A mental breakdown can be a gift in disguise… but not all broken things can be fixed

Most of us have some kind of mental health weak-spot. Some people are terribly lacking in confidence. Some people can’t be open and talk about their feelings. Some people struggle to have relationships. Mine is a kind of allergy (as I like to think of it) to situations which require me to perform. And this performing has been anything from buying something in a shop, to reading a poem out loud, depending on how well I’m coping.

I have nothing bad to say about my upbringing and am only grateful for what my parents gave me. We were insular as a family. While I did have friends, I looked down on my peers. I was frustrated by what I felt was weak, fake and selfish behaviour. No one was quite good enough.

Of course, looking down on people is a fragile and lonely position. My intolerance concealed the fact that actually I lacked the confidence to just engage. In truth, it was also hard to imagine a happy future. Would I be forever disappointed? If I couldn’t even find friends who met the required standards, how would I ever find a partner? I so deeply wanted to have fun times, tons of friends, and a boyfriend. But it seemed increasingly unlikely.

On my 18th birthday I went to away with family and felt unspeakably sad. I came back to college and something strange happened which I absolutely hadn’t foreseen. I had a panic attack in my French class. I had volunteered to read something out – I used to like reading out. But I suddenly found myself feeling incredibly vulnerable and under the spotlight. My heart thumped and I didn’t have any breath. I had to say I wasn’t feeling well and stop, which was obviously odd.

For a while afterwards I tried to push on with my studies. But I had a horrible grim feeling inside of me and terror that wouldn’t go away. We spoke to the teachers and they agreed not to ask me to read out or put me under any pressure. It helped in the short-term but it wasn’t a solution. I had been planning to go to University but suddenly everything was crumbling.

Christmas came and I was a sad, aimless girl, seeking help from the local mental health service, which didn’t seem to quite fit my needs. I cried a lot and started to fear that I might never have a life like other people. As it has done from time to time over these years, the panic and anxiety spread like ink into other parts of my life.

A psychologist I’d seen had said to me that perhaps the only question I needed to ask myself was whether I could continue going to college. At the time I couldn’t quite contemplate it. Then one January morning, I travelled into college, same misery hanging over me, and I stood at the door to my art class. I saw them through the glass panel. About to go in, I thought of his words, and, with a tremendous sense of relief, turned and left, never to return. That is how I always remember it anyway.

It certainly was not easy after I’d left college. When I think back, I feel especially bad for my parents because when you feel very hopeless, you put it onto the people around you. You don’t know what to do other than take from and depend on them entirely. That said, the moment I left college, I also felt liberated. I didn’t have to care about peer pressure. None of the old rules seemed to apply anymore. I could just be me.

It took me about two years to become a bit more ‘normal’. I then went on to develop, job by job, experience by experience, person by person. I learnt to be open to people and didn’t judge them so much. It didn’t matter even if they did let me down; there wasn’t so much resting on it now.

It sometimes feels like trying to push a cube into a round hole on one of those baby’s toys.

Ostensibly, I fully recovered. But the anxiety is still there, even decades later. As an adult, I’ve slowly progressed into more ‘professional’ types of jobs, and for a long time, I held onto the theory that perhaps I just need to get into a good job, with a nice manager, and I’d overcome some of my panic. Or I’ve tried to push myself to ‘recover’ and train myself out of the anxiety. I went to drama improvisation classes; got a job which involved lots of presentations; tried to enjoy other activities apart from work, or tried to find calm through routine, exercise and meditation.

Sometimes the anxiety has felt like a foreign parasite; unwanted attack. But I cannot really hate it because it is born of me. And it makes sense. The way I thought about the world before was unsustainable. It made me miserable and that misery was building up, putting strain on me. It was probably just a matter of time before I cracked. Maybe I needed to break down in order to start again and learn to be happy?

And here I am now. My job brings me fulfilment but is also a burden to me. I think I can honestly say that I’ve done almost everything to try to fix myself. So I think I can conclude that the anxiety won’t go away. It’s just part of who I am. I would like, one day, to be burden-free because it seems like a cruel thing to do to myself. I know that I will have to be careful how I go about that, and realistic; I don’t want to do work which is unsatisfying, or a bad manager who treats employees like rubbish (as with so many jobs).

There is always a faulty way of thinking, or belief system, behind unhappiness. The subject always has a chance of moving on and away from it. But that requires them to identify/acknowledge this way of thinking and relinquish it. This is easier said than done. The way we think is intrinsically connected with our egos. A person’s chances probably come down to inner reserve and support network (which in turn, may come down to how secure they feel in themselves, and how stable/supportive their upbringing was etc.).

I think we should be cautious about how much we try to fix ourselves. It sometimes feels like trying to push a cube into a round hole on one of those baby’s toys. Yes, it is always worth trying to approach our problems from different angles – we can learn a lot that way. But the thing that is ‘wrong’ or different is still part of us. It might not be possible to delve inside and cut it out – thus trying to do so can be harmful. It can result in us dichotomising ourselves; demonising the bit that’s ‘wrong’.

Not everything can (or should) be cured. It might just be poor old human nature – quite natural and logical. There’s a lot to be said for accepting, and letting go a sense of entitlement that we should have it all. There are many ways to lead a fulfilling life; pleasures to be gained from the smallest of things.