What Does Recovery Even Mean?

This week, my CBT therapist set me the ‘homework’ of reflecting on what it means (to me personally) to be recovered from a mental health illness. I thought this was a really interesting question; it’s not something I’ve particularly thought about before. All I know is that I am not well now and I am working towards being better in the future. But how do I measure that? When am I going to be able to say “Right, I’m all better now”?

I always think of recovery from a mental health illness as different from a physical illness. Say you had tonsillitis: you would go to the doctors, you would leave with a prescription and get better within a few days. This is a recovery in the sense that you were ill and then you took the right medication so now it’s gone. However, when compared to a mental health illness, there are a lot more challenges. You notice that things aren’t quite right up there: you’re feeling down all the time or you can’t stop uncontrollably worrying say. So, you go to the doctors and you try to explain your symptoms but there’s a fear of being misunderstood or perhaps you can’t quite explain what’s going on because you don’t understand it yourself. Your doctor makes a good guess at what it could be and may prescribe you with medication, which in my case was Sertaline.

Now, I take Sertaline to help my mind calm down enough to be able to start taking the steps towards recovery. I didn’t think that Sertaline was going to work like magic and make me all better like antibiotics could. It didn’t and it won’t. When I went to the doctors and they agreed that yes, it did sound like my OCD had made an unwelcome appearance again, a part of me did feel upset that it had come back but it wasn’t a complete surprise. I am not under any sort of false hope that I will ever completely be rid of my OCD. I have had it since childhood and every now and again, it flares up. A bit like a bad back. When I think of my experience with OCD, I wouldn’t say I have actually ever recovered fully from it and I don’t think I ever will. It sort of sits on the back-burner for a bit and then gets worse as I invite the nasty little thoughts into my rational thinking space.

I don’t think that it’s impossible to get completely better from a mental health illness; although I haven’t ever fully recovered from my OCD, I have from depression. When I was at my worse with depression, I couldn’t find the joy in things and there was a feeling of dread that I was never going to get better. With OCD, I don’t have these same symptoms. In fact, I am hugely hopeful that I am going to get better and I know I can. I know I will! I’d say there are a few ways that will show me I am making progress on the recovery front:

  • I will wake up in the morning and my first thought won’t be: “I can’t be bothered to get up and HAVE to do all the OCD stuff today”
  • I will not constantly have thoughts about everything that could possibly go wrong in my life
  • I will stop spending so much time doing a simple task
  • I will feel more in control of my own brain and be able to accept that thoughts are just thoughts
  • Being able to tell myself that I do not have the power to control things through my rituals. “Que Sera Sera” and all that

There are things my OCD causes me to do that aren’t distressing or get in the way of my life like having the labels facing the front on things. (Why would you not do that?! It just makes logical sense). And it’s these things that I am not so bothered about changing. If I have to deal with the left over little niggles like that rather than the immense sense of fear I carry around with me all day, then I will take that gladly. I look at the above list now and it’s incredibly difficult to see how those things are going to change. OCD is like a habit and once you have let it have control over you it’s so difficult to challenge.

For me, recovery from my OCD doesn’t mean completely wiping it clean from my mind but to get it away from the control panel in my brain. I think that I will see myself as recovered from OCD when its back in its designated seat and rationality can take the head of the table again. Sorry OCD, I know that will upset you but I think it’s for the best.

And yes, I was thinking of Pixar’s Inside Out when I wrote this.

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