Sitting across from me at a slightly bizarre Lebanese restaurant, surrounded by intermittent belly dancers soliciting patrons to get up and dance, Daniel told me how he was an alcoholic and a drug addict. It was our first date; in fact, it was the first time we had ever met. With his long, surfer hair, hooked nose, and ready laugh, this utterly charming 26 year old recounted hisstruggle with addiction, as easily as telling me what school he went to.
His easy tone was familiar to me. I know that I employ a similar nonchalance when telling people my own story, my own battles with mental health. Partly from a desire to make the whole experience as unthreatening as possible, but also out of a very real need to present these things about myself as normal, free of stigma or apology.
I KNOW THAT I EMPLOY A SIMILAR NONCHALANCE WHEN TELLING PEOPLE MY OWN STORY, MY OWN BATTLES WITH MENTAL HEALTH. PARTLY FROM A DESIRE TO MAKE THE WHOLE EXPERIENCE AS UNTHREATENING AS POSSIBLE, BUT ALSO OUT OF A VERY REAL NEED TO PRESENT THESE THINGS ABOUT MYSELF AS NORMAL, FREE OF STIGMA OR APOLOGY.
Daniel didn’t yet know that I'd had my own struggles, but I responded in kind, talking as though we were just two people making light conversation (all while a distinct lack of eye contact made certain we both knew this wasn’t the case). I told Daniel about how I suffered from extreme emetophobia from a young age, something which I still find extremely difficult to admit—about how that fed a chronic anxiety disorder, manifesting in crippling panic attacks, claustrophobia, and agoraphobia.
After years of concealing this, and sinking deeper into the irrationality of my disorder, I underwent 18 months of outpatient behavioral cognitive therapy, during which time I experienced mild depression. I was 19 when my therapy ended, and I had recovered to a relieving degree.
As I got to know Daniel better, I came to understand more about the details of his addiction and recovery. I believe that is his story to tell, but I will tell you that, after two years out of rehab and staying sober, he still believes that he is an alcoholic.
At first, I understood this to mean that he still doubted himself, that he felt that his recovery was not yet complete. Seeing him as vital and happy as he was, with absolutely no desire to drink or experience drugs ever again, I could not comprehend that there was not an end in sight. That there would not be a point where he would no longer see himself that way. His involvement in AA was something I never questioned, and it was non-negotiable that Friday nights were when he went to meetings, not that I would ever have asked him to do otherwise. He had his own members to mentor now that he had been in the program long enough, and I think I saw him as occupying a teaching position. Repaying his debt to the group and holding close his loyalty to what had been his own lifeline.
It was only towards the breakdown of our relationship that he truly confided why he still thought of himself as an "alcoholic,” despite being clean. Why those meetings were so much more than just mentoring, and how important maintenance of self was.
A number of years passed during which I would say I enjoyed good mental health. I believe I still suffered from certain delusions and behaviors, which were part of my disorder, though to a lesser and more manageable degree. To an extent, I protected myself; I weighed up how a situation could potentially unbalance me or trigger more panic than I might be able to deal with.
Then, at 26, I didn’t even notice as I slipped back towards the desperate clutches of anxiety. This episode was quite definitely stress induced by my workplace and my relationship at the time. It was months before I truly recognized the irrational anger than I blasted my partner with, the spiteful cruelty. I sincerely did not connect my continually upset stomach, or my frayed nerves and emotions, with my mental imbalance.
There are two analogies that I have used to describe this time. The first relates to the sheer anger and hostility that overcame me when I was suffering: do you ever remember being lost as a child? You’d get separated from your parents, maybe in the supermarket, and when they eventually found you—oh Christ, would they be angry! Now that you’re an adult, you know that really, they were just scared. In the same way that a cornered animal will turn vicious, I would lash out in my own uncomprehending fear.
THAT’S WHAT ANXIETY FEELS LIKE—IF ONLY YOU COULD BE SAFE FOR A WHILE, YOU MIGHT RECOVER. BUT, LIFE DOESN’T RUN STRAIGHT, AND YOU NEVER GET THE CHANCE JUST TO SIT STILL.
The second describes how relentless anxiety can be, and how recovery can feel nearly impossible. If you have ever experienced motion sickness, you might be familiar with how every bump and turn just reinforces that nausea. You know that if you could just sit on a straight road for a while, with no disturbances, then you would feel better. That’s what anxiety feels like—if only you could be safe for a while, you might recover. But, life doesn’t run straight, and you never get the chance just to sit still.
I did eventually seek help again. I remember crying to my partner in the middle of the night, again, about how desperately I did not want to go back to therapy. I did not want to admit that I was unwell again, all while he tried to convince me that I had to. For a second time, I recovered with the help of a counselor, but not in time to save my relationship or to ever really feel comfortable in my job in London. Instead, I decided to relocate my life overseas, to Australia which is where I met Daniel.
It was Daniel who offered me the idea that if you consider yourself “cured” of a mental illness, then you are ignoring a very important part of you. As much as mental illness can be triggered by situations or experiences, and I believe it often is, I know in myself that I will always contain those latent triggers. Even if they are reduced to indiscernible proportions, I know that they are there.
Daniel believed that his history had shown his tendency towards addiction and that by simply ignoring that tendency once he felt himself to be free of it, it would be like turning your back on a fire just because it happened to be safely contained at that moment.
I promise this idea isn’t as pessimistic as it sounds; this is not about letting yourself be defined by mental illness. To consider himself as no longer an alcoholic was to remove himself from the Daniel that had experienced that and to separate himself from all that he had learned in those experiences. It seemed disrespectful to leave that part of him so unacknowledged, but it was also so much safer for him to recognize that danger. He also saw the depression he had experienced alongside his addiction as being part of his alcoholism, and that was another possibility he did not wish to disassociate himself from.
I PROMISE THIS IDEA ISN’T AS PESSIMISTIC AS IT SOUNDS; THIS IS NOT ABOUT LETTING YOURSELF BE DEFINED BY MENTAL ILLNESS.
After the trauma of returning to a headspace that I so desperately did not want to inhabit again, and after my experience of losing control of my mental health, Daniel’s way of thinking made a lot of sense to me. Why pretend the problem no longer existed, when recognizing it could actually help me so much more?
I now find it easier to go easy on myself when I do have a bad day, to shrug off small anxieties and move on from them. It also helps me remember more clearly the strategies that have worked for me in the past, and to use them without fretting that it means that I’m relapsing or that I’m weak.
To be clear, I do not consider myself to be someone who is suffering from mental health issues every day. And, I do not believe that Daniel is constantly struck down by what you might think the connotations of being “an alcoholic” are. But, I accept my problems as a part of me; not just episodes of my life to be left behind or abandoned as quickly as possible. It is this, as much as anything, which has helped me remain convinced that I have nothing to be ashamed of.