Relapsing: why it’s so horrible, but doesn’t have to beat you.

Just before I start, a couple of trigger warnings: Panic attacks pop up, and I refer to someone experiencing suicide ideation.

To anyone smart enough not to read this blog, I’ll just give you a very quick origin story: I have a panic disorder. I was diagnosed with it in 2014, recovered mostly by 2016/17, and from then on it’s been kind of an up and down story. For those strange folk who actually read these, firstly… Why? Secondly, I’m sorry for mentioning I have a panic disorder for the 20th time this week.

I wanted to write a short ramble about relapsing, why it’s not going to be the end of your journey, and why you’re an absolute boss and you’ve got this.

You don’t need to have suffered from a mental illness to experience a relapse, though usually to relapse means you were already at a pretty low point once before. Relapses can be mild, right the way through to severe, depending on the starting point/ the catalyst etc. The main thing is is they can quite easily represent what feels like a personal failure. You’ve worked so hard to get to where you are now mentally that when a relapse occurs it really does feel like you’ve just slipped on the Bowser’s banana right before the finish line. I’ve wrestled a little bit with this recently when my panic attacks started to become more frequent and random again. I usually experience them at night but lately the physical symptoms have popped up at random points in the day. I even felt a surge of adrenaline across my chest the other week while I was doing the dishes. It really is a jarring experience and it has made me question the efficacy of the strategies I’ve used to keep my panic at bay. I rationalise my symptoms, attempting to box them off as something non-threatening. This removes their power over me, and whilst they’re still there I begin to feel a degree of separation. It’s like sitting in a cloud above the storm, watching it rage but feeling mostly unaffected by it. Lately that hasn’t been the case, I’ve been caught up in that storm more often than I’d like to be. Not only have I questioned how powerful my strategies are, I’ve even allowed myself to wonder if this is a permanent decline. Note the language there. Decline? Permanent? Relapse can conjure up a malign, vampiric mental narrative that attempts to persuade you that you’ve reached a point of no return. It’s your job when you experience it to push back against that thought.

Let’s have a look at what recovery actually looks like, and this will lead us into the next part of this ramble.

There you have it. My definitive, infallible representation of what recovery looks like. I drew it myself and I’m really proud of it.

Recovery can be seriously messy and it looks different for everyone going through it. Some people, amazingly, experience lots of nice ‘up’ curves on their recovery journey, maybe a few little downturns or plateaus, but generally they stay good. Me, my recovery curves look a bit like the French Alps. Recovery happens over time, but don’t let the linear aspect fool you into thinking that time=constant, steady improvement. It doesn’t. All kinds of changes happen to us over time, like moving house, starting a new job, gaining and losing people, going through an unprecedented global pandemic that’s forced you to stay indoors all the time, you name it. All these changes produce reactions in us, and that’s okay. Sometimes you might start a scary new job, end a friendship, experience major changes to your daily routine, the list goes on. I hate to bring Covid-19 into it, but one thing I’ve really struggled with is the change of routines. I don’t adapt very well to change in the short-term. Another one for me is that I currently have quite a stressful living situation, so much so that it has triggered a lot of anxiety and panic for me. All these variables can come in and impact your life. I’m very fortunate in that I am actually okay. I am very thankful for the amazing people I have around me. The support and gentle challenge they give me keeps me on-track and I am still mostly in a good place. I am just experiencing a lot more anxiety and panic than I would usually. However, these things currently impacting me will eventually fade away.

Sometimes, relapse occurs just because something has changed mentally. Different currents of thought or perhaps new triggers can shift the mental dynamic around, causing an imbalance and then a relapse. I think those are particularly scary because it feels very internal, under your control and as a result, your mistake. But as I said earlier, relapses can bring about all kinds of horrible mental chatter. I want to talk about someone I find really inspiring. He’s a divisive figure and I understand why, but Tyson Fury really epitomises what I’m trying to say here. Take a man, make him heavyweight champion of the world, then see him sucked into a such a relentless void that there seems to be no escape. He sank into heavy drink and drug abuse, lost his titles and even contemplated suicide. To get back up to where he is now required a huge effort, like literally having to push through mental walls with rigorous routine. He’d walk, then run, then got the gloves back on and slowly started to re-build. Slowly.

The world is very intense and will hurl triggers at you daily. It’ll also try to wear you down in far more ways than I have time to go through. You mustn’t see a relapse as a personal failure, and you definitely can’t let yourself see it as a point of no return. Your recovery journey is long, possibly lifelong, and as with any journey you have to learn how to stay on the path you’ve chosen. If you go too fast or hard, the wheels come off. If you go wayward, remember where you started and be proud of just how far you’ve come. Yes you might be struggling right now, you might feel like you’ve just taken two steps forward and three steps back, but you’re further than where you were to begin with. At the very least, you’re wiser and more experienced in your personal journey. To quote a very wise master:

“The greatest teacher, failure is.”

– Yoda

Be kind to yourself. You’ll find your way back again with time, rigour, and patience.