“ Are you better yet?
Society is becoming more receptive and understanding of mental health issues. And yet, the question above continues to undermine any sense of progress. Mental health recovery is a journey of many ups and downs, happening over a significant period of time. I speak from personal experience, a person for whom recovery is an ongoing process having begun two years ago. I still struggle. There, I said it.
For me, recovery is a slow walk of many steps – forwards and backwards. But most perceptions of recovery, the expectations of achieving a full recovery, are immeasurably problematic. I want to challenge society’s understanding of recovery. Thus, I reached out to my fellow peers to talk about what life during recovery looks like, how their journey’s differ and why it matters.
Protecting the identity of participants, we begin with Student A, an English and Creative Writing Student, who told me that “nobody ever recovers completely from mental health issues. It’s a fact of life. We’re all on a journey. Some days we feel good, and on others we don’t. It’s just some of these bad days are really dark, and when you have bad day after bad day, your head gets trapped in this deep, neurotic, dark cycle. For me, it’s not a matter of recovering but of surviving.”
Student A suffers from mental health issues of anxiety, depression and neurological disability. She says that “My head tells me I’m just plain stupid most of the time – and when you have all this shit in your head its hard to have the motivation to try to adapt to be like your peers, or go to class, or try to focus on your assignments and reading, or even to get out of bed in the morning.”
At her worst point, A was off her antidepressants and struggling to process an incredibly traumatic incident. A says “I was terrified of going outside, I felt ostracised from my peers, and my self-esteem was non-existent. I was away from home, trying my best to look after myself and study, because all I wanted to do was get through first year just so I could show everyone I was capable of the uni thing.”
This pressure of university and the combination of being off medication and PTSD was extremely hard for A to process. A said “this voice in my head was constantly bringing me down, and so I decided to start self-medicating with alcohol. This led to drunken meltdowns where I would reach out to literally anyone and everyone I felt relatively comfortable talking to asking for help or saying some really alarming shit. Like part of it was a call for help, the other part was a call for attention.” A’s parents intervened and took A home after A had overworked themselves too hard. A’s parents said “they got me to see a doctor, got me back on my meds and just looked after me over Easter and then some. About a year or so, and I’ve been on a 3-month streak of pretty good days. I’ve had a few wobbles recently, but that’s all they are, wobbles.”
Talking about the future, A says “When things turn critical in my head, I’m self-destructive, I’m difficult, I’m probably really annoying, so I blame myself. But all I can really do now is reflect and learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
‘A’ says that the key to her recovery is “consistency”.“I have a support network of friends and family who understand me, listen, and support where they can, They’re my rock. Without my family or friends at uni, I just wouldn’t be here. I see a mental health mentor every week, and we just talk about things, issues I’ve had over the week and find constructive ways to process, resolve and most past them.” A knows that she is going to be recovering forever. But she’s okay with that. “It’s the closest thing I’ve got to something normal. And for as long as I pick myself up, reflect and strive to improve myself with every wobble or hiccup along the way, I think I’ll be okay.”
A male student, ‘C’, has struggled with his mental health from a very early age. At his darkest points, he tells me “I lost my faith completely, became severely depressed, was frequently bullied, and had several attempts at killing myself.” Alongside depression, he developed an eating disorder and said “I started to eat a lot more, particularly at home, and soon began to put on weight. Of course, this only encouraged more bullying, but in later years it fuelled an eating disorder I still struggle with.”
When discussing the extent to which his anxiety has affected him, he says “My anxiety is so severe that I couldn’t even go into a shop, let alone buy anything”. After restrictive eating and devoting an obsession with calorie counting, C’s mother supported him. “She made sure I ate more, often forcefully. But unfortunately, this was at the time I left for university, so I lost her guidance.”
But despite this, ‘C’ says that a change of environment in a university campus at first helped ease his anxiety. “Therapy did help a little with the anxiety, but to be honest I only really noticed it disappear when I came to UEA. I felt happy and made plenty of friends. I connected with people. I felt like I was in a new world and I enjoyed it. I began relaxing into the new term.”
But this wouldn’t last long. Careless comments from new flatmates nearly cost him his recovery. He said “a flatmate blamed me for a shared party that five of us organised. He told me he’s wished I didn’t exist. It was around this time in the first semester that I lost my virginity, and frankly I just found myself alienated and disappointed by an experience that promised so much.”
C continued to struggle. “I began to feel like I was relying on alcohol for confidence, for friends, and so on, even though I could tell drinking was making me depressed. I started cutting myself, something I’ve never done before.” He started to reply more heavily on alcohol and also drugs. “Depression started crippling me, so I did what most people do. I turned to drug use. I think alcohol culture and drug culture goes pretty hand in hand, and soon I could easily get weed. But my real focus had turned to psychedelics.”
The process of therapy hasn’t been easy for C. He said “I’ve reached out twice last semester to the medical centre. I had a particularly nice female doctor at one point, but when I asked specifically for a female doctor when I last went for an appointment, I got the same man I always get after four weeks of waiting. I certainly don’t think this uni or its student union is addressing it; they’re just throwing money at the issue and hoping it goes away.”
Talking about what keeps him motivated, C says “ I think what’s kept me going through UEA has been all the wonderful people I’ve met in my year-and-a-half of attending this institution. Without these people, I don’t think I would be here today. I love each and every one of you so much, even though I know I probably don’t show it as much as I should.“
Finally I spoke to a second year student, F. She says “I think the main thing is that when you’ve had mental health issues for a long time, and suffered a lot before you were actually diagnosed, it becomes difficult to figure out what is a mental health issue and what is actually your personality. I’m still discovering things I do that are rooted in my mental health issues of the past, so recovery is a kind of ongoing thing – you are always discovering retrospective things about yourself as well as facing any new issues that might be coming your way.”
F says that it was sometimes difficult to stay in touch with reality during her recovery. “I don’t want to be judged or defined by my mental health issues, particularly serious psychotic ones that no longer really affect me, but at the same time they shape who I am. This balance is often difficult to come to terms with and I’m still figuring out how to navigate both concepts”.
The stories of A, C, and F exemplify the challenges associated with mental health recovery. It seems recovery not only varies, but happens at different speeds. Overcoming mental health struggles are part of everyday life.