When I heard that the theme of this year's festival was Reclaim, I felt a mixture of emotions. The notion of reclamation is one that excites and inspires me. However, it’s a very challenging notion too, and the truth is that I'm not writing this from a place of recovery myself. While I have never again sunk to the lowest point of my first mental health crisis, I experience significant anxiety on a regular basis and have done for many years now. The fact that I can work, socialise and live means I am better; not that I am fixed.
I am by no means unusual: an estimated 1 in 4 of the UK population have a diagnosed mental health condition, so why aren’t we more adept at discussing it?
The one thing I wish I'd known years ago was that I would recover. Yes, for most people, myself included, recovery is often not full-scale; it can be slow, difficult and partial but I have always found that things improve. I try to tell anyone I know who is experiencing mental ill health that they'll feel better. I don't think they believe me. Who would? The truth is that no one will ever know exactly how it feels to be inside your head and the isolation of mental illness is often one of the most difficult elements to deal with. So, let’s talk about recovery.
Whether following a brief or a significant period of mental ill health, my path to recovery is always a process of reclamation; a journey of very small victories. This crucial idea of winning something back is how I measure my progress, and my recovery. I don’t (can’t) speak for everyone, but here is my personal guide to what recovery looks like for me.
Recovery means reclaiming food
During my most intense periods of anxiety and panic disorder, food can become a very challenging part of my day. I was very tempted to keep this vague in an attempt to escape embarrassment but I believe honesty is an important part of this discussion. Twelve years ago, I had a period of some months where I was acutely unwell and struggled to leave the house. Alongside many other irrational fears, I became convinced that I would die if I ate anything unusual, eventually subsisting on cans of Baxter’s cock-a-leekie soup. I’m well aware that this is utterly ridiculous, but this is what mental health problems can look like. Even now that I am in a much healthier frame of mind, I become much more cautious with what I eat in times of stress. Thus, a trip to a new restaurant, an impulse order in a café, or a taste of something unusual can all be signs that I’m doing well.
Recovery means reclaiming territory
On a very literal level, the size of my world is clearly demarcated by my mental state. When at my worst, my world can shrink markedly; a small radius encompassing the doctor, my flat, the psychiatric nurse. The journey back to health is marked by gradual, yet massively hard-won, geographical victories: a longer route to the doctor's, a trip to the shop, a walk to the library. In the interests of transparency, I’ll admit that transport and travel are things I continue to struggle with: I’m terrified of getting on a plane again; extended train journeys are currently out of the question; there are days when my commute is a less than comfortable mental experience. And yet, when I look back on days where I couldn’t walk out of my door and around the block, my progress is unmistakeable. I don’t know how or when, but I believe I’ll continue to reclaim more and more territory.
Recovery means reclaiming oneself
The fog of severe mental illness can result in feeling quite divorced from myself. The smallest things can take a great deal of concerted effort and I lose that clear and confident sense of who I am that most people take for granted. At my worst, I can't enjoy the things that I know I enjoy: books, music, food, company. It's as if my mind is too full to take anything else in. I can't concentrate and, unable to voice my thoughts coherently, I can’t communicate properly with others. It often happens that I don’t notice the incremental improvements in my sense of self until I begin to notice that minutes and hours are passing during which I’m lost in a book, or music, or conversation; taking pleasure in things, rather than existing in a state of high alert.
Recovery means reclaiming anticipation about the future
Perhaps more than anything else, anxiety can rob me of a sense of excitement about events to come. Even the most enjoyable events can become things to be endured rather than enjoyed; a series of daunting obstacles for me to cross laboriously. The weight of the future can feel utterly oppressive and I find myself avoiding making plans in order to feel safe and stave off the creeping dread. Perhaps I’ll always feel a degree of insecurity when my diary starts to fill up, but this is one area where I notice a real improvement. It’s maybe because I’m more vocal about how I feel and what I need, but I have much less compunction about cancelling plans. After all, recovery doesn’t necessarily mean feeling 100% all of the time; it’s about having strategies to deal with the way I feel, rather than hoping to somehow ‘fix’ it. With a healthier mindset like this, I can honestly say that right now, I’m excited about what the future holds.
This seems a good place to finish: hope and a sense of optimism about the future are perhaps the most valuable things that we can offer each other, especially in times of crisis. During this year’s festival and beyond, let’s try and talk to each other about recovery and reclamation. It’s something that looks and feels very different for each of us, and that’s okay.
by Rachel Alexander
Rachel is 35 and lives in Edinburgh. Interested in writing, feminism and mental health, she’s an English teacher to trade, and passionate about learning as well as teaching. She loves stories of all kinds, and believes they are a uniquely powerful way of changing the world. Tweets at @rachalexwrites and Instagrams at @rachjanealex.