When you’re learning to manage a mental illness it’s easy to get caught up in all things mental health. Doctor’s appointments. Supports groups. Psycho-education classes (if you’re lucky). Therapy (if you’re very lucky). Filling prescriptions. Monitoring symptoms. Tracking moods. Tracking sleep. It’s easy to become your journey of recovery. At least that’s what I found. I became identified with my conditions (eating disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and psychosis) and it was almost all I thought about. Understandably so. The involuntary psych ward stays scared me into being hyper-vigilant about any changes in my mood or behaviour. I wanted, at all costs, to avoid falling back into suicidal depression and the florid psychoses I had become so familiar with.
But as I became better at negotiating the episodic and often unpredictable nature of mental illness, I felt comfortable to widen my focus.
There’s still a slice of my attention tracking my inner landscape and monitoring my actions. But I’m not stalking them with my eyes like a border collie does his flock, lying flat, head down and ears stiff. Miraculously, I have been freed up to, well, live life.
I realized this, this past weekend when one of my best friends and I had a girl's day in the city. We window-shopped, shopped-shopped, ate lunch, ate pastries, and at one point we visited a bookstore.
“What section do you want to look at?” She asked me.
“Not the self-improvement section, that’s for sure,” I said without thinking.
I was stunned. She looked at me and my surprised face and replied “Well, I guess that’s because you’ve improved enough.” She smiled. We both did. She knows my history and how hard I’ve worked to get and stay well. When I realized what I’d said, I felt a new space open in me, like layers of bandage had been removed and cool air was gently stroking my skin.
It was the first time I’d ever said anything that in three decades. Seriously. Something not related to self-yelp. Holy cow. Since my early twenties when I started struggling with the eating disorder, depression, anxiety, and unbeknownst to me C-PTSD, I’d always beeline to the personal improvement shelves at our famous Banyen Books in Vancouver, the first New Age bookstore of its kind in the city. I’d scan for titles that named my anguish and offered me hope between their covers. They provided comfort, but not long-term solutions.
At my current stage of recovery (and I’ve had every advantage and privilege to get here and do my best to never take it for granted) I’m standing at a new vista. One I didn’t know even existed or if I did, was long forgotten. I’m intentionally doing things for fun. Actual fun. Not because it’s stabilizing my activated nervous system or beneficial to my mental well-being (though having fun certainly is). I’m doing it because, well, life needs levity.
I’m spontaneously choosing things that are fun because they are just that: Fun. Maybe because I’m no longer in constant survival mode, I can attune to what feels joyful. I don’t always know what play means to me. That’s the journey (more like an adventure) I’m on now, to discover whimsy and wonder.
As my girlfriend and I were walking out of the bookstore, there was a display of neatly arranged orange school supplies. Notebooks, pencils, paper clips, even a calculator, all in orange. Orange is my favourite colour. I was giddy. I couldn’t help myself. I literally did a little jig right on the spot and said with the glee of an 8-year-old watching an octopus changing colour—oooh look at that, it’s orange! How cool is that?
Wonder and awe returned after decades of mental health mayhem. Who would have thunk?