When my brain broke back in 2001 or so, I thought it was the first time that had happened. Later, on reflection, it turned out that wasn’t so.
The 21st-century breakdown was certainly the most dramatic. Although I had just quit working in an office to start a freelance career, I found myself unable to work after a few months.
I had become unable to work in the office because of mounting difficulties that I now realize were warning signs of the impending breakdown: inability to concentrate, increased anxiety (the feeling that an angry badger was about to claw its way out of my stomach), lessened ability to interact with coworkers, sudden flares of temper, turning people away with unintendedly cutting remarks and sarcasm, isolating, inappropriate affect, catastrophizing – you name it, I had it.
What was causing all these symptoms? My bipolar disorder, obviously. But I’ve had that for years. What was pushing me over the edge this time? I had trouble at work. My boss left and, when I “came out” to my new boss as depressed (which is what I was diagnosed with at the time), she reacted with wariness and incomprehension. She gave me the first bad review I ever had at that job.
My mother’s health was deteriorating seriously, too, about then. I lost time at work taking her to various appointments and I had to have “the talk” with her about how much longer she could live alone. Eventually I took over her finances – and by then I was scarcely handling my own.
I experienced a lift when I quit my job and began freelancing. Hypomania? You bet! My new flexibility allowed me to take better care of my mother, and the assignments kept coming in.
Then everything came crashing down. I screwed up my finances and my mother’s. She began having worse falls and injuries, hospital stays and drug reactions, even hallucinations which scared the hell out of me. I emotionally judo-ed my sister to come up and help, then fought with and resented her, and had to take care of parts of her life as well.
Those and other difficulties on top of my mental disorder added up to a non-functioning me. I dumped all the chores and coping onto my husband, which was a rotten thing to do, fought with him, sobbed for no discernible reason, became unable to work, or care, or do much of anything except think up at least three different ways (and reasons) to kill myself. Fortunately, I was too immobilized to try any of them.
I’ve written before about the things that helped me get back to some kind of functioning – a proper diagnosis, the right meds, time without work (as we gutted our retirement savings), lots of psychotherapy, and my wonderful, patient, ever-helpful, devoted husband.
But now, looking back, I can see that it had happened before, though not so dramatically and completely. In childhood, in my teens, in college – at every stage of my life I had at least one breakdown, often triggered by the circumstances of my life, but fueled and stoked by my mental illness. In every one, my ability to function deteriorated a little more.
The first one that I remember clearly was when I was around 12. My best friend and I were in charge of a birthday party for her younger sister and some friends. This was the old-fashioned kind of party that everyone in the neighborhood had then: cake and ice cream, party games, presents, and not much else. It happened during pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. I was blindfolded – literally – and my friend kicked me in the ass – again, literally. In front of all those younger children.
I ran home sobbing. And I curled up into a fetal ball and didn’t quit for at least three days. Non-functioning, non-responsive, non-everything. What finally brought me out of it was seeing my mother’s pain at this inexplicable (to her) meltdown.
I had a mini-meltdown in my freshman year of college, which involved sitting in my nightgown in the hallway, staring for hours at a richly detailed poster of a fantasy realm. (I managed to frighten an intruder by arising, ghost-like, in my pale yellow shroud as he entered the suite.)
This one was triggered by my realization that I had probably chosen the wrong major and that there were no job prospects ahead for me. (It turns out I was wrong about that. Maybe I should have stuck with it, but my next choice turned out pretty well.) I took a year off college and took a job as a cashier in a restaurant, where I spent a lot of time crying into the roller towel and being told I should smile more. This convinced me that going back to college, with a new major (and even fewer job prospects), was the right thing to do.
The next meltdown was major. I had finished college, endured a year-long train wreck of a relationship, and lost a job as an assistant restaurant manager (I hadn’t fully learned that lesson yet). I got unemployment, which meant I lay around the apartment for most of the week (except for making half-hearted attempts at job hunting).
One notable symptom of this breakdown was my near-complete immobility. One errand in a day – say, going to the post office for stamps – made it a productive one for me. I had maybe three of those a month, with one being the obligatory visit to the unemployment office – a supremely depressing place to be depressed.
I had some truly irrational thinking that time, too. I thought I could cheer myself up by watching light, fluffy sitcoms on TV. But as I lay there on the couch, I found myself crying with every upbeat, cheery theme song that came with them. Laverne and Shirley making their dreams come true. One Day at a Time, which advised me to get up on my feet because somewhere there was music playing. And, oh, Mary Tyler Moore. Love is all around, my ass.
After that, it was a long, slow slide to my major breakdown. It wasn’t unrelieved misery. I got married. I got a master’s degree and a job in publishing. We acquired a house and cats. We traveled. But the Big One was waiting for me.
Nowadays, I still have mini-meltdowns, but they usually last a maximum of three days, rather than weeks, months, or even years. They still tend to be triggered by stressful life events, especially financial ones. But when I get one, I know I’ll be coming out of it soon. And that’s a wonderful feeling buried in all the misery.