When you are in the process of recovering from a chronic 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 be healthy.
When you have recovered from a mental illness or co-morbid conditions, the memories of when you were ill will 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.