It’s taken me a long time to get to where I can talk about an attitude of recovery, and I’m proud of the long and difficult journey it’s been to come here.
I’ve been in recovery for over 10 years now, and I am only 26. I started developing mental health problems when I was 14 and began hopping in and out of psych wards right about then. I’ve already mentioned that I was sexually assaulted when I was seven and dealt with physical and emotional abuse all the way up to age 18, meaning that I’ve been recovering from that for eight years now. During that time I’ve dealt with a lot: physical abuse, eating disorders, OTC drug abuse, self-harm, suicide attempts, emotional abuse, psychosis, and all the assorted fun that comes with getting a diagnosis and treatment.
Last year, as I was truly beginning to feel I was better, strong and secure, I was drugged and raped by a stranger who I offered a ride home after one of my classes. This experience, as I’ve said, was the impetus to begin studying Buddhism. While one of the most horrible experiences of my life, it was also a powerful catalyst for personal growth and change, and I truly believe that the Universe placed this obstacle in my way in order to help cultivate my inner Buddha nature.
Throughout all of this, I have learned that there really is a mindset that helps you get better. Here’s what has helped me, beyond of the Mystic Law of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
Put things in perspective. Whenever something happens, to me or someone close enough to me that I can say this without them slapping me, I say: “Okay, has the world stopped turning? Is there a nuclear warhead coming down? Are the oceans swallowing the continent? Is it the heat death of the universe? Then this is not a catastrophe.” I look around me and see cars still on the road, grass still growing, the wind still blowing the leaves. There’s blood going through my veins, my birds are singing, my eyes are still working. It doesn’t mean that whatever happened isn’t bad, but it means that I can still pull through, because I’m still alive to do so, and because the world hasn’t blown up yet.
The day after my sexual assault, I took a housing-unstable couple I knew on a shopping trip to Target, and then I went to my classes. Staying at home would have only caused me to focus on my physical pain (the man had dragged me down a flight of stairs) and my shock, and I wanted instead to bring myself back into the world of light, the world of people, noise, and happiness. Seeing the joy and gratefulness on my friends’ faces, and receiving gentle hugs from those I knew, brought me back and reminded me that the world was still spinning, a sapphire in the dark. My narrative is not the major key in this symphony of ours, I could tell myself – slipping back into the stream of life’s immortal dance kept me sane.
When you are depressed, get out of the house. I know it’s tempting to lie in bed and just think and think and mourn. Don’t. Get up, get out. Look at some birds. Listen to the trees. Remember that your story is not the only one being written. Feel small. It will make you feel better.
Think about the good in the world. It’s very easy to get down on ourselves and on life in general: to think that there is absolutely nothing to be happy about, that there is nothing good happening. With all the talk about climate change, politics, terror attacks, and mass shootings, it seems like things get worse every day and there’s no hope for humanity in general. Of course, we can’t plug our ears and ignore issues, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the great things that people do, or think that there’s nothing worth celebrating.
Something that I always take solace in, and that always makes me feel better, is the constant stream of scientific discoveries and achievements. When I need a pick-me-up I head over to places like Science Magazine, Science Daily, and Scientific American to check out what amazing things researchers all over the world are finding out about our world and beyond. Of course, you might find other things interesting to look up, like archaeology, anthropology, sociology, computer science, or other fields, and be able to delight in what hard-working people have to share with us.
Take a look back. Part of the reason that I like to blog is because it provides me with a timeline of my life. It’s not just so that I can share my thoughts with the world, but so that I can keep track of how I’m doing and feeling. For example, by looking through my Tumblr, I found that in 2012, I had a very bad relationship with my mother – something I’d completely forgotten about because we have such a good relationship now. We’ve turned our relationship completely, which is pretty miraculous and a real testament to the work both of us have done in getting over the abuse we put up with from my father.
When you record your thoughts throughout recovery, it gives you a way to look back and recognize all the work that you have put into improving yourself. Often you’ll forget just how bad things were and put on your rose-colored glasses as a way to deny just how much you’ve changed and grown. Or you may not realize just much your worldview has shifted once getting out of an abusive situation, going through therapy, or changing your associations while getting clean. Trauma, addictions, and psychotropic medications can all alter your memory, sometimes even wiping out whole months or years of your life. Keeping a journal or blog gives you a way to get perspective on how your life changes throughout recovery.
Remember that recovery is life. Recovery isn’t an event. It’s not a race to a finish line. No one’s standing somewhere out on a road, or in a university, waiting to hand you a ‘recovery degree.’ That doesn’t exist. How do you know when you’ve truly recovered? You don’t. You’ve recovered when you feel better, when you’re happy, when you’re living a life that makes you feel confident and secure. Recovery is about taking back your life from those who hurt you. In that way, recovery is your life. It’s not something you just do in a therapist’s office, like I said before, though certainly therapists and counselors can help guide you quite a lot. Recovery is everywhere, it involves every decision, and everyone you meet can help you. Just like my last partner was a momentous catalyst for a part of my recovery without even meaning to be, there are people who can help you along without ever knowing that you’re recovering from anything.
Remember that your recovery is your choice, and no one can take it away from you. If you take a look back at the squiggly chart of recovery, you note that I put question marks by recovery and healing.
Like I noted before, that’s because not everyone recovers. I don’t say this to be cruel, or to sound harsh on those who struggle with recovery. And I know that what I am about to say may seem judgmental. It’s simply the truth, and to some it may sting. The old maxim “the truth hurts” is appropriate here.
Some people don’t recover because they don’t try, or they don’t want to. They have options available to them (everyone does, regardless of their background, be it leaning on the support of their community or seeking professional help), and they don’t take advantage of them. Is it because they don’t want to do the work? Is it because they are afraid of being a different person? Is it because they enjoy the sympathy and attention of being ‘sick’, and don’t want to give that up? Is it because they aren’t aware they have a problem? I don’t know the specific reasons for everyone; I’m not in their head. But some people simply do not recover.
My father, again, is an alcoholic. He was also severely abused as a child. He fits the classic model of an abused child who goes on to repeat the cycle of abuse. (Part of the reason I’m not having children.) He adamantly said he “would never do that to his children” but … did. I’m not sure if he simply wasn’t aware of what he was doing because much of the time he was drunk, or he justified it by the fact that he didn’t use the same implements or tactics as his parents. But it doesn’t matter if it was a pancake turner or a fist, he hit his children, screamed at them, belittled them, and sexually abused one of them.
He didn’t recover from his childhood abuse or his alcoholism, and I doubt he ever will, because he hasn’t tried. I know he went to a self-help group for alcoholism once, but never has returned as long as I have been alive. The lessons learned there clearly didn’t stick, because he has three DUIs on his record. He never attempted to get his license back, because he “didn’t want the hassle for us,” meaning having a breathalyzer installed in the car. Since none of the rest of us drive while drunk, it never would have been a problem, and we would have dealt with it to help him get his license back. He has never gone to therapy. The only attempts at help he has ever taken is getting on anti-anxiety medication … after all of us moved out and the damage was done.
What this means is that you choose to get better. This is important to remember. Recovery doesn’t come naturally. If you have the mindset that you have to choose recovery, and that you have to want and accept recovery into your life, then you will actively seek out opportunities to get better instead of passively expecting things to go your way. (This is true of … most things in life, really.) Again, you remember that it is a messy and uncomfortable and confusing process. You will have to choose recovery again and again, setback and after setback, because it’s not a smooth, progressive path.
But regardless, it’s also something that no one can take away from you. No one can simply snatch back your recovery. No one can “set you back” in recovery. That’s back to that defeatist mindset, and it also takes your recovery out of your hands – it doesn’t let you choose recovery. It gives other people control. It gives other people the autonomy that recovery is about gaining. Unless someone takes an ice pick to your brain and carefully tweezes out the memories of what you’ve learned during your healing process, there is NO way that someone can “set you back” in recovery. If anything, every time someone tries to knock you down and push you back, they are simply giving you another chance to prove your strength and recover further.
Approach from a standpoint of success, not failure. I literally have that written on a index card on my pinboard. It typifies my whole life and my whole approach to everything, because it is what recovery is all about: going from fear, loss, and helplessness, to power, strength, autonomy, and success.
I guess this is what the attitude of recovery really means, and what all of what I wrote above boils down to. To begin to recover, you really must approach it from a standpoint of success, just like I said in the beginning. (It all comes full-circle: I would get an A on this paper!) And not just healing emotionally, but everything. Approach your life from a standpoint of success. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what happened in your background. It doesn’t matter what your trauma is. It doesn’t matter if you struggle from depression, or bipolar disorder, or PTSD, or anything else. Take little steps to approach from success, and start to let it color your entire life.
Again, I love examples of me, because I am a horrible narcissist at heart. This is maybe a more dramatic example of approaching from a standpoint of success, but perhaps it will give you courage.
My whole life, I have been terrible at math. In third grade, I failed math and the school assigned a tutor to me, so that I could squeak by with a C. Regardless, I have always loved science, but since science requires math, it’s felt like a magical kingdom that will be denied to me forever. I struggled in math throughout my academic career, with ups and downs through different years depending on how well my teacher taught and how much attention I was given. Some years, with a patient teacher, I would get straight As; other years, if the teacher wasn’t as attentive, I’d get Cs or even Ds.
When it came time to go to college, I desperately wanted to do a Biology degree. My mom was hesitant, but told me that it was “my life” and my decision. She encouraged me to try English instead, because I had won awards in journalism throughout high school and was great on the debate team.
Nevertheless, I tried it. And I nearly failed out of school. It wasn’t so much that the classes were hard, but that I didn’t have the math background necessary, and I was still so terrified of math that I wouldn’t go get help. It was more about my confidence than about the material. Ashamed, I went and switched my degree. Though it meant that it took longer for me to finish, I graduated cum laude, with college honors, from UIC with a Bachelor’s in English, an achievement that I am very proud of.
However, I still felt the urge to go back to school. I wanted a degree that would help me compete in a global market, and English, despite being very useful, wasn’t really what I wanted to do with my life. I felt that, if paired with a hard sciences degree, an English degree would help me stand out against those who only had a science degree, but on its own it wouldn’t take me where I wanted. But what about the math …
First, I ignored my urges to go into science. I signed up for a Masters degree in Counseling, but at the last minute, feeling horrible dread, I withdrew. I decided to pursue a 3D printing certificate, but this still didn’t feel right, and the financial aid didn’t come through.
Finally, I decided that I should do what I really want to do, no matter the fear. My English degree proved that I was willing to work hard, and I had taken an accelerated chemistry course and gotten an A, as well as a quantitative logic class and gotten an A in that too. With my interest in biology and my urge to help people, I did a year of Biomedical Technology before moving on to a degree in Global Interactions. Even though I eventually decided on something else, something that uses more of my native skills, I am proud of proving to myself that I could succeed in the hard sciences, even if just for a year. It was a strong achievement for me and one which has empowered me to go for what I want, even if I’m afraid.
The long process of recovery starts when you decide that you are worthy of recovery. It starts in your kitchen, in your garden, in the waiting room of a therapist’s office, at work, at your child’s soccer game. It starts anywhere: anywhere that you make the decision to get better. It will be a strange, beautiful, wild journey, but it will take you to a better life. And that is the best thing recovery can give you.