I was recently blindsided by a relapse. I’ve spent decades cultivating self-awareness, practicing yoga and mindfulness, understanding my triggers, and honing my coping skills. I should have seen this relapse coming. But I didn’t.
Failure, grief, anger, and frustration were emotions that piggy-backed on top of the fear, anxiety, and sadness that I was already experiencing. I felt like my life was spiraling out of control. My mind felt like a dust storm - difficult to settle, easy to disturb. I became irritable and scrambled to direct this irascible energy in a more positive way. Exercise is one of my coping mechanisms, so I went running. I went swimming. I went biking. Sometimes all on the same day. Still, I could not find the calm in this storm. With my stress levels skyrocketing and my inept coping mechanisms minimally helpful, I decided to reach out for help by making an appointment with a counsellor. It had been years since I’d seen a counsellor for help coping with mental distress. Over time, I’d built up a level of pride in not needing professional support. I’d inadvertently defined “recovery”, in part, as not needing a therapist, so reaching out in this way also felt like failure.
What I learned during this one hour of counselling offered a new perspective around words like “relapse” and “recovery”, and gave me hope, which is essential for healing.
The terms “relapse” and “recovery” are opposites, just like black and white, on and off, light and dark, or happy and sad. Likely, as you read through this list of opposites, you’ve categorised half of them as “good” and the other half as “bad”. When we think about “relapse” and “recovery” in this way, relapse equals “bad” and recovery equals “good”. Our whole life and our entire being can become “bad” during times of mental distress, adding insult to injury. In my mind, I was a failure because I relapsed. I felt less deserving of support and less worthy of the time and support that I needed to heal. Thoughts like “I should have known better” and “I should have seen this relapse coming” were stuck on repeat. If I were a better person, I would have been able to maintain that good space called “recovery”. My indifferent attitude towards myself caused a lot of additional stress.
Seeing life in binary terms like “good”/ “bad” or “recovery”/ “relapse” limits my ability to understand myself and my situation from different perspectives. With a bit of guideance, I was able to recognise my narrow thinking and develop perspectives that allowed me to (1) cut myself some slack; (2) recognise my own strengths and resources; and (3) understand that my life goes beyond the constraints of “relapse” and “recovery”.
1. Cutting myself some slack
There was a LOT going on for me when I came into my most recent experience of mental distress. I mean a LOT. I’ve recently returned to school to embark on a new career choice, I have a part-time business, I have children, I have a partner, and had in-laws visiting for several months, not to mention the financial concerns that surfaced due to some unforeseen circumstances. The perfect storm had been brewing for several months by the time the bough broke. When I begin considering my life from these angles, I am pretty impressed with my ability to manage a high level of stress. Cutting myself some slack is a move towards self-compassion. If you want to learn more, head over to Kristen Neff’s website to find some free resources on it.
2. Recognising my strengths and resources
I feel like I’d been here before. The exact same place. It felt the same way it did in the past when I was 14 years old, 16 years old, 25 years old - frustratingly intense grief and anger felt beyond language (in fact, psychoneurology tells us that emotion and language are processed through very different brain regions and often there actually are no words). My immediate response was to chastise myself for going in these circles. The path of recovery I embarked on so long ago seemed to land me right back at square one. This line of thinking, although understandable, is somewhat useless and perhaps even harmful. More on that in a minute. On the other hand, the fact that I had “been here before” was also a boon. Because, over time, I have cultivated the strength and resources to begin managing distress. When my stress levels ramped up, my default mode led me to focus on my time-tested coping mechanism of choice: exercise (exercise is also my daily dose of preventative maintenance when all is going well). As my exercise ramped up, I realised that I was using it as more than a coping mechanism; it also became a tool for avoidance. With this awareness, I became more committed to my morning meditation practice. Each morning I made myself sit briefly with the stress and discomfort that I felt. This was a challenge, but it allowed me to feel deeply and cultivate the strength to accept - or at least acknowledge - the discomfort. Connecting to my feelings led me to accept offers of support from friends - there were a lot of hugs (this was pre-lockdown), hot drinks, and long conversations. And, when I stretched these resources to the maximum, I had the strength to reach out to a counsellor. My coping mechanisms did not fail. I did not fail. I recognised the strengths and resources that have worked well throughout my lived experiences and used them.
3. Beyond relapse and recovery
Putting “re” in front of any word means something done again and again. It can also mean a backwards motion. “Relapse” means to fail again. “Recovery” means to shelter or protect again. Viewing life as either relapse or recovery means that we are either failing again, or protecting again. Is this all that my life entails? Absolutely not. We need new language to talk about our experiences of mental distress. I don’t have this new language on the tip of my tongue. I’ve found websites that substitute “recurrence” for “relapse”, but again, this implies that the same thing is happening over and over. I’ve also come across the use of “remission” rather than “recovery”, but somehow that seems like I am somehow putting my actual life on pause for a time before heading back into recurrence. I just want to get off of this language merry-go-round. While I acknowledge the need for words to talk about my experience, I also recognise how inadequate language is in describing my experience. And when the same words are used to describe separate experiences, it seems as though the same experience is happening over and over again; that I’ve been here before; that I am at square one. I am not.
My experience at 14 was miles different from my experience at 16 or 25 years old. Each of these times in my life entailed high levels of distress and harmful coping mechanisms. They also involved new understandings. With each experience I learned more about myself, including what worked well and what did not. With each experience I was able to be more aware of my triggers and mitigate them more and more successfully. At age 14 I did not ask for help, rather I was forced into it by loving and worried parents. At 25 and 44 I contacted support on my own. At 14 I spent time in hospital and years in weekly therapy. My most recent experience required one appointment and a fairly challenging couple of weeks. I am learning more and more all of the time. And I am living this life one experience at a time. When I feel like I am going in circles, I remember to look at these experiences from different angles. I am not meeting the same point over and over again. I am having new experiences, learning about acceptance, and using the strengths and resources I’ve cultivated throughout my life.
In summary, my life is more than relapse or recovery. In the words of Whitman, “I am large. I contain multitudes”.