Tag Archives: recovery

Healing and progress

Often, healing isn’t a linear process, and this is perhaps especially true around mental health. It can be unsettling, to hit something that feels like a relapse. It can be hard to tell, when you’re in the middle of a process, whether you’re still overall heading the right way, or have taken a turn for the worse.

It helps a lot having professional insight for this sort of thing. That’s not available to many of us struggling with long term mental health challenges. Figuring out what anything means can therefore be an uncomfortably solitary activity.

It’s certainly true that with bodily healing, things can feel a lot worse before they start to feel better. Building strength, surfacing from sickness and healing wounds can all involve periods of time when things feel worse than they did at the beginning. I know to watch for this with flu – the point at which I usually feel most awful is the point at which I’m starting to get better. 

I find it helps on the mental health front not to assume that any given setback is a sign of disaster. Although of course anxiety makes that a challenging thing to hang on to! However, I’ve been around the various stunts my brain can pull a number of times now, and that helps. Sometimes breakdowns and breakthroughs are impossible to tell apart when I’m in the middle of them. And nose-dives aren’t forever. Even the really awful ones, and the ones that have been slow declines over extended periods of time. I’m still here, and some kind of getting up again has thus far always been possible.

Not everything can be recovered from. This is as true of long term physical illness as it is of mental health problems. Not everyone gets better, many things cannot be fixed. Our very able-oriented society can be rather too focused on the idea of healing as a journey to full recovery and this isn’t always helpful. It can be more useful to think of healing as being about as much wellness as you can achieve. You can be working on healing while in practice simply managing not to get any worse. You can heal, and relapse, and heal and relapse over and over.

It’s always good to seek the best outcomes you can – but what that even means is really individual. A person doesn’t have to expect to be completely fixed for it to be worth them seeking healing. Whatever recovery can be managed is worth having, even if it’s only temporary.

It’s also good to consider our expectations around other people’s health, and to make sure that the assumption of total recovery as end goal isn’t informing what we do. A person can waste a lot of time and energy chasing total recovery when that effort would have been better invested in management and making the best of things. 

Trauma Recovery

Last year, the cat in our household had two very unpleasant experiences with loose dogs. One of those has left my son with a scar, the second resulted in the cat hiding in a tree for four hours. My Anderson only goes out on a lead, so it was evident after the first incident that he’d become really fearful of all dogs. The tree incident was an overreaction to a situation that had too much in common with the first event.

Being a lively young cat, he really does need to go out for some exercise when he can. So, we started doing things to try and reduce the stress of dealing with dogs. Tom would pick him up when there was any dog around and I’d put myself between him and the dog. We talked to him, trying to sound reassuring. It wasn’t long before he was treating dogs on leads as much less of a threat and at this point he doesn’t simply panic when he sees a loose dog. He’s still very cautious, but he’s learned that the traumatic incident wasn’t normal and he’s recovering.

When it comes to humans, it’s often the case that recovery is tied up with getting to feel that the trauma is not the new normal. That of course has implications for anyone trapped in a traumatic situation. You can’t heal until you’re out of it. For a while, all dogs looked like a threat to Mr Anderson, and being a small cat, there wasn’t much he could do to change that. What’s helped him recover is that we’ve done things he could make sense of that have helped him feel safer and from there he’s been able to gather evidence that not all dogs are going to try and attack him.

In humans, we tend to treat recovery from trauma as the job of the individual. A therapist might hold safe space for you to think about things, but the odds are you’ll have to deal with the unsafe situations and try to overcome what happens to you. That’s really hard. It’s much easier to feel safe when you have people around you who are actively helping you to feel safer.

Mr Anderson has gone from reacting like he was afraid all dogs were going to try and kill him, to reacting as though he thinks some dogs might be friendly. He didn’t do that on his own.

Listening to your body

The idea of listening to your body comes up a lot around health work. However, I think it’s really important to ask why we might not be doing that in the first place. This won’t be an exhaustive list, do please add more in the comments if you see an obvious absence. Or an unobvious one.

You can’t listen to your body if your body is exhausted but you have to work. Poverty can make it impossible to take needful time off for rest or for recovery from illness.

Your body may require better food, more food, more protein, more fresh fruit and veg. If you cannot afford a better diet, you can’t afford to listen to your body. The same is true for being too cold, too hot, or in a situation of light or sound pollution you can’t do anything about.

You may have been told that you make a fuss, have a low pain threshold, overreact, exaggerate, lie, or that you just want to get out of doing things. You may have been taught to mistrust or disbelieve what your body seems to be telling you. This isn’t easy to unpick.

You may have listened to your body, consulted with doctors and discovered that there isn’t much that can be done to help you. This happens a lot around chronic illness, and you may be choosing to ignore things as being the best way to deal with them. If you’re not listening to your body as a way to stay sane and functional, that’s an entirely valid choice.

There are times when ignoring your body is vital. Dealing with addiction, or trying to break out of it requires you to ignore what your body is telling you. Changing your eating habits can mean ignoring what your body says. Overcoming anxieties can mean pushing back against the messages your body gives you. Some of the ways in which we are broken mean that we cannot trust our bodies to guide us. It’s hard work having to fight your own body, but sometimes that’s necessary for healing and recovery.

How we relate to our bodies isn’t just a personal matter. It’s held by a social context that can put all kinds of pressures on us. How many people are unable to eat properly because of the social pressure they feel to be thin? Not being able to rest, and not getting enough sleep are issues framed by working lives, social lives and often a technology-driven anxiety that makes us feel we have to be available to people all of the time.

It is good, often, to listen to your body. Sometimes it is essential to ignore your body. It helps to know what you’re doing and why. Some of these issues simply can’t be handled at the individual level and require cultural change, so it’s also really important not to blame or shame anyone who might be trapped by circumstance, and by what capitalism does to people. Not everyone can break out on their own.

Recovering from trauma

It’s been a slow process and I’m not entirely there yet. I’m a lot better than I used to be. Here are some things I’ve learned about recovery along the way, and what helps, and what doesn’t.

I could not start to heal until I got to a place where I was not routinely being triggered and terrified. This might sound like a no-brainer but I had a fair few people expecting me to get well when I was still not safe. It’s only since I’ve had time feeling reliably safe that my body has started to respond to life like safe is normal and threat isn’t.

I have not gone at the pace some people thought I should. Being told (by people with little or no experience of trauma) what I should be like, and what kind of medical interventions I should have, etc has done the exact opposite of help. What I needed was time feeling safe. People pressuring me to fix at a rate that suited them have not made me feel safe- quite the opposite. Getting these people out of my life has helped me heal.

Focusing on the small scale stuff has helped a lot – rest and time outside, good food, things that work for my body. Being supported in this has been a great help. Not dealing so much with people who have felt the main thing was to get me back to work, not to get me well again.

Surrounding myself with people who are kind and supportive, and who only challenge me in ways that help me to grow. I haven’t always made the best decisions about who to spend time with, and looking back at some of the connections that dragged me down, demoralised and exhausted me, I can see they really weren’t helping. Again, it’s taken me a while to learn how to pick my people. Gentle and supportive environments are best for healing. With gaslighting in my history, I am a lot better off when I don’t have to constantly try and second guess the people I’m dealing with nor worry about what they might imaginatively infer from what I do and say.

As my life and my environment have become gentler and kinder, recovery has become easier. I don’t trigger as often as I used to in no small part because there is so little in my daily life that could trigger me. A key piece of learning for me around this is that people who are dismissive of what I find difficult and can’t be bothered to find out what might be ok for me, are not people I owe anything to or need to spend time with.

I think if you’re trying to help someone recover from a traumatic experience, the best thing to do is not to try and fix them. Attempts at ‘fixing’ can be really invasive, and make the recipient feel like they don’t have control of the situation. That loss of control contributes to trauma. People need to heal on their own terms and in their own time – and too often the people who self announce as healers and rescuers and try to force changes on their own terms and timescales aren’t helpful. If the person being ‘rescued’ doesn’t heal fast enough they can face anger and blame, which does not help with the healing. If the person being ‘healed’ doesn’t want to do the thing, or take the thing the ‘healer’ is adamant about, this too can get nasty. Not everyone who says there are here to help is actually helpful.

What best heals a person, is safe space. Having a kind, supportive environment where you won’t be told off for failing to miraculously recover, makes all the difference. To help someone heal from trauma, it’s best to do very little – show up, be friendly, be kind, be interesting, accept any limitations, be patient. Give people the time and space to fix themselves, and that tends to be what happens.

Recovering from trauma

People who are counselled and supported in the aftermath of trauma don’t tend to go on to develop post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is something that tends to happen to people who take the trauma inside them. It becomes normal. It becomes how you think the world works and what you expect. This is a higher risk when the trauma isn’t a one off event, but a long process – people coming out of war zones, domestic abuse situations, child abuse, can all have spent a long time suffering and being blamed for what’s happening.

The general wisdom out there seems to be that if you don’t get it dealt with early, it might never be possible to deal with it. Everything I’ve seen has said that recovery requires professional help. So, what do you do if you can’t afford professional help, or you aren’t believed, or you can’t deal with professionals?

Creating a new normal can change a lot of things. It takes time. If PTSD is rooted in a long experience of trauma, it won’t change quickly. However, if you are in a safe environment, and you are able to recognise it as safe, this slowly retrains your brain. It doesn’t mean you won’t get triggered, but it means when you do, you know that’s what’s happening. Support in recognising when you aren’t in danger can really help. Constant affirmation that you are safe now, you aren’t there any more, it won’t be like that again, can, over time, get your brain out of hypervigilant terrified panic stations. It can be done.

I’ve found that being able to tell when I’m being triggered makes a lot of difference. The faster I can identify it, the less damage the triggering does me. It’s when you’re locked into the past, reliving it, re-enacting it, that being triggered is such a desperate nightmare. Recognising that what’s happening is that you’ve been triggered is really powerful because it gives you a little space in which to reassess things. Am I really in danger? Am I going through that same experience again? If it looks like you are, then doing whatever it takes to get to safety is the priority. Mostly I find that I am re-experiencing the past, and it is not the case that the past is repeating itself in the present.

Once I’ve been triggered, there will be flashbacks. Even if I know I’ve been triggered, they still come up. This can go on for days if it’s really bad. Again, I’ve found that knowing this is happening makes a difference. A flashback comes, and it happens to me, a memory surfaces. There will be a period of time when I can’t do much about that, but, as soon as I can properly identify it as a flashback, I can try to put it down. I won’t always manage, but the more I do to try not to become enmeshed in the flashback, the better it is for me. Over time, I’ve got quicker at realising when it’s happening and quicker at identifying surfacing things as flashbacks, and better at not getting involved with them.

I’ve learned that the only thing to do in face of this is be kind to myself. Rest, and get some good quality, soul feeding distraction in the mix. I try to find balances between distracting myself, and thinking carefully about what’s going on. If I can face up to the surfacing trauma and name it, that does help. If I can reframe it as something I didn’t deserve and wasn’t ok, that helps. If I can grieve for what happened to me, that helps. If I can recognise what I internalised at the time, that helps. I have to face why I didn’t protect myself, and those things run very deep.

Healing can be a brutal process. When the cold dead fingers of PTSD are wrapped around your throat, trying to pry them off is not happy or easy work. It isn’t quick, or simple. But it can be done.  And it can be done with no professional help, no guidance, and a great deal of unpicking it yourself. If you can get help, get help. If you can’t, you don’t have to give up on yourself.

Walking new paths through your mind

Humans are creatures of habit, and much of what we do, we can do on a kind of autopilot. The neural pathways we walk in our brains are the easiest to keep visiting, and so we can become locked into patterns of thinking and behaving. When reality conspires to affirm a way of thinking or being, we can be really persuaded by the truth of it. So, a few verifications that the socks are indeed lucky can make us sock-dependant!

The trouble is that what comes to us from outside can train us into habits of thinking and acting that don’t reflect who we are, and aren’t functional either. The child who is rewarded with attention for having a tantrum, or refusing to eat or sleep, is the obvious case in point here. We can learn early on that certain things get us our own way and it can become part of the regular routine. The technical term is conditioning, and the psychology of it is out there to be read if its a topic of interest.

Seeing a pattern of thought or behaviour in this way isn’t easy, because for us, these things seem normal. But, if something isn’t working, feels wrong and gets shitty results, it’s a good time to dig in and look for those underlying stories and pathways that we have in our heads.

Trying to unpick old lessons is hard. The easiest way to deal with conditioning, is to get a new layer of conditioning over the top of it. That often calls for outside help.

There was a period when my anxiety around post was massive. It wasn’t irrational – terrifying and life altering things were turning up in the post at unbearable frequency. So hearing the post became fearful. Then seeing a post person or van became fearful, because they were bringing the things… then the post office, and anything posty in any context started getting to me. A red postbox in the street could give me a queasy moment. Dysfunctional to say the least, and horrible to live with.

Other the last few years, there’s been no post drama, and a lot of good post. Review books, gifts from friends, letters I wanted… and now when I hear the letter box go, most days I’m fine. Some days I wonder if it’s the book I’m waiting for. Occasionally there’s a flicker of fear. I’ve built new associations with post. I offer this as an example because it’s not too emotive, and most of my other conditioning issues are.

People in abusive situations are trained to accept the abuse as normal – especially pernicious with child abuse where no other points of reference may exist for the victim. People suffering trauma have often internalised what happened as something to expect. Recovery means embedding new stories, creating new paths through the mind. To build something better, it helps a lot to be in supportive spaces with people who can give you a different sort of reality to play in.

Travelling with Inanna

Last year I read Jane Meredith’s Journey to the Dark Goddess and became interested in the descent of Inanna as a way of exploring the processes of depression. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the journey downwards, and the triggers for that downward journey. It’s taken me until now to properly grasp that while Jane Meredith’s book is as much concerned with ascent as descent, I’ve not looked at how I come back at all until recently.

Inanna is stripped of everything as she descends. Physical items that are symbols of power and self are taken from her. Then, after her time on the meat hook, she comes back up, and the things taken are returned just as systematically. This is the point at which the story ceases to work as a metaphor for depression. Many of us go down due to external factors – losses, setbacks, dealing with shitty people. We are not automatically given back what was taken. We either have to do without it, make it, or find it elsewhere.

I crash every six to eight weeks, to some degree. I’ve been in a cycle of collapse and return like this for many years. Paying close attention to the triggers of falling into depression, and the process of depression once in it, has not stopped me continually burning out. I know more than I did, and I’ve been able to reduce the magnitude a bit, much of the time, but that’s all. So it’s been time to look at ascent. When I’m so tired I can’t think or move, when everything hurts and there seems to be no point even trying, how do I get going again?

The answer is rage. What gets me up, every time, is fury with myself over how stupid, useless and unreasonable I’m being. The people around me deserve better. There are things that have to be done and I’m not doing them because I’m huddled in a corner, whimpering. I’ll call myself lazy, selfish, self-indulgent, a good for nothing waste of space, and I’ll batter myself with this language until the rage against myself is powerful enough to get me moving again.

I suspect there’s a direct relationship between this process, and the next round of falling over. It’s taken until now to question it, because until this month, the self-hatred that keeps me moving had seemed like a perfectly natural and reasonable thing. Feeling like my only point is my utility, and having internalised a sense of worthlessness a long time ago, I’ve had no way of being kind to myself in times of burnout. I haven’t felt I deserved being kind to, and I’ve had no way of fixing that alone.

When all you can change in response to a problem outside of you, is something inside of you, the options are limited. Depression is treated as an internal problem to be solved internally, but if it’s being caused by external issues, there’s a limit to what can be done. Problems that eat away at sense of self, self esteem, hope, and energy are not fixed by taking a positive attitude to them, especially if you have no means for being positive. Rewiring the longstanding thought patterns in a brain is not a quick or easy process. They aren’t fixed by anger, either. Sometimes, the change really has to come from other people. Sometimes, I need to ask for help, or to feel safe explaining the problem. Sometimes I need looking after.

I’ve made a few tentative forays into talking about what I need to have be different. I’ve sought a few changes from other people. I’ve worked out what, externally, is knocking me down and I’m trying to minimise contact with situations that take me apart. I am not a goddess in a mythical descent, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have the things taken given back to me.

Currently I’m working on how to get up gently. I’m ever more convinced that treating depression as individual and internal is part of the problem. The more time we spend collectively knocking each other back (or letting our politicians knock us back) the worse it gets. I think we can help each other to do something totally different.

The art of breaking

Every time we use our muscles, there’s a complicated process of tearing down and rebuilding going on. I don’t pretend to understand the mechanics, only that our bodies grow and develop through a constant process of destruction. I’ve had conversations on and offline with other people, Druids especially, about the importance of breaking in other ways too. You can’t build a new way of living, seeing and being without breaking the old one.

From a training perspective, the easiest way to get rid of old ingrained habits / conditioning is to simply train yourself into a new set and replace them. Old behaviours disappear, but if the ideas, feelings and beliefs that gave them sense are all still hanging around, it can get messy. New behaviour plus old thoughts equals total chaos.

I’ve learned to see breaking as a helpful thing more than a fearful one, but this has taken practice, and the practice has been messy. I remember the fear I felt knowing that I was not going to be able to hold together, that emotionally and mentally I was falling apart. I also remember the words of the dear friend who gently explained to me that I was going to have to do it, that my whole sense of self and world view were in such a mess that the only way to heal required me to first break down the old. It hurt like hell, but I walked through it, crawled my way back and started the rebuild.

I know there are more coming. We did a little experiment last week. I drew my body shape. Tom drew my body shape. They clearly weren’t the same person. I had a strange experience which triggered it, seeing myself by accident and thinking I was seeing a fairly slim person, realising it was me and watching the reflection become fat. My body image is clearly not the same as how Tom sees me, and I need to deliberately break the beliefs that are making me see myself in certain ways. I’m going into that one voluntarily.

I can see other things ahead that are going to be emotionally intense, and bound to take me down into the darkest places in my own mind. I fear this. I fear the inevitable pain. I also know that trying to protect myself by not facing it will hurt a lot more in the longer term. There are things that have to happen. Only when the egg cracks can the chick emerge. Only when the seed splits open is there a new shoot. Birth is never clean, tidy, or painless. Mending broken things is a bloody, visceral sort of process. Healing hurts. Dead things coming back to life always hurt. (bonus points if you can place the quote). I’ve spent time in the numb, dead place that is depression, and I know that however bad it is feeling pain, not feeling pain is one hell of a lot worse. Where there is pain, there is life. Not feeling, is hideous and whatever else happens, I am determined not to go back there.

So, as my muscle tissues break and reshape, so does my mind, and my whole emotional system, which is also innately biological. I break to rebuild, I look round for examples of how this works other places in nature, and I am hugely grateful to the people who have helped me get through.