This is Recovery: The Recurrent and Everlasting Journey Through Depression
by Josh Forner
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Yep, I’m depressed. And it isn’t the first time.
We all know the story—everything is chugging along nicely and all it takes is one simple change or one unfavourable event for life to come crashing down on top of you yet again.
Depressed—devoid of hope, devalued to the world, disgraced to yourself that you “let it happen” again.
But, you know what? This is recovery. You don’t see it in the first moments, I certainly didn’t, and I’m trained to notice this kind of stuff.
It’s been a long journey—and whose hasn’t been? At nineteen I finally sought help and described to a doctor what had been going on for me for the past four years. Of course it was depression. I knew it, but I didn’t want to admit it.
At the age of sixteen, I was a straight-A student. I valued knowledge, I valued my school work and I worked hard at it. However, at this point—and most probably a few years leading up to it—I felt incredibly “out of place” in high school. I drifted between social groups without a true collection of close friends. Motivation dropped as I tried to make sense of it, beginning to experiment with alcohol and discovering that it provided me a brand new social outlet and gave me a chance to “fit in.”
As I moved out of high school, I identified an opportunity for me to have a fresh start, but the overarching pressure of becoming an adult and adjusting to college work eventually broke me.
Back to seeing the doctor for the first time: There’s nothing more courageous in the journey that is depression than taking that first step.
I was ridiculed; opened to waves of “just snap out of it” or “so many have it worse than you,” by people whom I considered to be friends. For a brief period, these sorts of comments made me feel as if there was something horribly wrong with me. The critical fact that these people are missing (or are completely ignorant to) is that words like these don’t help. They don’t help because there is no quick fix. I’m not depressed because I feel like I’ve “got it bad” or because I just need someone to tell me to feel better. They don’t help because mental illnesses don’t play by any particular rules, and because there isn’t a straightforward link between the cause and the pain—it is a long-term unrelenting pain with no predictable function. All that these sorts of comments do is batter the already floundered self-esteem.
So, I’m put on medication for the first time, I’m referred to a professional, and I’m told what I’m feeling is depression, an illness.
From there, I certainly entered a confusing space. One of having to tell a story, over and over, to professionals employed to help or guide. I’ve been to five or six different psychologists or counsellors over twelve years, not to mention jumping through hoops for government support when I was at my lowest, and the painful re-enactments that are necessary during diagnostic reviews.
I have to recount traumas again and again: the fact that for most of my thirty-two-year-old life has been spent looking for work rather than being in stable employment. I’ve not been able to stay in one job for long enough because employers are very reluctant to understand the needs and triggers of a depressed person. I also have to relive my experiences with unaffordable housing & financial insecurity: Living in Melbourne, Australia most of my life, a place where it’s not uncommon to have over two thirds of your income going merely toward having a roof over your head. Add to that the soaring popularity of casual, intermittent work arrangements, it is very hard to have your basic needs met from week to week if you don’t have a fulltime job. You don’t know what your hours or your paycheck will look like next week.
As the understanding of my condition begins to mature over time, so too do my thoughts, and I start to wonder exactly why it is that the world has to look at those living with mental health diagnoses differently. Many of us are able to fulfill “normal” tasks, and usually we find a way to be the version of ourselves we need to be when it matters the most.
I learned a lot about the recovery process whilst employed as a peer support worker, how recovery is non-linear, that is to say, it doesn’t follow a straight line pattern. Imagine a graph: recovery doesn’t always have an upward trajectory—you have ups, downs, way ups, way downs, and sometimes, the downs don’t even come back up, and the process sort of enters a hard reset.
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So what is the great separation? What is the almighty divide? The perception we’re spouted through years of untruths is that it’s a weakness. That a person diagnosed with a mental illness is not capable of functioning, and is somehow looked at as “different,” and the list goes on. Not words that invoke the most positive of reactions.
But it’s not a weakness, is it? You may feel weak, and that is perfectly normal, but it’s not a weakness.
Part of my path to better understand these factors about myself was through studying case management (for those who don’t know, this relates to a lower level of social work practice, where you structure, coordinate and liaise with a person’s support network).
This gave me a clearer picture on recovery and what it meant. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows when we talk about recovery from a mental illness. It’s a possibly longer, possibly circular process which is also very personal. I realised that it is not up to someone else to decide what my recovery looks like. Wanting to help others and taking the step to study in a field where I have a personal and intimate connection with that experience was the beginning of just one transformation of the “weakness” into a strength. In fact, there’s a better word for it: re-framing the “weakness” into a strength.
At the deepest depths of my episodes I feel weak, sure. I want it to be dark, silent, solitary. But the weakness is a result of my strength. Weakness is not born, it is created by a world that operates in an unjust system, in an unequal way. My strength gave birth to what people now claim is my weakness. There is a resilience behind that mask. It’s a known fact that most people who develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses don’t seek help, and for those that do, most of them won’t seek help right away. So, the cost of the resilience and the plight of being strong for myself is the very reason I had to stay strong to begin with. The elastic band can only be stretched so far before it breaks.
With work as it is now, I haven’t been fired this time, but I’m on a casual contract, and work is incredibly inconsistent, so my mind likes to replay the sudden loss of my peer support job five years ago over and over and over again. “Crisis Mode,” was what one of my former psychologists called it. The mind is so intrinsically focused on the task of survival, that most my daily tasks and regular skillsets are blinded—“turned off” if you will—like how a bloodhound doesn’t respond when it’s tracking a scent. All his brainpower is diverted to deciphering the smells.
Losing that job was the one instant where it felt that everything good in my life had been taken away from me. Instead of fighting this time (as my mind has done for the past five years), it’s ready to give up. Simply put: I don’t want to experience that ever again. It is not a normal way to live. It’s not a comfortable way to live, either. The elastic band can only be stretched so far before it breaks.
And you know what? That’s okay. You might think that’s a ridiculous thing to say, but if I get upset about being upset, where does that snowball end?
So it’s okay. Because this is recovery. This is what it’s about. It might feel like I’ve fallen back to square one, but I haven’t. I kept waiting for the feeling to leave, but because I haven’t experienced it in such a long time, I was convinced that it too would pass like the other downs had done.
It’s okay to be wrong and it’s okay to miss things. When we’re enveloped with these disruptions, they tend to take over our thinking. In recovery, it is important to allow ourselves the time to be unwell, because there isn’t a magic cure. Your illness could be sparked by your environment, which will always be unpredictable; your illness could be sparked by past trauma, which can be found in even the most docile of everyday instances; your illness could be connected to a person, a loved one, a colleague— things that are not easily avoided.
What I have battled with the most this time around is not that I am feeling crushed, feeling lost, feeling unworthy, helpless or out of puff. It is the fact that when it descended upon me I initially began to blame myself, and I did not want to feel this way, I did not want it to return and I did not want to allow it, but seemingly I had.
Now, I couldn’t have even come to that conclusion if I hadn’t sat down to write this. I have to allow myself to feel this way because what I’m facing is scary, and it brings up demons from the past and it is, in effect, another impasse much like the one I faced five years ago when I lost my job.
This is recovery. Never-ending and not always result-bearing. Circular, sometimes difficult, and sometimes you’re taking steps backwards. This is recovery. I just need to take a small break from being strong, get reinforcements and come back stronger. It often takes time, but I always do.