"I recently phoned my sister and she didn’t pick up," writes Jenny Richards. "When she then kept ringing me back and I wasn’t able to answer, she started panicking that I had had a depressive spell."
When I was in the darkest stages of depression around five years ago, the idea of recovering from mental illness didn’t even seem like a possibility. Back then, depression and my identity were just so intertwined it felt like there was no way one could exist without the other. But now, through counselling, support from loved ones, and an increased understanding of how to look after my mental health, it feels both strange and amazing to say I no longer have a mental health condition. But what does it really mean to have ‘recovered’ from mental illness? And what changes?
Strangely, now I’ve recovered, I’ve forgotten some of the darker moments of earlier in my life, perhaps as a coping mechanism. And I assumed that everyone else in my life had similarly forgotten these experiences. No way would someone still see me as a mentally ill person – right?
I recently rang my sister and she didn’t pick up. When she then kept ringing me back and I wasn’t able to answer, she started panicking that I had had a depressive spell. That I was about to do something stupid. And when she got hold of me, I was so surprised to hear that her mind had immediately jumped to this when she got a call from me, just like it was five years ago. I also felt strangely hurt, wondering why she hadn’t seen the progress I had made, and how different I was now. I was annoyed that, to her, I was still the ‘mentally ill’ one. Shouldn’t I be allowed to move on from my mental illness? To be allowed to be sad, without being a depressive? To be organised, without being OCD? Or even just to leave a missed call without it being an emergency?
Hurt and anger
To an extent, I do think that’s true; but it’s also understandable my family are alert to my mental health, and I’m so thankful that they care. So many people aren’t lucky enough to have that. And despite my reaction to my sister’s assumption being hurt and anger, in reality, if she had ignored what she saw as warning signs, it wouldn’t have helped either of us.
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Contrary to the title of this piece, the onus of helping me once I’ve recovered from a mental illness isn’t really on those around me, it’s about a change within myself. My sister’s reaction helped me (very quickly) realise that my identity does still involve having been someone with a mental illness, and if I try to pretend I’m someone entirely new, I could miss those warning signs myself and end up slipping back. My mental health isn’t something I should simply forget, in the way I desperately wanted everyone else to.
I decided to explore my relationship with depression and OCD in my new play, All In Your Head, with it being very new for me to write about something so personal. It was important for me to say that this play was based on my own experiences, acknowledging how much they impacted my life and who I am – instead of just running from this fact.
I explored all the questions I was grabbling with through the piece, which looks at knowing who you are outside of your mental illness, while learning that you shouldn’t be embarrassed that it’s a part of your identity. With All In Your Head showing at the Faversham Fringe in Kent at the end of this month, I know audiences (hopefully!) will be seeing a reflection of my life on stage, but I’m not ashamed that mental illness is still a part of my identity even five years into recovery.
It turns out, I didn’t actually need other people to let me move on from being the ‘mentally ill’ one. It was that I needed to understand what this label meant. Trying to forget my past experiences puts me in danger of reliving them; I need to be aware that I am more susceptible to mental illness if I want to stay in recovery. Because looking after your mental health should always be a part of who you are. Whether that’s when you’re trapped underneath a storm cloud or laying out in the sun.