By: Erin Stair, MD, MPH
( This was originally posted on The Mighty’s website)
Bouncing back from a mental breakdown isn’t easy. In addition to restoring your mental health, you will need to potentially restore your reputation, relationships, job or school status and even your view of yourself. The stigma against mental illness complicates and interferes with this restorative process. People may judge you, even when they say they’re not, and you’ll judge yourself. You’ll lose opportunities, money, friends, jobs and romances. You will relapse along the way. Bouncing back may feel more painful than the breakdown itself, but with a forgiving, mindful, patient outlook and a sense of humor, it can be the most rewarding journey of self-discovery and self-love.
I experienced a breakdown while a medical student that took me on a wild, provocative ride. I don’t know why, but I can speculate. My depression and eating disorder made me feel like an emotionless, heavy blob with lead pipes for limbs. The antidepressant I was taking made my emotions feel like shoes stuck in gum. In addition to the stress of med school, I had a scary experience with a roommate. I felt unsafe in the apartment and couldn’t sleep, even after barricading my bedroom door each night. Sometimes I would sleep in the library after hours of studying just so I wouldn’t have to go home. This led to chronic insomnia, which only fueled my depression. I also didn’t like medical school as much as I thought I would and started questioning my career choice, even though I felt trapped by expensive school loans and the expectations of others. After a terrifying car accident (in which someone may have tampered with my tires), I haphazardly quit school, got a large tattoo on my back, flew to California and met a man on the beach. (If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s a good thing.) That man taught me more about how I needed to heal my mind than any therapist, but he also turned out to be a dangerous con-artist who I had to escape. You can read about my experience in my recently released book Manic Kingdom, but here is what I noticed:
Damage control dominated my initial phase of bouncing back. I had to pay overdue bills, find a place to live, call worried family members and friends, find a lawyer, visit a doctor, etc. I was lucky to find one or two kind souls to help me control the damage.
Fear wasn’t my enemy. Fear helped me escape the dangerous con man in my story and jumpstart my journey towards recovery. Without fear, I wouldn’t be here today. Being fearful of ending up in a similar situation to my California one continues to motivate me to stay on the path to health and restoration. Some people will tell you fear is only a bad thing. I’m not one of them.
I stayed on track by learning to ignore the rumor mill and avoid uncomfortable questions. Most people don’t deserve to know everything about me, or you for that matter. After my breakdown, rumors flew and folks pried into my business. It’s human nature, and the only thing I could control was my reaction. I ignored the rumors. I smiled and politely told all busybodies that my life is none of their business. I may have suggested a hobby to a few of them. My focus needed to be my recovery.
I cultivated forgiveness for myself and others. That was difficult and required a lot of time and effort. After my breakdown, I was so overwhelmed with shame and guilt that I felt like clawing off my face or wearing a bag over my head. Gradually, through meditation, yoga, mindfulness and surrounding myself with empathic souls, I learned to forgive myself and others.
I had to prioritize self-care, even to this day. I need to sleep eight hours a night, otherwise, my mood begins to darken. In my case, sleep is another word for sanity. I also need to exercise daily and eat healthily. Not prioritizing those things puts me at risk for another breakdown.
As cliché as it sounds, I needed to learn how to love myself. I don’t believe there is one true path to self-love. Some are born with it. Some find it spontaneously and others find it gradually. Some find it with the help of a friend or therapist and some find it on their own. Before my breakdown, I was an approval-seeking puppet, so I needed to spend a lot of time alone in a meditative state getting to know myself. Once I genuinely knew myself, I was able to genuinely love myself.
Eventually, I learned to laugh at myself. No matter the timing, humor heals. Now I’m able to look back at the “crazy” things I did during my breakdown and laugh. Some of the bizarre things I did make for great stories. I’ve come to realize it’s OK to acknowledge the dramatic and humorous components of breakdowns. We just can’t let them define us.
Over time, I knew to expect and accept setbacks. I don’t like the word “recovered,” because it feels dishonest. I still have bad days and I still struggle, and that will always be the case unless I get a new mind. But I love my mind and the trend is upward, so instead of telling people I’m “recovered,” I prefer to say, “I’m trending upward.”
Finally, I learned how to get comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. Someone asked me to write a self-help book about recovery, and I declined. I’m no expert, and the truth is I don’t exactly know why I broke down, bounced back or found sanity again. I can’t pinpoint specific reasons. It could be something genetic, circumstantial, spontaneous, gradual, dietary, chemical or even pure luck. It could be one thing or a hundred things. I could experience another epic breakdown one day for no apparent reason at all, or it could be smooth-ish sailing from here on out. Letting go of needing certainty and reasons helped me become a more peaceful and adaptive human. While self-help books are honest gestures, as is me writing this post, they can’t fully address each person’s unique individual experience. There is something very powerful and freeing about being able to say, “I don’t know.”
To read Dr. Stair’s new book Manic Kingdom, a True Story of Breakdown and BreakThrough, click here.