Many have experienced the nervous ache in times of stress. You feel uneasy because of a test, the heart races as you start the first day at a new job, and the nervous pit in a stomach settles as you move in with a significant other. If you are dealing with anxiety, that pit in the stomach never goes away – it becomes something that travels with you, a constant companion.
When people say that those with mental illness have a hard climb back, or a long and hard road to recovery, it doesn’t fully or accurately describe the journey. Mind you, these journeys are different for everyone and deeply personal. But imagine: everything you are, who you used to be, how you defined yourself, no longer exists. The person staring back in the mirror is made of broken pieces and barely held together by the sheer force of will. Sometimes, you think you see your old self in flashes, but then it is gone.
Now, imagine having to put that person back together with the full realization that you will never be who you were.
After my nervous breakdown, one of the most vivid memories was the energy it took to walk to the corner store to grab a cup of coffee. I had had two or three failed attempts before I finally left – to be honest, my memory is still fuzzy about the time during those days, when just watching a 30-minute TV show was difficult.
My heart pounded the entire time, and I mumbled my order: “Coffee, please.” I handed the money after carefully counting it five times, and waved off the change due. The walk felt longer going up to the house, and I panted as I slowly and shakily opened the door, collapsing in the front hall. This was one of the first forays outside without company and, though it took so much out of me (I slept for the rest of the day), I remember smiling – a real, heartfelt smile – and was proud of myself for the first time in months.
This mini-adventure, as I saw it, would be the first of many ways that I started to push the boundaries, always trying to beat what took a hold of me. From barely crossing the threshold of a door, to taking the bus by myself, to finally going out with friends and returning to work: I slowly, but surely, progressed in my treatment.
Before “the days I couldn’t hold a conversation” as I like to call them, I was happy by all accounts, or I should have been on paper. I landed a good job after university, moved to a new city to “spread my wings” and had many good friends. Suddenly, things started to go awry. There was a falling out with some people, the job had gruelling days with work-filled weekends, and making friends in a new city wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I decided to make the best of it and started traveling back home as much as my budget would allow.
But something still didn’t feel quite right. Something was off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Slowly, my work started to suffer. By no means was I a star, but we were busy, my superiors were happy and the clients were happy. Being in charge of projects, I had to be on-the-ball to make sure deadlines were met, something at which I excelled. Strangely, mistakes started to happen. My supervisors weren’t as happy any more, and neither were the clients. All this only made the pit in my stomach grow larger and heavier after each mistake happened, chipping away at my already-lowering self-confidence.
When I wasn’t working, I now spent all day in bed or watching TV. I started dreading the office and had to physically pull myself out of bed to even get ready. Hours at work felt like days and I was exhausted all the time, but couldn’t sleep unless I drank heavily. There was nervous energy that seemed to be emanating from my entire being. The bottles started piling up and the bags under my eyes started getting bigger and bigger – no amount of make-up would cover them. I remember thinking to myself, “If you can’t even stand yourself, how do you expect other people to be around you?”
My office friends and my friends back home would keep asking if I was okay, while I kept shushing them, saying it was stress, and that I just needed to get through the rough patch. When people started saying that I needed help, I got defensive. How dare they say that I, the person who always knew what to do, who always took care of others, needed help? What were they smoking?
It came to a head one night. After cleaning the house, I carefully laid out the knives I had been washing on the counter, picked one up and put it to my wrist. I felt as if someone else was in the room with me and barely recognized my voice as I said, “Who would care if you just did it now?” This was what scared me and made me realize that I needed help. But not everyone is as lucky (could this even be the right word?) as me. I had literally scared myself straight, enough adrenaline surged through my body and forced a moment of lucidity that made me pick up the phone and call my parents. To this day, I don’t even think they know the full story of how close I came to being gone forever.
During the treatment of my nervous breakdown, I had so many doctors that I lost count. My mental illnesses — I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety – had left my muscles twisted so badly that I couldn’t keep my back straight, my body was so strained I was in constant pain. My attention span was non-existent. I was only able to stay awake for two to three hours a day to call friends or answer e-mails, and even then holding a conversation took much out of me.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, almost 20 per cent of Canadians will experience a mental illness, and eight per cent of adults will be diagnosed or experience major depression. Many initiatives have cropped up over the years to bring mental illnesses to the forefront of our collective minds.
One of the most recognizable Canadian spokespeople on mental illness is Clara Hughes. An Olympic athlete in both the summer and winter games, Hughes is the National Spokesperson for Bell Canada’s Mental Health initiative Let’s Talk and has talked about her troubles with depression. Launched in 2010, Let’s Talk has committed nearly $67.5 million to mental health initiatives to-date.
What most don’t know is that this was an extremely brave act by Hughes. The stigma attached to mental illness, though it is waning, still exists in today’s world and, most importantly, in the workforce. I remember thinking I was weak to be having this issue, then realizing I was brave enough to face it head on.
But there are those in the industry and in the public eye who don’t seek the help they need. Robin Williams, a consummate actor and comedian, took his own life in August 2014. Many stories and suggestions have been thrown out there as to why he took his life, including the cancellation of his latest show, depression or even a bi-polar disorder. The ultimate cause of Williams’ act might never be known. Other high-profile suicides, specifically in the fashion industry, include Alexander McQueen who took his own life in February 2010. McQueen had been diagnosed with mixed anxiety and depressive disorder, and had lost his mother to cancer only days before. Charlotte Dawson, the host of Australia’s Next Top Model, took her own life in February 2014, after a long and public battle with depression and cyberbullying. A strong opponent of cyberbullying, she had become the victim of a targeted attack – the strain had become so much, she was admitted to the St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney for her first suicide attempt in 2012. L’Wren Scott, a designer and stylist, was found dead in her Manhattan home in March this year, after it was rumoured she was experiencing business troubles and after her show at London Fashion Week in February was cancelled. The list goes on and on, but the ultimate reason why these people chose to take their own lives might never be known. All we are left with is conjecture and theories, and many, many questions.
It’s been years since my nervous breakdown and, to this day, when I tell some people about it, and mention the constant and persistent struggle I have with my anxiety, they don’t believe me. My friends and family have helped a lot and have learned more about the illnesses through me. I hope I have enlightened them in some ways, too. It has made me grow as a person, learning to accept my faults and the faults of others, realizing that no one is perfect, even when they think they are.
Like anyone, I still get the pit in my stomach, but it takes a little more motivation for it to go away. Some days, I continue to convince myself to get out of bed, to walk out of the door, or to go back to sleep and attack the problem on another day. Do I hate it sometimes? Yes. But I have accepted that this will always be with me, and learned to put myself back together despite it.
After all, as the saying goes: to fix a problem, you must first recognize that you have one.
The contributor wishes to remain anonymous.
Feature image credit: Shutterstock.