Recovery is not a destination, it is a journey.
Being a tri-sport athlete in my youth, I have had more injuries than I can count on my two hands. The most devastating injury occurred at the beginning of my senior varsity volleyball season. I completely tore my ankle in two places after landing wrong on an approach. I was devastated at the thought that my career was coming to a close just as quickly as my ankle had snapped. I could have let the physical and mental pain consume me, but I made the decision to devote myself to recovery and touch the court again. With months of rest, recuperation, strengthening and training I was finally strong enough to play in my Senior Night game. I was so proud of my hard work and dedication that I just kept pushing myself despite my ankle causing me more pain than I wanted to admit. While I was able to make it back on the court, I was never able to play the same again and chose to let go of my dream to play collegiate ball. My ankle was now a delicate thing that could be hurt by any misstep or slight tweak. Three years out from the injury, and it still causes me pain and even keeps me from every-day activities at times.
While physical injuries and mental illness are not exactly the same, both require intense work to return to a state of stability. I have struggled with mental illness my entire life. At the peak of my depression and anxiety, I even attempted to end the struggle all together. Just like a physical injury, mental illness needs to be treated with exceptional care. It was a long, painful journey to reach a point in my life where I was somewhat mentally ‘normal’. I rejoiced in my recovery. I advocated for quality mental health guidance at my school. I graduated high school and moved to New York to start college and a new life. I was recovered, healed, fixed. However, just like my ankle, my mental health was fragile, susceptible to being hurt once again.
When the pandemic hit, all of my biggest struggles came flooding back threatening to drown me with no resources to throw me a life-vest. Depression. Anxiety. Loneliness. My typical coping mechanisms of seeking friendship and environmental distraction were all thrust aside with the lockdowns. I was evicted from my dorm. I was torn away from the people l loved. I lost people I loved. The early days of the pandemic were some of the darkest of my life. In the midst of this darkness, I fell back into old patterns of negative self talk.
“You shouldn’t be this depressed, you’re on medication.”
“You shouldn’t feel the urge to relapse, you’ve gone through intense therapy.”
“Get up out of bed. You’re recovered, so why aren’t you acting like it?”
On one hand, I was struggling with intense feelings of sadness, while on the other I was judging myself for it. I was beyond frustrated with myself, constantly questioning why I could not seem to just be ‘okay’. My mom kept suggesting I go back to therapy or consider a change to my medication. While her intentions were good, I was furious at the thought of needing to return to therapy. I was recovered. I shouldn’t need therapy. These judgments that I casted upon myself only made my depression and anxiety worse.
I finally decided to give up my pride when I fell into a depression that was so deep it felt easier to sink. I knew I couldn’t let that happen, not after all the work I had put in. I returned to therapy bi-weekly. It took a long time, but I finally came to realize that it is impossible to measure my recovery based on the fact that I had graduated therapy and gone years without self-harming. Just like I have pain in my ankle when I step on it the wrong way, there will be days when my mental health deteriorates slightly when I don’t treat myself or my environment with the utmost kindness, love and care.
Recovery isn’t a finite goal that can be achieved. Recovery is a never ending process. It is the painful nights when all you want to do is to slip back into bad habits. Habits that once comforted you in your darkest moments. Recovery doesn’t mean that you won’t have the bad days or weeks or even months. Recovery is recognizing that you are in a bad place and actively combating negative patterns or behaviors that once hurt you. Recovery is finding yourself in those dark places and choosing to see the light.
Written By Cristina Gutierrez