A breakdown ain’t a breakdown until after the fact
At least, that’s how it was for me.
To be more accurate, I didn’t realise I’d been going through a breakdown until after it had happened. After I’d hit rock bottom. After I’d unravelled emotionally and psychologically.
The PC brigade tell me I shouldn’t use the term ‘breakdown’ any more – that it should be referred to as a ‘mental break’ instead. But that doesn’t feel right for me. It wasn’t just my mind – it was my emotional body too, not to mention the impact on my physical body… my immune system seemed to break too, as I attracted every passing illness. Maybe that was my body’s way of enforcing a break – though all those respiratory illnesses and chest infections didn’t entirely feel restful!
Anyway, I make no apologies for continuing to use ‘breakdown’ as my chosen descriptor. That’s what it was for me. My life, my mind, my body, and no amount of politically-correct red tape will make me fudge the truth of what happened, as experienced by yours truly!
During the dissolving of the corporate high-flyer formerly known as Tamzin, I got through every day step-by-step – hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute.
I’d create road maps for myself – little goals to hit every day. It was a bit like climbing a mountain and being terrified of heights: just get to that next pine tree; now just get to that next boulder; keep going – one foot in front of the other.
That was the only way I could seem to cope with even the most mundane of days.
To use a pretty gross phrase used by a former colleague of mine, I was like a rat in the sewer – just going through the motions. It took me a while to get that one. Nasty, but a pretty accurate description.
Every morning, I’d wake up feeling as though the weight of the world was on my shoulders, wipe away tears as I opened my eyes, force myself to get out of bed, cry in the bathroom – behind the auditory curtain of running water – then take a deep breath, put on my mask of make up and pinstripe armour, climb into my sleek, company Audi, turn the music up loud to switch off any part of my brain that might try to think about anything other than the road in front of me, and drive to the office.
Once there, I’d pull up into my reserved parking space, steel myself for the walk up the stairs, then pull in my energy bubble like a second skin until I’d run the gauntlet and arrived at my little goldfish bowl of an office at the other end of the open plan department.
The people there were, by and large, lovely. There was nothing to fear. And yet, in those moments, I felt a thousand barbs on that long walk to my ‘cell’. In the midst of an emotional meltdown, paranoia has a lot to answer for. I’d be convinced that everyone hated me, that the entire world was plotting against me, as I walked the length of an office that felt like a mile.
Dead (wo)man walking. They might just as well have called those words as I entered the room.
On the days where I hadn’t managed to escape to an appointment (such a marvellous distraction when trying not to think about one’s own life and its unconscious undoing!), I’d drive somewhere at lunch, call my wife and cry. I would allow her words to soothe me and put me together just enough, then, as time ticked on, I’d touch up my make up again and blend out the tear streaks, retreat into those pinstripes and drive back to the office to start the process all over again.
Somehow, I’d get through to the end of the day.
On many occasions, I’d work that bit later, so I didn’t have to find the courage to walk past everyone again on the way out.
Once home, I’d shed my designer armour, cry some more, maybe have a few slugs of single malt, and go to bed red-eyed, head sore and heart aching, only for the whole sorry merry-go-round to begin again the next day.
I was burned out. I was fading. I wanted very much to find the off switch. The anti-depressants from my GP helped, but not quite enough. The work I was doing with my mentor and medicine man, Chris Lüttichau, helped some more. The unconditional love and support from my amazing heart and soul mate, Asha, was the glue that held me together – or, the glue that put me back together, just enough to get through each day.
At the time, I knew I was deeply depressed. I knew I was horribly stressed, anxious and struggled to differentiate between real threats and paranoid delusions when it came to the opinions of others. I knew the shell that held the essence of me was running out of ‘Taz’. I knew something was desperately wrong. But I absolutely didn’t identify my predicament as breaking down.
That realisation didn’t come until much later. In fact, the severity of my unwinding didn’t really hit home until I was well on the way to recovery.
Why am I telling you this now?
Because it’s important – I believe – to build more awareness in our society. We need to (forgive the unintended pun) break down some of the stigma surrounding mental health.
A quick search on Google turned up a report from August 2018 that claimed a whopping 300 million people across the world have depression.
What’s more, the report said 16.2 million adults in the US had experienced a major depressive episode in the past year – that’s 6.7% of all adults.
There are more stats too, of course – I could go on. Suffice to say, you probably know several people who are spiraling way below the line and you may have no idea.
When I was in that bleak place, though I’d confided in my fellow directors that my doctor had prescribed anti-depressants, I hid the extent of my condition pretty well. That was backed up by the response of: “Oh well, they give them out like Smarties nowadays.” That’s not the reaction of someone who believes the person in question is in any real crisis, is it?
And it’s not surprising. My mask was so thick, so firmly cemented in place, my admission would have seemed in stark contrast to the carefully-schooled face I allowed my colleagues to see.
I didn’t really ask for help. I said the words, but I didn’t allow the emotions to show. At least, not the emotions that, in hindsight, it might have been helpful to allow those who might have been supportive allies to bear witness to.
And so, I’m sharing this now partly to raise awareness, partly as a plea.
Please, please be aware that depression can be a silent killer.
Depression can be an invisible illness.
As colleagues and employers, it can be so easy to give all your attention to that one employee who cries in the corridors, wails at their desk, or allows the tears to flow freely in an appraisal. Meanwhile, that stoic worker, getting on with the job without complaint, might be secretly crumbling beneath the surface. It doesn’t mean one is better, or worse, than the other – simply that we need to be extra vigilant and let everyone in our care know that help and support is available.
And to any old-school bosses out there thinking an employee’s mental health has nothing to do with their job and is none of your concern, YES IT IS!
During the hours they work for you, you have a duty of care to ensure the wellbeing of that individual, regardless of the reason for their dis-ease.
When it comes to the reason, well, mental health issues are rarely clear cut. I could come up with a gazillion and one reasons for my melt down, ranging from abuse in my past, to grief over the death of my father, to coming out, to hormones. The ‘why’ doesn’t matter. What matters is enabling the support and creating an environment where people feel able to speak up and seek help.
If you’re reading this and you’re the one struggling, please, please find someone to talk to. Whether you speak to a helpline, a family member, a trusted friend or colleague, understand that there is nothing unusual or strange about what’s happening. You’re not crazy. You’re not ‘less than’ in any way. Regardless of whether they make sense to you, your feelings are 100% valid and you are absolutely deserving of help and support.
Please, find the courage to ask for help and hang in there. It does get better. I’m proof of that.
Until next time,
#UnleashYourAwesome – I promise, it’s in there somewhere.
For Further Insight Some Resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 1-800-273-8255 or website
Help With Depression, American Psychiatric Association
HOPE for Depression, List of Organizations