Old symptoms coming back? Don’t panic.

“Why am I feeling things that I haven’t felt in months and in some cases over a year?”

I finished therapy in July 2015, moved to University in September of that year, endured some struggles with my panic and anxiety but come the end of my time as a student in July 2018 I felt like I had my illness pretty under-control bar the occasional blip. Recently, however, I’ve been finding myself asking that question more and more. I’ve had more sleepless nights in the last month than I have this previous year and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me feel uncomfortable (and tired, very tired). Every time I feel my old symptoms rushing back- the intense adrenaline rushes across my chest, heart palpitations, shaking- I feel this sense of dread that at times has become overwhelming. It’s as if you’re being dragged back into darker days and most worryingly, there isn’t a great deal you can do about it. That’s what my mind tells me when I’m probably at my most vulnerable and when I’m most susceptible to believing these pernicious thoughts. There’s nothing really new to these developments so to speak and that makes me wonder why they’ve been so pervasive. This elusive element gives every moment of panic some extra intensity because you really feel like there’s nothing you can do; therapy helped you overcome them once but now it’s as if old tactics don’t hold the same sway they once did. A key part of my therapy was to establish two theories: Theory A and Theory B. Theory A suggested that there was in-fact something wrong with my heart and these symptoms represent a wider health condition. Theory B on the other hand countered by suggesting that these symptoms are in-fact not dangerous at all. They’re not symptoms of a health condition but rather symptoms of a panic attack or feelings of panic. I’ve used this framework consistently and over time I’ve noticed that those intense moments of panic have calmed down.

These old tactics haven’t lost their power, rather I’ve become complacent in making them powerful for my life as it currently is. This last month has taught me that alongside the slumps you experience in recovery there’s also the chance that you yourself will adjust to easier times and get complacent. I can recall the worst parts of my illness; at those points I was convinced I was dead, my life was meaningless and in a moment spent staring at the ceiling I was gone having done nothing good for the world. Now that I believe I’m in with a chance of seeing grey hairs on my head I’ve neglected some of the practices that helped me to achieve a calmer state of mind. Not only this, I neglected practices that sat nicely alongside the things I’d learned in therapy to help me to “ride the wave” of panic, so to speak.

I have a love/hate relationship with my own process of recovery and I think that a lot of that comes down to the way I understand my own recovery. I started to imagine it as a set of routinised practices that I had to follow strictly if I were to beat my illness. Sure, healthy routines are a key part of recovery but what if you force your entire life into becoming habitual? The thing with tying yourself to routines all the time is that when you inevitably get frustrated with them and stop doing them you’re left in a void where no activity feels valuable because you assigned all that value away. Suddenly the things you once felt were crucial to you feel meaningless, and that is a weird thing to feel. So what do you do? Well, you’re not panicking any more and you’re not deriving so much enjoyment from some habits anymore so why not just leave them. You don’t cut them out per-se because you’ve not made that conscious choice but they do lose their important place in your mind.

Recovery is painful but I never expected it to be a pain the arse, too. I thought that if I did things one way that I would be okay. The ingredient that I forgot was honest self-reflection. Let’s be honest, when we’re doing pretty well it’s easy to ignore what it is we might be doing wrong, isn’t it? The truth is that during the good times you might be dancing all over the foundations you’ve built. When you do eventually fall down, what do you have to build yourself back up? Recovery isn’t a simple process, there isn’t one set plan and there definitely isn’t a clear victory point. By choosing to not reflect on how I’ve been doing, I didn’t realise that things I’d once relied-on weren’t working as they should with my life being in the place that it is right now. Not just that, I didn’t want to confront the strange decline in my once-prevalent habits because I was scared of what that might reveal about me. What I’ve learned is that recovery demands you to be attentive to the current of your own thoughts and overall mental health. It demands close care of yourself, so as to not lose track of yourself when times are good. This isn’t to say that when we’re recovering from a mental illness we can’t enjoy the times when our illnesses are less present, rather that we must remember to pay close attention to ourselves and learn from what is working and what isn’t working. This has been my first major experience with really falling off-track and whilst it’s been a painful and confusing process, it has no doubt presented me with opportunities to learn more about myself and to grow from them.


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