Let’s Talk About… Recovery

By Jeremy Godwin.

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.

This is Episode 27 and this week I’m talking about recovery – I’ll be discussing the ups and downs of the process of recovering from mental health challenges, and looking at different things you can do to manage your own long-term recovery. Listen to the podcast now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article version.

Let’s talk!

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Introduction

Well, after covering quite a few difficult topics over the past few episodes I’m actually pretty excited to talk about this week’s subject, recovery, because even though it’s a challenging one I think it’s also a really optimistic topic to be talking about – because the idea of ‘recovery’ is all about the fact that things can and do get better when it comes to mental health issues, with effort and time and patience.

Let me begin by saying that recovery is absolutely possible – so for anyone listening/reading who might be in the depths of mental illness, let me say again that it can get better and it does get better. It won’t just happen overnight, and it won’t be easy, it might mean a full recovery or learning to manage your symptoms while increasing your quality of life over time, but recovery is entirely possible – to quote an organisation here in Australia called SANE, “most people with a mental illness recover well with appropriate ongoing treatment and support” (SANE Australia 2016, source: https://www.sane.org/information-stories/facts-and-guides/fvm-treatment-and-recovery ).  

Recovery is entirely personal. What it looks and feels like will be unique to you, because you’re unique. Later on in this episode, I’m going to talk you through how you can build a plan to manage your own recovery, however first let me take a few minutes to define recovery and talk about some aspects of it that you need to be aware of.

Defining ‘recovery’

What is ‘recovery’ when we’re talking about mental health? According to Health Direct [Australia] (2019):

“[Mental health] recovery is not the same as a cure. Recovery means being able to create and live a meaningful life and contribute to your community, with or without mental health issues. Recovery is about all of your life, not just your symptoms. It involves: finding hope, and developing self-esteem and resilience; having a sense of purpose and meaning in your life; building healthy relationships; [and] gaining independence.”

(source: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/mental-health-recovery)

I think that’s an excellent overview of what ‘recovery’ is about because it covers the whole of your life, and since mental illness affects pretty much every aspect of your life (if not every aspect) what that definition illustrates is that any plan for recovery needs to factor in much more than just dealing with your symptoms.

Recovery is a journey, not a destination. Now that expression gets thrown around a lot and can be a bit of an overused cliché, but when it comes to recovery I think it’s the best way of describing the experience.  

Recovery does not just happen in a straight line nor does it just happen overnight or by popping a pill – it takes time and there will be ups and downs along the way; recovery can often be like a rollercoaster and it often takes a lot longer than we expect, so we’re forced to take things one step at a time and to look at what we’re learning along the way so we can change what we need to change – which can quite often mean changing the direction we’re heading in, and of course that means your destination might end up being entirely different from where you thought you were headed when all this began.

Sometimes, our journey of recovery will guide us in totally different directions and be a catalyst for major change in our lives – so even though mental illness can be awful to experience, it can also serve to be a force for good in our lives.

Just like with COVID-19, there might be a rush to want to “go back to normal” – but in many cases that’s not possible or even ideal… if “normal” wasn’t working before, then your experiences might be a sign that things need to change. If you go back to the way things were, you will have lost the lessons you’ve learned along the way… again, recovery is a journey rather than just being about reaching a specific destination.

I think it’s more a case of growing into something new, because mental health issues can force us to think about what is really important in our lives and to consider what needs to change… for me, I found my own experiences to be an awakening because it made me re-examine every part of my life, change that I’m enormously grateful for now all these years later. I tried to go back to the life I led before my breakdown and it just didn’t fit anymore, so over time I’ve made massive changes such as moving from the city to the country, working for myself, reviewing the relationships I have with friends and family, and changing my priorities to better reflect what is genuinely important to me. My new normal looks a thousand times different to what my life looked like nearly nine years ago when all this started, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Recovery takes time and it takes work. It requires you to look at your overall health – mental, physical and spiritual – because everything is connected. It challenges you to be brave and to take action, even when it’s the last thing in the world you might want to do and even when making changes can cause more challenges. For example, letting go of relationships that no longer serve your wellbeing can really hurt – but sometimes that’s what you have to do. Just like a recovering alcoholic might find it difficult to be around people who are drinking, someone recovering from mental illness might need to think about the situations they’re putting themselves in and make adjustments where necessary. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns; recovery is hard work… but it’s totally worth it, especially when you start to see progress over time.

With that in mind, let’s talk about specific things that you can do to manage your mental health recovery. I’m going to start with some general things to be aware of relating to recovery, then I’ll talk through three main steps to creating your own recovery plan.

Some general advice about mental health recovery

Here are a few general points to consider regarding mental health recovery while you’re thinking about all this:

  • Take daily action – baby steps are totally fine, and sometimes maybe the best you can manage (especially in the early stages of recovery) is simply getting out of bed or having a shower… but it’s still progress, especially if that’s something you haven’t been able to do. When I was stuck in the worst of my own depression and anxiety, and when even leaving the house was a struggle, I would only be able to go to collect the mail from the letterbox at the end of the driveway once a week when I took the bins out (because I knew I had no choice or I’d be swamped by rubbish)… I worked my way up to an extra day a week of going to get the mail, then three days, and so on until I was doing it every single day and eventually I was able to take more trips out of the house and start going back out into public, which would have been almost impossible without those initial baby steps. Any action, no matter how small it might seem, is a step in the right direction.
  • Identify your strengths and build on those – what are you good at? Do more of that. Why? Because accomplishing things will make you feel positive and will help you to accomplish more things. If you want to build your skills to do things you’re interested in, then find courses or have someone show you how to do it. Success breeds success, so really leverage on your strengths and the things that you’re passionate about.
  • Identify your challenges and deal with them (one by one and with support) – for example, if you have unresolved relationship issues with a family member or friend, identify how you can modify the situation (remembering that you can’t change another person – all you have direct control over are your words, actions and feelings). But if a relationship is causing you a lot of issues, then something needs to happen. Now, you don’t need to do that alone; you can of course (and should) get support. And, speaking of support… 
  • Support, support, support – and then more support! – it takes a village, people! There’s a reason why I always remind you to seek support, such as working with a therapist or counsellor, and that’s because “most people with a mental illness recover well with appropriate ongoing treatment and support” (SANE Australia, 2016, source: https://www.sane.org/information-stories/facts-and-guides/fvm-treatment-and-recovery). And to quote the UK’s Mental Health Foundation (2019) again, “the recovery journey benefits from a well-organised system of support which involves the individual themselves, family, friends, professionals, health services, and wider communities” (source: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/r/recovery). You don’t need to go it alone, nor should you; you can find lots of support, either in person or online (and you will find many more therapists and counsellors now offering sessions via video which is brilliant, especially if you find it hard to get to treatment or you live in a rural area), so build your support network and lean on them.
  • Consider long-term plans for your medication if applicable – if you’re taking medications as part of your treatment, you may decide to review that with your doctor regularly e.g. Once a year or twice a year, with a view to working towards a life without medication if that is an option for you/if it feels right for you. A very strong word of warning: NEVER go off your medication without consulting your doctor; you may need to wean yourself off over a prolonged period of time and your condition must be monitored closely to ensure that you don’t experience any adverse effects of withdrawal or a worsening of symptoms associated with your condition. I worked with my doctor for a full three years to first wean myself off anti-anxiety meds and then off anti-depressants (which took a lot longer and was a very rough journey). Do what feels right to you, but ensure you’re consistent with taking your medication and never try to come off them or stop taking them without working with your doctor.
  • Plan for how you’ll deal with setbacks – I mean, don’t plan for disasters (positive thinking and all that) but also don’t be naive and think that setbacks won’t happen, because life will always throw things your way that are out of your control. When you’re in any kind of recovery, setbacks can become triggers that might send you into a spiral or see you pursuing behaviour which isn’t good for you. Setbacks happen in life – we lose loved ones or the world goes into meltdown when a pandemic happens, you know that type of thing – but it’s up to us to work through setbacks so they don’t set us back in the long term. 
  • When it comes to relapse: be alert but not alarmed – look, let’s not sugar-coat this… relapse can happen to some people. However, by having a recovery plan in place and working on your recovery every day (both with support and on your own), you will be less likely to relapse. It’s important to monitor your condition regularly and have regular check-ups, either with your doctor or on your own (but preferably with your doctor). For example, if you’re dealing with anxiety and/or depression then you might it valuable to do the free Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (commonly known as the K10 test) to give yourself a snapshot of how you’re feeling. I’ll include a link in the transcript to the K10 (find it at https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety-and-depression-checklist-k10) but again let me say that you shouldn’t be just doing it on your own, especially in the earlier stages of your recovery, because your condition can deteriorate very quickly if not correctly diagnosed and managed by a professional. I say this from personal experience – I went from breakdown to suicidal in just two weeks, so it can happen very rapidly – so please, go see a doctor. Don’t try to just treat yourself or sit with a crystal on your third chakra and expect that will resolve any issues you’re facing, because it just might make matters worse. So, monitor your ongoing condition regularly and if it’s starting to decline then seek professional help.
  • Be prepared that you will make mistakes and be okay with that – nobody is perfect, and there is just no way to do this sort of challenging work without making a mistake or ten along the way. As long as your intentions are to do no harm to others or to yourself, then treat mistakes as learning opportunities… I talked about this all the way back in Episode 2 of LTAMH so have a listen to that or read it on the website for more about dealing with mistakes. 
  • Celebrate your progress along the way – we often get so caught up in what’s next or what still needs to be done that we forget to recognise just how far we’ve come, so take the time to do that regularly (for example, by reflecting weekly or monthly – check out Episode 12 of LTAMH for specific advice about reflection). I saw a quote by an unknown author somewhere recently that said, “You might not be where you want to be, but neither are you where you used to be” and I think if any kind of progress is worthy of a celebration then that is!
  • One day at a time – wow, who knew I would drop this one in here?! I know, I know, I say it every single episode and with good cause – because we tend to focus so much on chasing the big milestones in life but that means that we’re missing out on all the little things that happen every day, because life is actually a collection of the little moments. Be mindful. Make time every day to smell the roses or savour a cup of coffee or just stare up at the sky and watch the clouds pass by. The most important day of your life is today, because this moment right now is the only one that you have for sure… so why not make the most of it?!

Creating a plan to manage your recovery

Alright, let’s talk through some specific steps to create a recovery plan that is tailored to your unique set of circumstances.

First, work out your priorities. Begin at the beginning by asking yourself, what really matters to you? Why do you want to focus on your recovery? Be 100% clear on what’s important to you and let that inform everything you do and say (or don’t do, don’t say). I did an episode on priorities back in Episode 3 and I’d encourage you to listen to or read that for more detail about priorities, but before you jump into any kind of action for your recovery be really clear on your priorities first, because this will give you a better understanding of why recovery is important to you and what you need to do to look after those priorities.

Next, look at your whole life and consider what’s working well (so you can do more of that) and what’s not working so well (so you can take action, over time, to change it). You might find it very useful to get support here because it can be challenging and even a bit confronting to take an objective look at your life, but it’s worth it; according to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation (2018), “important factors on the road to recovery include good relationships, satisfying work, personal growth, [and] the right living environment” (source: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/r/recovery).

Once you’ve done all that, you can start to develop a recovery plan – you might want to do this with your doctor or therapist (especially if you’re still trying to get your symptoms under control) or do it for yourself (with support if you can). Either way, a recovery plan should include things like:

  • What are your goals? (be specific)
  • What might be holding you back or might be a potential barrier? Consider how you might prevent/overcome these barriers and what support you can tap into (ranging from basic support such as closest friends and relatives through to specific professional support for more difficult setbacks)
  • What you can/will do to reach your goals – break it down into daily, weekly, and monthly actions that align to your goals – but do so in bite size chunks (e.g. Daily walk, weekly phone chat with three people, fortnightly visit to counsellor etc.)
  • What actions will you take for your mental health, your physical health and your spiritual health? (Because they are all connected – your total health will feed into your mental health, something I’ve discussed in past episodes)
  • What support will you need? Factor that into your plan.
  • How you will respond to any setbacks that may occur? (e.g. Additional support from friends, stepping up number of counselling/therapy sessions if you’re struggling with a major setback, etc.)
  • What support will you have, how frequently, and how it will work?
  • How and when will you review your plan? Do so regularly, either individually or with support (or both).

To build a plan there are lots of tools you can use; either find one online that works for you or just jot stuff down in your notes or on a piece of paper, whatever works for you. I’ll include a link in the transcript to the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) resource, which is a “self-designed prevention and wellness tool that you can use to get well, and stay well” from https://mentalhealthrecovery.com if you’re interested in looking at that.

Summary & Close-out

Because when it comes to recovery, what it all boils down to is this: Recovery from mental illness is entirely possible. Even if you’re currently struggling with your mental health and it feels like things might never improve, I’m here to tell you that they can improve and they will improve. It takes time, it takes effort, and it takes perseverance… but things will get better. Healing and recovery require patience and it requires you to be kind to yourself; to give yourself the time to heal and to explore what your experiences have taught you about who you are and what you want. One day, you’ll look back on all of this and you’ll be able to see that even though dealing with mental health challenges is confronting and confusing and scary, it’s also a chance to rebuild your life to focus more on the people and things that really matter to you. And that makes the recovery process less about recovering and much more about growing.

To finish up, let me take a moment to share a quote about this week’s topic that I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:

“We learn from experiences, both good and bad, and with that knowledge comes change… and growth” 

Anonymous

That’s it for this week’s episode. Next week I’ll be talking about feelings – I’ve been talking for a while on LTAMH about the fact that the only things in your direct control are your words, your actions and your feelings… so next week I’m talking about learning how to manage your feelings even when it might seem completely and utterly impossible.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK & Ireland, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada. You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.

You can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest – I’ve recently changed the account name to better reflect the focus on mental health and make it easier for new people to identify what LTAMH is all about, so the new username is now @ltamentalhealth on all social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest).

Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

PS: If you enjoyed this week’s episode/post, please share it with someone you know because word of mouth is a great way to help other people find Let’s Talk About Mental Health (and I’d really appreciate it if you could take a moment to leave a five-star review on your preferred podcast platform). Thanks!

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.

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