By (V)ike Vinopal
Usually when people talk about being in recovery we automatically think of addiction and substance abuse. But believe me, there are many other shades of recovery in the mental health spectrum. Addiction is merely one facet.
In my life I've dealt with a variety of situations where I needed to learn to understand recovery. Watching people I care about struggle with addiction and substance abuse was certainly part of it but I think recovery in terms of other areas such as post-psychiatric hospitalization have been more misunderstood by the general public.
I am in recovery. From addiction? From substance abuse? No but that shouldn't matter. I say that I am in recovery because a little more than three years ago a couple things happened and I lost control of my life.
Everybody experiences stress and we all have personal ways of dealing with it, but for even the most well-adjusted person with highly developed coping mechanisms, life can sometimes set you up with conditions for a perfect storm of a mental breakdown. I haven't talked much about my experience in a public forum but I hope that by sharing my firsthand account, we can begin to understand recovery more deeply. And if when you're done reading this, you have more questions or you just want to talk, please reach out.
The intense job stress of being a special-education teacher in a broken public school system coupled with ending a two-year relationship with a woman I had once loved, but no longer, were catalysts but there was so much more beneath the surface. When things get crazy in our lives sometimes we find comfort in isolation. But isolation can also be a dangerous place to hang out in the throes of an emotional breakdown. I stopped sleeping and became progressively out of touch with reality. After just a couple days of sleep deprivation I began experiencing symptoms of psychosis including hallucinations, but rather than becoming scared, I romanticized my unraveling.
My hallucinations even provided me with a rationale for doing away with the most rudimentary of self-care, sleep. Figments of my imagination and the crossover of my consciousness and subconsciousness convinced me that it was my purpose, my destiny to conduct a sleep study on myself. I diligently documented my clinical observations of my own symptoms in secret, unbeknownst to my closest friends, like a perverted social scientist. My grandiose delusions grew and grew, morphing into a savior complex. Ghosts from my past needed saving and this was the only way. After one week of sleep deprivation I was out of my mind and I came to terms with the fact that I had let things get a bit out of control, thus surrendering.
Being fortunate enough to have a strong family to lean on, I gave myself over to their care. But I was too far gone and they were only my parents, not professionals prepared to deal with such issues. So off to a locked psychiatric ward I went. I had gotten sick. My brain had become ill. I needed medical help to get right. The doctors called it a manic episode and said I would need medication and close monitoring to get better. And while that part was difficult, disorienting, and isolating in its own way, the true hard work would come in the time following my release and re-integration back into my life, back into society.
As a society, we've come a long way in recognizing that substance abuse issues and addiction are indeed medical conditions, diseases from which the individuals afflicted suffer. Many individuals have come to the realization that being in recovery means a lifelong commitment to staying sober. But what about other areas of mental health?
For those of you that have been through some shit with your love ones, I know what you're going through.
For those of you that have been through some shit yourself, I also know what you're going through.
Once upon a time I was a patient advocate & a mental health case worker. So I learned what breakdowns could look like and what symptoms could be prior to experiencing any myself, at least to a degree that impacted my daily living. I became familiar with a myriad of mental health diagnoses. And I loved my job, despite the challenges it presented. I experienced firsthand what it's like to get sick enough with regards to mental health to need hospitalization, medication and professional support in various ways. Later in life, I had a manic episode of my own, experiencing many of the same symptoms that I had learned about back then, and finally spending five days in a locked psychiatric ward on the other side of the glass, so to speak.
Nothing could prepare you for finding yourself in the hospital and coming to the realization that you had lost control. And nothing could then prepare you for getting out and trying to find who you are again to resume some sense of normalcy in your life.
And nothing could prepare your loved ones, be it family or friends, as this traumatic experience is often a many-headed beast, impacting all involved. You want the person you're focused on to be getting better but you don't have any gauges as to how or when. And that person only wants to be better for you and for themselves. They are suffering. They are in pain. And they need time. I certainly did.
And often depression sets in during that time. It did for me. It was the first time in my life that I experienced such a feeling. I became stuck and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get unstuck. And I couldn't put my finger on why I was stuck either, perpetuating my frustration, my anger, my anxiety, and my shame. I'd sit on the couch, listless. Hours would tick away and I'd let the shame swallow me down a spiral.
Those that consider themselves caretakers will struggle with seeing small incremental improvements, often because this whole experience has fucked them up as well. They become frustrated, angry, and full of pain too.
But as a caretaker we must take a step back and re-frame how we are thinking about mental health. Would we be frustrated and angry if our loved one had shattered their femur? Would we grow impatient with their recovery? Would we tell them they aren't trying hard enough to heal, that they aren't healing fast enough? I sure as hell hope not.
Unlike healing a fracture, there's no one prescription or treatment plan for a broken mind or broken heart. Individuals that go through such an ego-shattering experience begin their recovery as a broken pile of pieces. Pieces of what they once were. They get to choose how to put those pieces back together, not their caretakers. And as caretakers that is a tough pill to swallow, especially when all you can think about is wanting your person back the way they were. Sadly, that's not going to happen. We can't go back. We just have to be there to encourage them and take notice of the incremental improvements because that work is fucking hard, probably harder than anything.
I've learned a lot as a caretaker about recovery and it helped me to refocus on my own, now in my fourth year of recovery. I don't put a lot of weight on the diagnosis that was bestowed upon me. But the reality is the doctors at the hospital told me and my family that I am Bipolar I. In my opinion it's a fairly shitty umbrella term. We're all a little bipolar. The fucking planet earth is bipolar. We all vacillate between happy and sad. If your happiness and sadness vacillates with an amplitude that is outside the bounds of what is considered normal, then there you are. I'd rather say I feel things too deeply. I'd rather say I have a busy mind.
Hey, I kept it together for my first thirty years so that's something. It's not a chink in my armor. It's not a weakness. It's just something that happened and I'm actually glad it did. It forced me to confront some things that were festering inside me that I was thankfully able to work out.
Ultimately I realize how crucial self-care truly is now. Things build up inside you, your stresses, the darkness, and it can get stuck in there. And often, we just cover it up with other stuff. You do that long enough and anybody can snap. So put down your phones and talk to your people. Help each other work out the complicated parts of life. And relish in the simple parts that are easy, like belly laughter and eating together.