"Blips and Dips in the Recovery Journey" issue of Visions Journal (2), pp. 20-22
This is a story about how I figured out what I needed for recovery, what works for me and what doesn’t. It is also a story about the challenges of maintaining a new mindset, and how I manage setbacks and prevent relapses. Ultimately, it’s a story of self-discovery.
It has taken me seven years to accept and understand that recovery cannot always be done on your own. It’s okay to allow yourself to build a community in your recovery, whatever you’re recovering from, and in whatever way works for you.
I have struggled with mental health issues and substance use since I was a teenager. My chronic depression and anxiety disorder were never diagnosed—I had no idea I was depressed and never knew I was experiencing anxiety until I grew older. As a teen, I would take any pills I could find from the medicine cabinet. As the years went on, my self-medicating got progressively worse.
As an adult, I was drawn to outreach and support work. Although I am passionate about what I do and I know that the work I do is valuable, I am exposed daily to clients’ trauma, addiction, sadness and pain. Over time, and through many consultations with counsellors and a psychiatrist, I’ve come to realize that I also have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), perhaps complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). My PTSD may be rooted in my childhood experiences, but there is no doubt that my work has intensified it.
I know now that initially my substance use was largely due to my need to self-medicate, to find something to numb myself. Over the years, my addiction has morphed from one substance to another, getting worse during most years, and better during some. In the past, I have been able to achieve “clean time” for many months, sometimes even years.
But addiction is a progressive disease: if you ignore it, it gets worse. It is also chronic, and it’s an ongoing process to stay in recovery. Recently, I’ve learned the difference between abstinence from substances and recovery from substance use. For me, abstinence means avoiding a substance completely but not necessarily exploring the reasons the substance may have taken the place of other coping skills. Recovery, on the other hand, means actively trying to understand the factors that led to substance use in the first place, whether we were trying to fill an emotional void, cope with stresses or escape from traumatic memories. For me, recovery includes facing those triggers, feeling comfortable with myself, healing and moving on.
There is not a “right” approach; neither abstinence nor recovery is better than the other, and they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. What works for one person may not work for another. The healing process is like a fingerprint: unique to each individual.
It took four leaves of absences from work over two years, severe depression and panic attacks, major anxiety, turbulent nightmares and flashbacks, as well as troubles in my personal relationships, for me to finally see that maybe I couldn’t single-handedly tackle the big issues that had been brewing since childhood. Maybe I couldn’t “just deal with” my trauma by myself.
One particular day, something clicked. I knew things had to change. For the first time, I knew that there was more to life than just barely holding on, clinging to the sides of an emotional black hole. I knew instinctively that on the other side of that hole, there was light. I made a phone call to enrol in outpatient treatment. It was the best thing I ever did for myself and my family.
Recognizing and preparing for setback
Today, I know that a setback is brewing when what I call my feeling of darkness starts to become overwhelming. I may appear okay on the outside, but inside, something feels off. If I don’t respond right away—by reaching out to a member of my support group or using one of the self-care techniques I’ve learned in the past few years—the darkness quickly takes over.
I’ve learned to pay attention to my body’s signals. When a slip begins, I may start feeling more tired, more sensitive, more irritable, more on edge. I may isolate myself, my sleep may become irregular or I may feel the need to sleep all day. I begin to feel hopeless, like no one cares. If I don’t notice these signs or choose to ignore them or minimize their importance, I slip down that rabbit hole of self-loathing and despair.
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have had a clue how to pull myself out of these dark, dingy places. But I have begun to find different resources and learn new skills to fill my self-care recovery tool belt. I’ve listed below the seven most valuable steps I’ve taken to connect with these resources and learn these skills.
- I found counsellors that I respect. Recovery is much easier when you make a good connection with a counsellor and develop a therapeutic relationship based on safety and trust.
- I read books ranging from self-help to biography, true stories I can relate to, particularly stories of recovery. I’ve learned to acknowledge and accept that others have dealt with or continue to deal with similar pain.
- I’ve turned to creative outlets like painting, drawing, colouring and writing to release what’s going on inside.
- I’m developing my spiritual side. I’ve embraced my love of nature, going for walks in the woods or by the ocean. I’ve started to meditate to help calm my heart and mind and encourage continuing self-discovery.
- I’ve begun writing. One journal prompt I use frequently is “What am I grateful for?” I list everything I can think of. Six months in, I’m grateful for more things than ever before. That realization in itself is healing.
- I go to support groups and hear others’ stories and share my own. The sense of community connection has been integral to recovery. I reach out more to others now than I have in the past. It was scary at first, but it gets easier each time.
- I completed an intensive eight-week addictions outpatient program. The program taught me how to increase my self-awareness and recognize the triggers that make me want to use. It gave me the tools I need to deal with the emotions that make me want to escape by using substances.
Learning how to love myself—and showing others how to do the same
A woman who helped me begin my recovery journey once posed a question that I now ask myself on a daily basis, both when things are good and when they are going horribly wrong. I’ve asked it over and over until I can now ask it with warmth and a smile: “What would someone who loves themselves do?” When I ask myself this question, it serves as a reminder to be kind and gentle with myself, and to love the person I am.
The seven steps I’ve listed above are steps I have taken—and continue to take—to love and accept myself, to advocate for myself and my well-being and seek support when support is what I need.
When I was in my dark place, I would never allow anyone to help. I was too scared to let anyone in or to talk about what was going on. I did not want to upset anyone or allow them to hear what was hurting me. I thought that substances were the only thing that would mute that constant battle in my head.
I have learned that while I thought my emotional turmoil was invisible to my loved ones, it really wasn’t. When we are in a dark place, we aren’t aware that the pain we are feeling seeps out of us and infects others, who just want so bad for us to feel okay. I didn’t realize that sharing that pain with others would have lessened it—for them and for me.
As I have taken steps towards building what I call my “recovery community,” learning how to receive help from those who want to help, I have discovered that a lot of people struggle with the same things. They face the same sort of challenges identifying negative self-talk and redirecting it, standing up to that nasty inner critic who tells them they can’t handle things. I’ve learned that, actually, yes, I can handle it. I’ve learned to accept that others love me, that I am worthy of that love, and that healing together is far better for the soul than trying to heal alone.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is to set boundaries. Learning how to identify what I will and will not tolerate, learning how to say “no,” is a profound act of self-love. Knowing how to say “no” tells the world—and yourself—that you are worthy. Taking care of yourself, loving yourself—and not allowing people, places or things to make you feel bad—reaffirms that one of your biggest responsibilities in life is making sure you are able to live your best life. Each of us deserves inner peace and serenity and the opportunity to live our best life.
Learning how to love myself has also made me a better mother. I used to try to hide my struggles from my children. I had a strong need to make sure everyone else was okay, and this meant trying to hide from my children anything that might make them worry about their mother. I hid things as best I could—until the pressure became too much and I would crash hard.
While I was in treatment, I learned that my need to “people-please” was keeping me from sharing myself fully with my kids. Now, as a recovering individual and a mother in recovery, I am able to be fully present with my children. They get to learn from my experiences, and I am not ashamed to tell them about my struggles. From me, they learn that we all struggle sometimes, and that when we struggle, it’s important to reach out for support. I teach them how to use the tools I’ve learned, to recognize their triggers and their emotional cues, and how to love themselves. Together, my children and I are breaking my family’s intergenerational cycle of mental health issues and substance use. I am beyond excited to be able to do this learning with them.
About the author
Jillian lives on Vancouver Island with her husband, two kids, two dogs and a cat. She is passionate about her work as an outreach worker. She is devoted to growing and evolving in her recovery journey to best help herself, her family and friends, and those she meets in her professional role