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“Love is the answer.” ~ John Lennon
As part of my recovery, I have to keep a journal.
Part of the reason why is “mood tracking.” This isn’t so much about saying, “Today I was joyous,” or “Yesterday I was miserable“—though acknowledging your true mood always helps.
It’s more about looking for clues, hints as to what might contribute to a low episode, or what adds to feeling alright. In simple terms, it’s about identifying what makes you happy, and what makes you sad—what’s working, and what’s not.
There’s a reason why so many therapists advocate for journaling—the black-and-white simplicity of the written word can often highlight something you miss in the messy, hurly-burly, rainbow-colored chaos that is real-life. And there’s been lots I’ve seen in my journal that I simply ignored whilst being caught up in an actual moment or situation.
However, as well as “mood-tracking,” I also have to complete a more detailed task each week. It could be something quite straightforward (for example, “List 10 foods proven to improve one’s mood“), or relatively abstract (e.g. “Describe depression only using similes, and metaphors“).
A few months ago I was given one of the latter, and it was the hardest one yet.
It threw me, utterly.
It was, “What is recovery?”
That was it.
Now, I can write about mental health until the end of days, but recovery? That’s a different kettle of fish.
My initial responses were bland and prosaic. They focused on the mechanics of recovery and were pretty uninspiring.
I wrote about how I’ve got more wrong than I’ve got right. For every one thing I’ve done well, I’ve done a dozen badly (some of which mortify me). However, that’s life. So what? Recovery might be a metaphor for existence, but that didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know.
I talked about trauma, and the weird ways it impacts our lives. Everyone knows about the panic attacks, and sleepless nights, but freaking out when you see a specific name appear on your phone or in your email inbox is ripe for exploration. As is the way you overcome such wobbles.
But, it wasn’t only that it all felt a bit “meh,” but it was also that, for me, trauma wasn’t the only thing I had to overcome. Trauma may have made my recovery more difficult, but that’s only been a fraction of the journey.
And, as time went on, and I reassessed the relationships that caused that pain, the trauma angle became less and less important. As the people involved receded, so did that part of recovery.
So, where was I going to go with this? What is recovery?
The answer, when it arrived, came over the course of a few months, and, primarily, from three places:
The first was from my job.
Although I’m grateful for the experience, teaching English online was the worst decision I ever made, professionally. I only ever did it because it gave me the flexibility to see my then-partner, but that freedom didn’t balance against the fact that you are sitting at home all day on your own, earning a pittance, having the same conversations ad infinitum.
All of which were fatal to my mental health.
I needed to get back out there. Be among people. Given that this would be my first proper job since my breakdown, I wouldn’t exactly be applying to be the head of NASA. I applied for a job I knew I could get, and that—due to COVID-19—there was actually a demand for. I became a carer once more.
Much of my job involves palliative care, assisting people who, due to terminal illness, are reaching the end of their life. It is, obviously, at times, tough. Inevitably, clients pass on, often very suddenly. But, it’s also probably one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever done.
Sometimes, we are the only people a client has seen all week. Whether due to family estrangement, or Covid restrictions, my ugly face is one of the only ones they’ll see. And the truly weird thing? We don’t really have to do anything. We don’t have to put on a show—we just have to turn up. Brené Brown famously said, “We are hardwired for human connection.” Not for the first time, she’s bang on the money.
Just being there, having a chat over a coffee, taking an interest in their lives—that’s it. That human connection is all they need. It’s what we all need.
However, more than that, there’s love in the face of adversity.
As I said, many of my clients are dying. Often, painfully so. Yet, in the majority of cases, you honestly wouldn’t know it. At first, I thought it was an “old-school” thing—facing the grim future with an old-fashioned, stoic fortitude that my generation seems to lack. But that’s not the part that really hits you.
It’s the partners. The friends. The family members.
It’s the people who turn up every day because they love the person enduring the illness. I know how hard it is for them—many do not hide how physically and emotionally draining it is not only having to help, but to actually watch a loved one suffer. Yet…
They do it. Every single day.
A client’s wife once told me, “You’re not just there for the good times, you don’t leave when things get hard—that’s when you need to love them even more. How you handle the tough times define your relationship.” She then wiped the tears from her eyes, and went back to the room where her husband was being fed by my colleague.
I’ve seen that, over and over and over. Love isn’t flowers, holidays, and nice things bought online—it’s about the lows. About turning up. About human connection.
The thing is, I’d also seen this in all those conversations I’d had in all those mental health groups I was part of online—love, either its presence or absence, was so often a pivotal force. However, it took my job to see that the idea of people, of love, was a tiny bit more significant than that.
The second was my Master’s.
As I haven’t been in formal education for decades, I have to do some “bridging” courses. My initial hostility toward them has vanished; I’m not as smart as I thought I was, and it turns out I needed them after all. One of which was, The Science of Success: What Researchers Have Always Known and That You Should Too. It was brilliant.
The upshot is, you know that secret formula to success and happiness we’ve all been searching for? As it happens, it was never a secret—academic researchers have known it for years. People have literally been looking into this for decades. MIT, Oxford… you name a university, and someone there has done at least one, lengthy, study into what makes us humans “tick.”
The problem was that it was all to be found in dense research journals. And who reads them for fun?
The course basically summed up all that information. And the takeaway is simple: it’s not about cars, or money, or an amazing job; the scientific evidence suggests that these things—in themselves—do not make you happy.
People. Human connection. Love.
Who cares how many qualifications you have, or how solvent you are if you don’t have anyone who loves you? No one on their deathbed says they wished they’d spent more time working—it was the people they wanted more of.
It’s all about people. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of studies attest to this.
The third was when I had my first major wobble in a year.
It was a big one. This was during the lockdown, so I thought I was going to have to stumble through alone. I didn’t. Two friends, who each live an hour away, jumped into their cars and came to socially distance comfort me. They even got me some shopping in so I could focus on simply righting myself.
As is the way when I’m low, I was a bit of a dick and didn’t fully see the magnitude of what they did at the time.
I do now.
I weathered that storm because of them. For them, it was only a few hours out of their day. For me, it’s probably the single greatest thing anyone has ever done for me.
Acts of love and humanity at a time when I was feeling barely human, pulled me back.
And which ultimately gave me my answer to, “What is recovery?”
Exercise. Meditation. Sleep. Diet. Medication.
Do not dismiss the importance of any of those during recovery. Not everything will work for you. But, if something does work, use it, and maximize it to its fullest extent.
However, my recovery revolves around people. Around that human connection. Love.
When I think of the last 12 months, it’s people who mark my journey back toward sanity. Not wishing to sound trite, but it’s love, baby.
Despite not always living a life that matched this ideal, John Lennon did manage to sum up the human experience in one simple lyric:
“Love is the answer.”
Trite? Unquestionably. True? Also unquestionably.
And this has been rammed home for me over the past 12 months with a devastating force.
Love is—indeed—the answer. That’s what recovery is.
It’s about the people who are part of it. The people who turn up.
It’s about the people who hang in there when someone they love is suffering because they care.
The people who educate themselves on your illness, and hang in there (even when you’re being a dick) because they love you, and know that the lows of your relationship matter as much as the highs.
The people who drive an hour to get you some teabags and a packet of biscuits in because you’re struggling.
The mental health nurse who calls you, long since you’ve left their care, just to “check-in.”
The friend who sends you silly GIFs because they know it’ll provide a tiny lift.
The elderly relative who, although they do not understand mental illness at all, never fails to call you once a week.
A million tiny gestures of love, of humanity, that push you forward, and pick you up when you fall.
And it’s those people who, in turn, we want to get better for so we can continue to enjoy their friendship and love. Because it’s those times of love and friendship that will define us. Those moments we’ll remember, or regret if they don’t happen.
My job is my job. Although I aspire to the best carer I can be, and it gives me huge satisfaction, it also doesn’t matter how many people I help in the course of my professional life if I can’t do the same for the people in my personal life. What’s the point of helping dozens of clients if I’m not there for my partner, or friends?
We are all symbiotically linked—never more so than in recovery.
Recovery flows both ways—it’s not just about me. It’s about the people, about the love, in my life. It’s a million different stories.
All about love.
That’s why we get better. That’s what recovery is.
It’s not about recovering your sanity so you can find your vocation and purpose. It’s not about getting well so you can earn an exorbitant wage. And, although these might be the “tools” of your recovery, it’s not about chalking off the “good days,” or making sure you get up early enough to go for a run.
It’s about being able to rejoin the human race, so you can get to a place where you can enjoy sharing a sunset, or a glass of wine in the middle of a field, knowing your loved one is next to you. So that you can be there to get someone else some teabags and biscuits in when their “demons” come calling.
Recovery is a metaphor for life.
And at the heart of both is people.
And that is the story of recovery.