The 8 things that helped me recover from mental illness

It’s #maternalmhmatters awareness week in the UK and I’ve been all over it on Instagram. Today the focus is on publishing and sharing articles and blogs about recovery, looking ahead to the future and self-care – so it felt fitting to share my experiences in blog form. Please do share if you find it helpful. There are so many women out there right now feeling desperately isolated as they suffer in silence.

Mental illness to me felt like drowning. My ship had sunk and I was plunged into a deep ocean, completely submerged. Each time I struggled to the surface I’d desperately tread water, trying not to sink. But I got sucked under again. And again. When I finally managed to get hold of something I held on for dear life. I didn’t dare move, I barely breathed, my world became very small and very isolated. I couldn’t chance sinking again. When my head had stopped spinning I hastily knocked together a makeshift raft from some debris and I was off.

I had a mental breakdown aged 18 and my instinct was to run. I didn’t know any better. I ran so hard that I had a physical breakdown 3 years later. Guess what I did. Yup, I kept  on running. Until I ran straight into my husband-to-be. It was and still is an incredibly healing and nourishing relationship. A new path opened up to me, only it didn’t lead forward. It led inward.

I reconnected with my creative self, a part of me I’d been exiled from.  I reconnected with nature, planting my feet more firmly in the earth. The door to my

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soul creaked open. My theatre work shifted from technical (set building, lighting, sound, etc) to facilitation (running workshops) to therapeutic (dramatherapy). I love this as a metaphor of my recovery – I went from creating an illusion, a facade, to accepting myself fully for who I am.

Each step brought me a little closer to the woman in me I’d been running from for so long – the imperfect, vulnerable, feeling woman who had been violently cracked open and instinctively shut tight again. She needed a whole lot of love to recover. My husband was the first to love her, and then it was my turn. I slowly began to open the doors to other healthy, nurturing relationships – I began to create a supportive community around myself.

My dramatherapy training involved three years of therapy. I cracked open again, this time willingly. I emerged more resilient and more at peace with myself than I ever remembered feeling before. But I didn’t close the door on my soul. I kept it ajar and visited regularly through wellbeing practices that would one day become as commonplace as eating breakfast.

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When I cracked open again after my daughter was born I was better prepared to deal with it. I was so overwhelmed with anxiety that I couldn’t bear to hold my two day old baby. I was terrified I wouldn’t love her and the judgement that would inevitably come when everyone found out what a terrible mother I was. I shared what I was feeling over and over to my husband, my mum, certain friends, my midwife. I opened that door and shined a light on what was inside. There was no hiding. And this time I recovered quickly. I processed what was happening to me and I walked on with clean wounds that slowly healed.

This is my story of recovery:

  1. A healing relationship with someone who was able to love me unconditionally: for me this was a romantic relationship but healing relationships come in many forms. It might be a friend or a family member, or it may be a professional. In psychotherapy, the focus is on the therapeutic relationship. The idea is that whatever interpersonal difficulties the client has will eventually be played out in his or her relationship with the therapist.
  2. Learning to love myself: are you cringing? I used to too, and now I get it. I understand how important it is to accept all the parts of yourself. How incredibly necessary it is to feel whole. It’s not at all straight forward, it takes effort, and it is amazing.
  3. Expressing myself creatively: creativity promotes a more positive state of mind, makes us more energised, enhances our relationships, encourages flexibility, boosts our mood. And that’s just the beginning…. read more here.
  4. Getting outdoors into nature: breathing fresh air, listening to birdsong, feeling the soft grass beneath our feet – there are so many wonderfully joyful, calming, healing offerings to be found in the natural world. I like to bring as much as I can back inside too…
  5. 1-1 and group dramatherapy: I’m a huge believer in the power of dramatherapy having experienced it firsthand. Working creatively with metaphor gives us the distance we need to be able to safely work through the tough stuff. Read more here.
  6. Developing a creative expressive self-care practice that allows me to process on an ongoing basis: this is going to be the focus of my very first e-course! I’m a staunch believer in self-care (I actually believe it can change the world, but more on that another time…). Making more space in our lives for the things that bring us joy, peace and connection, allowing time to reflect and process – these things keep us well and, for the mothers out there, more able to look after teeny tiny people.
  7. Finding my people and building my community: humans are built for connecting, without it we wither. Leaning on others for support is not a weakness, it’s a necessity.  Developing healthy, meaningful relationships is essential to human growth and survival.
  8. The understanding that recovery isn’t the final destination: we mere mortals are all on a spectrum of mental health that we slide up and down throughout our lives. And there is no shame in that, only strength. The healing journey continues. It is not linear but cyclical – we return again and again, understanding and releasing more and more each time.
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