Is bouncing back from a breakdown, completely, possible? Oh yes. And you can come back stronger than ever.
Bouncing back from a breakdown isn’t easy. In addition to restoring your mental and physical health, you will need to potentially restore your reputation, relationships, job or school status and perhaps most importantly, a healthy view of yourself. Stigma against those who suffer breakdowns will complicate and interfere 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, resilient 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 young medical student that took me on a wild, provocative ride. I don’t know exactly why I broke down, but I can speculate. My depression and eating disorder (bulimia) made me feel like an emotionless, heavy blob with lead pipes for limbs. The antidepressant I was prescribed made my emotions feel like shoes stuck in gum…I felt like I lost my ability to express myself. In addition to the stress of med school, I had a frightening 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 fueled my depression which fueled my bulimia. I also didn’t like medical school as much as I thought I would and started questioning my career choice, at a time when I felt trapped by expensive school loans and the expectations of others. After a terrifying car accident in which my jeep flipped sideways on my way to a morning lecture, something inside me snapped. I impulsively quit school (even though the Dean tried to stop me and told me no one who isn’t failing quits school), got a large tattoo on my back, flew to California and met a man on the beach. (If that sequence doesn’t make sense to you or feels dangerous to you…well, that’s a good thing.) And as twisted as fate can appear at times, that man taught me more about how I needed to heal myself than any therapist, while also being a dangerous con-artist who I had to escape. You can read about my experience in my book Manic Kingdom, though I must warn you:It is not a feel-good read. It is not comfortable. And it is not about finding answers to your problems. In fact, it’s mostly about letting go of the need for answers and accepting uncertainty.
That is the “asbtract” of my breakdown, for I spared you all the colorful details. Bouncing back from a breakdown, my breakdown, was an up-and-down, tough learning process. It’s hard…and I often stumbled and felt like giving up. No one gave me an instructions manual or prepared me for the work I’d need to do or the feelings I’d have to face. Consider the points below my experience. I cannot give you an instructions manual either (because everyone has unique struggles, capabilities and support systems and there is an unpredictable nature innate to the come-back process) but maybe someone can benefit from my honest observations below:
Damage control dominated my initial phase of bouncing back after a breakdown. 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 a few kind souls to help me control the damage.
Fear wasn’t my enemy. Fear helped me escape a dangerous con man in my life 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. That’s fine, it’s their opinion. But 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, so be prepared for it. But the only thing I could control was my reaction. I ignored the rumors as much as I could. I smiled, and offered my silence to any nosy people. My focus needed to be my recovery.
You will be judged. Perhaps there will be gaps in your resume, your education, a colorful dramatic event, a run-in with the law, or a sketchy romantic partner in your past. These things can and will hurt you, especially if you are “trying to get back on a horse” and get a job, go back to school, date someone, etc. Don’t underestimate the importance getting a job or going to school can be for your recovery process- they can provide both financial stability, which is huge, and a purpose. My advice here is, again, no one has to know everything about you. Talk about what you feel comfortable talking about. If you are struggling to find a job or get accepted into a school, don’t be afraid to “embelish” your resume. (Don’t lie, but really highlight the good stuff you’ve done, and maybe come up with a creative way to explain any gaps.)
It didn’t happen over night, but I forgave myself. After my breakdown, I was so overwhelmed with shame and guilt…just thinking about some of the things I did made me want to claw off my skin or wear a bag over my head. Gradually, through meditation, yoga, mindfulness and surrounding myself with empathic souls, I learned to forgive myself and others. Understanding the importance of self-forgiveness after my breakdown turned me off to “cancel culture.” Some call it accountability culture. Whatever you call it, cancel or accountability culture is toxic to everyone involved without forgiveness being a big part of it.
I had to prioritize self-care, even to this day. For example, before my breakdown, I never understood how much sleep impacted my mood and ability to think straight. In the Army, “sleep was a crutch!” Now I realize that sleep is not a crutch and in fact necessary for optimal physical and mental health. Now I sleep eight hours a night, otherwise, my mood will darken. Sleep is so vital to wellness, I’d almost call sleep another word for sanity. I also exercise daily and eat healthily. (It sounds like common sense, but you’d be surprised by how many people don’t do those basic things.)
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 like a robot programmed to seek approval. I don’t think I ever thought I was loveable as is. So I spent a lot of time alone in a meditative state getting to know myself. And killing all my peformative false selves. 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, or let others define us by them.
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 confidently say, “I don’t know.”
Thanks for taking the time to read Bouncing Back from a Breakdown today. Maybe someone out there found it helpful. I hope.
Feel free to check out some of my other musings from the blog: