Photograph of sailboats in Kiel Bootshafen at sunset. It’s symbolic, or something.
Recovery from – and coping with – mental illness is not a linear progression.
I do not have a before and after story. Right now, what I have is a series of choices and changes that have affected where I am.
On July 28th I stopped taking the SSRI that I had been on for over 3 years, after 3 days of half-doses, as directed by my doctor. On July 29th, I started a new medication that is not an SSRI, and was prescribed fast-acting anti-anxiety medication to be used as-needed. On (I will not be sharing specifics. Your doctor should be way better at recommending drugs than I am.)
In fact, it’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through.
It’s pushed the comfort of my marriage. It’s robbed me of whole days, spent sick with vertigo and nausea. It’s filled me with horrifying self-blame. It’s made me realize that almost all of my anxiety is fixated on abandonment which means, yep, I need some talk therapy.
It’s given me lightness that I forgot existed. It’s given me a depth of feeling that I didn’t know I was missing. It’s given me focus and confidence. It’s given me an orgasm that only took 3 minutes of effort. It’s given me a day of truly alarming energy that I used to move every piece of furniture in our bedroom.
But I am not recovering along a linear path, from horrible depression to energetic euphoria. Those feelings above were interspersed over a period of weeks. So how do I know it’s getting better? How do I know that this is worth it in the long term?
I started journaling this experience on August 15th, when I worked my way backward as far as I could reliably remember. Then, each day or every two days, I filled in a new entry. There’s something transformative about giving your feelings words. In thinking them over, you’re given a new understanding. The ambiguous ‘anxiety’ becomes ‘fear of abandonment’ or ‘a panic in my chest.’ You can go back and look for patterns. You’re afforded a third-person look at what you’re experiencing. Why the fuck didn’t I do this before?
Journaling is a powerful tool for combatting and coping with mental illness.
For the last 5 days, I’ve had 3 that felt fully stable. More stable than I’ve felt in years. I got things done. I laughed, and really felt it. (Alright, so I laughed at Friends. Whatever.) I didn’t feel perfect, but I did feel better. I felt less a lot less empty. I felt – and continue to feel – optimistic.
Yesterday, I was able to do something that I would not have even considered a few months ago: I went to a fair in a city that’s an hour and a half from where I live. A fair that I knew would be crowded. But I wanted to get out. I wanted to push through my comfort zone… and I did it.
We stayed at the fair for two hours, during which I discovered holy shit, wild-mouse coasters are amazing for my brain. When I noticed that my heart rate was high (cardio high – on the Ferris wheel, of all places) and hadn’t dropped after 20 minutes, I suggested we go for a walk in the park. I didn’t push myself to the very edge, because I wanted to keep having a good time. That’s huge for me. So we went to play mini golf, and then I had a truly magical cactus quesadilla. While eating, I realized that I felt more at ease than I had in months. Yesterday was a gigantic victory.
Today was hard. It turns out that when you combine PMS with adjusting to a new medication, things can get a little dicey. Today was hard, but the valleys were shorter. Today reminded me that this isn’t a linear progression. I’m still going to have bad days. I’m still going to find things challenging, things like trying not to stall a manual transmission at an intersection on a hill.
I guess if I had to draw a graph, which is a compulsion that I picked up in my Econ days, it would look something like this:
Graph with points of mental health highs and lows.
X-axis: July 29th to August 23rd. Y-axis: “Everything is terrible.” to “I can do the thing!”
Before I started drafting this post, I thought today was bad. But looking back on how bad some of those bad days truly were, today was hard more than anything else. Today I struggled. But the valley wasn’t as deep nor as wide as the valleys before.
As I get further away from that first day, as I get comfortable with my new ability to feel so deeply, I believe that the peaks and valleys will be less startling. Half of this is getting my brain chemicals under control and up to speed, and the other half is learning healthy coping mechanisms for the emotions I had forgotten how to feel so acutely. It’s not easy. For me, it’s worth it.
I want you to know that if you’re going through this, you’re not alone. You might not have a neatly wrapped before and after. But you can do the thing. You might need help – in fact, you almost certainly will need help. There’s no shame in that. Erase shame from your Rolodex of feelings, especially when it comes to your health, please.
Special Bonus Material!
I’m slowly making my way through Daring Greatly, recommended by my lovely friend Ashley Manta. If you’re struggling with shame or vulnerability – especially difficulty being vulnerable – I would urge you to pick this up. I can only read about a chapter at a time because of The Feels, but it’s made an impact already on my self-talk in the midst of panic or anxiety.