Breaking Down

Having a breakdown is like breaking your leg.

A limb is suddenly unusable, excruciatingly painful. Except it’s your mind that’s broken. An illness wearing an invisibility cloak.

At first I thought it was burnout, until I realised just how spectacularly I’d crashed. High flying, idealistic, conscientious and a bit driven, I took a leap too far, doing too much, spinning way too many plates. One day I guess it registered that I wasn’t able to enjoy a single thing that I used to love in life anymore.

They say that divorce, death, moving house and job changes are life’s most stressful experiences. Don’t underestimate how much pressure you’re under with even one of those. I took two hits at once, moving and starting a new job on the same weekend. Having also just returned from six months abroad, with a major change in relationship status to boot. I went through the dark winter months feeling stressed at work, desperately lonely in a house that I couldn’t call home and caring for too many other people and not myself. I was overwhelmed by a never ending to-do list in every aspect of life.

Not an anxious person by nature, many midnight hours were spent enduring sustained panic attacks, heart palpitations, adrenaline rushes, hot sweats and fear followed by crippling exhaustion. It can happen to anyone. Like ivy creeping over a house, anxiety induced insomnia encircled me. Every solution I threw at it failed. By morning I was wrecked. Weeks turned to months. I became desperate. Then my health failed. I was off work for a week from a physical illness, but by that point, my mental health was out of control. Time had become a tool solely to be used for productivity, my productivity became how I measured my value. I could never do enough, be enough, and achieve enough to get all my tasks finished.

Call me a rebel if you please. But I’ve re-learnt to be flagrantly unproductive. Creativity blossoms in freedom from the tyranny of self. I now paint again. But it took me weeks to learn that ‘buffer’ and ‘relaxation’ activities are a well-needed part of life. I only learnt because of the time I spent where I could do nothing but read, watch TV, and take short walks. A human doing struggling with being. Like a worm, my stressful lifestyle had eaten through every ability to sleep, rest, relax, enjoy, be, eat normally, think normally, and live normally.

Having a mental collapse forced me to a halt. I’m unendingly grateful. I was made to lie down in green pastures, quite literally. Illness finally got my attention, where friends had failed.

Recovery isn’t linear, and broken mental cycles continued whirring long after I’d stopped being able to work. I’d hit rock bottom, but found there was at least a bottom. There’s no underestimating the power of moving to a safe environment, back home. Nor the countryside. Or parents who let me regularly wake them in the night to talk and pray through the worst hours of my life. Things did slowly improve. One faithful friend advised me to take a walk every day. Offered to let me call her in the night. Another let me help on her farm in the afternoons. Others sent me daily texts. Some contacted me out of the blue. Each loving act made such a difference. And I slowly found nature was one of my best weapons against mental illness.

“You have to make it work for yourself,” another friend told me.

His advice gave me the courage to attempt the generous phased return to work I was given. And crucially it encouraged me to take a longer lunch break, adjusting by starting work earlier. Supplements are no substitute for sun. I didn’t know it but I was badly affected by seasonal depression. The bitter winter contributed to my hopelessness, despair, out-of-control eating and low self-esteem. I couldn’t be more thankful for my supportive employer, understanding colleagues and caring housemate. I honestly couldn’t have done it otherwise. I’d been on the brink of giving my job up after two crippling months off work. But slowly re-introducing that which had wound its way into unimaginable stress has slowly helped me overcome it. Spring came and I’m much happier.

Sleeping remains a problem, but I’m learning not to fear it. Relaxation and distraction are the keys. Like the 7-11 breathing technique which brings automatic physiological calm. Sometimes I take an imaginary walk around the Irish coast in my mind whilst listening to ocean music. I make sure to keep a bedtime routine. Window open. Winding down. Lowered lights. But sometimes insomnia still defeats me, anxiety overwhelming me, leaving me lost and weary by morning.

This I remind myself, is not abnormal, a quarter of all people struggle with severe insomnia (or mental health issues) at one time in their life[1]. CBT turned everything around for me, hugely helped me deal with the unexpected waves of anxiety. I self-taught a lot from resources on the Changing Minds website. Sometimes we simply aren’t equipped to deal with what life throws at us. It’s humbling for sure, but there’s no shame in it. I had to learn to tell myself that I’d done the best with what I was given. And thankfully resilience can be learnt. It’s about staring reality in the face, learning to improvise and maintain a sense of humour[2]. The dryer or blacker the better!

If sleep eludes me, I now get up and write through my anxiety diary, challenging my unhelpful thinking, restoring calm. After a cup of milk, and a good book, I head to bed again. Having a story to focus my mind on in exclusivity, pushing all concrete thoughts of the day away, usually helps me drop off to sleep. I like to count up the blessings of each day in my head too. I always find more than 10. Being grateful is at least a great way to not be sleeping if acute insomnia is your lot!

Finally, I’m being kinder to myself. In the courtroom of my mind, I’d been on an eternal trial. These days I try to remember to take myself out of that room completely[3]. I no longer have to bear up under the weight of a prosecution (real or imagined) whose accusations of failure always ring true.

My faith in Jesus helps me an incredible amount. It helps me to know I’m loved, accepted and carried, broken as I am, by an almighty God. I’m free to be weak and I’m not responsible, let alone able, to fix myself and therein lies my strength.

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

– The Gate of the Year, by Minnie Louise Haskins


[1] A God for Messy Christians – Emma Scrivener

[2]  How Resilience Works – Diane Coutu

[3] Good further reading: ‘The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness’ – Tim Keller