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On Being a Recovery Unicorn

I have struggled with my mental health for almost a decade. In its early stages, my illness manifested through severe eating disorders. I thought there could be nothing worse than feeling constant hunger and exhaustion and engaging in obsessive, restrictive behaviours. In the years that followed, I encountered unmanageable anxiety and severe panic attacks. Through all their violence, I thought there could be nothing worse. By sixteen, I had become severely depressed. At seventeen I was hospitalised.  In the words of Bojack Horseman, “I’ve had a lot of what I thought were rock bottoms, only to discover another, rockier bottom underneath.” And that has been true throughout my recovery process. 

Trauma is an open wound. There is no closure and there is no peace because it builds on itself until I am numbed into silence. Major depressive disorder has consistently taken from me — it has taken my energy, my creativity, and my attachment to life around me. It takes from me every single day. When I am told that I have improved, I can only see the inevitable pain ahead. 

All of this I can cope with — or perhaps I’m just used to saying that. What has especially burdened me, as of late, is not the absence of serotonin or the onset of panic — it’s fatigue that has become a seemingly impossible barrier. Burnout is common in recovery, and so are oscillations in mood and health. I know this — but it still feels a lot like failure. When you’re in the eye of the hurricane, the promise of better times is hardly reassuring, especially when you know the wreckage that lies ahead. Picking up the pieces, even if less frequently than I once did, is becoming increasingly exhausting. The cyclical nature of mental illness and recovery is to blame, as are the lack of resources in place to aid those who struggle. The rigid fabric of society is suffocating for those who struggle with their mental health, because there is no rest, lest you are prepared to fall behind. 

Herein lies the problem with being a “Recovery Unicorn.” This vocabulary made such sense to me that I expected to find it listed on Urban Dictionary, somewhere between “nut huggers” and “vaxhole” — but, alas, I appear to have coined the term. A Recovery Unicorn is never allowed a break. They aren’t entitled to crumble because they are so much better than they once were. Any faltering will be dismissed because of how far they’ve come, or met with a panic from loved ones that will only lead them to spiral into lonely guilt. I know this all too well. I am a success story — to my parents and doctors and friends, because I am better. I survived, and I am fighting. To say it feels like a losing battle is to devalue my successes thus far. To ask for support is to admit I am not as well as I would like to be, or would like to think I am. To say that my mental illness still gets the better of me is to disappoint all of the people who desperately need me to be okay. They need me to be their Recovery Unicorn — that friend they had in high school who was very, very sick, but look at them now! It doesn’t matter if I am tired, or if I am wavering. They need me to ease their worries, and so I do. I light the path for them even if it seems so unclear from where I stand. I tell them the lies they want to hear because saying the truth aloud could set me off my rainbow path, and whatever lies beyond makes me afraid. 

I do not want to be your sick friend, patient, or partner. Nor do I want to be your Recovery Unicorn. Recovery isn’t linear. I say this to myself until the words envelop me, hoping I will believe them, seeking comfort in them. I know this to be true. I have lived it — I am living it. But it feels intolerable. Without a clear path, everything feels intolerable. The notion that things will get worse and better all at once is incredibly isolating, because the dichotomy of recovery is impossible to explain. I cannot express the glimpses of joy and the flashes of pain that exist on any given day. Controlling the anticipation to get better fast and have it last is hard enough in oneself, but becomes unbearable when I see that same anxiety in those around me. I want to be recognised for my successes and helped through my failures. I can no longer be your beacon of hope. I can no longer be your Recovery Unicorn.

Gabriela Jatene

Columbia Barnard '22

Gabriela Jatene is a dog mom and senior at Barnard College, studying History and English. Contact her about her articles or fear of crickets at gsj2106@barnard.edu
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