Photo: Leah Kelley
For about 10 years following my initial diagnosis of depression, I was mired in a cycle of sadness and the unbridled, reckless actions that helped me cope with what I was feeling.
Some of my impulsive tendencies could be blamed on my young age (I was 13 when I was first diagnosed), but I learned the hard way that the habits you develop early — especially the ones disguised as coping mechanisms — can easily become perennial. For years, I felt like my mental illness and my identity were one in the same, that another person couldn’t really know me unless they knew about the things I was going through, or had been through. If you asked 20-year-old me to tell you about who I was, my mental illness would be at the forefront of my answer. But today, at 26, my answer is different.
While my past experiences inform my perspective on the world, I am not depressed. And saying so is a radical act, because for a decade, I wasn’t sure if those words would ever be true. The idea of fully recovering from mental illness is one we don’t hear about often, but it’s one that’s deeply important to discuss.
Part of recovering from a mental illness is learning to understand what it is, and I’ve come to understand that my depression was a lot like a physical illness, like having a cold. When you have a cold, there are symptoms — a runny nose, lethargy, sometimes a fever. Healthy bodies are able to fight off the cold with some rest and TLC, but there are other bodies that for whatever reason are unable to get better without more help. Their symptoms may take on a life of their own, and in extreme cases, can become dire.
I was the body incapable of fighting off the cold, the body that struggled to cope with what life threw at her. So as a means of staying afloat, I developed symptoms — like self-harming in high school and an eating disorder in college — that temporarily anesthetized my pain. Without them, I’d be left alone to confront the roots of my depression, which was a more frightening and difficult prospect than dealing with the behaviors layered on top of it. But eventually (and if we’re being honest, only after something deeply important was taken from me), I found the mindset required to heal.
My grandmother had always dreamed of taking me to Paris. We finally booked the trip for April of my sophomore year of college, but April came, and the doctor who was treating me for bulimia recommended that we cancel because it would be too dangerous for me to go. Having to cancel our trip broke my grandmother’s heart. And it was grueling for me to see how my illness was affecting the people I love. The silver lining is that I realized I wanted to value my life and the lives of the people I cared about. And doing so meant I needed to get my actions under control.
With the help of my therapist, I regained control of how I responded to my feelings. This was a key revelation for me — the notion that I’d never be able to control my feelings, but I could control how I responded to and worked through them. I started to take my medication consistently (this may seem obvious, but when I was depressed, I tried to sabotage myself by skipping days of my meds, which I never really saw as self-sabotage until my therapist said to me, “You don’t skip days of your birth control, do you?”). I went to therapy four times a week for three years, without exception. If I had to miss a session one week, I’d make it up the next, meaning there were some weeks where I’d go to therapy literally every day. Being committed to my healing meant having to make incredibly hard and confusing choices, ones that felt selfish and selfless simultaneously, like the summer I chose to stay in Ann Arbor by myself instead of going home to my family in Boston so that I could continue my treatment. It meant having to talk about things that made me cry, like my relationship with my dad, or talking about things that made me feel uncomfortable, like sleeping with someone I shouldn’t have.
But in doing those things, in taking my recovery seriously and putting it above all else, I healed.
And because I know firsthand what an accomplishment it is to commit to and then maintain recovery, I can’t help but notice the lack of coverage about people who thrive after getting help for a mental illness.
In a recent article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, psychologists at University of South Florida and George Mason University write about “the curious neglect of high functioning after psychopathology” — specifically, depression. For all the existing research on depression, there’s not much out there about how common it is to thrive after treatment. Although researchers sometimes follow people through their recovery, the authors note that it’s often only for a short while. “We know little about what happens next, particularly to those with who have a sustained recovery that is accompanied by good functioning,” they write.
I agree. And I strongly believe that if those who are in a position to talk about mental health (doctors, psychologists, publishers, celebrities or regular individuals with personal experiences to share) were to talk about how they sustained recovery, it could be the impetus that gets people to commit to their own. If stories of healing were shared more often and in more detail, those suffering would know it’s possible to recover, while also having realistic expectations of what it may take to get there.
Today, I’ve been off my medication for two years and haven’t been to therapy in three, though I‘ve been considering going back — not because I need it, but because I miss the aspect of self-discovery. And I celebrate my happiness often, as I believe I should. I celebrate with loved ones when they tell me how proud they are of me and how wonderful I look (like many others with mental illness, mine was visible and worn all over my body). And then there are the subtle, more private celebrations, where I’m alone or resting with my partner and my happiness moves me to tears. These are tears of astonishment that I actually live the life I live; that I haven’t missed an obligation or a deadline since college (I’d oversleep and miss class all the time), that when I start to encounter what would have previously been intolerable feelings, I tolerate them, without harming myself; that I’ve found a partner who cares for me as much as I’ve learned to care for myself — one who doesn’t try to fix me, but to better understand me. I cry because for years, I never thought I’d experience anything close to what I do now.
If you’re reading this, wondering like I once did if your life is ever going to get better, I want you to know that it can. It’s not the same for everyone. Healing is a process, sometimes a lifelong one. Your healing may feel uncomfortable and inconvenient and at times unbearable, but I want you to know it’s worth it. Put in the work. Because you, like me, may land at a place where you feel healed. Where you cry happy tears about the way you feel right now, and what you feel is glorious.