recovery is like an onion. it stinks.
recovery is like an onion because it has so many layers. we can peel back the outer layers to get to the inside of the onion, just as we start working on the outer layers of our recovery and travel deeper inside ourselves as we get stronger.
for me, recovery from a major episode of mental illness started in a psychiatric hospital and progressed to a partial hospital program. in the beginning of my recovery i was very weak, both physically and emotionally. i couldn’t function, work or socialize as i normally did. i wasn’t ready or able to explore the issues underlying my illness yet. i was dealing with the outer layer of my onion, my basic needs: food. sleep. shelter. medication. i needed a lot of care from others and my emotions were unstable. i vacillated between deep despair and gripping terror.
after about eight months of living in such a dark place, i peeled back a layer of my onion. my behavior and moods slowly, slowly began to stabilize. my functioning started to return to me – i could cook dinner, clean the house, drive a car. i could volunteer and be around other people in a non-theraputic or family environment. i could watch entire movies without crying and started reading books again. as i was able to meet my basic needs, i started to process what had just happened to me. for the first time i began to think critically about having a mental illness and started to take my care more seriously. i developed an awareness of the shame and silence that had hovered over me for too long. i could see how much work i needed to do.
so i peeled away another layer. i participated in therapy – really participated. while i had been in therapy since the day after my dad’s suicide, i had often just showed up, vented for an hour and then went on with the rest of the week. i didn’t implement any suggestions and rarely changed my behavior. but as i progressed through my recovery i found that i was finally ready to make changes. which included talking about my dad’s suicide, something i rarely did, even within the safety of therapy. i began connecting the dots between my childhood trauma and my present situation. and this is where i see the beauty and importance of the layers: until i stabilized i couldn’t reflect on my own mental illness. and until i accepted my depression i couldn’t peel back another layer and talk about my father’s suicide.
the stronger i became the more i would peel and the more emotions i would unlock. i peeled back a layer when i started this blog, talking about my mental illness out loud for the very first time. i peeled back a layer when i wrote about my dad’s suicide in the washington post, sharing my story and being vulnerable in such a public way. i peeled back a layer when i bicycled in spain in honor of the 20th anniversary of my dad’s suicide. i peeled back a layer when i visited his grave at arlington cemetery. each peel took so much strength and built off of my previous growth. i needed to be ready to face each of these new layers of myself. for years i had covered them up and developed a thick, protective shell around the most painful pieces of my life.
i am still recovering and i am still peeling. it never stops because these is always more to learn. i believe that recovery is every day, and while i am thankful to be out of the danger zone and through the initial layers i know i am still rebuilding. changing behavior isn’t fast and it definitely isn’t easy. just as it is empowering to develop new coping skills so too is is scary to remove unhelpful ones. taking away a negative coping skill – like drinking or shopping – puts me in direct connection with the negative feeling that my behavior helped me avoid. this is a challenging part of recovery: growth can be good and painful at the same time.
recently i have found that emotions and memories are shooting to the surface that i haven’t felt or thought about since my dad died. the pain is almost physical it’s so strong. it shoots through my arms and weighs down my chest. my palms burn with anxiety. i am getting closer to the heart of my onion, working my way through the surface issues and getting down to the deepest wounds. without even knowing it i locked those feelings away – my body was protecting me from things i wasn’t ready or able to deal with.
but i’ve made it this far through the layers of my onion. and i am ready now. i can keep going.
i’m not afraid to peel.