has noticeably improved and I get psychotic much less frequently.

But with those improvements comes a burden. Chiefly, in how I perceive myself.

It’s easy to understand why you’re disabled when your illness is expressing itself on a weekly or even daily basis. It’s easy to consider yourself mentally ill when you get psychotic on a regular basis or have to call your support system for help regularly. But once you go for three months with hardly a problem, once you go three months without a major psychotic event (where previously it had happened weekly, almost like clockwork), it’s harder to justify your status in life as being disabled.

One of my primary delusions is that I’m just faking my illness to get attention from other people. That I’m a whiny little brat who needs other people to notice him and so I’ve created this mental illness for myself in an effort to get people to feel sorry for me. It doesn’t matter that it’s nearly impossible to fool so many doctors for so long (next fall will be the ten year anniversary of me being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder), it doesn’t matter that no one in their right mind would willingly put themselves through the things I’ve gone through just to keep up a ruse, it doesn’t matter that I reported having even the most subtle symptoms of schizoaffective disorder having zero expertise in the illness or even knowing what it was prior to being diagnosed; at the core of me, in the deluded part of my mind, I firmly believe that I’m making everything up in order to gain attention and sympathy from my family and friends.

It usually expresses itself most strongly when I’m at my healthiest. It’s what consistently brings me down from my semi-regular journeys into good health. I become as healthy as one can be with an illness such as mine, I start being able to do more normal things, I start spreading my wings in the real world, and the delusion kicks in. The delusion is my worst enemy in many ways. It’s the booby trap which means I’ll always fail no matter how healthy I get. It turns me into a wind-up machine that only gets so far out his box before a mechanism kicks in and pulls me back into the box, snapping the lid shut.

Thus far I’ve managed to make it three months without the delusion becoming a major problem. It marks the longest time I’ve been able to evade the delusion and deny it its power. Usually, I make it about a month and have had a consistent cycle where one month will be a good month and the next month will be a bad one, the following month will be good and the one after that will be bad and it just trades off ad infinitum.

Attitude has everything to do with mental illness. It’s hard to have a positive attitude against such a base level delusion as they’re so powerful they often overwhelm you. The delusion is the seat of truth, there’s no denying its power, it comes from a place so deep inside of you that you cannot deny its power.

Yet, it’s important that you do.

A few months ago, I wrote about having compassion, about the essential-ness of compassion when one is living with a mental illness. My natural state is to give myself zero room for error, to allow myself zero slack to wander off the path I’ve prescribed for myself. I have my routine and it must be obeyed at all costs.

But lately, I’ve been learning to chill out and just do what my body needs me to do. If I’m hungry, I eat; though I maintain a regular eating schedule with three meals a day. If I’m tired I sleep, though I have a specific bed time and a specific time I try to get out of bed in the morning. If it’s time for me to write but my gut is telling me it’d be better to sit in my chair and listen to a Beatles’ album with my dog, Kerrin in my lap – that’s what I do.

It’s about being flexible, it’s about not being so rigid that you break. It’s important for anyone to listen to the demands our bodies make of us, but it’s especially important when you have a mental illness. And it becomes even more crucial when you’ve entered that period of recovery, because the period of recovery is a fragile state in and of itself. It’s no longer climbing up out of the deep dark pit, it’s maintaining balance at the edge of the pit, it’s taking careful steps out into the real world so you get beyond the edge of the pit. Living with a mental illness is to live in a continually fragile state, it’s so easy to fall into the pits life creates for us that one must maintain a constant vigilance.

I sometimes find myself thinking that I really ought to go and get a job, that I really ought to go back to school. That I ought to make something of myself. This is the beginning of unhealthy thought, this is the denial of my acceptance of my illness. Living with a mental illness requires a kind of contradictory disagreement – on the one hand accepting that you have a mental illness and there are certain things you cannot do and on the other hand stubbornly refusing to be limited by it. I think a lot of life is like that, actually. A contradiction. You need to at once accept that there are limitations to what you can do but also try to discover what exactly those limitations are by testing their boundaries. You want to bend but not break.

There’s a wonderful image from the Tao Te Ching which illustrates this perfectly: the reed in the river. The successful reed bends with the current of the river while the reed that dies is rigid and defies the current of the river.

Life can overtake us. Life can especially overtake us if we have a mental illness. It’s important to maintain a balance. A balance between acceptance and refusal and a balance between pushing ourselves to do more and acknowledging (and respecting) our limits. Without that balance we’re like the rigid reed, susceptible to breaking. Without that balance, we lose in our struggles against our mental illnesses. I have to accept that my primary delusion is a part of me. I don’t think there’s any getting rid of it, it’s engrained too deeply in my psyche to be removed without causing trauma. So it must exist within me as though it were a part of me, and this is the burden of recovery – to wrestle with a far more powerful force and then try to turn that wrestling into a sort of a dance.

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