Mental Health Awareness Week V:Relapse

The idea for this post was suggested to me by a good friend who, like me, has experienced mental health problems for a long time.


We have a tendency to enjoy a happy ending.  Or at least an ending.  If you watched a film in which the plot neared its denouement, and then suddenly rewound back five or six scenes, you would be frustrated.  Right?  And yet, more often than not, this is how recovery in mental health works.

I wrote on the Mslexia blog about “recovery.”  Recovery from a mental illness is not a linear narrative.  In fact, recovery from many things- from broken bones to severe flu- is not necessarily a linear narrative.  We recover, insofar as that is possible.  We lapse, we relapse.  We take five steps forward, three steps back… we keep going.

Most people with a mental health problem do want to get better.  “Better” is the shining pinnacle at the top of a mountain we struggle to climb.  But consider this:

for your whole, entire life, you have been carrying a heavy load on your back.  You are walking towards a destination at which (you hope) the load can be put down.  At some points the load seems heavier; at others, lighter.  Along the way people help you out with the load.  Sometimes they drop it, jolting you right through your spine.  Sometimes they help you for a long time- but the load is yours, and yours alone, to carry.

One day, you reach your destination.  It is bright and beautiful as promised, though you can’t see far beyond it.  It is time to put down your load.

How do you feel?

There is no right answer to the question above but there are several you can consider.  You would almost definitely feel relief at being able to set down something so heavy.  You would probably feel happy.  You would probably feel disbelief.  Nervousness- is it really time?  Can you really put it down?  And you might feel fear.  For all that you have struggled, for all that you have enjoyed the times of brief respite, where someone else was able to lighten that load, you are used to its burden.  You are familiar with it and it is yours.  You might even be tempted to pick it back up, and who could blame you?

Yet blame, we do.  Even the most understanding friend during the process of recovery becomes frustrated at the prospect of relapse.  Because we’ve been here before, we thought you were getting better, did you lie to us?  Why can’t you just avoid it this time?  Is it something we did?  All of which are not-invalid responses to something so scary, something so difficult to understand.

But relapse is not deliberate.  It can be sudden and forceful, hitting you when and where you least expected it, out of the blue.  Or it can be the crack in the dam that leads to a flood.  Just today, I won’t take my meds (remember the feeling of relief letting the load go?  Remember that, from the vantage point of your destination, you lose sight of what came before and of what will come after?)  Just today, I will have a drink.  Just today, I will hurt myself.  Just a little bit.  Barely at all.  And before you know it, you feel as though you’re back where you started.  Sometimes, feeling better, you may even yearn for the days when things were bad.  This isn’t stupid, pointless or self-pitying.  This is a natural response to fear- the anxiety that rises when you look ahead and suddenly worry that the past will grab you back, the anxiety you feel when you think about the fact that this, this “betterness” that may not be altogether satisfying, might nonetheless be all there is.

Friends and family may scream at the frustration of your self-defeating behaviour.  They may even blame you.  But it is not your fault.  Never your fault.  This isn’t a blame-game.  This is reality: the horrible, beautiful, hopeful, hopeless reality in which we live, daily.

So when someone you love begins to relapse, of course there are things you can do.  As I said in Post III, you can talk about it.  Be open and honest about your concerns.  If it gets too much, you can contact the relevant professionals.

But always remember how it felt to lay down that load.


3 thoughts on “Mental Health Awareness Week V:Relapse

  1. I needed this ! Battling my depression and anxiety isn’t easy. I always get down on myself for going back into old habits and old ways of thinking and coping. It’s good to know that my progress is actually progress and not just a repetitive cycle.

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