I’ve been struggling to write recently. Both due to pain and brain fog. But I want to keep going. So, let’s talk about relapses.
(Relapse: to suffer deterioration after a period of improvement.)
Now, I’ve relapsed before. It’s terrible. It feels like I finally accomplished something, even if I hold scars from the struggle, and then suddenly… it’s all gone. Then I’m back to tears every moment of every day. When they stop there’s still the pressure behind my eyes and an inevitable headache blooms and continues to worsen over the next couple days until it can blossom into the migraine it wants to be. It zaps me of any energy to do anything, even though I know I should go to the gym or cook some food. It seems so simple. It feels like failure and tastes like disappointment. It’s crushing.
Everyone relapses. So, just as my therapist told me, I will tell you: Relapses are not failures, but rather progress. Real progress isn’t perfectly linear. There are worlds of hurt and pride in each jagged line of your recovery. That’s how you know it’s real. After a lot of personal trial and error and observation, I’ve created plans and contingencies and checklists for rough times.
I’ve put together a timeline of things I attempt to do when I am trying to avoid or deal with a relapse. They’re very specific to me, so this example is more to help you brainstorm similar timelines, then to be an example of what to do.
Relapse stage: On the edge
This is where I am now. Listless and down and apathetic and exhausted and so on. One of the things I try to do at this point is write. Because that’s something that can take up my entire mind. Probably because I put everything I have into my writing. I’ve tried playing music, I’ve tried building things, and I’ve even tried drawing. It’s not the same. Because writing is the only way I’m able to convey something even close to what that moment is holding. I guess this step is the find something you’re passionate about and try to sink your claws into it so that you don’t sink.
Relapse stage: The Beginning of the Fall
Sometimes relapses hit too fast, or the emotions are too pent up to be ignored. Often times, when I try to write, I find that my brain is working too slow to remember what I’m trying to write about. Or I stare at the screen and see nothing but the prismatic effect that tears create. So at that point I’m forced to move to another coping mechanism. I’m usually still able to move around and make small decisions at the beginning of the fall. So I’ve recently found a very effective way for me to channel the negativity. Videos. I’ve found that getting out a camera and just talking to…whoever it is I want to reach…helps cool something inside me.
Often time I’m talking to no one in particular. I’m just ranting about the ‘unfairness’ of it all. Lecturing on how much pain outsiders can’t imagine that I deal with every day. Sometimes, I’ll just talk about what I’ve been debating recently. It helps me solidify philosophies and allows for energy release. It’s different than writing, because talking takes more out of you. Because words don’t travel the same way from keys as they do the mouth. Because your voice can’t lie to you, when your thoughts can. There’s something freeing about sobbing into a camera, or screaming in anger into your webcam. For me, it feels like it lessens the pressure inside, because I’m allowing it out, and suddenly there’s actual air in my lungs not just desperation.
The other advantage of the camera is that you can look back (or delete them if you desire) and see what happened. For me, I often forget what I’ve said. So I go back when I’m feeling better and look at them. They allow me a good look at what I need to keep working on. Also, I’ve got some killer lines or ideas from those moments of raw release.
Relapse Stage: In the Pits
For me, ‘the pits’ is where you end up when there’s no more fight in you, or when there’s no lower level to hit. At least, not this time. It’s when you’re sitting at the bottom of the hole and looking up and asking yourself, “How the hell did I get here? How do I get out?” And most importantly, “Do I want to?”
I don’t think I have a great answer for this one, mostly because there isn’t one. When I’m truly at rock bottom I find being conscious a struggle. My body will shut down and my muscles will shake and everything will seem so…impossible. All emotions are buzzed. All my thoughts turn to ash. It’s like being stuck in a body that has no life in it, and being expected to continue on as normal. So what do I do?
I watch tv. I know that’s a terrible answer, but it’s the only thing I’ve managed to find. I watch tv, but I watch tv shows that have strong emotions in them. I do this because it sometimes spurs the break I’ve been waiting for. By the break, I mean, the destruction of the apathy and the release of the emotions my body is trying to push down and my mind is trying to face. I watch sad movies so I can finally let the tears out. I’ll watch funny shows, to finally feel the desire to be okay. I don’t know how well this will connect with others, since I am very emotionally obsessed with tv and movies. I love all things that are stories, and I love tearing them apart and rewatching and rewatching things to fully dissect them.
Relapse Stage: Damage Control
Once I get through the terrible overwhelming experience of complete relapse I enter what I like to call ‘damage control’. For me, this is when I look at what needs to be done, or what I want to do. I look at what I’ve missed and who I’ve been ignoring. Damage control can create a lot of feelings of guilt and defeat. So the first thing I do is try to make myself feel like a real person again. I take a long bath, followed by a shower and I clean every part of my body twice. And I keep the lights low and I just concentrate on feeling clean. Then I pamper my skin and use my favourite lotions. Then I put on some clothes that are at least decent for public and I sit down at a table. I write notes, most of which will only move to the trash, and I highlight things and use lots of post it notes. I don’t know why, but pretending to have a lot to do helps clear my mind.
Then I like to go out for groceries or even to browse some of my favourite clothing stores. But often times, I don’t have the resources or energy to. So I just take my puppy for a walk. A nice slow walk. Where I don’t think of anything beyond my steps and my playful pup. Now I’ve got myself clean, I’ve got myself dressed, and I’ve got my muscles working. Suddenly, regaining control seems so much more manageable.
Relapse Stage: Prevention
I couldn’t decide whether to put this at the beginning or the end. I decided here, because it felt more reactive here. Especially since, you have to go through relapses to figure out how to prevent them in the future. Now, prevention is not a fix all. You can’t avoid relapsing forever. But what you can do, is soften the blows. Not all relapses are created equal. I believe that only exhaustion can come from trying to prevent all signs of a relapse. Or of distress. Or of sadness.
How do I prevent relapses from having such huge impacts on my everyday life? I plan, and I explain. For my classes during university I talked to my professors beforehand. For my jobs, I found someone I could go to with problems and who could help me run interference. For my family, I’ve created boundaries for when I need them. I also have kits and small spaces and stuffed animals and movies planned and prepped at all times. So when the time comes that I need them, they’re there. It’s not just planning how to avoid relapses. Or maintaining a strict schedule for when feeling bad. I think it’s about the thought you put into yourself.
There’s only so much I, or anyone, can say about this. We all have ideas on how to help ourselves. We all know that setbacks are inevitable. Anyone who says otherwise is cruel or a fool (or incredibly lucky and a fool). But we also all struggle to keep up with ourselves when we’re down.
I guess, what I really want to say is that, just because something is inevitable doesn’t mean that it has to be indomitable. Relapses are natural, and they can become manageable with a little bit of planning and brainstorming.
I have relapses a lot, and they tend to be big when I do get them. They hurt and I never feel prepared during them, but looking back I know they would have been much worse without my contingencies. So I urge you to aim for a controlled fall. Not a desperate inevitability, but rather an enlightened one. I’ve found that it cuts my recovery time in half and helps me face future relapse possibilities.