When I had my breakdown, I got to a point where I realised it was down to me to drag myself out of this. There was this real “shit or get off the pot” moment where I said to myself, you either get on and kill yourself, or you figure out how to live. I scoured my local book shop for memoirs of depression. I read as many books as I could – no mean feat, with the attention span of a sugar-soaked toddler.
I wanted to know what other people had done to make themselves able to function again. I was desperate to find that secret they were all hiding, the one thing you buy/drink/take/do/pray to that makes you a real person again. I made list after list of what people had done to help themselves, and I tried as many as I could. Here are some of the things I found that worked.
1. Take Supplements.
I read a book (I forget which one) where the lady began taking lots of supplements after a lot of research. I copied her, word for word. I bought fish oil supplements, magnesium and a multivitamin. Apparently, a large percentage of the population is deficient in magnesium, and stress causes us to lose what magnesium we do have. Lack of magnesium can cause everything from depression to muscle cramps to psychosis. There is also evidence that fish oils can help to regulate moods – which makes sense when you consider the fact our brains contain a large fat content. And the multivitamins… well, that’s just common sense when you’ve barely eaten for several months and you’re still not in the mood for five-a-day. To this day, I still take the fish oils and multivitamin; I switched to a high-end one that contains magnesium so as to avoid taking quite so many pills – but from what I’ve read lately, most of us are deficient in magnesium and should take a separate supplement.
Every single book and article I read talked of this, in one way or another. You just have to plod. Get up in the morning, put one foot in front of the other until bed time, and keep going. Some days are worse than others; those are the days when you really just have to put your head down and get on with it. Plod, plod, plod. Eventually, you’ll reach the other side of this pit of eternal stench, and it’ll be worth it. I promise.
It sounds boring as hell; it is boring as hell. Having a routine was what saved me. For months, I would wake up in the morning with this overwhelming sense of dread: I have to fill a minimum of 12 hours before I can go back to bed… It was horrible. I would wander from room to room like a lost soul, with no idea what to do. People told me to go for a walk but I couldn’t bear it. Eventually I managed to come up with a weird routine: I would get up, have a shower, and then go to the kitchen. Here I would make some brownies. While they were in the oven I would wash up, and then go to the shop to buy more supplies. When I came back from the shop I would make chocolate fudge icing for the brownies, then cut them and put them in a box before walking them down to the pub where I worked. For a number of weeks, all my fridge contained was butter for the brownies, boxes of brownies I’d not yet given away, and cans of Coke. There may have been some salad cream in there too. Sometimes, once I’d dropped the brownies into the pub, I would walk on into town and sit on a bench to read a book. Sometimes I made it all the way to the shops, and would get a coffee or two in a coffee shop while I sat in the window and read.
My point is: I spent months having all sorts of anxiety about leaving the house, and hated going into town or into shops. By making the brownies, I began a routine whose next logical step was to go to the local shop for more supplies, and then to take the brownies to the pub I worked in. From there, it wasn’t such a big step to walk into town; it was just as far as to go home, and if I went home I would have to find something with which to occupy myself until bed time.
Routine is boring and mundane, but it helps you to plod. And plodding is what you do when you’re in the deepest pit of despair.
I watched a Ted talk the other day that explained something that made perfect sense. A man is waiting on a phone call from his twin brother, who’s on the other side of the world. They’ve agreed he will call this evening. He spends all evening pacing up and down, waiting for this phone call but it never comes. He goes to bed feeling lonely and dejected; his brother is having far too much fun living his life without him. In the morning, he gets up and realises that with all his pacing up and down, he’s accidentally kicked the receiver off the phone. He puts it back and it rings immediately – it’s his brother. He explains what happened and his brother said “if I wasn’t calling, why didn’t you just call me?”
Loneliness often makes us do things that just make us more lonely. Scared of rejection, we don’t make that call; we isolate ourselves even further.
When you feel like absolute crap, and you’re convinced nobody loves you or wants to talk to you, it’s hard to force yourself out into the great wide world – but it’s important to do so. Take a deep breath and answer a text message or interact with people on Facebook. It’s a real effort not to make those messages very self defeating and miserable, but try to just be neutral if you can’t be positive. I told myself I had to answer one message per day and over time, it did get easier. You do eventually realise that the belief nobody likes you was just the voices in your head, a chemical imbalance, whatever. It wasn’t the truth.
Yeah, yeah, I know. When you feel like crap and your world is crashing down around you, exercising is the last thing you want to do – especially if it involves the risk of seeing actual, real life people in the process. This is one of those things that you just have to take a deep breath and force yourself to do. When you’re in the deepest pit of despair, the last thing you want to do is go for a nice walk and look at the leaves on the trees – but often, if you can get yourself out of the front door and walking around, you will begin to feel a bit better. You don’t have to suddenly take up running or go to spinning classes, but getting out and getting your blood pumping in your veins a bit can really help. Throughout my breakdown I was plagued by panic attacks that weren’t like you see on TV; I just felt like I couldn’t quite fill my lungs. Exercising might sound counterintuitive for someone who can’t catch their breath – but I think for me, it shocked me out of the panicked breathing and forced me back into breathing properly. I’m not talking about sprints or anything, just a brisk walk, maybe up a small hill. It worked wonders for me, and now when I’m feeling down I will often opt to go for a walk.
Yep, another one that sounds completely bonkers. The problem with a nervous breakdown is that it feels like every single thing in your life has become completely alien to you. For me, it felt like I didn’t know who I was any more, and definitely couldn’t remember what I used to do, in order to fill the hours between getting up and going back to bed – especially considering I rarely slept when I got to bed either. On a fundamental level, meditation is a great way to kill time. If you can manage to get through the initial teething phase when the voices in your head will run riot, you will find that meditation can shut them up pretty effectively. I find that it makes me feel more calm and less anxious about the silly things that used to get me really panicked. When I used to have panic attacks almost daily, I found that often the only way to stop it was to either go to bed, or meditate.
It is entirely possible to recover from a breakdown – though it never, ever feels like it when you’re stuck in the middle of things. Depression and anxiety will not just magically disappear, but you can stop them from having such a hold on your life. It’s down to you, though, Even if you are prescribed all sorts of medication and talking therapies and CBT and everything else, you won’t enjoy your life again unless you make a conscious decision to do so. That’s the biggest lesson I learned from my breakdown. Your GP can make all the effort in the world; your local community mental health team can put you into every therapy course going; your family and friends can take it in turns to watch you around the clock. But until that something clicks inside your head, and you decide to throw this beast off, it will stick around.
And even once you decide to step up and fight, it will not be quick or easy. It is a daily fight to pull yourself through thick, stinky treacle, to drag yourself out of bed, to force yourself to move, to walk and talk and chat and smile and not just go back and hide under your duvet and hope it all goes away.
It’s a daily fight, and it’s a dirty fight… but it does get easier. I promise.