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Recovery Is a Different Road

by Alicia Brunskill 2 years ago in recovery
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Another way of living

I wouldn’t precisely describe the journey that I’ve been on for the past few years as recovery from mental illness. I think a better way to describe it would be to say I’ve been learning to manage my illnesses and putting coping strategies in place to improve my quality of life. From the outside that might sound quite cold, clinical even. From the inside, it’s been a process of acceptance, trial and error, patience and tenacity.

It hasn’t been the voyage I expected to go on. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what I thought that would be, but I think I had something more linear in mind. Something with an endpoint. That’s probably one of the biggest things I’ve learned after my diagnosis; that recovery can be a constant, long and winding journey, not a destination.


There’s a lot of emphasis put on why people get mental illnesses, in my opinion a lot more than there is on why people get ‘physical’ illnesses. For instance, I’ve not heard anyone ask why someone is diabetic or has cancer, but I have been asked why I am depressed/anxious and know of others who have been asked similar questions. I think that there’s a deeply embedded idea in society that there is ‘blame’ for having a mental illness and that this feeds into the idea that if you just stop doing what caused it, you can be fixed.

Perhaps it also has something to do with the language we use to talk about mental and physical illnesses; with a mental illness you often hear people say I am depressed/bi-polar etc. whereas we tend to say I have with physical illnesses (I have asthma/cancer etc.). I think that subconsciously this creates more of a distance between the illness and the person, whilst saying ‘I am’ gives the idea that you’re not talking about an illness but rather a part of who you are. So, when people ask ‘why?’ about a mental illness, it can feel as if they are asking ‘why are you like that?’ rather than recognising the condition as an illness.

Side note – I’m not about to tell anyone how to talk about their own illness, that’s not what the last paragraph was about; it was simply my commentary on how I think people can interpret usage of language.

How? Where? What? Why?

You might be wondering at this point what this has to do with recovery. Well, the things I’ve been writing about so far can give you a bit of an idea about the mindset I had towards recovery when I first started out on that road six or seven years ago. I felt as though maybe I, or something in my past, or maybe both were to blame for me getting ill, that if I could just get to the bottom of why/whose fault it was that I could fix it; that I would get back to being ‘me’.

As it turns out it was a bit more complex than that. (In case of any misperceptions here, I’m not suggesting that past trauma doesn’t have an impact on mental health, nor am I suggesting that that impact is trivial. I grew up with an abusive father, this has had a massive impact on my own mental health lasting into adulthood.)

I have found value in going back over past events in my life and examining the what and the why, but perhaps not for the reasons I initially thought I would. It has helped to be able to recognise when and where anxiety/depression had a hold over my life in the past and how that has affected my behaviour. Yet, knowing that and having some ideas about my own personal predispositions/the environmental factors which probably led to me getting ill with anxiety and depression didn’t really give me any answers as to how to live with those conditions. I did feel better for having a better level of understanding, but I didn’t feel any healthier. I think I would equate this to learning about the probable causes for me developing asthma, it’s great to understand but this knowledge is of no use to me whatsoever in an asthma attack. I won’t say that I didn’t need to go through the process of trying to understand because that was useful as a starting point. However, what I also needed was some advice about healthy ways to manage my illnesses.

I would also say that when I started out on this road (at that point depression and anxiety were largely dictating how I lived my life) I had never truly found the real ‘me’; so it wasn’t so much about getting back to me, as locating myself in the first place. I feel like my mental illnesses made me spend a lot of time trying to hide who I am for fear of not being acceptable or palatable to other people. So, in a way, some of my idea of getting better meant being good enough in terms of society’s expectations, because I felt fundamentally unacceptable as a person.

In contrast to these initial thoughts, part of my journey was coming to an understanding that this idea of blame/removing the cause and being fixed that I had assimilated from society is a completely skewed way of looking at recovery and mental illness in general; at least it is to my mind. It lends itself towards blaming/shaming the person who got ill and it can put a lot of pressure on them to get well because of the shame that can come with having an illness that some perceive as a weakness or personal defect.

Support and the System

When I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I really wish the consultant had been able to do the same for me as my childhood GP had done when I was diagnosed with asthma. I was given leaflets to read to help me understand my condition and the medicine I would be taking to help me manage it. I had talks with the nurse about types of inhalers and to this day I attend a regular asthma clinic to check whether my inhalers are still right for me.

In my opinion there’s far less of this type of support from GPs and medical professionals where mental illness is concerned. I think it definitely has an impact on how we view recovery because the facilities to support people managing a life with mental illness are not ingrained into the system. There doesn’t seem to be a standard network of help and advice within the medical profession for the ongoing day-to-day stuff like there is with other chronic illnesses.

However, this is not a criticism of the NHS or my treatment. I’ve included this bit for context, because I think it’s relevant to highlight how the systems in place and commonly held views can (consciously or subconsciously) affect the expectations you have for yourself in recovery.

In my experience a lot of living with mental illness hasn’t been any different to dealing with any of my more traditionally acceptable long-term ‘physical’ illnesses. What I mean by this is that there may be medication, you might have to make adjustments to your lifestyle and there may be an initial period of intense recuperation whilst you get used to managing ongoing care for the illness and finding the right type, combination or dose of medication. There can be relapses that call for a reassessment of treatment, times when your condition is better than others and sometimes it gets more/less manageable over time.

Of course, there are other challenges to face unique to mental illnesses. Yet, I mentioned how similar they seem to me at times because the more I learn about my illnesses, the more I feel that one of the biggest challenges to recovery is the unsympathetic and stigmatising attitudes you can encounter towards mental illness.


There has been so much to accept: that I am the person I am; that the past happened and I can’t change it; that I’m at a point in my life where anxiety and depression have been present for longer than they haven’t; that I’ve let anxiety and depression control my life and behaviour (not that I knew I had a choice for a long time – don’t read this as any kind of excuse for any past bad behaviour of mine, that’s on me regardless); that I can say no; that I can say yes; that I can only do what I can do and that’s ok; that it’s down to me to choose whether I live in the past or the present (it’s not an instant fix though, letting go has been hard and gradual); that it’s ok to give yourself time to rest; that it’s ok to be human and have emotions.

Trial and Error

I didn’t know what would help me feel better, so I pooled resources from wherever I could get them and I tried out lots and lots of things. I went to my GP, I tried the different medications I was prescribed and eventually had therapy. To help me manage the day-to-day stuff, I read blogs, articles, social media, news and I tried out the ideas I came across to form my own personal care plan. I delved back into my past, looking for things I used to do during periods of my life when I had felt healthier.

At times I feel loathe to share the things that have helped me because social media can be a bit taciturn to say the least. I think that people can misinterpret experience sharing as a command to try those ideas.

Yet, from my perspective, if there hadn’t been lots of blogs/posts etc. full of people sharing their experiences for me to read and cherry pick ideas that could help me, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this piece today. So, I guess I feel a little fearful that some people will see this as me telling you what the road looks like and what will help; it isn’t. I don’t know your road. I only know that when I was very ill, reading pieces like this helped me, so I try to do the same for others that it might help.


Sometimes I found an instant benefit to something I had tried, at others, I had to give it a bit longer. It sounds simple, but I was both exhausted and desperate for some relief so mustering the energy to keep trying something that I wasn’t sure was even doing any good proved a mammoth task at times.

I also had to learn to be patient with myself, to stop expecting myself to wake up one day feeling dramatically better than the day before. I had to learn to give myself time to recover and not to expect myself to be ‘productive’ 24/7.


I think the word resilience gets discussed a lot surrounding mental illness, but the word tenacity resonates more with me in relation to my illnesses. When you look up resilience in the dictionary it tells you that this quality is about bouncing back; however, tenacity is about keeping on going no matter what.

Now, I may not have exactly ‘bounced’ back when dealing with setbacks during my deepest periods of illness, but I kept on going, I dragged my behind back again, and again and again. I’m not special for doing this. I did (and still do) it because, like for a lot of other people with mental illness, that’s the everyday reality of life with these conditions, sometimes for the simplest of tasks.

So, for me, tenacity is the word that I associate with my recovery journey, but that’s not to say that resilience couldn’t be the one for yours. You certainly won’t hear me telling you which one to use.

I’m still on the recovery road. I’ve made my peace with its continuous and meandering nature and I try to be open to learning what it has to teach me; I’m sure there is a lot more to discover. For now, I finally feel like I’ve hit a patch of level(-ish) ground, although it’s certainly not how I imagined I’d get here.


About the author

Alicia Brunskill

Alicia writes about a variety of topics including mental illness, languages, education and cats. She also loves writing poetry and fiction. Alicia lives in Rutland, England with her partner, cat and dog.

Find her on Twitter: @aliciabrunskill

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