My Nervous Breakdown | All that I am, all that I ever was…

My Nervous Breakdown | All that I am, all that I ever was….

Written by Michelle H Lim, Swinburne University of Technology

My Nervous Breakdown

I’ve skirted, danced, bogled and boogeyed around it and kinda explained why it happened but never really gone into much “depth” as to – what happened, how it happened, how it felt – so I’m bored, have a few hours, am tired of talking to Meadhbh so am gonna blabber here for a while.

What is a “nervous breakdown”?
You could also call it an emotional breakdown or perhaps a mental breakdown, but in essence a “breakdown” has occurred when someone becomes unable to deal with normal day-to-day life.

It can be ignited following a particular trauma, a series of events, or can even happen randomly and out of the blue with no precipitating identifiable cause.

“Nervous breakdown” isn’t even a medical term: it’s a colloquial phrase designed to try and hide what is actually happening, which is the sudden acute attack of a mental illness, because a breakdown is far more easily accepted than bipolar, depression or anxiety; it is stigma at work!

Why I had a breakdown…
A breakdown generally occurs when your circuits become overloaded. Your brain, heart, soul, emotions – whatever – are under so much stress that they short circuit, and then shut off, and then you can’t find a nice clean unbroken fuse to mend them.

As mentioned previously, I was diagnosed with CLL and then dumped by my girlfriend by text message which set in motion a chain of events which caused me to lose my college course, my income, my best friend and all of this happening whilst I was suffering from glandular fever – a pretty serious physical illness which could have killed me – and all in the period of ten days.

I think any one or two of those things could have the power to trigger a breakdown, but to have so many stressful emotional events hitting you when you are already physically, mentally and emotionally devastated from glandular fever, the fact I had a breakdown doesn’t surprise me.

What happened?
The day I realised something was seriously wrong was the Tuesday I spent walking around the sleepy hamlet of Port Fairy talking to myself at an audibly obvious level for six continuous hours before sitting on a beach and burning myself with a flaming stick. Now I had wanted to phone someone at this point, I knew something was brewing and I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to stop myself…but no working public phone box anywhere close and…dammit…mobile phone battery was dead!

So I burnt myself twice, used the ocean to cool the burns, and then stood there for an hour or so staring at the black expanse of the horizon before retreating to where I was staying whilst I was in Port Fairy.

I spent the next day glued to the bed, unable to move, writing obscure journal entries which skipped, danced and evaded the actual events which had happened the night before. I thought that by not writing about them I would be able to forget them. I watched an entire season of 24 that day and wished to high fracking heaven my mobile phone charger had been packed because at this point I really desperately needed to speak to someone. Oh well.

On the Thursday I crawled to the Doctor, on the Friday I saw a psychologist, on the Saturday I sat on a beach again, on the Sunday I spent another 7 hours walking around talking to myself, on the Monday I returned to Melbourne.

How did it feel to have a breakdown? 
I literally felt nothing. I literally could do nothing. There was all this stuff I needed to do, all this stuff I wanted to do, but I just – couldn’t – I literally could not do any of it. My brain was not functioning on any level, all I could do for a few days was lie there watching other seasons of 24 (as this had helped the week before) trying not to harm myself.

Now that I had my charger back I couldn’t even bring myself to phone anyone because I didn’t have any words to say. I was doing that wee dial the number, delete the number, toss the phone across the room dance.

On the Wednesday I woke up having a panic attack, spent the day in a constant state of anxiety, panic, despair and fear. I wrote in my journal on and off, and for the first time ever mentioned my self harm in it’s pages (which you can read here). Then something happened that night which – well – let’s just say really really really really didn’t fracking help!!! I have never understood why that person thought it was a good idea, never will, but what they did that night was fucked up to the extreme!

On the Thursday I wanted to kill myself. I sat on the floor of my room staring at a knife and wondering what it would feel like. Tears were streaming down my face and I know I made two phone calls, but I can’t remember which order they came in. I either phoned a friend and then the suicide helpline, or I phoned the suicide helpline and then phoned a friend. Either way I spent the vast majority of that day in a constant state of fear of what I may do to myself.

After that week the specific days become blurry, everything is just a mess in my mind. I know I fought my self harm tendencies, I know Meadhbh came back, I know I did self harm, I know I was suicidal, I know I saw friends, I know I tried to rebuild my life, I know I saw doctors, I know I saw the occasional psychologist, I know I tried to do anything and everything that I could to fight what was happening to me and get my life back to something I was able to enjoy.

I wasn’t able to work. That’s a fact. Simple and pure. My health was fucked up to the point of unbearable, I couldn’t concentrate on a job advertisement let alone work an 8 hour shift, but I job hunted nonetheless.

As all this was happening I was having to sell all of my possessions in order to survive (rent, food, occasional social outings or cinema trips to make myself feel normal, which I would have to plan in advance in order to have the strength to do it without a panic attack) and try not to tell any of my friends what was really happening because, well, you have to pretend and not ever talk about your problems or negative incidents remember! Internalise, never externalise, because it was attempting to externalise that contributed to the problem in the first place!

My decision making capacity was shot to fuck, my conversational ability had gone; anxiety, depression, suicidal inclinations and self harm reigned supreme. The fact I had overcome all of this only a few months before contributed to the continuation of my depressive episode – all of those years of work for nothing!

My conversations with Meadhbh were driving my ever more insane, my ex was driving me nuts with her consistent emotional/psychological abuse, which Meadhbh was loving because it backed up everything she was telling me. Meadhbh would often say something which my ex would then reiterate word for word a few weeks later; “You have to help people,”, “You’re selfish,”, “You should kill yourself,”, “You never care about anyone!” oh how Meadhbh loved those moments!

Physically I was a wreck; fighting glandular fever was made almost impossible and my recovery time was lengthed by months. I had chronic pain in my back, splitting migraines, I wasn’t able to sleep and never felt hungry. I had to go to hospital several times for a recurring polynoidal sinus, though unrelated to the breakdown, has been recurring ever since due to the stress I have been under and have been waiting for an operation to have it removed. The meds I was on threw all sorts of side effects in my direction, which further messed with my body (and mind) and viruses seemed to claim their hold on my body on a regular basis.

I don’t think anyone can truly understand what having a breakdown feels like unless they have experienced one. Like depression “breakdown” is an overused word and does not in any way fully describe the pain and torment your mind is constantly under. You literally cannot function on a normal day-to-day level; your body is besieged with physical pain and your mind is engulfed with the sort of emotional pain I would never wish on anyone.

Overcoming a breakdown…
Like with all forms of mental illness there is only so much help you can garner from other people. You can see doctors and psychologists and MH professionals but you still have to do a hell of a lot of work yourself. I saw my GP regularly and fought for months for professional mental health care, which even after two suicide attempts only really came a few weeks ago.

So how can you help yourself fight an emotional breakdown? These are some of the things I tried:

  1. Be kind to yourself!
    You are going to have bad days and you are going to have good days. Don’t berate yourself for the bad days and think of yourself as a failure as this will only feed the breakdown demons.
  2. Find ways to reduce your stress level…
    – Eat healthily; brown rice, fruit, vegetables, natural foods…
    – Find ways for regular relaxation (I used to walk, play in parks in the night-time, sit under trees, watch movies, write [we’ll get to that in a minute])
    – Have baths!
    – Try to socialise with friends and do things you enjoy (trivia nights, movies, coffee and tea, pizza lunches)
    – Do regular relaxation exercises.
    – Keep a daily ‘things to do list’ to refer to.
  3. Be physical
    Regular exercise and activity helps relieve stress and tension and keeps your body fit and active, in can be hard to do this after having a breakdown or going through a depressive phase, but it is important. Walking, swimming, cycling, yoga, pilates…if you do something you enjoy it will make things easier.
  4. Research and learn about what is happening to you. 
    Understanding your problems/illness better may make it easier to cope.
  5. Find your own coping strategy
    Everyone is different, what works for one person will not work for another. So find your own ways to deal with what you are feeling and your own techniques to get you through your bad days.
    – Writing is something I did, the vast majority of my novel “The Ghosts that Haunt Us” was written during this period. However, in order for me to achieve the state of mind I needed to be in, in order to write, I had to self-harm (sometimes severely) in order to get there.
    – Other people find art, music, drawing or poetry effective.
    – To get through the bad periods I would play video games. I’m a Zelda aficionado so would replay my Gameboy Zelda games to occupy my mind.
    – Meditation and yoga can help.
    – Although I was unable to write a journal (still can’t to this day, won’t go into why), I did keep a mood diary to help identify and chart what I was feeling.
    There are lots of ways you can find to cope with what is happening. I would be interested in hearing your own coping strategies as they may help other people.

Relationships and Friendships following a breakdown…
One of the hardest things I had to deal with was being told repeatedly that who I thought were my friends were not really my friends (an example of being isolated by my abuser) and wouldn’t be there for me. Thus I was unable to talk to them about what I was going through as I was afraid of pushing them away – which was inevitably going to happen anyway – so had to fight my breakdown alone. They knew I had had a breakdown, and self harmed to some extent, but were not aware of the full extent of what I was dealing with.

After a breakdown your self confidence and self worth will be virtually non-existent, thus your ability to retain friendships and relationships will be put under further strain. As you are not thinking clearly your actions may cause harm to those people you care about, even if it is inadvertent, so you may need to apologise for anything which happened during the breakdown and work on rebuilding those friendships.

Although you will need to work out whether the problem was caused by you, or by them, if it was their problem they will need to find a way to deal with it as you should not have to accept responsibility.

I can’t sit here and talk about friendship really, I don’t have any, and as I am still fighting my breakdown cannot give profound advice on healing rifts and repairing damage.

I will say however that, like everyone, a show of kindness and love can help someone who has suffered from a breakdown. We all want to feel loved, we all need kindness, to help us get by.

Can you overcome a nervous breakdown? 
The breakdown I experienced earlier this year was singularly the most painful, distressing, chaotic and fear inducing period of my life. I literally just could think straight in any way, my brain shut down and wasn’t functioning on any level. It was a constant daily fight to get through each conversation, each hour, each day.

The road to recovery following a nervous breakdown is hard work, it could take anywhere from 6 months to 3 years to fully recover. It can be done however, it’s not going to be easy, pretending it isn’t there won’t help but just cause longer term problems, it’s going to be painful, destructive and the hardest fight of your life.

But it can be done, never lose hope of that.