“What if it’s different, and what if it’s the same?”: On recovery and relapse

By Georgia Elander

London

CN: Self-harm

 

It’s possible to know multiple, contradictory things at once. We all do.

I know that I will never self-harm again.

But recently, some nights when it’s late and I’ve had a great night and too much to drink, I leave the party and the only way I can get myself home is promising that when I do, I will self-harm.

In the four years since I last hurt myself, I have made extraordinary progress. I am a happier person, a more confident person, and, I think, a better person. I’ve left behind many of the issues that pushed me towards self-destructive acts – but those acts will always be there, present, in my memories, and physically written on my skin. That means that in those unguarded moments where I don’t have the energy or the sobriety to properly care for my mental health, that memory becomes a possibility. An option.

 

“People use a lot of metaphors for it – especially framing it as a journey, a ‘long road’ – but for me that doesn’t fit.

 

I am convinced that it’s an option I won’t ever take again. But sometimes I’m not.

This is what recovery is like. People use a lot of metaphors for it – especially framing it as a journey, a ‘long road’ – but for me that doesn’t fit. When you trip up on a journey, or get too tired to carry on, you don’t run the risk of ending up right back where you started. But even that image of returning to the start, or to an earlier point in the process, isn’t right: with relapse, we don’t simply become again the person we were when we were ill before. Our ill-health has a new context, a new set of circumstances, often new manifestations.

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For me it’s this combination of what if it’s different and what if it’s the same that makes the fear of relapse so terrifying. What if I descend into the same black hole, so utterly devoid of anything good, that consumed me before – but what if this time I can’t make it out?

It is important to remember, though, that recovery doesn’t happen by chance. I worked for it every day and I still do. Sometimes looking after my mental wellbeing feels like a breeze and sometimes it feels like a long hard grind. Whether I notice it or not, I do things every day to keep myself well – from maintaining a regular sleeping pattern to buying flowers for my bedroom when they’re cheap at the supermarket.

The feeling of a relapse ‘coming on’ means that it’s harder to keep doing those things – that looking after my mental health feels too hard, or even that I don’t want to stay well. But of course it means too that it’s all the more crucial to stubbornly, unenthusiastically, begrudgingly put that work in. To get out of bed. To make human contact. I know it’s possible that one day these things won’t be enough, or that I won’t be able to do them. I can’t eradicate that possibility. All I can do is keep looking after myself now, and not forget how important that work is.

The way I conceptualise my recovery is two contradictory things at once. It’s a glass, a champagne flute – always, always, always fragile. But it’s also something hardier, made of clay or wood, built up day by day over four years; something that’ll take some wearing down. I don’t know which one is true. I think they both are.

 


If you are affected by self-harm, consider:

  • Visiting the Mind information page on self-harm
  • Visiting LifeSigns, who provide information on safety surrounding self-harm
  • In an emergency, calling NHS 111
  • Contacting Samaritans

 


All images by nicolás s..

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