So, you’re getting better. It’s been weeks since you last cried in public, you’re managing basic hygiene and you’re feeding yourself. You’re sleeping like an adult, not a colicky baby.
Things are going well. Maybe the medication is working, maybe your recovery is steady and natural (or seasonal, in the always-fun case of Seasonal Affective Disorder), maybe whatever grief or trauma you survived is now well and truly in your rear-view mirror.
If you’re anything like me, now is the time for a new anxiety to rear its ugly head: a full-blown, terror-filled fear of relapse.
The version of yourself from a few weeks ago is still so fresh in your mind you can still feel echoes of their pain. You haven’t had enough time to forget what it feels like to panic, to struggle for breath, to want to hurt yourself just for a moment’s quiet.
Someday, you’ll forget. Not completely, of course, and maybe you won’t even want to – it’s a part of you, now, part of the rich tapestry that makes up your mind and heart. But the human brain is designed to move on from trauma. You can only relive it so many times before it heals over, for the sake of your sanity.
Survivors of war move on. Victims of abuse find love again. People who have been depressed will be happy again. Your mind – your body – is resilient.
But it’s also true that if you’ve been depressed or suffered from an anxiety disorder, chances are you will again at some point. Maybe it’s in your personality or your genome; honestly, it’s not helpful to speculate. It’s more helpful to learn everything you can about it when you’re in the middle of illness, and use that learning so that next time, it doesn’t have the same impact.
I recently heard an author – whose name I forget, let me know in the comments if you know who I’m thinking of! – say that he can never allow himself to forget how capable he is of taking the express elevator to the bargain-basement of mental health.
You have to stay aware of the possibility. It’s an unbelievably hard thing to come to terms with, and you might not be ready. I certainly wasn’t, the first time I went through a serious depression. For years, I dismissed it as something in my past. Something I had under control.
Until it grew, and changed, and suddenly all my coping mechanisms meant exactly squat.
It took me a long time to acknowledge my depression – longer to acknowledge my anxiety, which was new to me. And now that I’m getting better, I’m truly starting to dread its return.
I used to think I would be safe in the summer – now I know that isn’t true, it feels like I could backslide at any time, and all the work I’ve put into my relationship and my mental health will disappear.
So, here’s my advice for facing down your fear of relapse:
Feel the fear, acknowledge what it’s trying to tell you, and move past it. You’re afraid for a good reason, and ignoring that fear of relapse – denying the potential you could get sick again – won’t do you any good. You need to keep up all the coping mechanisms that keep you resilient, like meditation and good sleep patterns, and you also need to keep your support network aware of the risk of relapse.
Just because you’ve been fine for a few weeks doesn’t mean you’ve lost the right to feel crappy. You need to be able to call a hectic day quits, or take a moment to yourself, or cancel plans for a duvet day.
But if you let the fear cripple you, and keep you from doing things you love – travel, for example, or work – that’s not helpful. My suggestion would be to aim to do the thing that scares you, but have an acceptable Plan B.
For example, this weekend the Welshman wanted to go to the Tate Modern.
As I’ve said a few times, the Tate Modern always makes me panic. I don’t know if it’s the scale of the damned thing or some kind of allergy to post-modernism, but I’ve always disliked it. This weekend, though, Welshman deserved a bit of kindness and consideration, so Plan A was my joining him for a sculpture exhibition he wanted to see.
Plan B was my sitting quietly in the Members Room with a cup of tea and my podcasts while he went round on his own.
Plan B was acceptable to both of us, and saved my sanity. It meant I had the energy for the rest of the day, and didn’t bite the poor man’s head off.
It cut me some slack, and as it turned out, for all my supposed successful recovery I desperately needed it.
So be kind to yourself, and try your best not to wallow. Everyone loves you and wants you to get well – thank them for their patience, and take advantage of it if you have to. Someone told me recently that one of the best things you can do for someone you love is to ask them a favour: it gives them a chance to show their love for you.
Let them do you a favour. And let me know how you’re doing.
With love, always,