One of the things that many people who struggle with depression or mental illness find extremely difficult is understanding what it means when people say that life can be better. It’s very easy to look at the bad things that happen to basically everyone at some points in life and wonder how things will feel or be better. It’s especially difficult to imagine how other people can go through life without being overwhelmed or sad about the state of the world as a whole. When you’re a naturally fairly reactive person, it can seem as if the only way to not be hurting is if nothing goes wrong.
I have good news and bad news for people who are really struggling with the idea of imagining recovery.
The bad news is that bad things will always happen. Sure, getting some of your emotions under control and learning better ways to interact with people will probably improve your external circumstances to some extent. If you’re doing relatively well at your job and not getting into fights with your spouse, things will feel calmer overall. But there will always be random, nasty things that happen. In the last two weeks I’ve lost my key card for work (which was also holding my bus card and gym membership card), popped a tire on my car, had another tire on my car repeatedly go flat, and had an unexpected fee added to my rent bill.
All of these things are stressful. This kind of stuff isn’t ever going to stop happening. It’s the nature of life that unexpected things happen. Sometimes good things, sometimes bad things.
This is where the good news comes in: bad stuff doesn’t always feel that bad.
All of these things were things that I could deal with. None of them put me in a financial situation that was untenable, I’m fully capable of fixing all of them with a few phone calls or a trip to the lost and found of the bus service. Of course it’s a nuisance and things I have to add to figuring out in my day to day life, but none of them is the kind of irreversible issue that can’t be solved.
The total revelation for me came when I realized that I can both be upset and frustrated, and still be functional and capable at getting stuff done. Maybe I need to run off to the bathroom for 15 minutes and cry in frustration, but then I’ll pick myself up and fix the problem. This might not seem like a revelation for some people, but when a stressful event can trigger a complete meltdown, it’s amazing to realize that the stress and anxiety isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t stop you from being competent.
There is often an assumption, especially in the more competitive and high test areas of society, that if you have an emotional reaction to something, then you aren’t handling it. That can snowball quite quickly, as feeling the emotion will trigger feelings of inadequacy or a sense that you’re out of control. The emphasis on logic over emotion tells us that if you’re feeling an emotion you’re not in a state to deal with problems. That’s straight out not true: one of the most important skills of being an adult is the ability to feel an emotion and act in a way that isn’t dictated by that emotion. In fact feeling stress, anxiety, unhappiness, or anger at situations like these is entirely healthy and can help you set up ways to keep them from happening again (in cases where you might be able to be more proactive).
So for those who feel mired, imagine this: something stupid and shitty happens. You get a parking ticket. You feel annoyed and frustrated, but you get in your car, you drive home, you pay the ticket, and you cut out something fun in the next week to make up the cost. And then it’s over. It can be that easy. That’s what recovery looks like.