For those of you who struggle with your mental health, you know that it is not always constant doom and gloom. There are times when things seem clearer and there is a glimmer of hope in our periphery. So why don’t these periods feel like the break we deserve?
All too familiar
When you struggle with your mental health long term, things can become very dark and scary. The places we end up going feel far away and incredibly lonely. It can be a slippery slope to get there and if you manage to turn around, it can feel impossible to return.
If you have been lucky enough to have never struggled with your mental health long term, you would be forgiven for thinking that a break in the darkness would be a welcomed event. But the truth is, it can be just as hard to have those breaks than not.
For the uninitiated in long term or chronic mental health struggles, let me elaborate. When you spend a lot of time in a dark, cold, lonely place, it becomes comfortable and familiar. It has to. If you didn’t learn to be comfortable in these places, life would be too much to bear.
To cope with the weight of our mental health, we learn to become familiar and at home, in the darkness that we find ourselves in. There are even times where we might become attached to, or fond of these places. Sometimes we cling to the pain, to the despair, it can be relied on to always be there for us.
Side note: For anyone reading this that has ever felt drawn back to these dark places, please know that there is no shame in that, it makes perfect sense to want to stay somewhere familiar no matter how detrimental that may be.
When breaks in the darkness come shining through, initially it can go one of two ways. Either it is a welcome respite from the endless struggle and brings relief and joy, or it is a startling and unsettling change that is difficult to cope with in a healthy way. Regardless of the initial reaction we experience, it is undeniable that periods of lightness and even joy are not only enjoyable but necessary.
So, what is the problem with them? From my personal experience, the main issue with the ups that come with mental health comes when you are cognizant of them. The moment you become aware that you’re in a better place mentally, you start waiting for something to happen to make you slip back down into the darkness. With each passing hour or day, you become more and more suspicious of your lightened load, almost obsessing over how or why you’re suddenly feeling better.
This in itself raises difficult questions that you interrogate yourself with. Was I just faking it all along if it’s just vanished? What have I done differently to make things better? Will I ever go back to the familiar darkness or is this it now? Is it over? These questions don’t have an answer. We didn’t notice ourselves getting happier, we can’t answer the why’s and the how’s. We simply end up torturing ourselves with our thoughts.
For the most part, we always end up back in the familiar darkness, it isn’t necessarily inevitable, but it is likely. When we get back there, it feels welcoming, recognisable, safe. It’s like we’ve come back home, and we settle into our familiar feelings. The only lingering evidence of the moments of sunshine is the nagging questions in the back of our minds: did we bring ourselves back here? Did we stare freedom in the face, turn our back, and lock the door? Is this a choice after all?
Let me end by clarifying that I am in no way suggesting that mental health struggles are a choice, they are not. They are difficult, ugly, and unforgiving. They are also great at tricking us into thinking that they don’t really exist for us. Breaks in relentless mental health issues are great until they end, and when they end, they leave us with more pain, more questions, and more self-doubt.
So, if someone you know was doing better mentally and now they’re not, be patient, be kind. Know that they are probably doubting themselves more than ever, and please don’t make them feel guilty for seemingly not appreciating their brief respite.