Hello everyone! Yes, I’m still alive, I’ve just been very quiet for the last few months. After my marathon autism awareness project, I kind of lost the will to write for a bit, then I moved house to a brand new city, then I was busy enjoying myself and making this fantastic life I’ve got up here, and suddenly it’s nearly 4 months since my last post and I don’t know how that happened. I’ve also got to a point where, despite thinking of lots of things to say about mental health and autism, I want to write about the other thousand and one exciting things in my life that give me joy and make things interesting. However, before that, I want to write something important that I’ve been absolutely fizzing about for a while.
It’s been a really good thing for me to be able to write about mental health from the inside, as it were, and the responses I’ve had from people about some of the things I’ve discussed have been amazingly heartening. Now I want to finish the job, in a way, on this phase of things, and actually write about what happens when you do finally make it to the next bit, when you actually start feeling well and getting your brain, mind, energy, and life back.
Because here’s the thing. At no point that I can remember while I was really ill was the idea of what it looks like to be well discussed, apart from one session I attended at day hospital during my (incredibly short) time there. At least, not in so many words. There was a lot of talk about feelings, emotional regulation, dealing with things that had happened, exactly as you’d expect and perfectly in line with what I needed help with. When I started feeling better, however, I realised that I knew virtually nothing about being well, and how to get back into things again. Funnily enough, when you’ve been stuck in bed for nigh on a year, barely eating, barely getting out, and burning out pretty much every time you try, getting back into the swing of things isn’t a walk in the park, let alone when you’ve been down so long you don’t even know what the swing of things even bloody looks like anymore.
There have been a lot of surprises in the last 4 months or so. Like how weird it is to feel normal, to not worry about things at all for a bit. Like how easy it becomes to simply get up and do things of a day. Like how tired you get from doing All The Things that you couldn’t do before. Like how being that tired is completely different to the exhaustion you get from just going to the bathroom or making a cup of tea when you’re depressed. Like how you realise that you haven’t laughed that much for that long in more months than you care to remember. The list goes on and on, of course, but it makes for an interesting thought process when you think about all the things that Being Well actually allows for.
There have been other surprises, too, which were perhaps less pleasant, but no less important. It turns out that stressful events, like packing up one home and moving to another, and waiting on solicitors and whatever it was that went wrong but that I still don’t understand, can still make things snap, and meltdowns can still happen. Sensory overload is still a thing (because mental health improvements don’t overwrite neurology – who’d’ve thunk?). Anxiety, nerves, stretches of days where there are no Spoons and therefore very little getting out of bed, bad days and such all still happen. Post-festival depression is an absolute pain in the arse. Bad news is still bad news, and can still write off an otherwise completely inoffensive day.
Being Well isn’t, and was never, a process of running off into the sunset and just staying happy. I knew this. I have always known this. I have had a dozen people tell me a hundred times each that this is the case. It doesn’t stop the bad days being scary, at first, when they happen, or the thought process that goes “OMG this feels like *that*, and it must be the same and EVERYTHING is going downhill again”. Recovery isn’t just an upward sweep that’s uncomplicated and easy. It’s a process of going forward, falling on your arse, getting up to find that you didn’t lose all the distance you gained, and trying not to fall over again.
What Being Well is is much more complex to describe. Ultimately, it reminds me a bit of results days, of which I’ve had a few now. The wind up is incredible. You’ve been working like a dog to make sure things line up for a good outcome. It gets closer and closer, and it feels like things are winding tighter, ready to turn on a dime if one tiny thing goes wrong. You’re nearly there and failure seems even more catastrophic, and even more possible than usual. Then you get the envelope, open it, find out that everything is fine, celebrate, get photographed jumping about, and then realise that you have the rest of your life to get on with. People congratulate you on getting there, on making the grade, on getting well, tell you how great it is that you’ve Achieved The Thing, ask you how things are, but somehow you’ve got past that moment even if they haven’t. The result is in the bag. Now what?
One of my favourite conversations I’ve had with my parents since getting better and moving away was the one that happened after I realised that there’s a certain tone to asking how someone is that suggests some trepidation about the answer. There’s that apprehension over whether this is an OK thing to be asking, whether there’s a can of worms waiting to be opened, whether the news is going to be bad or worse. I can understand why. When the answer my parents gave their church friends who asked how I was involved hospital, bridges, police, self harm, regular visits to Oxford, chasing mental health services, endless spirals of NHS admin, etc, asking became something people had to do, to keep up with The Story. Now, the answer usually involves Mum wracking her brains for anything I’ve told her in our last conversation three days ago that counts as news, or Dad nonchalantly reporting nothing new while the other person looks slightly bemused.
There’s something out of whack with how we talk about wellness vs. illness. Yes, there are lots of different conversations that happen about both. There isn’t “wellness stigma” like there is with mental health, so the need to talk about it for that reason isn’t remotely equitable between the two. Sometimes, mental health problems can appear out of the blue (though it’s very rarely that simple when you look closely at it), so it’s natural to talk about stuff that throw things off balance suddenly. Recovery is rarely so short, and often, it’s a gradual process. Short of celebrating every small achievement (look, I ate three meals for three days in a row! I got dressed every day for a week! I brushed my teeth twice today!) and every small grain of progress, there isn’t really a way to keep everyone updated on how it’s going. Sure, I have friends who have known about my progress on that sort of level, but frankly, those who are truly interested in my success at getting my bins out or leaving the house twice in two days are in a rather small minority.
Then there’s the added thing where everyone is telling you that you will get there, that it will work out, that it won’t always feel like this. It is, hand-on-heart and honest to God, one of the most irritating things when you’ve heard it enough. It’s not a disbelief thing, entirely, though that does feature. It’s like being told the end of the story, but not knowing how the events are going to reach that point. It’s like knowing that Dumbledore dies but not where, how, with whom, or what relevance that has to anything in the story. “Of course I know I’m going to be fine, but how is it going to work?” It doesn’t stop me saying it to people I know who are struggling, but I do nearly always preface it with something to the effect of “this is the easiest thing to say from the other side, but…” and hope that they don’t get annoyed (which they sometimes do, and kind of understandably so). It can feel like unbelievable pressure from these people who expect you to do something that you can’t even visualise, let alone see a route towards doing.
When people have spent so long supposedly knowing that you’re going to get better, they’re often not surprised when you do. It’s really hard for them to share in the sheer wonder that you get when suddenly you see and experience the world in colour, and you can feel a million different things in a day that aren’t just shades of the same inner greyness or a pale comparison to normal emotion. For me, it wasn’t a given that I’d even be alive today. In fact, there were several points at which there was a definite plan not to be. If you’d told me a year ago that by today, I would have found a new home in a new city, a group of friends with whom I can be completely myself, that I’d even work out what being myself meant, that I would have rediscovered myself as a musician, found out that I am really a dancer at heart, met an awesome Someone, and be about to start on a new academic route towards what I really want to do, I’d probably not have even been able to muster up the energy to laugh in your face. Yet somehow, all these things have happened, and a whole lot more.
What I want to say, at this point, is that I’ve made it. Except, obviously, I haven’t. Because there is no Making It, if you think about it. There is getting through the last bad bit, and learning how to stave off the next one, which I have no doubt will one day arrive in some form. There is getting on with life, now the ball and chain are off my ankle, living the fuck out of said life (but not in such a way that I’m going to burn out, which is the current danger!), and taking care of myself. There is eating the elephant one bite at a time, as my Ma says, and realising that there’s quite a lot less of it than there was a while ago.
What I can say is that I am as well as I’ve been in more years than I’d like to think about. I am healthy, stable, phasing down my antidepressants, active, and happy. Maybe it doesn’t need an announcement, and maybe it should be enough to just get on with it without having to shout about it. Or maybe, just maybe, we should be as willing to talk about wellness as we are about illness. Otherwise, what have you got to look forward to? I didn’t know I had this to look forward to until it came and hit me, and I realised it was the misty goal-shaped-thing I’d sort of imagined existed. Hypotheticals only serve so much purpose in these discussions, but I’m prepared to bet my second-best whistle that, if I’d known what I was running towards as well as what I was clawing my way out of, I might have written this post a little sooner.