When you’ve been through a mental illness, the prospect of re-engaging with the world and becoming a fully fledged member of society once again can feel like being catapaulted into London’s Oxford Circus, on Christmas Eve, after living in a cave eating woodlice and talking to rocks for several years.
The challenges ahead are huge. For me, the thought of living on my own again, getting a job, dating and even navigating crowded trains and buses seems beyond petrifying. I frequently feel like there’s no way I’ll fully reintegrate into the bear pit that is our modern world without spontaneously combusting out of sheer terror. The important thing to remember is you physically can’t do it all at once, so don’t even try.
Especially when you’re dealing with an anxiety and fatigue problem, you have to start small and build your confidence gradually -otherwise you set yourself up for failure. If you broke your leg you wouldn’t try pole vaulting while knee-high in plaster cast – this shouldn’t be any different.
However, unlike physical injuries, mental illness isn’t always visible and easily measured. It’s a lot easier to accidentally run before you’re even meant to be walking.
I learned this the hard way when I attempted to get back into an exercise routine recently. Being in a swimming pool after months of anxiety-induced sloth felt fantastic. Too fantastic. I totally overdid it and suffered exhaustion, pain and terrible moods for about a week. My doctor suggested trying walking in the water, and only attempting three or four lengths next time. About ten metres into my next session as I wept – after realising I was paying almost £1 per length to stride purposefully through the water like a slightly disabled moorhen – an alarmed looking lifeguard geared up to leap into the water. I assured him I was fine, at which point the tears had given way to manic giggles over the whole mad situation, and he more than likely started trying to locate the leisure centre strait jacket.
Yes I looked like a bit of a knob, yes I felt painfully self conscious but that day I actually achieved what I’d set out to do, and my health didn’t suffer afterwards. Because my goal was reasonable and realistic, I was able to reach it and actually feel good about myself.
When I’ve achieved something small like catching a bus on my own, I find myself channelling the ‘I’m a big kid now’ child from that Huggies advert. The fact that enduring a few stops alone on public transport without melting in a steaming puddle of hysteria makes me feel so proud, seems ridiculous. But it’s not ridiculous, and that’s what anyone navigating the bumpy path back to normal life after depression will have to constantly remind themself. Each miniscule step is a movement towards conquering the black dog and saying hello to a less anxiety riddled existence.
Progress can be excruciatingly slow with depression recovery. It’s still progress, though – and that’s something I try to remember when I’m positively salivating with frustration over the fact I still can’t do certain things by myself. I’ve learned there’s no point in agonizing over how life isn’t what it once was; it’s far more fruitful to look at where you were six months ago and see how far you’ve come.
Once your stress addled brain registers a positive step forward – however tiny – recovery starts to get that little bit easier. And with a bit of good faith and hard work, I think any one of us can see that there’s life after mental illness.