Shades of Kefalonia and the Reality of Recovery

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A restless butterfly whirls about the pine trees; flashes of yellow and white amidst fir-clad branches. Perched atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the Ionian Sea I hear the distant murmur of surf tickling the sandy shores below. My eyes blink closed and, for the first time in what must be years, I feel completely at peace. Everything is OK.

At the apex of my sickness if someone had announced that in three years time I would happily hop on a flight to Kefalonia, by myself, to spend a week at a Greek yoga retreat with a throng of total strangers, they’d have got a smack in the nose. I would have felt a likelier candidate for space travel – that I was being taunted with a delicious, but unrealistic, dream.

But I made it. Several hundred miles on from a bleary-eyed and anxious morning at Gatwick Airport I’d boarded a plane solo for the first time in years, thrown off the shackles of bad health and opened myself up to a whole seven days of new experiences, growth and, well, just good old fashioned…fun. Nestled in the idyllic paradise of Vigla Village I started to realise what recovery looks like. I allowed myself to languish in the acceptance that illness doesn’t rule my life anymore.

But I got cocky. I came home feeling invincible. I stopped bothering to do any of the things that keep me on the straight and narrow – my healthy diet degenerated, I drank more, rested less. And guess what – I wasn’t, in fact, bullet proof. A few hiccoughs at work, a disastrous romantic encounter and one house move later found me feeling less than fighting fit. Fatigue crept in. A dark cloud swept over my head. I felt awful. Not to mention incredibly foolish for daring to entertain the prospect of a new, symptom-free reality.

I pulled through. A month on as I sit tapping away at this blog, I’m feeling much better having focused on eating well, getting the right balance of rest and exercise and just giving myself time to digest various recent life events. Nourishing myself – body and mind. And simultaneously feeling pretty damn sheepish – at how naive I had been to think that chronic illness can simply vanish into the night.

My health is something I have to manage. It’s not perfect and sometimes I live alongside some pretty unpleasant ailments, aches, pains and difficulties. It’s a constant work in progress and I felt ridiculous for allowing arrogance to shake my commitment to staying well.

But despite this realisation I know that I’m in a good place now and that I’m lucky to inhabit the life that I have. Many live with much, much worse. Joy finds me on a far more regular basis than gloom these days – and that will do just fine for me.

Getting back on the underground horse

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I spied her lurking in the newspaper-littered corner of Paddington Station; sneering, shining, defiant. Beckoning me to her shadowy depths. I paused, taking a moment to look up from my steaming tea mug and catch the full brunt of her steely glare. “So…” I mused. “We meet again.”

My nemesis? The London Underground. All I needed was a leather swivel chair and a cat to stroke malevolently – then my London transport face-off would have been Bond-worthy.

You see it’s been more than a year and a half since I set foot in the London underground system – and I have something of a chequered past with these subterranean trains. I’ve endured multiple panic attacks in-between Oxford Circus and Baker Street. The central line is my own personal synonym for ‘hyperventilation’. Descending the steps at Mile End Station literally feels like my lungs are slowly filling with water.

In short? I’m not a fan of the tube.

Over the last five years, every time a bout of depression/anxiety crept into my life the first thing to feel it’s toxic by-products was my ability to make underground journeys across London. Being trapped beneath the city’s streets in overcrowded, pungent and creaking carriages that rattle through darkened tunnels at break-neck speed can be a bit stressful for those in good health. To someone suffering mental health difficulties, it becomes unbearable. The tube is actually a very successful barometer of where I’m at in my battle with the black dog – if I can manage a 40-minute stint in the bowels of the underground then you can bet I’m pretty in control of my adrenaline levels.

I don’t intend on moving back to London. Sure I want to visit every now and then, but I can always get a friend to accompany me underground, or just take the bus instead. So why such a burning desire to conquer my nemesis? They say suffering makes you more resilient and determined; I think that’s just psychologist talk for ‘pain in the arse’. I’m far too stubborn to let my fear of the tube defeat me, even though I could probably find ways to avoid going underground in the future. Depression robs people of so many things, not to mention entire chunks of their life, but I’ll be damned if it alters the way that I choose to travel across my nation’s capital city. I’ll be getting back on the horse, even though my horse resembles a rickety underground train.

Today I had no intention of actually making a tube journey. I was just checking in and saying hello to an old friend. Contemplating the idea of someday soon perhaps taking a very short jaunt along the Circle line. But the fact that I feel ready to even start thinking about getting back on the, er, horse marks a pretty significant stage of my recovery. And for now, that’s enough for even someone as stubborn as me.

Fleeing the comfort zone

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Watching the rows of silver heads bobbing up and down in front of me as the little orange bus hurtles over speed bumps, I have to stifle snorts of laughter. It’s half two on a Thursday afternoon in suburban Berkshire and I’m travelling into town solo on local transport in an endeavour to force myself out of my comfort zone. And I’m the only person on the bus without a freedom pass.

The road to depression recovery is long, meandering and bedecked with obstacles but mostly it’s just incredibly weird. For me the last year has comprised a lengthy detour from the 9-5 London life I once knew, and today it finds me sitting next to a pensioner named Sheila animatedly debating the perils of cheap haircuts. And I kind of liked it.

After vast expanses of time spent deep inside your own head fighting imaginary demons, you’re more than a little unfamiliar with the outside world. It’s like being five years old again but painfully socialised and self conscious while finding yourself navigating the world afresh without a hand to hold. You’re also acutely aware that most people your age don’t consider getting on a bus by yourself and striking up conversation with a stranger ‘massively brave’, like you do.

I’m fast learning that confidence is an infinitely bizarre concept and it seems that once smashed into a squillion pieces by mental illness, it has to be rebuilt slowly and carefully from the floorboards up. This means exposing myself bit by bit, through tiny baby steps, to things that stress me out. When my end goal is being able to fly to New York by myself, the journey begins with a six-minute bus journey that takes me less than a mile from my door. It’s no moonwalk but it’s enough of a giant leap for me and my delicate nervous system.

Once the bus journey doesn’t reduce me to a quivering shell of nerves, I can relax right? The work is done? Wrong. The next step in my cunning plan to conquering public transport and thus world domination is to put myself on longer, scarier journeys on my own. Trains, trams, boats. Further from home. Further out of my comfort zone. It’s a torturous, exhausting process and I hate it already – but because I don’t want to be trapped in an anxiety prison for the rest of my life, it has to be done.

Full recovery is learning by doing. I have to keep forcibly placing myself in situations ‘normal life’ would never have afforded me the sheer oddity of experiencing.

I’m the girl who travels one stop on the London Underground, only to cross over the platform and hop on a tube right back to where I started.

I now know exactly which brand of weirdo I can expect to stroll through a coffee shop door on a Monday morning when everyone else is at work, after forcing myself to sit still, read a book and drink nine cups of tea for three hours last week.

To do something useful with my time and force myself into the outside world I volunteer at a local toddler’s group once a week. I now know the essentials in the psychology of two to four-year-olds, and frequently find leftover bits of glitter down my trousers and wedged inside my shoes for days afterwards.

I now know that random conversations with little old ladies at the bus stop make me smile.

My daily life has become unrecognisable from what it once was when I took my mental health for granted. Obviously I know I’ll have to go back to ‘normal life’, and work, eventually. I want to. But it’s good to know that I can force myself into unfamiliar situations even if I don’t feel like it, and that they will surprise me.

Going through illness and depression has forced me to take life detours I never would have chosen if my days were more straightforward.

Routine only becomes boring when it’s repetitive. Making it routine to do something outside of your comfort zone each day opens a very unique window on the world and it’s something I won’t be stopping even when I’m fighting fit again.

Playing with the big kids

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When you’ve been through a mental illness, the prospect of re-engaging with the world and becoming a fully fledged member of society once again can feel like being catapaulted into London’s Oxford Circus, on Christmas Eve, after living in a cave eating woodlice and talking to rocks for several years.

Fucking terrifying.

The challenges ahead are huge. For me, the thought of living on my own again, getting a job, dating and even navigating crowded trains and buses seems beyond petrifying. I frequently feel like there’s no way I’ll fully reintegrate into the bear pit that is our modern world without spontaneously combusting out of sheer terror. The important thing to remember is you physically can’t do it all at once, so don’t even try.

Especially when you’re dealing with an anxiety and fatigue problem, you have to start small and build your confidence gradually – otherwise you set yourself up for failure. If you broke your leg you wouldn’t try pole vaulting while knee-high in plaster cast – this shouldn’t be any different.

However, unlike physical injuries, mental illness isn’t always visible and easily measured. It’s a lot easier to accidentally run before you’re even meant to be walking.

I learned this the hard way when I attempted to get back into an exercise routine recently. Being in a swimming pool after months of illness-induced sloth felt fantastic. Too fantastic. I totally overdid it and suffered exhaustion, pain and terrible moods for about a week. My doctor suggested trying walking in the water, and only attempting three or four lengths next time. About ten metres into my next session as I wept – after realising I was paying almost £1 per length to stride purposefully through the water like a slightly disabled moorhen – an alarmed looking lifeguard geared up to leap into the water. I assured him I was fine, at which point the tears had given way to manic giggles over the whole stupid situation, and he more than likely started trying to locate the leisure centre strait jacket.

Yes I looked like a bit of a knob, yes I felt painfully self conscious but that day I actually achieved what I’d set out to do, and my health didn’t suffer afterwards. Because my goal was reasonable and realistic, I was able to reach it and actually feel good about myself.

When I’ve achieved something small like catching a bus on my own, I find myself channelling the ‘I’m a big kid now’ child from that Huggies advert. The fact that enduring a few stops alone on public transport without melting in a steaming puddle of hysteria makes me feel so proud, seems ridiculous. But it’s not ridiculous, and that’s what anyone navigating the bumpy path back to normal life after depression will have to constantly remind themself. Each miniscule step is a movement towards conquering the black dog and saying hello to a less anxiety riddled existence.

Progress can be excruciatingly slow with depression recovery. It’s still progress, though – and that’s something I try to remember when I’m dying with frustration over the fact I still can’t do certain things by myself. I’ve learned there’s no point in agonizing over how life isn’t what it once was; better to look at where you were six months ago and see how far you’ve come.

Once your stress addled brain registers a positive step forward – however tiny – recovery starts to get that little bit easier. And with a bit of good faith and hard work, I think any one of us can see that there’s life after mental illness.