Mental illness is not a single breaking point, a sudden meltdown that pounces out of the blue. In reality, there are months or years of accumulated stresses and fractures, grinding you down from the inside out.
The myth of the cataclysmic nervous breakdown is easier to understand, and provides for a more convenient, lazy, Hollywood storyline. But ‘nervous breakdown’ isn’t a recognised medical term, and I personally find it unhelpful, because it distorts the focus from long term mental maintenance to a single digestible moment of crisis. Of course, such crisis points do exist and are extremely serious, but romanticising a solitary, ultimate ‘breakdown’ suggests that anything less visible isn’t worth anyone’s attention.
I cannot point to one single day and say that was when I lost it, but there are little moments when I remember something in my head making me pause and consciously notice that something was not quite right. It wasn’t that something had changed in that moment, but that in that moment, I noticed that things had changed from how they were before. Like the end of the day – the sky doesn’t suddenly turn pitch black, but at some point, you look outside and you notice that it’s dark.
One moment that I remember distinctly was in the summer, on holiday with my family. Jumping out of the car into the sun, backdrop of mountains and the general contented bumbling of other tourists around us. Then a throwaway comment from my mum and some reply that I snapped back, ruder than I’d intended. I have no idea what we’d said because it was so unimportant, and all she did next was turn around and scowl (fair enough) for no more than a second, but for some reason I had such a dramatic reaction – in an instant, it felt like my insides had crumbled and fallen away and I was left with nothing to stand on. I know now that this was just one indication of onsetting illness, but I remember feeling like something, shapeless and unidentifiable, but a definite something nonetheless, was wrong. I knew that this reaction had not come from my normal self, but that was as far as I could make sense of it. It was unfamiliar and unsettling. To everyone else, I had merely taken two blinks and walked on.
Start of my second year of university – I was going out a lot and there were so many nights with friends when I’d be having such a genuinely fun time, but then I’d go to the toilet and as soon as I was alone and stopped smiling and moving for a moment, I’d take a reluctant deep breath, which reminded me how terrible I’d been feeling and what an awful person I’d convinced myself that I was. I didn’t know what was happening, except that that thing had happened again, that kept pulling me away from having a good time. And then I’d start bawling, proper big crying – like mouth-wide, head in hands, pulling hair, completely uninhibited, distraught crying. I’d also be half laughing at myself because the picture was so absurd – I could still hear the music blaring outside and see the grimy floor, but here I was sitting in a cubicle and feeling like I was going mad.
This started happening at every club, bar or party I went to, and I had to gear myself up before every night out. It’s not going to happen this time, you will make it through the night without crying. All you have to do is smile, and dance. But while my body was smiling and dancing, my mind would slowly retreat. The incongruence between the two was unbearable, but I didn’t know what else to do.
I pictured my mind as a web of strings connecting one thing to another, and each time I had one of these moments, another one of those strings was cut and left loose and fraying. It was scary because I didn’t know what or who was cutting them – I wasn’t in control, and I couldn’t predict when it would happen, so I started dreading the next moment when I’d lose another part of my mind. Each time I felt a string was cut, it was like I could see that there were fewer and fewer left intact and I was totally helpless.
The loneliest moments of my mental illness have been those when I felt that my mind was inexplicable – so broken and wrong, thinking things that were so self-destructive and spiteful and cold that no good, normal person would ever think them – the only explanation was that I was growing irreversibly mad.
However, I gradually learnt that I didn’t need to be able to explain everything myself; there were other, kind people, with more experience and knowledge to share. The moment when you read someone else’s words describing something you believed that only you had been broken enough to experience, or when a psychologist explains the science behind your seemingly unexplainable thoughts or behaviour, is eye-opening and antidotal. Moments of madness transform into moments of self-forgiveness, and you realise that you are not wrong. The power of that is life-changing.
This is why I love therapy – it’s so fascinating to join the dots and see why I think and do the way I do, and how I can change that if I want to. It’s also why I love to write. Sometimes things get so muddled in my head that I get lost and confused and scared that I can’t see. I’m very socially anxious, and it is constantly infuriating how that affects the way I speak and muffles what I’m trying to say. But when I write, I have as much time and space as I need to tease out what I really mean, and it’s so unbelievably freeing to be able to express this for myself, and also now, to others.
Sharing isn’t a panacea – I’m definitely not advocating that mindset is the sole cure for mental illness. I’ve needed medication, hospitalisation, therapy, and I’m still not fully recovered. But just as I can recognise that mental illness is not a single moment of madness, so too can I recognise that recovery is not a single moment of mending. Writing is just one element of my healing process, but that doesn’t I can’t deeply appreciate how wonderfully healing it is.
I’ve recently experienced something magical – a stranger over the internet telling me my writing helped them, and friends sharing how they’ve connected to my words. My impact is small in numbers, but it still fills me with a warmth like nothing else. I deeply believe in the power of sharing, and that power is just as true and as strong whether we are broadcasting to millions or just taking a little time to share with ourselves.
Reading someone else’s expression of a common experience allows us to share in their strength and wisdom and power. And then, we have our own power to give – when we write, or speak, or sing, or draw, our own stories.