Earlier this year I had a kind of nervous breakdown. I can’t tell you what caused it because I don’t really know. I have a history of low periods, but none has ever swept me off my feet like this one did and previously I’ve always been able to pinpoint a reason.
All I can do is tell you what it looked and felt like.
I was in a new relationship and I was feeling a little anxious and unsure about about what the future held, like most people seem to be at the start of any new relationship, but it wasn’t crippling or particularly worrying to begin with. I went on a road trip to the US for a month, I came home and decided to move, work was fine, friendships were fine. If anything I was more social than I’d been in years.
Yet within the space of about two months I spiralled into an extremely suffocating pattern of depression and anxiety. The depression exhausted me physically, but the anxiety would not let my brain shut off.
Within another month I was taking medication and seeing a psychologist to find ways to prevent crippling panic attacks which left me locked in toilet cubicles at work for up to an hour at a time. I took a week off work, but by the time I came back, the panic attacks were lasting for up to 16 hours.
At my worst point, I stopped being able to get undressed before going to bed. One afternoon I crawled into bed at about 4pm and the best I could do was remove the rings I was wearing. I woke up about 8am the next morning, so tense that the rings were still clutched in my hand, leaving marks on my palms for hours. This panic attack had been set off by reading about a writing project a friend was working on. I’d stopped being able to write and the idea that someone else could was enough to make me burst into tears in the street. Something as little as that.
I took another week off work. I lost ten kilos in the space of weeks. I could not shut up or control my thoughts. Everything seemed bleak and I needed to tell as many people as possible, in minute detail, over and over. I didn’t realise that while I believed I was talking myself out of having negative thoughts, I was just repeating my anxieties over and over, I was obsessing about terrible things happening in the future because I thought it would prepare me for them.
I hated what I became. People avoided me and I started feeling immense guilt for neglecting others, for not being able to remember to ask how they were. I would sit across from people and not be able to concentrate on what they were saying, I would instead compulsively check my phone and the time. Phone calls to my parents would start normally enough, but would often end in tears because I stopped being able to tell the difference between what had happened on any given day we spoke and dark parallels my brain created about what might happen the next day.
But I couldn’t stop it. I knew the levee would break, but I didn’t know how and I wasn’t sure which way everything would flow. I talked about moving in with my parents, just in case.
I struggled to explain to people how I felt, particularly with the anxiety. I found the depression to be much better understood, but the anxiety was compulsive and overwhelming and absolutely hypnotic. It stripped me of my ability to communicate efficiently, I could not discuss it succinctly or explain my concerns in a way that didn’t seem overinflated. It was incredibly frustrating and isolating.
Someone thanked me for sharing a little bit of this story recently, so I wanted to write something about it in case anyone else has experienced this, and to remind myself of what things look like when they were really, really dark because now that I’ve started to feel better it seems almost unbelievable that I sank so low and for no apparent reason.
I’m still taking medication but I’m no longer depressed. My anxiety is at a much more manageable level. While a lot of my psychologist’s advice wasn’t working when I was at the depths of things and I stopped seeing her (both because I believe/d her advice was probably geared at someone with much lower anxiety levels and because I was too anxious to see her), I use her advice regularly now and am going to book a follow up session with her soon.
I am still exhausted a lot of the time, and have trouble concentrating but I spend a lot of time with friends again and wake up happy most days. I’m slowly piecing together triggers and am getting good at recognising them before it becomes an issue. I’ve kept most of the weight off and have taken up running, starting the C25K program, something I never imagined myself doing.
Most of this year feels like a very complicated and tangled mess, most of it a blur. There were days and weeks and months at a time where I wasn’t myself and I struggle with not feel guilty about that and for being such a burden on some people. Mostly I don’t want to let this have happened without learning from it. While it felt like it came out of nowhere, I know it didn’t, there were internal and external forces and I want to be strong and smart about them if I ever have to deal with this again.
Probably my biggest pieces of advice are as follows:
Know your triggers
There were some bigger triggers I faced, but some were as little as only listening to particular music or watching particular movies. Anything that made me feel overwhelmed had to go, I ditched plans to travel and study this year or organise a large 30th. If I couldn’t answer the phone, I didn’t. I tried to avoid anything I felt I was getting too compulsive about.
Get professional help.
In my experience, friends and family can only do so much, not through lack of trying. For a start, dealing with a mentally ill person is hard work, secondly, the people closest to you can’t always give objective advice. I went to my GP and got referred to a psychologist with a mental health plan. It was good to know what to expect: your GP will get you to answer a set of questions and will then refer you for an initial six sessions which are partially covered by Medicare. If you don’t seem to work well with who they refer you to, go back and ask for a new referral.
Don’t leave this too late. My mum had to come all the way to Sydney to sit in on an appointment with my GP at one point because I was so sure she was going to think I was faking being unwell. In my experience, GPs can be a bit rushed, but they’re not going to turn you away. And if they are a bit blunt, so be it, you just need the piece of paper and advice.
Check any medication you’re on.
My GP, though incredibly blunt, is really thorough. As well as suggesting a medication for my anxiety, she also checked all possible side-effects on other medication I was taking and discovered my blood pressure medication can cause panic attacks, so moved me to one with beta-blockers in it. That was a bit of a turning point.
Medication is a personal decision, but make it an informed one.
I’ve been on medication a few times now and have had varying amounts of success with it. I’m don’t feel like I’m qualified to give advice, but it’s always worth discussing with a GP, especially if you have concerns about side-effects, because there are heaps of options now and my psychologist told me that on average, people typically try three different medications before finding one that works for them. One piece of advice I will give is don’t come off them cold turkey unless you love going through withdrawal. Which sucked. Big time.
As much as I hate to say it, exercise works.
I hate when people say, ‘Oh you’re feeling down? Go for a walk in the sunshine!’. It’s not that easy, cheerful people! However, it does actually work and I do now exercise regularly and enjoy it, which means I now have a whole arsenal of lazy jokes I can no longer make about myself.
Do not ever just sit and wallow. I don’t care if you only intend to do it for five minutes, or 16 hours. This was the absolute hardest thing I faced and now that I am well, I see how stupid it was to do and I try my very best now not to do it, so just do something. Read a book, vacuum the floor, have a shower, play Mario Bros. Just don’t lie in bed if you can help it, because it is very, very hard to get up again.
People can’t always understand.
There were some people I am very close to and who I love very much who I just couldn’t talk to about this, because it was either too much for them (which I actually very much understand), or they just didn’t have the experience to understand how crippling it is.
Don’t be bitter about that.
Sometimes help comes from the strangest places. Sometimes the last people I would have ever expected to be understanding were the best people to talk to.
The part where it gets better, yay!
The levee breaks. In my experience it happens fairly suddenly, but I still feel like I have to keep looking over my shoulder for a while. I have bad days every now and again and end up on the phone to my parents, but I can identify why I might feel a certain way if I’m tired or had a stressful day at work.
I’m building up my mental tool kit with things to help be prepared if this every happens again, and to prevent it as best I can.
I read a lot of books about anxiety, meditation and depression. I exercise a lot and I try and have good sleeping patterns. I try not to beat myself up about what happened and not to feel guilty for some of the things I said or did when I was in the middle of this spiral. I try and remember what my dad said, I was sick and when you’re sick you need treatment and he’d never not help me if I had a broken leg and he’d never not help me with depression and anxiety.
I’m looking forward to this summer a lot. I can’t wait to swim and go on road trips. I want to treat every weekend like the Christmas holidays from school. It’s a nice way to feel and I’m confident I can maintain it now, but every step is a little one.