This is a double how-to article. There are two ways I want to talk about having a breakdown. By “breakdown” I mean a sudden collapse in mental health.
“How to have a breakdown,” meaning one: How to set things up so that a breakdown is inevitable (what I accidentally did).
“How to have a breakdown,” meaning two: How to safely get through a breakdown once it has happened (what I am trying to do now).
How to set things up so that a breakdown is inevitable
First, and this is the big one, go years without making necessary changes. Stay in a stressful job. Keep seeing toxic people. Buy too far into the idea that you can control your own reactions and responses, ignores your triggers. Be stubborn and refuse to “give up”. Give people the benefit of the doubt long past when they deserve it.
That’s what I did. Basically, I gas-lit myself. I refused to acknowledge the reality of what was going on, and the damage it was doing to me. There was a certain way I wanted my life to be, so I pressed on long after my mind and body were sending me signals it was not healthy.
It was what I was trying to do, but also how I was trying to do it. I was unconsciously trying to “do life” the way I thought I should, instead of finding my own way.
I felt I needed more support than I was getting. For months or maybe years I had been exhibiting typical signs of burnout. I was feeling irritable and impatient with other people, I had trouble concentrating, and I seemed to catch every cold that came around.
Do all that and a breakdown is only a matter of time, or is waiting for a trigger.
It happened at the beginning of October. One day I just stopped being able to do anything. I had long been stressed by difficult relationships. At work, we had survived the spring closure and were gradually reopening to the public. I felt responsible for the safety of the staff I supervise. Then, Covid-19 began gaining ground in my city after months during which we seemed to do little to prepare. At home, we were having long talks about whether it was safe to keep sending our kid to school.
At a certain point I started having more physical symptoms. Things that I couldn’t push through. I had twisting sensations in my stomach, frequent headaches, trouble sleeping, and a spike in sugar cravings. Basically, textbook anxiety and depression symptoms. Though I knew better, as I’d been through lesser bouts before, I nevertheless felt I had to keep going. We were in a pandemic. In a crisis. I had to do what I could. But when I started physically shaking at work, I knew something was happening that I couldn’t ignore.
One day I simply stopped. My brain stopped working, my body stopped moving. It wasn’t dramatic. I was very, very tired, and desperately sad. After a pep talk from my partner, I worked up the nerve and energy to go to the walk-in at my doctor’s. I promptly got a prescription and a note for a four-week sick leave.
I am privileged that I work a job where I had access to a long sick leave. I had to have it extended. It was six weeks before I started to feel better. We had to play with dosages of the new medication. It is definitely helping now, but I am also working hard. I am trying to figure out what exactly went wrong and how to live so I won’t go through this again. I hope this work helps you if you ever find yourself in this sort of situation.
It all came down to me, the choices I made, and the priorities I had set. There were lots of external factors out of my control. I have no say in the behaviour or decisions of others, or accidents, or pandemics. But, there were lots of things I did have control over, and I didn’t exercise that control when I should have.
It all came down to me. Just like it all comes down to you.
Mainly, I needed to accept that what works for other people doesn’t work for me. Even though I wanted it to very badly.
If you have something in your life that isn’t working, see what control you might have to change it. A relationship, a job, a living situation. You have to be brutally honest about whether it is contributing to your life or making it harder. Then do what you can to improve the situation.
In doing this I am learning that I may just have different needs than other people. I am discovering that there are so many valid ways to be that are different than what we think of as “the norm”. I’ve been reading about kinds of neurodiversity, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Highly Sensitive People. The thing is, we are how we are. Some brains are built differently, and we need to celebrate that. Often, that would mean contradicting society typically values. And, sometimes it means giving up something that is not compatible with what you need.
I suppose this is the “self-acceptance” I keep hearing about? Or, is it just the first step to being able to identify who and how I am, without comparing to other people?
How to safely get through a breakdown once it has happened
That is where I am now. And if you go through a breakdown I hope you get the chance to get here too. I don’t think I will ever go back to the way I was before. This was one of those life events that changes a person.
To get here, there were lots of days spent sleeping. There was lots of couch time. There was lots of Critical Role (a silly, loving, geeky show on YouTube). There was lots of comfort food (especially, for some reason, fried egg sandwiches). But I drastically lowered my sugar intake. I also upped my outside and exercise time. I tried every healthy thing I had the motivation for.
Because that’s the real problem when you’re recovering from a breakdown or dealing with depression. You don’t have the motivation to do the things that help you feel better. It is one of the symptoms of the problem, but it also significantly inhibits recovery.
My advice is to try to find a balance. You probably need lots of rest of both your senses and your body. Only push a little bit, sometimes. A short walk, maybe. Then, a day or two later, ten minutes of cardio in the living room. Dance around to a favourite song. Hopefully it will slowly (too slowly) start to become easier. Plan in weeks, instead of hours or days.
I have made lots of progress. I still tire quickly, but I can do more each week. When my brain slows down and my body feels heavy I need to notice, and lie down and cut down the stimuli. If I push myself, my hands start to shake, or I get a headache.
Remember that what you are going through is as real as any other health condition. The tendency to deny that is also a symptom. Do what you can to bring yourself comfort. Be very, very gentle with yourself. You will get better.
I do not know what the next few weeks, months, or years will bring. At this point, none of us do, anyway. But, I am determined that I am going to take care of myself, and find a way to be myself, and healthy, somehow. I hope that if you experience something like this, you can find a way to build yourself back up, and find a way to be yourself, and healthy, too.