Over the previous couple of months, I have come to learn a massive aspect of what recovery from mental illness really means; a realisation of which in itself has begun a whole new process of healing.
For far too long, I have referred to recovery in my own mind as recovering what I lost to my illness and thus returning to the person I was before I became ill around 8-9 years ago; as a result this has been the specific goal I have striven to achieve. Recovering from depression, anxiety, anorexia nervosa and bpd meant returning to the 11 year old Shannon before the illnesses emerged.
Yet despite being on a gradual path of recovery, I have been met with consistent failure, again and again and again as I failed to do the things that 11 year old Shannon used to do, with no real insight as to the reason behind my defeat. Instead I used the inability to reach these targets as yet more reasons to beat myself down. I believed that if I was still unable to complete the goals that an 11 year old would view as natural behaviour then this meant that I was useless. Flawed. Incapable.
Before depression and eating disordered thoughts suffocated my thriving brain at the young age of 11, I was a personality focused on social events and being the centre of a large social group. I would beg my mum to allow me to go to the park after school with my brother and friends and we would secretly change the time on our phones back to give us just a few more minutes of socialising before we were due home.
At the age of 15, it felt exciting to group with friends and convince strangers to buy us alcohol or steal vodka from our parents cupboards, replacing the bottles with water and being naive enough to believe that nobody would notice. It was fun to get drunk and look back on videos and photos of us as drunken messes, sucking spilt spirits off the floor with straws. binging on pints of icecream and loaves of bread or smoking a cigarette in a bush at the end of the road. I remember the feeling of exhilaration as my older brother and his girlfriend snuck me into a club with a fake ID before eventually being thrown out for being a drunken state who had thrown a shot of tequila in her eyes and lost her shoes. Nights out equaled alcohol and alcohol equaled fun.
Before I developed a crippling anxiety and panic disorder at the age of 17, I was a budding little actress. I performed in all of the school productions (usually as the main character be it Oliver in Oliver Twist or Sandy in Grease) with ease and barely experienced pre-production nerves. I had no problem with all eyes being on me. Choosing to attend a secondary school specialising in performing arts to fulfill my chosen path of becoming an actress, I soon branched out to other elements of the arts. I taught myself to play the piano and had lessons in both singing and the oboe, consequently both joining the school orchestra and choir. I performed solos in most productions and again thrived on this attention.
Even up until the deepest depth of my disorders at the age of 17, I took great pride in my school work to a degree where it became rather obsessive or even unhealthy in my teachers’ and parents’ eyes. If a single letter on a page wasn’t quite straight or the same size as the others, I would start again. Instead of writing a paragraph on a subject for a piece of homework, I composed a double sided poem on the topic or an a3 sized poster. My own personal bar was constantly being raised and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When my mental illnesses emerged, I could barely step into a room of more than one person without having a panic attack let alone walk onto a stage in an auditorium. I began to form excuses as to why I couldn’t attend social events with my friends; I was grounded, I had too much homework, I was sick. My brain became too obsessed with calories and exercise to focus on a sentence on a page let alone a paragraph or an essay. The new information I gathered of macros and calories eventually pushed out the memories of sheet reading from my nutritionally deprived brain. I was so fascinated with thoughts of suicide that creativity in all other area of my life slowly disappeared. The only innovative thoughts that remained were those of new ideas to harm myself without it being discovered. I slowly became too depressed to even get out of bed or brush my teeth let alone to find the motivation to pick up a pen or or learn a script. My paranoia surfaced and I believed that those same friends I used to steal alcohol with also secretly despised me and would have more fun without me there. As I became increasingly anxious and self hatred made me despise every inch of my body, I couldn’t bare to be within inches of another being let alone squashed in a dingy nightclub.
As I knew that all of these losses were a direct consequence of my mental illness, it made complete sense that I wouldn’t be recovered from my illnesses until the aspects of my lost personality returned so it was only frustrating when they didn’t.
Whilst at university last year, I pushed myself beyond my own limits but in a way that was debilitating rather than therapeutic. I decided that as I was “doing better”, there would be no reason that I couldn’t audition for the college musical at the end of freshers week because this is what 11 year old and thus mental illness-free Shannon would have done. Instead of enjoying the audition, I had one of the most severe panic attacks I have ever faced in the entire duration of my illness, ending up lost and alone on a dual carriageway in the pouring rain in the darkness of the night. I failed. I was flawed. That meant I wasn’t better. I regularly got myself dressed up for a night out to a club with a full face of makeup and a revealing outfit, only to find myself crying on my bedroom floor and curled up in a ball whilst I locked my door, pretending to be either asleep or out when my friends came to knock. I failed at going out and enjoying alcohol like an anxiety-free Shannon would’ve done. That meant I was flawed and ultimately wasn’t any closer to getting better. With every lecture or assignment set, I planned on producing the neatest, most aesthetically pleasing and complete level of work I could but a lack of motivation meant that any work I was actually able to finish was a scrawled mess. It wasn’t Shannon-like. It was flawed. It meant that I wasn’t getting better.
Every defeat I was faced with, I beat myself up further and further and pushed myself deeper into my illness.
It is only recently that I have come to not only realise, but also accept that recovery most definitely isn’t being the person you were before your illness. In fact recovery from any mental health condition isn’t a simple as erasing that period of illness as if it never existed. It is very much the opposite. It’s building upon your condition and making yourself a better and stronger person for it. It’s learning new life lessons and allowing it to guide your future experiences. When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful. Apply the same belief to yourself. Don’t attempt to remove those cracks; instead learn to embrace them.
Let your scars, internal or external be proof that you have fought and won a war. My hobbies and interests may have changed over the course of my illness but that doesn’t mean that those interests are any less valid than those I enjoyed in the past.
Throughout my own personal recovery journey, I have found relief in art and meditation as distractions for urges to self harm or binge or to prevent an oncoming anxiety attack. But that doesn’t mean that once I am healed, I can no longer use those mechanisms to simply have fun or to be happy. Scrapbooking, journalling, meditating, crocheting and practicing mindfulness may be calmer than my old hobbies of drinking and performing but I can allow them to fulfil my life in the same way. It’s okay not to enjoy the things you used to pre-illness, so long as you are enjoying something.
After all, there must have already been a flaw in 11 year old Shannon to have made her become ill to begin with, so why would anybody want to return to that?
So to all my friends who may be in a period of recovery or to those who may be unaware of a future battle with a mental illness, I will leave you with this simple message:
“Never be afraid to fall apart because it is an opportunity to rebuild yourself the way you wish you had been all along”.
Love and hugs,
Shannon x x x