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How Healing My Mental Health After a Breakdown Was Like Healing a Broken Bone

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I had just taken a long-term leave from work. I had a breakdown in the office and just felt like I couldn’t go back in without it being detrimental and devastating to my continued existence. Every healthy yet overworked and stressed person, upon hearing “long-term leave,” usually thinks it’s time to sit back and enjoy some TV, catch up on reading.

I was lucky to have a balcony with a view out into a forest. So sometimes, I would stare into space out there. It felt like the right thing to do. Because every time I would have to explain to my neighbors why I was home during the day, they would say something to the effect of “hope you can be productive,” or “enjoy your relaxation,” both of which felt like actionable items. Like there is an active step in recovery. Certainly, more active than staring at the walls and ceiling. So, I’d beat myself up for being incapable of even recovering correctly.

Then I would mechanically drive over to my therapist whom I was seeing three times a week as part of an outpatient plan to get my suicidal depression in order. Finally, a week in, she asked me what I was doing all day. I rolled my eyes, thinking I was about to be reprimanded for not being mindful enough. Then, the words exploded from me:

“Nothing, OK? Absolutely nothing. I just stare at the ceiling because I just feel like I can’t move at all.”

“Well, that sounds about right.”

“It is? It does?”

“Look,” she leaned in closer to my seat, “have you ever broken a bone?”

“Sure, broke my wrist snowboarding.”

“Well, can you move your wrist a lot when it’s broken?”

“Absolutely not, it’s painful.”

“Well, your brain and body work the same way. Your brain is in pain, so you’re body is trying not to move it, so to speak, so that it can heal. Is it helping, being upset with yourself that you can’t do anything?”

“I just hate myself more.”

“Try giving your mind some time to heal instead of chastising it for not working like it’s not injured.”

Days in-between my appointments felt like they flew by, even though all I did was just sit on my couch. Finally, I felt an emotion return that had escaped me for a while: boredom. I went outside to sit and look at nature, but that felt underwhelming. I didn’t want to watch anything or play a video game. Suddenly an idea occurred to me. I was bored and motivated enough to drive myself somewhere that wasn’t my therapist’s office.

I almost sprinted to my car to get to the art store. I stood there for at least 20 minutes looking for what I, with my limited knowledge of art, would consider the right pencil. Then quickly grabbed a notebook, paid and ran out.

At home, I nestled myself back onto my balcony and started to draw abstract doodles. I drew a tree and some swirls. On one hand, it felt odd to draw because at most I may have colored a lot in my childhood. On another, it felt like what I needed, and I was willing to give myself that kindness after weeks of nothingness. My brain, it seemed, was healing a bit.

After two days of doodling, I turned on a Disney movie for background noise. Then, two days later, I watched a new show instead of old Disney movies. While this doesn’t seem like a lot, there’s research suggesting that people tend to soothe their anxiety with entertainment they’ve seen before — the predictable creating a nice safe space to exist in for a brief time.

Over the course of the next few days, I started talking to my neighbors again as I walked my dog. I was a lot firmer about my needs to relax during this brief break, assuring the exceptionally nosey that I would return to work in a bit.

Eventually, my therapist and I determined that I had healed enough that I could slowly, hobbling on my broken mental health, return to work. As long as I eased into it and established boundaries within the environment that had gotten me to the point of needing long-term leave. Like a broken bone, putting pressure back on a healing mind and learning how to exist from absolute dysfunction took me some time. But once I gave myself that privilege of time and space, I was able to start easing myself back into the world.

Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

Originally published: July 6, 2021
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