5 Positive Stages to Having and Surviving a Mental Breakdown
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I know what you’re thinking: surely there are absolutely no positives that come from getting to the point where your mental and physical body shuts down and can’t continue to carry on with life the way it used to? When I had my mental breakdown, I thought exactly the same. I was extremely ashamed I had let myself get to that point, petrified of what this meant for my future and in a deep depression I didn’t know how to escape. It sucked. A lot.
Firstly, I want to explain a bit about the events that led me to my breakdown. Rewind to 1997 when I lost my sister, Jaclyn, on a family holiday in Cornwall where she experienced a deadly asthma attack. This then created what I like to call “the domino effect” which led my mum, Gillian, to have a mental breakdown. Many years of painful events and self-medicating her trauma and depression led her to die unexpectedly from a heroin overdose. Then, in 2006, I tragically lost my brother, Matty, to suicide. Even though this wasn’t the first sibling I had lost, nor was it the first death I had experienced, it hit me like a ton of bricks.
The mixture of emotions I felt was indescribable. Guilt for not emphasizing enough how much I loved and cherished him as my brother, abandonment because we promised each other that we would always be there for each other and confused he didn’t feel he could tell me he no longer wanted to continue his life on this earth. At the time, dealing with a loss of this nature and then having to understand it was all the other bereavements in my life that caused this, it was easier to disconnect from my grief. This became a pattern for me throughout my childhood — a pattern I would later regret.
Fast-forward to 2018, I had sunk myself into a career and made the decision a few years prior to move to London. I was working tirelessly to become successful and make something of myself. My only remaining family was my Dad, and I had a few close supportive friends who lived 100 miles away from me. I started to feel myself slipping away day-by-day. My anxiety was debilitating me; my head would play out powerfully irrational scenarios that consumed me. The smallest, minor issues were black holes. An amalgamation of darkening depression, anxiety and work pressure led me to the day I had my mental breakdown.
So, now to the positives. At first, there were none — the immeasurable amount of anxiety and depression means you can’t see the wood for the trees — but once you let go of pretending to “keep it together,” the healing process begins. You can see the wood and the trees in their own right. You start to see the sun bursting through the leaves and it doesn’t seem as dark anymore.
Here are my five positive stages to surviving my mental breakdown.
1. Reaching “rock bottom.”
Everyone has a different version or idea of “rock bottom” and every version is valid. Everyone has different life experiences that lead them to struggling with their mental health and everyone’s experiences matter. I don’t believe in a hierarchy of pain/trauma. So for me, rock bottom meant I couldn’t function anymore. I had reached the point in my life where I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t think straight and, worst of all, didn’t know who I was anymore. I couldn’t keep pretending things were OK anymore. The last remaining piece of my paper smile disappeared and all that was left was a shell of my former self. The positive that comes from this is the blank canvas it creates. Reaching the bitter end means you have to consider the way you have conditioned yourself to handle things isn’t healthy which, in turn, allows you to reflect and think about what has brought you to this point.
2. Allowing yourself to be at one with your pain.
I recently read the most beautiful quote: “When you’ve been strong for so long, sometimes you just need time to let your tears out.” I ran for so long, burying the past deeper and deeper into the back of my mind. I wouldn’t allow myself to cry or show emotion. For years, I numbed myself and suppressed a lot of my pain because I believed if I cracked, it would be a sign of weakness. In order to move on from the past that haunts you, you need to first acknowledge it and allow yourself to be at one with your pain. Let it out! Cry until your eyes swell, scream until your voice cracks, get angry, feel every emotion you need to because no one, not one person, should ever feel ashamed about letting themselves show emotion or guilty for having emotions about something that happened to them. You can choose to run from it but you can’t hide. To have a healthy mind, you have to have a healthy relationship with yourself and that means squaring up to the past and owning it.
3. Seeking help.
When I lost my sister in ’97, I was 8 years old. Back then, bereavement counseling was mediocre, to say the least. I saw several counsellors and remember not really knowing what to say. The issue was that there was no consistency. I would see one for a few weeks, then they would leave and I would have to repeat the same torturous series of events over and over again. Even at that age, it was exhausting and upsetting. This discouraged me from later seeking help through other bereavements. When I had my breakdown, I had to have a strong word with myself and accept I couldn’t face this alone. I needed the support of a professional. So, I started seeing a specialist trauma therapist which taught me a lot about myself and helped me understand I was living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) due to the past traumas I experienced. That was a major breakthrough. As time has moved on and mental health is becoming less taboo, there are so many different types of therapy available now depending on your symptoms and receptiveness. Some types will work for some and not others and it may take trying out a few to see what you find works best for you. But this is OK. Don’t give up at the first hurdle as it really does help process trauma.
4. Learning what you want and what you don’t want.
There is something empowering about learning who you really are and taking every small detail of your life and analyzing it. How does it make you feel? Are the relationships you hold on to (because you think you need them to feel happy) really making you happy? Or are they actually contributing to your sadness? Are you doing certain things because you want to or because other people want you to? The realization can be hard to come to terms with as depression warps your sense of reality. But with the right tools and support, you will be kinder to yourself. When you start to realize the things you don’t want to continue to have in your life, it becomes easier to make way for the things you do want. This takes time, and learning the skills you need to make this a possibility is a work in progress. We will likely continue to find things out about ourselves on this journey for the rest of our lives. That, to me, is beautiful!
And this is where life truly begins! I am by no means saying rebuilding your life is an overnight occurrence. Far from it. Nor am I saying the road is full of rainbows and unicorns and it is a piece of cake. You will have highs and lows. You don’t just magically wake up one morning and feel like everything makes sense. It may take years to fully regain control and a sense of power over your being, but don’t let that be an obstacle. When you have been to the darkest places, it can’t get any darker, right? After taking the time to reflect on the above, understand you aren’t alone. Really look deep within yourself and understand every emotion and everything you have been through. It slowly gets easier to see the positives. Surviving a breakdown is a positive in itself. Use this as your strength to determine what you want your future to be and what you don’t want it to be. Think about the things that make you happy, that you want to achieve, and focus on the hope that continues to pull you through. Encompass that in all you do.
You have been through some of the darkest times, and this resilience you have — that you don’t realize you have — is your power to make something broken into something beautiful.
Photo by Jean Gerber on Unsplash