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Life > Experiences

How to Deal with Setbacks in the Recovery Process

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The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Exeter chapter.

Trigger Warning: This article contains descriptions of personal experiences with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), including intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviours, which may be distressing for some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

The recovery process is not straightforward, and I am no stranger to the ups and downs it brings. However, each time I feel myself slipping backwards, I forget how much progress I had, and have made, overall. I am writing this article currently in a low point, and why I feel it is important to speak up about how true recovery from any mental health condition is, not only for myself, but to anyone who looks at someone recovering and cannot accept that they seem to be struggling- because haven’t they “recovered” already? This reaction I think is all too common, and personally I know this can not only seem like pressure to hide struggles and setbacks, but also makes me internalise the difficulties I am having and doubt my own progress. So, here is the messy truth about recovery.

Saying yes, yes to therapy, yes to healing, yes to trying, yes to life, is one of the hardest steps. But the rest of the ride is not a rollercoaster that only goes up. I think it is so important to be truthful and open about how hard recovery is. I am not meaning this in any regret, accepting that I needed help was to this day, and probably for the rest of my life, the best decision I have ever made. This does not make it a particularly nice, easy or distress free one. In the opposite regard, saying yes meant exposing myself to all my trauma, exploring them and accepting the discomfort, pain and anxiety that comes with unravelling it. Because that is the only way to heal. I believe this whole heartedly, and in the years I have been in therapy, I can say I have achieved so much, and am re-finding the person I used to be, and the freedom I used to live with. Whilst saying yes still scares the sh*t out of me, I wouldn’t say no for a single second because living is, well, it’s everything. So, for me, saying yes meant I was finally on the road to recovery. A road full of bumps, twists, turns and unexpected falls. One of the things I always try to remind myself of is that each time I slip backwards, I use all my leftover strength to remind myself the ups I have made. And if I can do them once, I can do it again! Believing in yourself is always tricky, particularly when stuck in the rabbit hole, but even the tiniest voice can promote your bravery, courage, and to show you exactly the highs you have reached. Something to help with this is journalling during the recovery process, so that during low points, you can remind yourself of the highs on paper, because personally, trusting my own voice can be challenging, but seeing my progress on paper feels a concrete way to prove its truth.

My own mental health has taken a turn recently because of work related stress, uncertainty, and both mental and physical exhaustion. Unfortunately, my OCD triggers around lack of control feasted on this, and I then struggled to de-escalate my anxiety due to sudden routine changes, food related triggers, exam stresses, and then catching COVID again. All of which culminated in my brain coping in the only way it can- shutting down. Before this happened, I had reached a huge milestone in recovery, and had recently made a breakthrough in terms of my happiness, freedom, and ability to alter my compulsive routines throughout the week. And sometimes falling from grace does feel worse. But it is so important to see the positives in this, and whilst I am not glossing over the emotions and pain that are felt during low periods and anxiety, I have the awareness that slipping from a high means that I was there to begin with, and I can get back there with some support. During my own periods of spiralling, I try to keep up with as much self-care as possible, even when it feels near impossible. Easier said than done I am aware, but this message is still one of the truest things I have been told during therapy, and something I try to stick by.

When you really say yes, you are finally ready to live, and you will put all your motivation into doing it. You will feel every single high and be so proud of yourself for coming this far. I often find in the dark moments, this spark, even when it feels tiny, can break through just enough to get me to do one small thing, such as a minute breathing exercise, or even getting up. And that one thing leads into another. And then another. I spent the entire of this morning completely absent from the moment, and only managed to drag myself up after hours, so I am not attempting to suggest I am perfect, but I do hope writing about my own experiences, and what helps might help someone else who may be disheartened after having a slip during the recovery process. One of my pieces of advice for anyone would be to find something that makes you feel. For me, putting my headphones in and listening to certain songs wakes me up from the inside. I need something that makes me feel alive, feel all my emotions, my anger, my joy, all at once to shake me back into my body again. This is just my own way, but it’s the one thing I personally find snaps me back into the present. Explore things to find your own because that little activity can be the wake up call you need in that moment.

I am writing this after having a therapy session and feel myself starting to creep back into my body. I asked for help because I needed it. And this is okay. Recovery is not linear. You don’t start and then suddenly all your problems disappear. You talk, you unravel, you expose yourself to things that scare you, you achieve, you cry (in my case- lots), you feel pride for how far you’ve come, you feel loss for the safety nets you made for so long and the comfort they brought. If someone you love is in the process, do not expect them never to struggle if they’ve shown improvement. I had so many people tell me how much more content I seemed over the last month, but that should not be pressure to stay silent when you fall. These moments are when you need others the most, when you need to be reminded how courageous you are for having tried, for saying yes, for exposing yourself to something that maybe was too much at this point in recovery. But knowing that is okay and next time you might feel more ready. That you can go at your pace. I’m pretty sure no rollercoasters only go up, and recovery is no different. But the highs are worth every fall. If you are falling down the rabbit hole, or are overwhelmed by feeling as if you have “failed recovery” (impossible by the way – recovery is different for every single person), the most important things to remember are: show compassion to yourself, allow yourself the space to grieve the fall, talk, go to therapy, and acknowledge how far you have come overall, you said yes once and that power in itself will get you out the hole. The courage to say yes to life, yes to being scared as hell but still going because you know the end is worth it- that is the most powerful thing we all have in this community so treasure it with everything and use it to motivate you. Because you will go back up <3

Meg Sullivan

Exeter '24

Hi I'm Meg :) I'm a Psychology Master's student at the University of Exeter attempting to navigate my way through my mental health and letting everyone know that they are not alone on this journey <3. I am passionate about promoting self-care and raising awareness around mental health. I love travelling and all things outdoors but am also a sucker for a cosy afternoon with a good book!