Mental health blogger Fiona Kennedy looks at the difference between transformation and recovery
Language is so powerful. It has the capacity to move us, educate us, anger us, and make us think in entirely new ways. Used well, it empowers and liberates us, used badly (depending on your point of view), it subjugates and traps us. The way we, as a society, talk about any hotly debated topic influences the national mindset, and invariably there will tend to be two diametrically opposing views.
The subject of mental health is no different, although from my own experience, one side of the argument is able to shout far louder than the other. I’ve long had issue with some of the language we use when discussing the subject – suffering, battling and opening up are just a few of my bugbears. The one I want to focus on right now though, is recovery.
Recovery is a word that’s used by both sides of the mental health debate, whether you’re a vehement supporter of psychiatry and medication or a firm believer that there is another way. A line I’ve heard time and again over the years is that ‘recovery is possible’. This never sat well with me, both during the time that I believed depression and borderline personality disorder were lifelong illnesses, and more recently as I’ve come to a very different understanding of mental health difficulties.
For years, I would have argued that it was less about recovery than about acceptance – acceptance of a chronic, lifelong problem, and the knowledge that that problem would always have to be managed. When I experienced reprieve from symptoms, I never believed myself ‘recovered’, because at the back of my mind I was convinced the ‘illness’ would flare up again. So, I worked to accept my situation – the labels, the drugs, the psychiatry, the near guarantee of a future inpatient stay – I believed that I was handling it in the best way possible. I was never going to recover, not as I understood the word, but I could manage, most of the time.
In recent months, as my understanding of the whole concept of mental illness has changed, my dislike of the word recovery has remained, and I recently heard an alternative that makes far more sense. Transformation.
You see for me, recovery implies a number of things – that there is a tangible physical illness, that this illness can be cured, and that post recovery, everything will go back to as it was before. None of that makes sense any more. I’ve written quite a bit already about my beliefs around mental illness as an entity in its own right so I’m not going to revisit that now, but it’s worth taking a look at what happens after the symptoms abate. As always, I’m writing from my own perspective and experience, and I realise this may not ring true for everyone.
The reasons that I became depressed in the first place, and later exhibited the collection of symptoms that are known as borderline personality disorder, are not chemical based. No test ever proved there was an imbalance in my brain. The diagnoses were based on behaviour and feelings that I reported, and actions that could be observed.
Right now, I consider myself to be symptom free, but not as the result of a recovery process, because I couldn’t be more different from who I was before all of this happened. Transformation is a far more apt word, because that’s quite literally what I’ve had to do with my perception of pretty much everything, most importantly, of myself.
There were significant areas of my life where I had made the wrong choices. These choices were made with the best of intentions, but they weren’t right for me. The harder I tried to ignore the consequences of these choices, the more pronounced my reaction got – depression went from mild to moderate to severe, and eventually behaviours that would be classed as borderline emerged. All of it, all the drama, the pain, the self-destructive behaviour, all came back to one simple truth. I was living a life that wasn’t right for me. This is why recovery never made sense, and why I never stayed well. As soon as I managed to get a handle on symptoms, everything about my life would revert right back to as it was before, so it was only ever going to be a matter of time before I got depressed again.
I didn’t need to recover, I needed to change. The last few months, that is exactly what I’ve been doing. With the help of a psychologist, I’ve worked to find a whole series of rules I had subconsciously created about how I should behave, and these were influencing my every thought and action. I’ve had to look at each and every one of those rules, figure out where it came from, whether or not it truly served any purpose, and then move on from it. That process is on-going. Every time I think I’ve gotten to the bottom of it, something else emerges. I’m very ok with that though, because every time I eliminate a rule that was doing nothing but harm, my quality of life improves.
I’m no longer worried about depression coming back. It’s quite likely I’ll experience it again at some point in my life, few of us won’t. But it no longer scares me, or feels out of control, because I understand that it happens for a reason. It’s telling me that there’s something I’ve been ignoring, something I need to process and accept, or address or change. I don’t need to recover from depression. I need to listen to it, and transform.
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.ie to find details of your nearest branch. You can also find online information at www.yourmentalhealth.ie