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Recovering from Mental Illness: Flashbacks and the Fear of Relapse

When you are in the process of recovering from a serious mental illness, when you have achieved a state of remission and are free from psychiatric symptoms, you will never forget the impact, the memories, of when you were sick. The flashbacks.

Sometimes, when my life is still and it is uncomplicated, my mind is bombarded with images and with feelings that I cannot rid myself of. I might be having dinner, perhaps reading in bed, when my mind starts to spin. I suddenly remember things that terrify me. Things I have worked to forget. I see myself in the hospital, crying, my knees pulled tight to my chest. I feel the angst, the desperation I felt. I am once again the young woman who thought she would never get well: I am the addict who could not stop using. I am my past.

It is not so dissimilar to the feeling you get while grieving the loss of a loved one. The feelings do not leave you. You are still burdened with the past, with the pain and with the reality that the person who experienced all of that pain was you. It was the illness, untamed, encroaching, and devouring your life.

Flashbacks and the Fear of Relapse

Even when I am well, I am acutely aware that I will not always be: some people go symptom free for years, for the rest of their lives, but many of us do not. The flashbacks frighten me. I do not want to be the woman stumbling through each day. I just want to me: healthy.

When you have recovered from a mental illness or co-morbid conditions, the memories of when you were ill follow you. You cannot escape your past, but you can learn to accept it and separate it from yourself.

I spent many years thinking about what had happened when I was sick. I was tortured by the images, tactile in nature, and triggered by little things like the places I frequented when I was ill, the things that I did because I was ill. In order to move on, to become well, we must tackle the flashbacks that define the experience of when you were unwell.

Recovering from the Memories of Mental Illness

The memories of when you were sick can make recovery more difficult than it already is. Being diagnosed with a chronic illness is hard enough, but the images and the feelings of when we were ill are devastating. How can we work to move on?

I struggled for many years to work through the pain. I believed that if I worked hard enough to separate myself from the past, I would become well. I would re-enter the world, fresh and new, not chained by the past.

It does not work this way. I wish it did.

You have to think and feel your way through the past. It is a slow process, it is not comfortable, and it often feels impossible. But it is not. Recovery is possible and sometimes, the memories, the flashbacks, can help you heal. Recovering from mental illness involves acceptance of the disease and, in turn, acceptance of the past.

It is easier said than done. It’s a lot of work, but coming to the conclusion that the person you were when you were ill is not the person you are now is a freeing experience. Chronic mental illness is defined by the very word itself: Chronic. A frightening word, but one that should not determine your future. The memories are part of you, but the person you slowly become when recovering, that person defines you.

When you are ill, strive to become well. Work to understand that the illness is a small part of you and the memories, the flashbacks to when you were ill, are part of the process.

16 thoughts on “Recovering from Mental Illness: Flashbacks and the Fear of Relapse”

  1. Hi Natalie, good piece.

    I actually find that when I’m feeling better the memories of feeling worse fade. It’s a neurological thing.

    Nevertheless, I know what you mean. I can remember things I wish I had never heard of.

    “The memories are part of you, but the person you slowly become when recovering, that person defines you.”


    – Natasha

  2. This weekend marks a year since I was first hospitalized with bipolar. Everyone else may have forgotten about it by now and pushed it aside, but it is very much in my thoughts the last couple of weeks. And still feel the anxiety of what if I have to go back…

    1. Hi, Hannah:

      A year stable is a great accomplishment and hopefully means many more to come. Some people stay stable for years, a couple people I know have not had an episode in over twenty, so stay positive.

      Thanks for your comment,

  3. In short, recovering from mental illness is a process that length long time, during take place many impediment psychic experiences. Among them the memories to active phase of mental illness catch an important role in nonsuccess of recovering from any mental disability. By all means, these memories are emotive ones and unavoidable as well. The same diminish the probabilities to an long lasting and functional rehabilitation and resocialization of respective psychiatric patient. In order to soften damaging effect of these compassionate “flashbacks”, it should to accept the axiom the we live in the present time with mission to plane an happy future. In this direction the need of hoping is decisive matter. The past ought to serve as lesson that shouldn’t to repeat any more.

  4. Although it has been 32 years since I had an emotional breakdown; the fear is still with me. Memories that will never go away, and the torment of what I experienced. In fact, I even feel fear just talking about it. It is so hard for me to think positive, and that’s a must. My faith in God is truly what has kept me going. Also, I have a wonderful family. Still at times I question why; when I know mental illness is not a respector of persons. I know I will have to take medication the rest of my life, and I thank God for doctors and medicine. When I feel myself slipping, I get in my car, and drive. For some reason that relaxes me. I have to do something I enjoy. What bothers me most now is the stigma that is associated with mental illness. I guess people just can’t understand.

  5. I am just recently started living my life again healthy after the effects of heroine. Sometimes the flashbacks are so intense I have to work hard to get them off my mind.the fear will attack me and just about send me into a episode of crying if I let it. The fear is so real and it seems like it was only yesterday when all this happened,but my therapist said that sometimes this is the way of your brain starting to heal. Your becoming strong again. You can put these feelings to bed no matter how scary or uncomfortable they may be. Your a new person now you have overcome the demons in your life and the flashbacks will go away and hopefully new memories of better life will take their place.

  6. I googled “ashamed of the things i’ve done while manic” and ended up here. Thank you so much for writing this, I’ve been struggling with flashbacks of stupid and reputation ruining decisions I’ve made while manic along with hospital visits and restraints . I’m myself again after taking medication and accepting my diagnosis after denying it for too long, but often I struggle with feeling worthless and disgusted with myself. Sometimes I want to get out of my town and from the people who have seen the manic side of me, but I’m proud of myself for staying strong. This was a very encouraging article.

  7. After many years of depression, axiety, panic attacks, and PTSD. Every thing came to a very difficult time in my life and still not knowing the circumstances, I tried committing suicide. This was in December of 2008. Again, in June of 2009 and Spetember of 2010, I tried again. So scared and afraid of my actions, in December of 2011 my doctor and I decided on ECT. It was very serious and a last resort to get myself the much needed help for me! Needless to say, this was the best thing I chould have ever done with my mental illnesses. I have been in remission from that time, even until this day! I am on the correct medications now, but I still am scared and afraid of myself. I can’t believe I was that person!!!

  8. Dear Roxanne:
    I’ve been and fear I could be@ any time,that person again.
    I know ECT,we were Best Friends yrs ago…
    Been on a cocktail of meds,tried self medicating w street drugs ( bad idea)
    Course of good Drs horrendous Drs..
    Therapy,DBT therapy,stone therapy..even been desperate enough to turn to religions at time I thought nothing could save me…from this monster called bipolar disorder…

    First,may I say,you are NOT alone in this fight.
    Yes,it’s exhausting,but you will reap the rewards w the right meds,the right coping tools.
    Adjusted just FOR YOU.
    We all experience this disease differently,what helps one,may be hell for another….
    So..I’m a rapid cycling bipolar,it’s very very hard ….but I’ve done a lot of hard hard
    Work and found the correct drugs.
    Stopped self medicating ages ago stopped hanging w toxic people.
    Ended a stressful relationship.
    I’m single,I’ve got my BFF gal pal online,and my cat
    My family
    Most importantly…….myself…beyond the bipolar.
    You will too,it’s not rubbish,it’s true.
    Sometimes it takes what feels like forever,it took me many many years but would I take back my life even w the mistakes that scarred me made me want to find the perfect
    Euthanasia to end it all at times?
    As I learned to be tougher,not in a mean way,but less …well..fragile..for lack of a better term…and as my team member told me one of the ones that made it.
    Thus a survivor..that,my friend could also become you.
    God bless,your beautiful inside / out.
    You’ll make it…if you truly want to,let nothing/ no one stand in your way!!!!! 🙂

  9. Odd part w my hospitalizations,I’ve blackouts so..I think it’s been since
    Last November,but unsure ……exactly.
    ( due to the fact I’ve temporal -lobe epilepsy which complicates memory…
    Plus I’m psychotic aft long stretches of mania so given many extra meds which make
    You lose your memory as well…..

    At least personally.
    Congratulations to all that have stayed out of hospital,the not so nice hotel! 🙁

  10. I have been depressed for years, and when life hands me problems mostly financial once I can not cope I feel alone but I have family. My depression seems to keep me in a dead state of wanting to do nothing!My husband of 43 yrs and I are divorced, there were many problems, but he, being the only child of alcoholic parents, was not the best person for me to be with. I finally cracked and had a sever depression/anxiety attack. I tried to cope with him in ways I am ashamed of, longing for closeness with him. I have been hospitalized 3 times total to gets meds and therapy, I struggle to work part time at my age, and cannot afford to live on and pay bills, I see no way out of this hell! I struggle every day, crying, just wanting to be able to think things trough, and rationalize, and live a productive life.

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