Tilting at Windmills: A story of recovery

I’ve not been shy when it comes to blogging about my experiences with illness, and particularly with mental illness. This is partly because I believe in the “talking about it destroys stigma” idea, and partly because I have some weird urge to offload every little detail of my life onto the l0ng-suffering folks around me. (You blog readers get off easy. My friends are the ones you need to feel sorry for).

My depression and anxiety have been with me for a long, long time, like irritating house guests who just won’t take the hint and leave. Over the past year, though, I’ve been taking slow, wobbly baby-steps towards recovery. It’s been a long process, and for a while, I didn’t even realise it was happening. When I did realise, I kept a wary eye on it, certain that it was a trick. I’d wave depression out of the door, sink onto my sofa in relief, get a call from them saying how much they’d enjoyed their visit – and then I’d realise that the call was coming from inside the house.

But it didn’t happen. Oh, sure, I still had bouts of depression and anxiety, but they were different, less overwhelming, and as time has gone on, they’ve been getting less and less frequent. Even so, keeping an eye on my own recovery has taught me a lot of things about the process. One of those things was pretty surprising.

Recovery actually kind of sucks.

Some people who read that may be rolling their eyes, or leaping up and down with glee, yelling “I KNEW IT! I knew depression was something made up by lazy malingerers who just want attention!” If that’s you, please stop reading and go and look at something that will be more to your taste, like pictures of kittens being punched, or the Daily Mail website.

Recovery doesn’t suck because I enjoyed my depression and anxiety. Far from it. I’ve never hated anything so much, and I’m a woman who devoted five years of her life to writing a thesis on why Twilight is terrible.  When things were at their worst, I would dream of recovery as a golden day when the sun would shine, the birds would sing, and I would break spontaneously into song, possibly accompanied by a streetful of people doing snappy dance moves. Instead, recovery is a long, tiring walk through the early dawn, where you put one foot in front of the other and watch very carefully where you’re going. You know the sun is slowly coming up, but you can’t watch it rise, because you have to focus so closely on what’s right in front of you.

During recovery, every emotion feels like a trap. Hyperbole and a Half does a brilliant job of explaining how slowly your feelings come back when you’re recovering from depression, and how it’s the negative ones that seem to get there first. While Allie Brosh’s experience sounds worse than my own, I definitely had times when I could feel nothing except a deep and overwhelming sadness and exhaustion – and so when I regularly started feeling anything other than that, I got a bit giddy on it. During my early days I spent an exceptional amount of time ranting on the Internet, letting off my newly-rediscovered capacity for caring about things through the sometimes useful but tricky medium of anger. I raged and ranted at great many people, and although they were all various varieties of bigot, it still probably wasn’t a very productive or healthy way of doing things.

Then the positive emotions started to join them, and that’s when things got scary. Like I said before, recovery feels like a trick – because so much of depression and anxiety involves your brain lying to you (trigger warning for mention of suicide in that linked article).

I’m happy. Am I happy? Do I just think I’m happy? Have I convinced myself I’m happy as a way of avoiding how I’m really feeling? What about when I stop feeling happy? Does that mean I’m back where I started?

And then, when you’ve had real, positive feelings for a while, the negative feelings get even scarier. Because, being a living human, there are going to be times when you’re sad or angry or frustrated for various reasons – but each one looms out of the early dawn light like some kind of hulking, ominous monster, and sets your mind racing.

Am I sad because of that thing yesterday? Or is this the depression coming back?

You end up tilting at windmills – normal structures on the landscape of your life – in the fear that they’re the giants of depression, returned to snatch you up and eat you, bones and all.

Because of this, recovery is terrifying. And when it’s not terrifying, it’s boring, slow, and frustrating. Depressive or anxious thought patterns don’t go away overnight, and you can see yourself following them, like the ditzy protagonist in a horror movie. “Don’t go up there!” you yell – but it doesn’t make any difference. Your brain goes up there anyway, and whoops, there’s the killer, cunningly disguised as a long evening of lying on your bed and feeling hollow (and also, pretty pissed off that you couldn’t stop it in time).

Much to this writer’s disappointment, recovery isn’t like a story, where the giant is slain and the magic key is found that sets everything right in a flash. To be honest, I don’t even know what led to mine. Medication, counselling, mindfulness, support from family and friends – all of these things helped more than I can say, but if I had to pin down an exact reason for why I’m not depressed any more, it’d have to be that…I just got better. As if I’d finally shaken a really persistent cold.

I’ve still got a few sniffles. But, to mix my metaphors good and proper, all I can do is keep walking. Time will pass, the sun will rise, and I’ll see that they’re windmills, not giants. I’ll know that this is sadness, or anger, or guilt – not the illness creeping back. After all, as someone once said: ‘He who’s down one day can be up the next, unless he really wants to stay in bed, that is.’


Alice’s books are available on Amazon and Smashwords. Her webcomic, co-created and illustrated by Emily Brady, can be found at the Footloose website. Ally rambles about writing, feminism, and odd questions that cross her mind on Twitter and Facebook.


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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