Relapse - Recovering from Mental Illness

In addition to recovering from mental illness, it's also important for us to learn how to prevent mental health relapse in times of stress. Lately, my mental health has been doing really well. I've put in a lot of work, and it's finally paying off, but recently, some family stress has put all of my progress to the test. I've noticed a lot of my typical mental illness symptoms struggling to reemerge, to rear their ugly heads and completely derail my life. Luckily, I've managed to keep them to a minimum and prevent a full-on mental health relapse. I thought it would be helpful to share how I'm managing to prevent relapse.
How do you determine if you're depressed or just sad? Navigating emotions while recovering from mental illness is incredibly tricky. For me, mental illness completely broke my internal emotional compass. Before I experienced depression, I could identify emotions like sadness, worry, and joy fairly easily. But after I experienced depression, it became nearly impossible to distinguish between depression and sadness or nervousness and anxiety. Even though I've been recovering for years, this is still one of my biggest struggles as a human being. Luckily, all those years in therapy have taught me a few things, and I'd like to share them with you.
As a mental health worker, I am always concerned about how first responders treat mental health concerns and crises. Two such duties are safety checks and dealing with suicide attempts. (Safety checks are when law enforcement checks on someone who has been reported in danger or will possibly harm himself or others.) Here in Toledo, suicide attempts are taken very seriously by emergency services. However, safety checks are of low priority. (Note: This post contains a trigger warning.)
I've resisted recovery for all kinds of reasons, including because I was sick of trying to be perfect. I spent most of my adolescence trying not to be like other teenagers, not to go through "phases" or be bad. I tried so hard to do things "right." When mental illness appeared in my life, I could barely do things at all, let alone do them "right," so I got angry.
I sit in my home by myself because my family left. I don’t blame them. They just couldn’t take it anymore. What they couldn’t take was me and my posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I have come to refer to it as “the PTSD me,” because it often feels there’s two completely different people within me.
This week my life closely resembles one of those old country and western songs. You know the ones. Basically everything that could go wrong has, and even the dog doesn’t want to get close to me. I’m sitting alone in my four bedroom home, contemplating the condition of my life and wondering just where this is taking me. I’m very fortunate that I have people in my life, specifically my wife and kids, who truly love me. They love me enough to tell me I need help and they want me to get it. Until I do, they’ve decided that for their own well being, they think living apart from me is the best thing for them right now.
In 2010, I worked as a peer support specialist for a mental health organization in my community. Having been on the job for just over a year, I was feeling fulfilled and proud of myself for what I’d accomplished. Most importantly, I was making a difference to other people who suffered from mental illness. My colleagues were happy with my work and made it a point of telling me so. So imagine my surprise when I was called into the boss’s office one day. She looked at me and said, “Mike, you are decompensating.” I didn’t even know what that meant.
Mental health recovery is an exercise in hope. Hope—the earnest expectation of coming good. Hope is indispensable to our recovery. Hope can help us move away from the terror of defeat and despondency. It's not an abstract idea that makes no real difference in our recovery. It’s the cornerstone upon which the entire recovery foundation is built. There can be no recovery without hope. Despair on the other hand, is a hellish pit we can find ourselves in if we are not careful.
The source of much of our discomfort lies in what we find unacceptable. I’m heartbroken because I don’t want to accept that person I loved is gone forever. I’m anxious because I don’t want to accept that I might actually be safe, that no one is trying to purposely hurt me. I’m sad because I have difficulty accepting that there are actually good and lovely things in this world, as well as the bad things. I don’t want to accept that I need to be on this medication now, and maybe for life. All these things, and many more, I find unacceptable.
PTSD triggers. For those of us with a mental health diagnosis (diagnoses), the definition of a trigger is far more than a level with a catch or means of releasing it. Triggers are a response to stimuli and a result of past trauma. PTSD triggers can include certain odors, a particular tone of voice, certain objects, places and so much more. The brain creates a physiological response: increased heart rate and respiration, sweating, a need to escape, a need for silence, sleeplessness, hyper vigilance and so much more. Responses to triggers are unique to each individual. No cookie cutter responses here!