One of the biggest reoccurring thought patterns for those in the throes of illness, or general unwellness, tends to follow the pattern of: “Why can’t I be better again?” A longing for recovery is the logical antithesis of illness. Wellness, pictured through the lens of unwellness, is the idyllic goal. But rarely do we consider the realities of life after recovery. We never take the time to fully prepare ourselves for the reality and paradox of wellness: recovery relies solely on the realisation that recovery cannot fully exist.
And, even in the hands of freedom,
it lurks, weighted in the shadows.
Every move preyed upon,
Every move executed within smog.
Such univocal clear-cut binaries tend to come most naturally to us; to think of unwellness against wellness comes as easily as to think of up alongside down, or left with right. This is how we make meaning from our words and expressions. And, ultimately, it is this that comes a guiding motivator in our fights against mental illness: the idea that we can be, and should be well.
The trouble with this view is that it naturally leads us to consider mental illness, and all its associated symptoms and affects, as something separate from us: something that we’ve somehow come to be lumbered with, and need to find a way to fight - to relieve ourselves from its burden. It is this view that essentially attempts to isolate unwellness from a person and is the basis for those metaphoric narratives surrounding mental health, such as the famous ‘black dog’. Such language and metaphors influence our meaning, so that when we speak of mental illness as an abstract, isolated entity merely permeating our wellness, we tell ourselves that we need to cut ties in order to free ourselves.
But depression, anxiety, and the majority of key symptoms associated with mental illness are not things that can be isolated. And such views are frequently destructive in the pursuit of wellness. Whilst we can think of it as an illness, such ailments play havoc with the person’s mind, behaviour, personality and soul. It integrates itself into the core of who we are. Thinking of it as something we need to ‘recover’ from, is ultimately destructive to the process of recovery itself by presenting a reductive view: ignoring the deep impact it has on the core of our being.
An all too natural reaction to this realisation may well be: How can we ever even conceive of overcoming illness when there is no real recovery? What’s the point in committing to wellness, if it’s an unachievable goal?
This is where the paradox comes into full effect: once we reach the realisation that the scars and shadow of unwellness will always be with us, we can begin to recover. We can begin to recognise the nature of illness as ingrained and interconnected with our being; we feed it and it feeds us. In this realisation, what follows is the awareness of the long-term reality of recovery for what it is: a continuous journey of self-care.
Self-care, in the positive psychology movement, has come to be synonymous with things such as bubble baths, yoga, long walks in nature and other proactive activities. Whilst I do not mean to discount the massive benefits from such activities, it is clear that these alone cannot effectively encompass the self-care required to overcome illness. It’s rare that we see these wellbeing bloggers and other such writers confront the topic of self-care for what it really is: a means of getting to know yourself.
Mental illness ravishes you. But you can’t condemn it, because it is anchored somewhere within you. To condemn it would be to condemn yourself. The only release is to develop the self awareness to be able to address what is happening to you, to enable you to respond appropriately and in that way we are able to regain our power back.
This is not an easy feat that happens by mere concentration, but is the equivalent to a compilation of historical volumes of your life and being, from a multitude of angles. It takes time. Not only does it take time, but it is also a constantly evolving process requiring a patient, reflexive and compassionate approach.
Throughout this all, we need to understand that no matter how hard we try, we cannot and should not expect to maintain full control of the process of wellness all the time. This is fundamentally because part of the process is to relinquish a certain amount of control through the awareness that we are interconnected to the world and can therefore expect to be buffeted by its ebbs and flows. It is not about learning to overcome these peaks and troughs, but about being able to recognise them for what they are.
'once we reach the realisation
that the scars and shadow
of unwellness will always be with us,
we can begin to recover'
Even the strongest of us will be subject to relapses: things can’t always go our way. But by checking in with ourselves regularly, we will be able to establish the awareness of how best to respond to each situation and how to let go of that which we can’t control. It’s about taking one step at a time – not just during unwellness, but always. Being aware of our own limitations and treating ourselves with that oh so important patience and compassion. Only then can we truly begin to understand that the so-called “recovery” is nothing but a rouse, and a mask we adopt for the rest of the world, to substitute a real and continual state of wellness. Through this realisation, and the rejection of the black and white traditional illness/wellness dichotomy, do we revoke some of the power of mental unwellness; we can recognise its place within our lives and selves, and we can let go of the anger directed to it.
As the psychiatrist, and Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl once said: “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue […] Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. […] you will live to see that in the long-run – in the long-run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
Having spent the majority of her years in and around the South East of England, Rachel has studied Cultures, Histories and Literatures and has an MA in Applied Ethics. She works with a local charity as fundraiser and administrator, but is first and foremost a painter and writer, confronting various philosophical and political ideas. Her other interests include quirky films, beagles and amateur ukulele playing. She tweets @racheljturpin