Recovery is a many-splendored thing. It’s full of ups and downs and means different things to everyone who experiences it. You may be overcoming addiction or working through trauma. You may also just be struggling with chronic physical illness or disability. For me, most distress is centered around depression and anxiety. My depression has been a lifelong struggle but the anxiety was an exciting new feature which came into being a few years ago, after I lost my mom and as I was disentangling myself from an emotionally abusive situation. Whatever your struggle, know that it is real.
Your mind has spent years growing (as it happens, your whole life) and it will continue to develop. It should change as you change. Like your body, your mind needs maintenance. You can adjust the way you react to things and create new responses in your brain that can help you deal with stressors and triggers. The most effective way to start this process is usually by seeing a therapist or psychologist who will listen and provide support as well as a thorough treatment plan. In addition to good therapy (and possibly medication), you have to make sure you take care of yourself and get the support you need.
Don’t give more than you have. Changing negative pathways is exhausting work. It requires a strong awareness at almost all times and persistent conscientiousness about your state of being (how am I reacting? Am I overreacting? Am I underreacting? Am I being needlessly negative?) that might even feel like gaslighting. It’s cyclical and sometimes even leaves you feeling like you’ve just been through a few rounds in a boxing ring. It’s important to have people you feel like you can talk to in your life—professionals, family, friends. While maintaining that support system is key, balance is the most important thing you can provide for yourself. You shouldn’t make excuses for needing to take some time to care for yourself. If you are too drained, cancel plans or ask if they can be changed in a way that will be easier for you. Instead of getting drinks with friends out at a bar, see if you can meet up somewhere more low-key (i.e. someone’s house or apartment) for wine and a movie night. Or, co-watch the same movies over the phone, Skype, Hangout. And if you just can’t do it, don’t. Don’t feel bad about it. Do what works for you. Friends who have trouble understanding that should make you re-evaluate their involvement in your life.
Force Yourself to do Things. This sounds contrary to the first one, doesn’t it? It doesn’t mean that you should go out in search of triggering material or start base jumping. When you’re all the way down in the emotional pits, doing nothing is a self-perpetuating cycle. You don’t want to do anything, the things pile up behind you, you start to feel empty because you haven’t done anything, which makes you want to do things even less… and on and on it goes. It’s especially true for folks with depression which just sucks you in and drags you way, way down. In this context, basic things can make a big difference. Try to do a few dishes every day—not even all of them, as these things get out of hand quickly. Sit outside with a warm or cool beverage of your choice (largely weather-dependent but I love coffee outside even when it’s 100 degrees). Explore a creative pursuit that speaks to you—doodling, coloring, painting, crocheting, or woodworking. Mine is clearly writing but I also adore coloring and recently got an awesome cat coloring book from my fiancé. The whole goal here is to produce something that feels real to you, something that you can see before your eyes and say, “Yes, I did that.” It doesn’t have to be perfect or even particularly good. Having a tangible project completed will remind you that you can do things and you are capable of finishing something. It means more than you know.
Don’t Judge Yourself So Hard. Paradoxically, depression gives its sufferers an impossible need for perfection. Unfortunately, instead of the desire for perfection being a motivator, depressive perfectionism makes you wail anytime you don’t get something right on the first try. That’s hardly fair, is it? I’ve held myself to exacting standards for years and it’s held me back from pursuing a lot of dreams. I had no real tolerance for criticism of my work in any way. I was hideously abashed to show anything I did to anyone because it wasn’t done, it wasn’t right, and it just wasn’t good enough. This feeling is exacerbated for most people suffering from a depressive mental illness, including bipolar disorder. Even absent of a diagnosis, when you’re already down, it’s too easy to kick yourself.
Think of the standards you hold other people to and imagine only holding yourself to that bar. I accept mistakes from others and try to help them improve. I critique with mercy. But I treat myself like I’m constantly at boot camp and my emotions are my drill instructors—faster, better, stronger, maggots!! Clearly, this isn’t helping anyone, least of all me. So when you’re down on yourself or your work, just think of what you would tell a friend—you did a good job! You’re really trying. Progress is being made. Don’t give up. Just, don’t give up.
Recovery is a massive undertaking. It can take a long time to make any progress at all and feeling like you’re standing still is infuriating. In order for anything you’re trying to be effective, you have to take care of yourself. You have to try a few things that might sound scary or daunting. You have to stop putting yourself down, even though that usually feels a lot easier. In the immortal words of Dr. Bob Kelso, “There are no magical fixes. It’s all up to you.” Get out there and support your fixes.