Losing Self-Identity in Recovery
Words by Carly Bush
Throughout history, mental illness has been romanticized as much as it has been vilified, with every great intellectual seemingly blessed and cursed by a biochemical imbalance.
There is no lack of stories about the experience of depression in and of itself—the heaviness, the hospitalizations, the complex mess of physiological and psychological symptoms. These anecdotes are powerful, and they serve their purpose: to shed light on the reality of some 40 million American adults’ lives.
On the other hand, there are stories of hope and positivity. In recent years there has been a powerful shift towards the elimination of stigma, and more and more people are sharing their personal, heartfelt recovery stories.
It’s inspiring to know that such things are possible. But those stories often lack something, in my opinion. They lack complete honesty. They fail to show the whole picture.
There is a prevailing misconception that once you’ve taken the first step in recovery, once your serotonin levels are balanced and you’re working through trauma in therapy, it will only be a matter of time before you emerge victorious, with no lingering trauma, no backslides in recovery, and no moments of weakness.
To be sure, eventually you may come to a place of sincere peace in your recovery. It is, by and large, a transformative experience. If you keep pressing on with the persistent, stubborn power of hope guiding you, you will eventually see the other side. But it won’t happen exactly the way the media tells you it will.
There is a weird space in between the sorrow and the triumph. It’s not quite as glamorous as either end of the spectrum. It doesn’t tend to make for a good story. It’s a liminal time as hazy and confusing as sleep paralysis and just as misunderstood.
If you have found yourself in such a place, if you are currently on the road gazing at the dim light in the distance, if you don’t remember who you were before any of this happened, remember that you are far from the first, and you won’t be the last. There is a word for this experience: metanoia.
The definition of this mysterious word, literally “changing one’s mind” in ancient Greek, varies depending on who you ask.
In theology it suggests repentance or atonement, a period of judgment intended to soften the heart through painful trials and suffering. In psychology, it refers to a breakdown in which one temporarily loses sight of reality and subsequently rebuilds their life in the wake of that pain and terror.
Either way, we know that metanoia refers to a fundamental destruction of the old self. A profound purification, it is a fire baptism that strips you raw, leaves you vulnerable, and then, eventually, cleanses you.
It’s not a challenge many people want to face, and for good reason. It’s nothing short of terrifying. There will be moments when your old life, no matter how agonizingly difficult it was at the time, appears safer and simpler than the alternative. You will be tempted, at times, to return to old destructive habits rather than pursue forward motion.
All progress hurts before it heals.
You may have heard it said that once you have been exposed to the truth, you can’t unsee it. There is no going back once the light has revealed authentic reality—and as we all know, depression tends to obscure reality. It holds up a black mirror and shows you a half-image, a shadow of the truth.
No one prepares you for the culture shock that comes from having that illusion shattered. Suddenly you’ll look around and realize that the world continued turning in your absence and that it is exactly as you left it. Maybe it’s not a place bright and vibrant with possibility. Maybe it’s still imperfect. But it’s simpler than you’d remembered, and that will be enough.
I’ve often felt that an apt metaphor for recovery is arriving home after a long time abroad. With those strange, meandering lost years behind you, you will find yourself walking amongst foreigners, learning a dead language. You will find yourself playing catch-up, relearning cues, offering halfhearted explanations for why you fell off the map for a period of time.
However brief your time away, you will be haunted by the sense that you somehow missed out on something very significant.
Allow yourself to feel these emotions. Give yourself permission to mourn those lost years. Grief—for the people you lost, for the person you could have been, for the opportunities you turned down out of fear—is part of the healing process.
But after a while, you won’t be consumed by it anymore. You’ll accept that there is no way to turn back time and relive the moments that could have been, and acknowledge that your pain has made you stronger.
Gradually, over time, your shame will fade, and it will be replaced by strength. You may even come to realize that your story has a certain highly intimate power, the ability to change another person’s life. You’ll speak truth from a place of confidence.
Carly Bush is a professional writer known for her visual use of language and stylistic versatility. She has written articles on a wide variety of topics and has been featured in several publications. She is passionate about her work and strives to write meaningful, insightful, and quietly subversive content.