I want to talk about the after of a mental illness. The after when you are medically stable or not in need of therapy. The after when everyone around you, your friends and family, think that you’re back to normal, as if normal is something that either exists or something that should be aimed for. Funny thing is, most of the time, the after of a mental illness means learning to live with it, not living with its absence. It means learning to accommodate for your brain in ways that people who have never experienced mental illness don’t have to. Some mental illnesses can ‘go away’ so that you aren’t bothered by them ever again. You might have a brief bout of depression or an episode of anxiety that never bobs its head over into clinical illness again. Most times that isn’t the case, not really, and we don’t talk enough about learning to live with a brain that is chronically unwell or has the potential to be so, for the rest of your life.
I have a brain that leaps to certain behaviours and thoughts because of the time I spent unwell. I still live with a brain that spews out eating disordered thoughts and behaviours and I still have to deal with that, years after leaving therapy and being discharged from care. In the same way that certain experiences and emotions make my brain jump into other well worn pathways that were created when I was dealing with bad depression or dissociative symptoms, certain situations make my brain leap into behaviours born of years of restriction and disordered eating. I live with eating disorder rules, rules formed in recovery, and rules that I gained from listening to other people talk about their experiences. I have to balance this every single day, living the invisible after of a mental illness that still won’t leave me alone. I have the same thoughts I had when I was really sick, they aren’t as loud and my voice gets in the way a lot, but they’re still there, they didn’t go away once I got to a certain weight, or spent a certain amount of time out of therapy. That’s what my recovery seems to be – having these thoughts and learning to live with them but not following them. Downgrading the intense addictive urges to a shouted instruction, and hopefully at some point, a whispered suggestion.
We talk about awareness, of providing people with the information to know if someone is struggling, but don’t talk about how people can struggle even when they seem ‘well’, when things are looking up, and they aren’t as unwell as they might have once were. We don’t talk about living with mental illnesses, after you have learned to deal with them. Illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and personality disorders aren’t things that are going to just ‘go away’ and we need to be talking about how these things change our behaviours and thoughts. We like to think that once we aren’t ‘sick’ anymore we will go right back to how we were before the illness. I don’t think that’s really possible. Our experiences shape us as people and it’s unrealistic to expect that we won’t be shaped by our illnesses.