Relapse. For those of us in recovery from one mental health issue or another, it’s a filthy word. Who wants to relapse? There’s a classic meme showing the difference between reality and expectations when it comes to mental health recovery – expectation is a nice straight line on a consistent upward trajectory. Reality looks like a ball of wool under siege from a horde of rabid kittens.

My ball of wool is kind of scrunched up now.

It’s not that anything terribly terrible is happening. It’s just my energy levels plummeted and my mood went along for the ride. I was physically unwell with a bit of a flu for about seven weeks. That sucked. It wasn’t serious, but like most home-grown maladies, it was a bit miserable and quite exhausting. The virus has left the building but the fatigue has hung around. Now I can’t tell if I’m clinging to the last remnants of illness and should rest for fear I push it over the edge again. Or if physical fatigue has morphed into depression fatigue. Or if I’m just bone idle lazy. Whichever it is, me and my nightie are now best friends.

Many moons ago I shared the difference between being fatigued and being tired. The differences are still the same and I’m definitely fatigued, not tired. (Actually – both…) The problem with fatigue – regardless of the underlying cause – is it can easily slip into depression, not just an I’m-feeling-sorry-for-myself kind of misery. My doctor suggested I may have post-viral fatigue when I complained – which is a fancy way of saying there’s nothing wrong except I’m tired. She also said not to overdo things or I could end up with chronic fatigue. Which would definitely be depressing. Literally.

There are little warning signs on the slippery slope to clinical depression.

Much as it’s comforting to cover my eyes, block my ears, and snuggle into my favourite floral nightie, I’ve spent enough time in clinical therapy to know I should at least make an attempt to stop the free fall.

The first thing I lose is common sense. The little voice of wisdom in my head that says eat this, or don’t do that, is tossed out like a bag of rotten tomatoes and in its place is a trickster, conning me into all sorts of deceit. I have no energy or will to cook, clean, look for work, visit friends, write, study, read, answer emails, pay bills, or even have a shower. But I’ll jump in the car to stock up on unneeded medication – just in case.

Visions of a future featuring hope, happiness or good health are obscured by the perception of poverty, relentless unemployment, the deaths of everyone near and dear, and my ballooning waistline. I can’t tell how, when, why or what to eat. I become utterly consumed with the horror I see in the mirror and despair at knowing I’ll never be slim or pretty.

The little trickster whispers every good reason to relapse, reminding me of the inevitability of failure, while the very real and tangible progress I’ve made is dismissed as nothing but a blip on the radar.

But the biggest warning sign of all is suicidal ideation. It’s relentless. Nothing stops the thoughts and the more I think, the more alluring it is. The only reprieve is sleep – which is more easily found in the day than the night, unless I heavily medicate myself which the little voice begs me to do.

I spend all my time worrying about things that need doing, and no time actually doing anything. I see the high beam headlights of approaching deadlines approaching and stagger under the burden of responsibility I can’t carry. Then reproach myself for neither resting nor working – just lazing around in the land of I-really-ought-to-be-doing-something-but-I-can’t-be-fucked. These are my warning signs that a dark cloud is descending and I need to get my act together or nobody will ever talk to me again – constant relapse is boring.

The first step is distraction – anything that’s not destructive. Podcasts. Gym. Answering text messages. (I could talk to real humans but to be brutally honest, I wouldn’t have the words.)

Then I need to lower my standards. When the to-do list looks like an encylopedia of how-to-keep-yourself-busy, it’s probably best to tone down the to-do list. Pare it back to basics – get out of bed, have a shower, change out of nightie. That’s an excellent start.

Then food – my eternal nemesis. We all know the importance of good nutrition for good cognition, and four bowls of cereal a day doesn’t cut it. Even if it’s home made muesli full of cacao powder and pepita seeds.

When I feel stronger I might write (eg, a blog post about the ease of relapse), or start talking to someone (not yet – the someones will probably read the blog post. That’s the least anxiety-inducing way of sharing).

My phone is packed full of apps to support aspects of my recovery, and all I have to do is shut down the brain-deadening games, and open up the mindful apps. Sometimes the simplest things are the most pertinent.

I can’t speak for other people’s experiences of coming in and out of depression, struggling with anxiety, or facing the black pit of relapse, but I know for me, it’s easy to see the warning signs, and easier still to ignore them.

Tomorrow is a new day, and with every new day comes a new dawn – even when it’s hidden behind clouds. There’s no time like the present to turn things around and start clawing my way back to better mental health. I’ll start by washing my nightie – tomorrow.