The New Normal: What Next?

When I applied to write this column I was a slave to my body and its inability to function properly. I was living in a ratio of about 65% bad days and 35% good days and struggling to cope. My life was spent making plans I knew I’d cancel, lying about how I was doing and pretending it didn’t matter that I was barely making it to uni. It’s been about a year since then and my life looks very different. I’ve rambled on for 7 columns now about how to cope with being chronically ill, but for my last one I want to talk about what to do when you start getting better. I also want to use this space to celebrate my achievements a little bit and, if you’re thinking ‘well, that’s a little self-indulgent’, then boy do I have news for you about the medium of personal writing.

I know that I can only write from my own experience, but I think that the feeling of being stuck between sickness and recovery could be relevant for a lot of people. When you’re mentally or physically ill, it’s difficult to look forward – it feels insurmountable to comprehend a life full of pain. But right now I am well and I’ve been well for a while – So what next? How do you start preparing for a future you’ve barely allowed yourself to contemplate? How do you navigate the space between sickness and healing?

For such a long time I would go to sleep assuming that the next day would be a write off. What I’ve realised recently is that you lose so much time to your illness when you’re in the depths of it – whether it’s depression or chronic fatigue – your time is eaten up by pain. Now I’m well, I have the capacity to use this time for other things that aren’t Being Ill and at first I was stumped at what to do. Eventually, I got a job! I started going to my classes! I learned how to make my own bread! I am so proud of these things that, for other people, might not be a big deal – but who cares about other people’s timelines! (I do, obviously). I experienced an intense feeling of appreciation for the minutia of life, all the small annoying things that people do every day, like making the bed or posting a parcel. After a few months this novelty faded, but I still kept doing them, finding comfort in the consistency of life that had previously been out of reach for me.

So, these are the tangible things that I’ve been doing now I’m healthy-ish. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that the mental stuff is harder. Consciously making an effort to heal your mind from years of self-sabotage and pain is no mean feat, and although I’m definitely out of the woods, I’m not quite in the clear. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the concept of treating yourself the way you would a close friend. This is designed to stop you from being mean to yourself – saying nasty things about the way you look or focusing on your flaws. But what if you’ve never been friends with yourself? What if loving yourself is an impossible task? I do not love my body because it does not function in the way I want it to and I do not love my mind because it is stupid and tells me lies. I don’t think it’s shameful to admit that and I think that’s why the whole ‘be your own best friend’ thing feels stupid to me; I don’t want to be my own best friend! I find myself annoying.

I prefer to treat myself like I’m someone important yet fragile who needs defending. If being kind to yourself feels too hard, put that on pause. Focus instead on protecting yourself from harm. Not just physical harm, I mean all of the ways we like to hurt ourselves, whether it’s drugs, toxic relationships or burnout. You need to learn to value yourself (I’m talking directly to myself and whoever is reading this right now). Stop putting yourself in dangerous situations, stop spending time with people who treat you badly and stop pushing yourself as far as you can just to see if you’ll snap. Recovery is not linear. You don’t just transition from a state of sickness to a state of health. I don’t know if true healing or self-love is possible but I do know that I value my life now to protect it as much as I can. I think that’s the most important thing.

[Madeline Docherty – she/her – @Maddydocluvs1D]

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