I Sort Of Miss You: The Complications Of Mental Illness And What It Really Means To Be ‘Better’

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Carlos Domínguez / Unsplash

I’m an anxious depressive. But the moments I have reprieve are scarier than the lows – does this make me a bad mentally ill person?

I was in the shower when I had my first reprieve from anxiety. It was halfway through my initial year of university, whilst shampooing my hair and thinking about what I should cook for dinner and debating whether the bins needed taking out.

Just those thoughts. Nothing else.

There was no static around those ideas, either. No underlying panic or syrupy dread, sticking to them like black molasses. I didn’t feel like I wanted to peel my skin off and leave it on the bathroom floor. Absolutely nothing of the sort. Just the patter of hot running water and the lemony smell of body wash.

“Oh wow,” I thought. “So this is what it’s like.”

I felt lighter, yes. The heaviness of constrictions and burdens put on me by my brain just… weren’t there. I was whole. Anew. I hadn’t experienced this for around ten years. So I scrubbed my hair some more before taking a minute to absorb the sensation of normality. Of almost-neurotypical bliss.

I switched off the tap and got out of the shower, making a mental note to tell my therapist about it via Skype at our next session. Then I threw on pyjamas and went to sleep with my hair still wet, feeling the empty space where my anxiety, which had been loud and buzzing for years, had stilled to an echoing quiet.

It was odd. There was a feeling of enjoyment that came with having an empty brain for a day or two, and I felt so proud when I mentioned it to Margaret over the grainy Skype call. This feeling was something I’d been chasing through CBT and Mindfulness and god-knows-what-else for so long, that it was surreal to have gotten some semblance of a break.

“There’s no buzzing!” I smiled through the connection. “The only thing I’m focused on is shorthand. And then dinner. That’s it.”

We then talked about recovery factors and chalked it up on the move to university. My associations with my hometown were mostly negative, so we thought that the physical removal from the source of trauma and people who had caused it was a step in the right direction. We also went through what to do should I slip back into old habits (a month or so before I was having recurrent depressive episodes) and that I shouldn’t be too self-deprecating if I felt low again.

‘Baby steps. Recovery isn’t linear’ was scrawled into a notepad on my desk and the session ended. I was left alone with the quiet again.

In my experience with therapy, we are always working towards a point where there is a huge gap between our typical mental state (which for me is usually depressed or in a state of anxious panic) to something more ‘healthy.’ Obviously different people will have different goals to what recovery might look like, and mine was to have longer periods without low points and to deal with what was termed ‘stressful situations’ better.

This was the main calling card with my generalized anxiety. Anything that didn’t stick to a schedule, or that I would have to organize would cause a sudden need to vomit, twitching in my limbs, pull out my eyelashes, and painful headaches. Even having a friend ask me around for a sleepover could be classed as a ‘stressful situation,’ because every possible factor was mostly out of my control. Anything could happen at home while I was gone. The person who asked me to theirs secretly disliked me. These were silly things my brain would come up with to get me to stay put.

When I was eight, my parents had divorced and I saw a family counsellor. We did an exercise together, where she asked me what I didn’t want to happen in the future — stressing that she didn’t have a magic wand to make this all better. I drew numerous pictures in the boxes on the worksheet and explained each one to her.

At the end of the session, she surmised to my mother:

“Lauren doesn’t like surprises.”

Surprises being anything, really. I think she meant ‘the unknown.’

But I did try to work on it. In my first year of university, I pushed myself into new situations, took on multiple responsibilities and threw myself into things I dreaded. I almost wanted to force a full-on attack on my brain and its stupid, silly, unhealthy mechanisms to get back at it for all those years of regimented pain.

And surprisingly, it worked. The moment in the shower happened. I was ‘free.’

Of course, within a week the anxiety bubbled back up from my brain. I dreaded telling Margaret about it, mainly because I thought she’d be disappointed with the lack of progress. But I also didn’t want to admit to her that when the first few tingles of my twitch came back, the static coming into my head sounding a little louder — I was glad.

Even worse, I had thrown myself back into the sticky, brain-swelling molasses that I’d spent so long trying to scrub away. I was sick. I was trying to get better. And at the first opportunity of a break, I’d missed that torment.

What sort of person was I? Who even does that?

I cried at the next session. I wept because I was doing so well, because it felt normal, because I had made a bit of a breakthrough and then absolutely trashed it. Nobody but me was to blame for this.

The guilt was what got to me most. Out of all the people with MI’s, I’d been one who had surfaced for a little bit. In my mind, I imagined breaking the waves, taking a deep breath and feeling the warmth on my skin when everyone else was struggling against the current. And instead of enjoying that space, I had forcibly clawed my way back under the waves. Ungrateful and undeserving.

It was months until I had the next bit of ‘clear space.’ When I woke up, I noted it in my diary as my Mum had advised and got on with the day. Without the buzz, I felt oddly vulnerable. My thoughts weren’t wild and crackling with static, they were smooth; a collection of wave-washed pebbles gently clicking against each other, moving with me. I felt slightly dulled — which had scared me in that week post-shower.

But instead, I found that my ability to retain sensations, thoughts and questions came easier. My brain wasn’t scoping out situations as abstract pathways of ‘what ifs’ but instead began to fit them together like blocks. I would try to look at things objectively. Sometimes my head would cooperate, sometimes it would freak out and the panic would return.

When I finally admitted my guilt to Margaret, we talked at length about identity. My GAD has been a huge part of my life from a young age, like a looming, melting guide formed entirely of TV static. Not having it there was a shock, and after the few moments of initial elation subsided, I had felt like a lost child in a supermarket.

It took a while for me to work out which parts of my identity were things I genuinely liked, and which ones were unrealistic ideas imposed by anxiety. It was like cutting myself off from a 10-year long toxic relationship.

I was burning the photos, deleting its number, and working out where to go from that point.

So I sat down to compartmentalise everything that I ‘felt’ when I had that monster looming. I was disproving all those spoon-fed lies, bit-by-bit:

Lauren doesn’t like surprises. I do like surprises. I like organizing them, and I love getting them, especially if they’re thoughtful. Lauren has a fear of failure. I don’t fear failing. Sure, a big part of me feels validated by success, but now, everything is a learning curve. If Lauren goes on holiday abroad, her Dad is going to die. In retrospect, I should have gone away and enjoyed myself. Dad lived longer than we thought he would, and he would have wanted me to have fun. Getting on a plane doesn’t affect the well-being of a man with cancer.

Stop it, brain. I’m onto you.

This was a year ago or so. I still have big dips in mood, especially around October and the winter months when the landscape is bleak and so am I, but my anxiety has boiled down to a little buzz. I don’t welcome it, but I tolerate it.

In some ways, I have accepted that this is how I go about my life now and it is still a part of me. I don’t like to call it recovery because that infers that there is absolutely no chance of ever hitting that low again. It’s a big word, one which puts a huge amount of pressure on those who are trying to make sense of their situation and are working towards ‘better.’

I don’t know what better actually is. With mental illnesses, it certainly isn’t in the sense of curing a cold or getting over the flu. In a way, I like to think of it as having a broken limb sort of better. It might not heal the same way, it’ll still hurt at times and you might not even be able to walk on it like you once did — but it’s at a point which is better than how it once was.

I am better in that sense.

And if my GAD flares up again, I will go and have a coffee with it — but decline getting dinner afterwards. TC mark

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