The start of something new can be both scary and exciting.
Recovery fits that description perfectly.
It comes with the fear of letting go of what has kept you safe for so long, fear of not knowing who you’ll be without your sick identity and a lengthy list of other fears.
However, recovery can also be exciting in unexpected ways. You’re giving yourself a chance at living the life you never thought you’d be around (or wanted) to live.
There are many firsts in recovery; first challenge snack and meal, first grocery shopping trip, first sober celebration, first time in a bathing suit, first Christmas dinner and so much more.
The first year of recovery is chock full of celebration, pride, love, hope and applause from both oneself and loved ones.
The accolades from others are encouraging and motivation to keep fighting to reach the next milestone. In a way, finally being able to make those around you proud after years of what felt like unrelenting disappointment becomes your newest addiction.
So what happens when that first year of recovery ends and it seems to feel as if there’s no more firsts or any more milestones to reach?
No more external acknowledgement, validation or motivation? When it seems those around you have come to believe and assume all is well and that the struggles recovery presents have come to an end? When there is nobody watching your every move because you have regained trust throughout your first year of success? When your body portrays health, but your mind begs to differ behind closed doors?
I’d like to say that by the second year of recovery I know what I’m doing, things are easier and I feel confident in my ability and knowledge of skills that have gotten me to this point.
However, in all actuality I’m finding this new phase of recovery is proving to be more challenging and lonely than I could have anticipated. I believe this to be an effect of the questions asked above. There is no more look of pride from others when you eat a slice of pizza; it’s still scary, that voice still screams, but you’ve learned how to do it anyway.
Nobody recognises the battle with each bite because you’ve had time to practice, so in their eyes you’re better now. There is no more checking in, or making sure you’ve had all your meals, snacks and no alcohol because loved ones trust you again, so in their eyes you’re better.
There is no more respect for your meal times, the importance of them tends to get lost along the way and becomes seemingly irrelevant to those around you because you are past those early stages of recovery, so in their eyes you’re better.
There is no more visible depiction of sickness; the sparkle in your eyes has returned, the scars have faded, your sharp edges have softened, you smile and laugh, so in their eyes you’re better.
There comes a point in your journey when you can experience recovery fatigue.
I can best describe this feeling as wanting to be in recovery yet exhausted from the daily effort it requires. Simply put, just not wanting to work for it anymore – you’re tired, emotionally, mentally and physically.
However this doesn’t equate to relapse or giving up. For myself, it relates to wanting to be normal, to move on from a life consumed by recovery. Why can’t this come naturally, why isn’t this easy by now? The first year of recovery or life after treatment, you live and breathe recovery; psychologists, psychiatrists, dieticians, social workers, support groups, meetings – your whole day is centred around staying on track.
To your loved ones and professionals it seems like an acceptable and reasonable thing to do. It makes sense to put your life on hold and focus all your energy into recovery, otherwise you’d never achieve it. Although sooner than later support groups come to an end, therapy appointments get farther apart, there are no monthly chips to receive at meetings so you stop going and the list goes on.
Due to all of this, in their eyes you’re better.
So, how does recovery fatigue and appearing better in their eyes relate and effect one another?
From my experience so far, the farther along I am in recovery the harder it is to find the ability to reach out, ask for support and vocalise my needs. Why you may ask? Well, I tend to resort to two cognitive distortions in my thinking patterns.
The first being mind-reading; being strong in recovery is hard, so if I’m honest in the moment or ask for support, I fear others will view me as weak or attention-seeking, become annoyed and abandon me – in their eyes I should be better now.
The second distortion my brain defaults to is black and white thinking; it’s all or nothing, I like to win or quit, not rest. Therefore if I ask for support I believe others will assume I’ve relapsed, so I might as well just do that and start from the beginning again.
That way it will justify my need for support, because right now I’m not as sick as I once was, so in their eyes I’m better.
Even with that explanation I still fear writing this article will portray a sense of seeking attention and assumptions of relapse which is not nearly the case.
In reality I’m writing this to express the loneliness felt in recovery when your physical appearance no longer matches your mental state.
I’ve spent the majority of my life mapping my emotions out on my body through means of restriction, purging and self-harm, or numbing my emotions with the use of drugs and alcohol. Those are no longer options or behaviours in my life, therefore in their eyes I am better.
The havoc and chaos within becomes hidden and ultimately forgotten by others as they no longer see a visual representation of pain. If my body is healthy, my mind must be as well, right?
I so wish that was the case.
As the second year of my recovery trudges on and the initial pride, support and structure fades away, I find myself with extra time on my hands. It’s a daunting and shameful feeling in a way. On average, full recovery takes 5-7 years and the average person struggles to understand that. The fight isn’t over when you are discharged from treatment.
The fight isn’t over after you’ve reached each milestone in that first year.
The fight isn’t over when you pick up your one year medallion at a meeting. The fight isn’t over when therapy appointments dwindle down. The fight isn’t over when there are assumptions and expectations in their eyes that you’re better now. News flash, the fight is never over.
In knowing that, the future at times can seem quite daunting. So then where does the shame come from? Perhaps it stems from the fact that in their eyes I should be better, I should be working, I should be doing this and I should be doing that. In all honesty, just because I have more time on my hands during this phase of recovery, does not mean I should be expected to function the way someone without a mental illness can.
When life feels like a balancing act between diagnoses and symptoms, recovery does not happen easily or quickly.
I need your patience, the battle can feel never-ending and exhaustion can takes its toll on my progress. I need your forgiveness.
It’s difficult for others to understand the complexities of recovery or even recognise the struggle without physical evidence. I need your compassion. We try our best to be our best for our loved ones while we recover; strong, independent, fearless, happy and determined.
Our illnesses have likely made us feel like a burden to our loved ones during our sickness, so we don’t want our recovery to feel the same. Asking for support is scary, taking up time and space is scary, being vulnerable and honest is scary.
But nothing is as scary as not feeling comfortable to do so, because in their eyes you’re better.
About our author, Sarah:
Sarah describes herself as a perfectionistic, animal loving, sports fanatic. She is a coffee fiend with an enthusiasm for recovery and a wicked sense of humour. Sarah is fiercely honest, resilient and driven, embracing life one day at a time.