Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

12 Strategies to Help You Recover From a Relapse

s-BAD-DAY-large.jpgIt’s a dreadful place.


Maybe you had hoped you’d never go there. Or maybe you stay awake fearing you will. It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to stay there for long. You’ll be on your way shortly.

I prefer to use the term “set back” when I get sucked back into the Black Hole–bam!–stuck inside a brain that covets relief, any form of relief, and will do just about anything to get it. Because it’s certainly not the end of  recovery. From depression or any addiction. A relapse merely gives you a new starting place.
Since I struggle with this time in and time out  in my own life, I’ve laid out a dozen strategies to get unstuck … to recover from a relapse.


1. Listen to the right people.

If you’re like me, you’re convinced that you are lazy, ugly, stupid, weak, pathetic, and self-absorbed when you are depressed or have given into an addiction. Unconsciously you seek people, places, and things that will confirm those opinions. So, for example, when my self-esteem has plummeted to below-seawater status, I can’t stop thinking about the relative who asked me, after I had just returned from the psych ward and was doing everything I possibly could to recover from depression: “Do you WANT to feel better?” Indicating that I was somehow willing myself to stay sick in order to get attention or maybe because fantasizing about death is so much fun. I can’t get her and that question out of my mind when I’m pedaling backward. SO I draw a picture of her, with her question inside a bubble. Then I draw me with a bubble that says “HELL YES, DIMWIT!” Then I get out my self-esteem file and read a few of the affirmations of why I’m not lazy, ugly, stupid, weak, pathetic, and self-absorbed.


2. Make time to cry.

I’ve listed the healing faculties of tears in my piece “7 Good Reasons to Cry Your Eyes Out.” Your body essentially purges toxins when you weep. It’s as if all your emotions are bubbling to the surface, and when you cry, you release them, which is why it is so cathartic. Lately I’ve been allowing myself 10 to 15 minutes in the morning to have a good cry, to say whatever I want without cognitive adjustments, to let it all out, and not to judge it.

3. Ditch the self-help.

As I wrote in my piece “Use Caution with Positive Thinking,” cognitive-behavioral adjustments can be extremely helpful for persons struggling with mild to moderate depression, or struggling with an addition that isn’t destroying them. With severe depression or a crippling addiction, though, positive thinking can sometimes make matters worse. I was so relieved the other day when my psychiatrist told me to put the self-help books away. Because I do think they were contributing to my self-battery.


Right now, when I start to think “I can’t take it anymore,” I try not to fret. I don’t worry about how I can adjust those thoughts. I simply consider the thoughts as symptoms of my bipolar disorder, and say to myself, “It’s okay. You won’t feel that way when you’re better. The thoughts are like a drop in insulin to a diabetic … a symptom of your illness, and a sign you need to be especially gentle with yourself.”

4. Distract yourself.

Instead of sitting down with some self-help books, you would be better off doing whatever you can to distract yourself. I remember this from my former therapist who told me, during the months of my severe breakdown, to do mindless things … like word puzzles and reading trashy novels. Recently, I’ve been going to Navy football games, which does take my mind off of my thoughts for a few hours on Saturdays. Not that I understand football … but there is a lot to watch besides the cheerleaders. Like my children trying to score all kinds of junk food.


5. Look for signs of hope.

The little, unexpected signs of hope kept me alive during my mega-breakdown, and they are the gas for my sorry-performing engine during a fragile time like this. Yesterday a saw a rose bloom on our rose bush out front. In October! Since roses symbolize healing for me, I took it as a sign of hope … that I won’t plummet too far … there are things in this life that I’m meant to do.

6. Put family and friends on notice.

The first five weeks of my setback I tried to act like nothing was wrong. I didn’t want to burden Eric with anything else. By the eighth week, however, I knew I needed to fill him in, because it was becoming increasingly difficult to act as if all was peachy. A few nights ago I finally burst into tears and expressed to him how difficult it was to have to work and take care of the kids when I’m combating such intrusive and destructive thoughts. He didn’t say anything. He just rubbed my back. And I felt a whole lot better having opened up to him. Good, solid support is vital for any type of recovery, whether it be giving up cigarettes or booze or, for a manic depressive, trying like hell to temper your moods.


7. Make necessary adjustments.

Sometimes a relapse can signal that you need to make an adjustment in your life. Looking back, I know that mine was partly caused by my summer schedule. Eric and I were very short on cash last summer, so I wrote all of my summer blogs in five weeks. That way I didn’t have to hire a babysitter for the other seven weeks. Moreover, I planned out the summer like a mathematician, blanking on one detail: I’m not built like other people. I am a fragile creature who has an illness called bipolar disorder. Because of that, I can’t expect myself to work at a manic rate and not suffer some consequences.

The adjustments? Eric and I recently sat down with the budget for 2010. I told him that I absolutely needed to put my health first, that we were going to have to come up with the income to hire a sitter next summer. “I’d gladly move into a small apartment, or take a second mortgage on the house,” I said, “but I cannot repeat that mistake because I’m still recovering from the damage done in June and July.” I’m also beginning to interview sitters for next summer right now, so that I am prepared come May of 2010.


8. Say yes anyway.

In her book “Solace: Finding Your Way Through Grief and Learning to Live Again,” author Roberta Temes suggests a policy whereby you always say yes to an invitation out. That keeps you from isolating, which is so easy to do when you’re grieving or stuck in a depression or off the wagon in a big way. I’ve been following this piece of advice. When a friend asks me to have coffee (and I really hope she doesn’t!), I have to say yes. It’s non-negotiable. Until I feel better and get back my brain.

9. Break your day into moments.

Most depressives and addicts would agree that “a day at a time” simply doesn’t cut it. That’s WAY too long. Especially first thing in the morning. I have to get to bedtime? Are you kidding me? So when rear-ended in the depression tunnel or fighting one of my many addictions, I break the day into about 850 moments. Each minute has a few moments. Right now it’s 11:00. I only have to worry about what I’m doing now, until, say 11:02.


10. Remember your mantras.

Yep. Time to pull out those babies, and try to believe them as you’re saying them. Here are some that I’m using now: “I’m okay.” “It’s okay.” “I am enough.” “I have enough.” “I am loved.” “I am good enough.” “I will feel better.” “This too shall pass.” “Let it pass.” “Hello???? Anyone there?????”

11. Get involved.

A Beyond Blue reader commented a few weeks ago that what helps her more than anything when she is depressed is getting involved. I second this. I think that I’ve been able to buffer myself from a full breakdown this autumn by my efforts to stay involved: swimming with the masters program at the Naval Academy at least twice a week, participating in some of the parents’ programs at the kids’ school, and tutoring the midshipmen in writing once a week. Getting involved when you’re depressed or disabled by addiction always feels counter-intuitive. Most of us want to isolate. But when you’re with people, you don’t ruminate as much. You can’t. You’re supposed to be paying attention.


12. Enjoy the small things.

This one sounds like one of those fruity affirmations you’d get with your palm reading. But if you can pull it off, you’ll be well on your way out of a relapse. Here’s an example: Yesterday, Katherine baked an apple pie in her cooking class. When I went to the school cafeteria to fetch her, the site of my kindergartener making her own apple pie was very sweet. So was the pie with vanilla ice-cream, which we enjoyed as an afterschool treat. I hung onto that moment for as long as I could. Just tasting the pie, and the fact that my daughter is healthy enough to bake one. It made me happy for like seven minutes. Progress, right?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Cheryl

    Just called up the website today after a long absence and your “Strategies…” came up — timely for me. Have been feeling sucked back by depression all spring — and lack a close supportive partner, but do have a couple of close, patient encouraging friends. I think you are the first person who said to chuck the self-help books (big smile; that’s about 20 seconds of relief)- I used to torture myself with. It is a help to know that “normal” for some of us requires conscious awareness and deliberately pushing ourselves to get out and do something- with other people – when that’s the last thing in the world that feels natural. A very good post.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Excelsior

    A relapse is an event(s). It is not permanent. It does however require assessment and repositioning. Like a ship hit by a storm. Here we have our own Ship of Life, where we can Stay the Course. String the positives like rosary beads.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Natalie Swart

    I am so like you! This has helped me so incredibly much.
    I feel bad because I can’t cope, and I blame myself and tell myself to just ‘buck-up’. When I finally realize that I should just know that ‘this too shall pass’. I am currently going through a relapse, and it’s the first time my husband is seeing me like this (we only recently got married). And even though he knows about my depression,I was trying so hard to act happy and ‘normal’, Now I’m breaking my feelings to him gently – afraid every time I cry that he will be scared off, or worse – try to fix me! So far so good, he is learning how to react and help me.
    It’s a long road. Thank you so much for making this road a little less difficult.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Paula

    I am desperately sad. I’ve been drawing on the people in my life to remind myself that I am worthwhile. Moment by moment. Distraction to distraction. This too shall pass. Thanks for the post. It helped to be reminded that I’m not defenseless against the onslaught.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Noah B.

    So glad I logged on to your site today as I am going through a bit of a depressive relapse right now with some extra stress as I move through a career transition. Before I was thinking “I can’t do this again, I can’t go to this place again,” but if I look at it more as part of a cycle then maybe I will be better able to cope with it and utilize some of the strategies I did last time to recover. Thanks for this timely (for me!) post.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jean

    A friend posted this, and I really appreciate what you’ve written here. I have struggled with depression for much of my adult life. One thing that helps me to come out of that hole, or from falling deeper into it, are repetitive chores where I don’t have to think too hard about what I’m doing and can let my mind wander. Say like washing dishes or folding laundry. I feel good in an incremental way about getting needed chores done and it distracts me from thinking too destructively about my self or situation. The process is somewhat contemplative as well so I sometimes am given answers to the problems that challenge me. Thanks again for your words.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment lila

    I read your book “Beyond Blue” and was blown away by your honesty and wit. My adult son is bi-polar and I have dealt with depression off and on most of my life. Right now my mental health is being challenged by some life changes and I’m meditating. It has helped to some degree and I wonder if you have had any experience with meditating and how it worked for you. Thank you for your blog.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment spareparts

    Hi Therese,

    This is a timely post. #3, “… try not to fret.” Otherwise, I don’t want to do anything anymore. Not even breathe. But as you say, ‘It will pass.’ I hope so.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Cissy

    My life has been a mess, but I look around me and see all the people who have it worse and realize what and how much I do have. Mind you I do not have my own house a job and Im 42 starting all over again, with a child of 11. I want a real boyfriend I want that new car, my own house. Im going to undergraduate college and I just pray everyday, Im making the right choices in order to move forward. I do not want to die before I reach my goals. I have so much I wan to do in order to feel complete and happy. I have really never worked. I have made so many mistakes and I sometimes wonder will I ever make the right choices in order to for me to really get to where I want to be. I have the Lord in my heart and IM a very good person. Im tired of being depressed, Im just running out of patience for everything to come together. Just how much longer am I gonna have to wait before I really find true happiness?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment BCoast

    Bless you for sharing your experience. I just re read this; it helps to feel understood & supported. Small joys. Moments. Grieving. Saying yes. Saying no. Not isolating. Eating. Exercising. All of it….
    346 of my neighbors – and my home, and business – were incinerated in a wild fire in Colorado last year.
    So I moved away from friends, neighbors, BF, Doctors, church, support… to L.A., to be away from the reminders, be near my daughter, & have peace & quiet to recover. What was I thinking???
    But I do believe in happy endings.
    It takes much more than I imagined to get through this. So I AM going to give myself Time and Forgiveness to make the best of it.
    I don’t have addictions, but I also don’t have the support of a husband or my house anymore. And I did choose this, so I am going be happy. 1 moment at a time. Thank you again for a few good moments.

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