Content Warning: discussions of suicide, self-harm, and substance use. Please take care of yourself while reading.
In the summer of 2019, I didn’t want to live anymore.
I had just finished my second year of college, and I was heading to London in the fall to study abroad for a semester. Only, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to do anything. I felt like I was moving through molasses – every day more difficult than the last. I was living at home with my parents, couldn’t hold down a job, couldn’t feed myself. I lashed out at my parents whenever possible. I cried, and cried, and cried.
My behavioral problems started to accelerate: I was drinking too much, smoking too much weed, and fighting with everyone in my life. I locked myself in my room most days, resigned to watch the time pass through the window. I couldn’t control or withstand my anger, which led to meltdowns where I would break and smash things. At the time, I didn’t know that this episode was symptomatic of a lifelong mental health condition. I hadn’t yet been diagnosed with Bipolar 2, nor had I ever been on medication to address the depressive episodes that I was experiencing.
When my mother saw how much I was struggling, she called around to find me a good therapist. I am so lucky that she took action when she did, and I am privileged that I had that support during my episode. She told me that I could either go to therapy, or I could find a new place to live. So, I started going to therapy twice a week: every Tuesday and Thursday.
Initially, I did it because I had to. I didn’t want to “get better” – I wanted to end my life. I wanted something to change so badly, but I couldn’t fathom feeling better, feeling more in control. When I finally decided to give recovery a chance, it was a last-ditch effort. I had been in therapy before, and found it lacking – if therapy worked, then why was I still having such violent and distressing episodes? But this time around was different. The very first thing my new therapist asked me to do was write down my goals: what did I want to get out of therapy? I had never thought about concrete goals for feeling better – I had never considered that I might need to actively participate in order to get somewhere. I came up with four goals:
(1) I wanted to improve my relationship with my parents.
(2) I wanted to respond to life events rather than react.
(3) I wanted to feel hopeful and excited about the future.
(4) I wanted to find happiness and fulfillment in my passions again.
Those first few months in therapy were hard. I learned how to offer myself compassion, rather than judgment. I figured out my triggers, I learned new skills and coping techniques, and I faced my episodes head-on. I started taking a new medication, started working out a couple of times a week, and eventually decided that I felt stable enough to go to London for my semester abroad.
During my time abroad, I encountered secular mindfulness for the first time. I enrolled in a pilot program taught by a visiting professor from Oxford and spent the next 12 weeks learning how to meditate. I almost didn’t enroll – I was afraid that I wouldn’t be good at meditating. And at first I was frustrated. I couldn’t empty my mind or keep my focus on my breath. But then, after meditating every day for weeks, I realized something: I felt better. Checking in with myself every day made me feel more connected to my inner world. I didn’t have to be good at meditating to get something out of it.
While in London, I realized what my life had been missing: a community. I had never shared my truth with my loved ones – I was always too embarrassed, too ashamed of my behavior during my episodes. When I went abroad, I found a community that made me feel safe enough to share. I opened up about my episodes, my deep-seeded trauma, and discovered that sharing my story empowered me.
I went from being ready to end my life to being excited about what the future might hold in a matter of months. Recovery saved my life – without treatment, meditation, and community, I can confidently say that I wouldn’t be here today. I had hit rock bottom, and I knew there was nothing left for me down there. So, I focused my attention on what lay ahead: what lay above.
The four tenets of recovery, as defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, are Health, Home, Purpose, and Community. These factors make recovery possible. We mainly use the term “recovery” in relation to substance use conditions, but recovery can happen for anyone: for people living with physical, mental health, trauma, and co-occurring conditions. Recovery is all about resilience and strength – when we invest in ourselves, our health, and our communities, we are investing in recovery.
Living with the assumption that something was wrong with me was devastating. Living in recovery taught me how to see my experiences as strengths, rather than weaknesses. I look back on that summer with a bittersweet sadness; if only I could tell that version of me what’s right around the corner.
I tell this story for 2 reasons: (1) part of my recovery journey is sharing the truth of what I’ve experienced. And (2) I want everyone to know that recovery is possible. Since that summer, I’ve experienced panic attacks, depressive and manic episodes, and plenty of other symptoms, but I remain steadfast in my recovery. I’m not “fixed,” because there was nothing wrong with me in the first place. I define recovery for myself as a process of self-compassion: as long as I am committed to supporting myself, I am living in recovery. Eventually, I met those goals that I wrote down in that first therapy session. But the beautiful thing about recovery is that it is always happening – there is always room to grow into yourself.
If you are living with a mental health, substance use, trauma, and/or co-occurring condition, please know that recovery is possible for you. Only you can define the journey, because your recovery is your own. Don’t give up on yourself: recovery could save your life. I know it saved mine.