Recovery, Relapse, come as hand-in-hand as peas and carrots

No, I am not about to discuss the 2010 and 2009 albums by Eminem.

Demetria Devine Lovato, known to the world as Demi Lovato. At the age of 25, she has spent most of her child, teenage and adult lives in the spotlight.

I can vividly remember pre-teen me singing, in tone deaf key, to La La Land and chuckling to the ‘hilarity’ of Sonny with a Chance. And I can remember 15 year old me, crying and scoffing an entire tub of ice cream to Heart Attack. She is a chart topping, award winning singer, as well as an actress, model, philanthropist and activist.

She has also struggled with bipolar disorder, depression, bulimia, substance abuse and self-harm, entering rehab for the first time at 18, in 2011, and lived in a sober living facility from 2012 until recently. She has been exceptionally candid and open about her recovery and relapses, from being a Contributing Editor for Seventeen, to appearing in several documentaries, all of which discussed hers and other’s experiences. And she doesn’t omit the setbacks, in the 2017 documentary Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated, she admitted that even after entering rehab, she continued to struggle for at least a year with her substance abuse problem – to the extent that she was in fact under the influence of cocaine while being interviewed about her sobriety for Demi Lovato: Stay Strong.

In June 2017, she posted a heartfelt message and celebration of achieving five years of sobriety:

Her openness has inspired and helped many people get through their own problems.

However, on 21st June she released the song entitled “Sober”, in which she explained her struggle with addiction and sobriety is far from over. In fact, she’d relapsed after six years:

“Mama, I’m so sorry I’m not sober anymore / And daddy please forgive me for the drinks spilled on the floor/ And I’m sorry for the fans I lost who watched me fall again / I wanna be a role model, but I’m only human.”

On 24th June, she was rushed to hospital after overdosing on what the tabloid media has described as a cocktail of drugs. Thankfully, although she is still in hospital, she has stabilised and is set to go back to rehab. The world has poured in with support. From Cardi B, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Ellen DeGenres, to Lovatics, mental health advocates, people who don’t even listen to her music, the list goes on.

For the last few years my whole life has been about recovery and relapse. Back and forth to doctors, therapists, intervention teams and uncomfortable meetings with employers and teachers.

But I can say that, right now, I’m kinda ok. That’s good, right? Sadly, it’s not that simple. It’s got to the stage where, although I’m happy when I’m ‘mentally stable’ – I’m terrified about the finite time it may last. Although as time has gone on, I’ve gotten stronger and more capable at dealing with my mental health problems.

Realistically, and honestly, all it takes is for one bad day to send me straight back to ground zero. And before I know it, I’ll have lost several days, weeks, maybe even months, to my problems and the consequences of their effect on me, my loved ones and my future.

A study by NHS clinicians and scientists from the Universities of York, Sheffield, Huddersfield and Trier, published in Behaviour Research and Therapy, analysed the recoveries of 439 patients in 2017. Approximately 53% of those in the study were once again displaying clinical symptoms of depression and anxiety within a year, up to 79% of these relapses occurred within the first six months of completing their psychological treatments.

Unsurprisingly, the strain on our services was concluded as a factor, Dr Shehzad Ali, from the University of York’s Department of Health Sciences, said: “Our research highlights that, under the current system, some patients are being discharged too soon. As a result, patients who have low levels of depression at the time of discharge are more likely to relapse within a few months.”

I decided to speak to sufferers about their experiences, and also, loved ones of those who have struggled.

Phee, Founder of The Calm Room, spoke to me about her relapses with anxiety, how’s its affected her relationships, people’s assumptions about relapse and recovery and the worlds reaction to Demi Lovato:

When I heard that Demi Lovato had headed to hospital to be treated for an overdose, I was really sad for her. However, I couldn’t help but feel like not only was her privacy being invaded by the press, which should never happen when you’re going through something that, but there were a lot of people showing support to her who – outside in – don’t really seem to do a lot or say a lot about mental illness, addiction and so on.

I feel this is reflective of society in general. I’ve suffered four relapses with my general anxiety disorder in the past 24 months, all of which has been sparked by stress, insomnia and depression. The first time I suffered a relapse, I didn’t know it had happened; I was having obsessive thoughts and completely lost my love of life. My ex-husband didn’t react very well; he is one of the loveliest people you could meet, but I learned that when faced with mental illness, people don’t do very well. It eventually broke us up and I moved back to London to put myself first. His family, while they make out they are lovely people, have made comments about my mental health since this happened. In fact, to quote, one of them said to my ex-husband when he started seeing someone new: “This one doesn’t seem crazy…”

Relapses after this have been caused by breach of trust, which is one of the triggers that sets off my anxiety. Two were due to people gaining my trust and then rejecting me / turning their back on me, and the last one was due to pregnancy and feeling utterly alone and dissociated from the father of my child. I’m still recovering.

The main thing that has been apparent from all of these relapses is that people don’t really understand mental illness or how it affects people, and it can end up in discrimination. My anxiety stops me from working in an office because I don’t want to be around people; my gran made a comment about how she doesn’t understand why I can’t work in an office because it’s not “hard”. Well, for me it is; it can cause me to dissociate. I’m also agoraphobic which means there can be days or weeks I won’t leave the house; some people get frustrated with me because I don’t walk my dog as often as I should and it’s caused arguments. I once had to book a hotel for a couple of nights as my mother started judging me for staying in my room (I was also working in my room) and not coming downstairs when I was exhausted. My dad makes comments about my ex-boyfriend’s mental illness without considering that he is also insulting me.

People might be supporting Devi Lovato openly on social media or to the press, but how many of them really understand what she’s going through and support her in private? That is something we will never see, and so society will probably carry on ignorant to mental illness for a long while to come.

Sammie, 2nd Year History Student at Queen Mary and my fellow Medieval Maiden, explained what it was like watching her dad transform into someone she doesn’t recognise, the impact it had on her, the consequences of our strained system and how the world reacts to celebrities’ meltdowns:

So as background, my dad was involuntarily sectioned for a psychotic episode brought on by stress in 2016. He thought everyone was actors who wanted to kill us, that people were bugging our phones flat etc. But ever since then, the recovery has been harddddd. He refuses to accept help and turned to alcohol instead, though he doesn’t drive a lot he definitely drinks to deal with whatever. He barely speaks now and he’s basically a shell of the person he was before. Talking to him is like talking to a screen, you get no response or anything. As a family member, that’s been the hardest part. The person you knew just isn’t there anymore and you don’t know when or if they’ll come back.

[Me: Do you think it’s naïve of people to assume recovery is a continuous slop up?]

Definitely, it really doesn’t work like that for most people. I had CBT and I really have felt the continuous loop upwards since then. But for problems like that, no. Also there’s no care system in place. My dad was literally released from hospital after 6 weeks and that was it… the home team visited once and then bye.

[Me: How do you feel about the reaction to Demi Lovato?]

I think public support for her/respect is really good, because she had an illness. Nobody just chooses to relapse on drugs. At the same time, I feel like people who are supporting herm but shun other artists for addiction eg lil peep, are warped. They should treat them all of their illnesses with the same privacy and respect.

Olivia, UKCP accredited psychotherapist/counsellor and ACTO supervisor, spoke of her struggle with diabulimia and how those who make look ‘successful’ can still be struggling as much:

Mental health issues such as diabulimia can be devastating for the person suffering with this condition that is not always understood. Diabulimia is an eating disorder that can occur for type 1 diabetics which can be grouped with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia although it also involves taking less medication than needed to treat diabetes. This can be extremely dangerous and some diabetics do die if help is not found soon enough. Diabulimia is not known to all eating disorder units so a website was set up to help both those with it and those trying to help them called DWED (Diabetics with Eating Disorders) http://dwed.org.uk/  DiabetesUK do have some information on it https://www.diabetes.org.uk/guide-to-diabetes/life-with-diabetes/diabulimia

It can start off as healthy eating which all diabetics are suppose to do then shift into disordered eating which can be very hard to shift. Mine occurred at 17 after a time of stress and at the time fear of going into hypoglycaemia which makes one’s ability to function normally go way down. At 17 the last thing I wanted was to look like a diabetic and stick out for the wrong reasons like being ill. I also added exercise to my self-made regime which wasn’t helped when one therapist naively said ‘Exercise is really beneficial’, they didn’t know I was doing loads more than normal.  Finding balance when you are struggling is hard and I’m sure each of us can remember being a teen and wanting to fit in.

At 17 and 32, as I relapsed, I suffered with this condition again at a time when my life looked great with a good marriage, two small children and a safe stress-free lifestyle. Thankfully I got help via an outpatient eating disorder unit and this put me onto a more healing path. Sometime disorders can appear when you have found a safe space in your life; its like the brain decides that now is a good time to recover. After recovery I then trained to become a UKCP psychotherapist helping those who have experienced stress or trauma.

Relapsing can occur in all sorts of mental health issues and send some people to a point of great despair. We have seen this recently with celebrities such as Demi Lovato who overdosed which has said to of caused some long-term damage. She is set to go into rehab according to some media sources. It can be hard for some to understand why some people who seemed to be doing well suddenly slip back into some old patterns. When I returned to my eating disorder at 32 I had been eating ok for 15 years and then also had to get some extra support so help is available. Mental illness is not remedied by ones bank balance so people can be successful and also struggle with distress.

Therefore, although I received support from my family and friends, the above case studies show not everyone is lucky.

Moreover, it can be argued that, as a society we sometimes either more empathetic or totally ambivalent to the struggles of celebrities.

A few months ago I did an article entitled ‘Celebrity Meltdown: Mindless? Subverted Envy? Perverse Voyeurism? Either Way, we revel in the spectacle di Jour of their Rise and Fall’ : (http://cubmagazine.co.uk/2018/03/celebrity-meltdowns-mindless-entertainment-subverted-envy-perverse-voyeurism-either-way-we-revel-in-the-spectacle-du-jour-of-their-rise-and-fall/) which dealt with our twisted fascination with watching celebs ‘going mad.’

I pointed to the classic examples,

‘From Britney 07’, Lindsey Lohan post 07’, Scarlet Moffatt’s weight loss and gain and Amy Winehouse’s tragic descent into drug addiction….A grown woman shaving her own head in the middle of a salon in LA has perversely become entertainment and adorns the covers of Rolling Stone.’ And worryingly the various media outlets which have encouraged our perverse voyeurism:

‘The Biggest Celebrity Meltdowns: Shia LaBeouf to Christian Bale’ – Variety

‘Biggest Celebrity Meltdowns Ever’ – US Weekly

‘Top Ten Celebrity Meltdowns of All Time’ – YouTube

’18 truly spectacular celebrity meltdowns’ – NME

Indeed, I’ve seen tweets, relating to Ms Lovato’s struggle, which were less than empathetic. Two that particularly stuck in my mind were,

I mean she only potentially OD on a concoction of meth and heroin, and who knows the long term affects this incident will have on hers, her families and friends physical and mental healths, but yeah lol. And yet, on the flip side of that, as mentioned, sometimes we care more people we don’t even know rather than those who really matter.

I’m not alone in believing this:

Thankfully, as mentioned, there were those who said it was important to give her support, because of course it normalises these topics and may help others with their struggle. Indeed, this outpouring of, mainly, positive support from fellow celebrities, the media, fans and ordinary people, shows growth from the reactions of complete apathy and mockery to the tragic case of Amy Whinehouse who overdosed in 2011 and Britney Spears in 2007.

And yet, some felt that because she was a white, female, ex-Disney, pop singer, she was receiving more empathy than not only non-celebs, but also less squeaky-clean artists and those from ethnic minorities. Indeed, for instance, the reactions to Lil Peep were not, on the whole, as sympathetic. At the same time, Britney was also all of those things, but maybe Ms Spears received such a backlash because she only showed her experiences to the world through manic outbursts.

Anyway, the point of this article is not about Demi Lovato, or the difference between celebrities and us normies, and it’s certainly not to create a negative cloud around the topic of Relapse and Recovery and how it’ll always be a vicious cycle. The point is to say, for those who are struggling, setbacks and relapses happen, and they might happen a few times before your able to ‘function’ with your problem.

Yes, it will be frustrating, I don’t want to count the amount of times I’ve said to myself: “Is it just always going to be two steps forward, five steps back?!” And yes, those moments of normalness, which I promise will slowly become more frequent and long term, will seem uncertain and tenuous for a while. As I’ve mentioned, I’m constantly on edge about going back to the unstable mess that I was, and there’s every chance something minor will ‘set me off’, at the same time I can say it has gotten much easier to make the “wobbles” not return anywhere as much as they used to.

And to, friends, loved ones, colleagues, be patient, yes, you’ll get frustrated because you’re seeing someone you care about hurting and maybe not doing ‘the most’ to get better. Indeed, I recently spoke to my best friend about how she copes with being the friend and loved one of people struggling with mental health problems (http://cubmagazine.co.uk/2018/07/friends-and-loved-ones-of-those-experiencing-mental-health-problems-occupy-the-liminal-space-between-within-and-without-so-what-do-they-have-to-say/).

And to everyone else, to strangers, journalists, social media trolls and adoring fans, put yourself or someone you love in people who are suffering shoe’s, imagine how frustrated, angry and broken these people must feel. And imagine how you would feel if during this period, you or your loved one would be subject to abuse and mockery by people who don’t know you or them, and therefore do not know the full story.

Beki Morgan, a Masters student, explained brilliantly about she how tries to sustain recovery and advice she has for loved ones:

I’ve had depressive episodes throughout my life, and a few of them have been very severe. This time last year was one of the worst, for months I felt like I was without hope, and getting through each day and night was a struggle. I simply had to break every day down into hours and then minutes and focus on controlling my thoughts through these small periods to avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed by darkness. For me, this was the first step to recovery: a positive change in my thought processes that allowed me to cope. Whether it’s depression, anxiety, addiction, bereavement or the daily stresses of life, people can often find this bitesize approach helpful.

Nurturing my sense of hopefulness was important. I was able to make several important changes in my life: reducing stress, staying away from risks and getting the emotional support I needed to recover. Eventually, I was able to think beyond the next minute to be able to plan the next hour, then the next few months, before I was able to make quite radical changes in my life to reduce the likelihood of the depression being so sever again, and making sure I had the flexibility and resources to be able to cope with it. Mental health recovery is a life-long process: it’s more than a snap intervention that television would have us believe, and it needs to be led by the individual. Every day, we make decisions that risk or preserve our mental health, and it’s important to understand that not every decision may be a good one. We may not have the personal strength, insight or foresight to choose the best option – if there is a best option!

Observing this process from the outside can be a frustrating experience for friends, family, partners and colleagues. People who have reached a low point with their mental health may be especially conscious of this pressure, and I can only imagine how this feeling intensifies for people like Demi Lovato whose decision making is in the public eye. I am hopeful the people around her will be able to reduce this pressure by not demanding too much of her and letting her make her own decisions about her rehabilitation. From my perspective, a sense of ownership is integral to recovery, and to hear Lovato express this in her song, Sober, is a promising step.

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