How to Recover Repeatedly

It is 7.45am on Monday morning, and the decorators have just arrived to begin work on our living room and hallway.

I’m unhappy about having to get up early. Groggy, because I slept badly and probably only got a few hours of sleep. This is all fantastic timing, considering the writing deadline I have this week, and the fact that last week was so busy I’m still recovering from it.

I wish that was the extent of it, but it’s not. Because they’ve been here almost forty minutes now and I haven’t left the bedroom. I haven’t said hello. I can’t do anything but sit here, feeling nauseous, wondering whether the short breaths I’m taking are going to become a panic attack at some point. I almost had one yesterday; the tension still hasn’t gone from my limbs.

When I am at home, I am safe. The Outside, and the people there of whom I am so terrified, cannot get to me. There is no noise that I have not chosen, or the possibility of people seeing me, or all manner of other terrible things. Except that now – now, there are people in my safe place. It isn’t safe anymore.

Our decorators are lovely. That isn’t the point. They’re still strangers. My brain is still my brain. It’s suddenly impossible to focus on – well, anything. I should be better than this, shouldn’t I? I can do things I never could have imagined a few years ago. I’m stronger and braver.

But recovery isn’t a straight line.

When I was at my worst, if something bad happened, it sucked. But it wasn’t terrible. I was already at rock bottom – it wasn’t really possible to fall any further than I already had, so I didn’t notice it most of the time. It was just part of life. When I made leaps of faith, they were just from one tile on the floor to another.

These days, the tiles are pillars, the space between them a gulf of nothingness. I am better – so much better – and the better I get, the higher those pillars become. When I jump it’s incredible if I make it; it can be deadly if I fall. Sure, I’ve gotten quite good at hanging on by a thread and pulling myself up. I’m stronger. But there’s always that chance that I won’t make it.

This is a truth rarely acknowledged about any form of recovery: when you are better, you long for the freedom of a time where you were not. Some days, I wish I was back in that time where to roll out of bed to a desk was a triumph. Where I had no responsibility, because I was not capable of it. Where the possibility of doing terrifying things wasn’t even slightly entertained.

That feeling is a part of me, just as much as my past always will be. I might have recovered from much of that past, moved on from it, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone away. It’s still my past. It’s still here. I haven’t erased it, I’ve just learned how to live with it. Most of the time. Some days, it’s louder.

I want people to understand this about all forms of recovery. You could have the best recovery imaginable and it still wouldn’t be a straight line. You don’t just get cured from mental ill health, from trauma. You don’t wake up one day and the pain is gone – or if by some miracle you do, there’s every chance that the next day that pain will be back. Not as bad, maybe. But it will come back.

You might have a week where you go into a bustling city, entertain family, play music for a live audience and finish half a dozen projects – and then have a day where you can’t leave your room because there are other people in the house. Both of these things can be true at once. We are full of contradictions, and all feelings are valid.

The only thing that matters is remembering that you know how to get back up.

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