I make no secret of the fact I had a breakdown in 2010. I think it probably stuns a few people when I talk about it, but it was a year or more of my life; I can’t just pretend none of it happened. I think a lot of people are scared to tell anyone if they’ve had mental health problems – but these days you tend to find you know more people who’ve tried Prozac that haven’t.
A while back I mentioned my breakdown, and someone asked me, how did you know you were having a breakdown?
The truth is, I didn’t know.
What started off as a few poor choices soon escalated so that I was doing and saying quite scary and weird things… but much like you don’t know when you’re in the middle of a storm, that it’s “the worst since 1986”, I was so busy trying to figure out what to do, I didn’t really realise what was going on.
It wasn’t until other people started pointing it out to me, that I realised I was probably having some sort of a breakdown. By this point I was drinking a lot, taking lots of sleeping pills, and behaving somewhat recklessly – but although I felt out of control and scared of what was going on in my head, I thought I was outwardly holding my shit together quite well. I was wrong about that!
There is this misconception that if you have a breakdown, you suddenly snap one day, go mental and either disappear like Reggie Perrin or end up in a mental home. What actually happens is that the sun keeps on rising and setting, and life goes on. You wake up in the mornings and wonder how to fill the hours until you can crawl back into your bed; you plod, plod, plod. I didn’t think I was having a breakdown; I thought I was broken. I thought everyone around me knew some secret to which I was not privy, something that enabled them to find joy and laughter, to carry on with their lives and not be preoccupied with how futile everything was. I thought I was infected with some poison that people sensed and which turned them away from me. I thought I was just different from everyone else, in a really, really bad way.
While I was still at work, there was a certain semblance of “normal.” The people who only saw me to say hi to, or for the odd meeting here and there, had no clue what was going on and expressed surprise when I then disappeared from work. Some people didn’t find out what had been going on with me until months or even years later.
I honestly can’t tell you what I did for a lot of the time when I was mid-breakdown. There are entire months about which I can recollect very little. I worked weekends at a local pub/restaurant and the majority of people there had no clue what was going on with me, except that sometimes I drank too much when my shift finished. I baked a lot of brownies, despite the fact I was barely eating. I think my self-preservation instinct knew that I needed something to mark the passing of days, so each day when I got up, I would drink a can of Coke and bake some brownies. If I ran out of supplies, I would make a quick, furtive dash to the shop, where I always bought bread as well as brownie supplies and vodka, so that it didn’t look to obvious – like I was either an alcoholic or living off cake. I wasted a lot of bread that year. Generally speaking, I made the brownies, baked them, washed up, iced the brownies, cut them up and put them in a box in the fridge, and then worried about what to do for the rest of the day. Sometimes I would just start again, and bake more brownies. I would experiment with different flavours, but one time that saw me making Baileys brownies, and drinking the entire bottle – and then trying to navigate a busy restaurant shift. Not ideal.
I spent a lot of time drinking coffee, curled up in an arm chair of a local cafe. They had one particular table on the first floor that looked out over the street, so I could take a book and pretend to be reading, but if I was having a particularly bad day and couldn’t concentrate, I could just sit and stare out of the window. Sometimes I would have two or three coffees in a row, before wandering off. Then I would stop and sit on a bench in the park to read some more, and then go to the pub on my way home and sit in their garden drinking a beer or seven.
It seems that there is this massive cloud of secrecy surrounding mental illness. Let’s not forget, if I’d been in that situation 100 years previously, I probably would have been locked up somewhere and never let out. A lot of people don’t necessarily know they’re having a breakdown until they’re in the middle of it, or half way out the other side. Other people will have a couple of bad weeks where they feel a bit rubbish and declare to the world “I’ve had a breakdown!” – which doesn’t exactly help matters for those going through absolute hell.
Someone told me that there is no official diagnosis of “nervous breakdown” – it’s not a thing. Your GP or someone from the community mental health team will give you a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, whatever – but you won’t generally see “nervous breakdown” written in any official notes. My official diagnosis was anxiety and depression – far from a winning combination. The term “nervous breakdown” is something we use as a society, to describe someone having some sort of mental health crisis. Because of this, it’s easy for the same term to mean different things to literally anyone. Someone who has had a couple of bad weeks might well feel that they’re having a nervous breakdown, while for someone stuck at the bottom of a pit of despair the thought may never cross their mind – because their mind is not, at that point, capable of thinking objectively about such things.
The fact that the term “nervous breakdown” is something of a colloquialism these days means that it’s hard to understand what someone means when they say they’ve had or are having a breakdown. For me, it’s a term I applied in retrospect. In the middle of it all, I told people the truth: that I was signed off work with depression; that my GP said I had anxiety. On my last day at work, the day my manager sent me to the GP begging me to please just get signed off and get some help before something bad happened – I bumped into a colleague on my way out of the building and when he asked why I was leaving I told him “because I’ve gone mad.”
EDIT: if you’ve not seen it already, here is a link to my interview on This Morning.