Four years ago today, I had a nervous breakdown. This is the story of what I learned during my journey from 27th March 2007, which I spent crying uncontrollably in a bus stop, to the launch of Love It Love It Love It three years later. This post isn’t going to be all about how awful it all was, which it was, for a long time. It’s just a simple list of the things that helped me to recover. You never know, they may help someone in a similar position, or give them hope. That would be truly wonderful.
Look for the joy.
This small tip, which was absolutely central to my recovery was supplied by the eternally wonderful Carolyn. Her extremely pertinent point is that beautiful, pleasing things are all around you, but they are sometimes so small or transient that we miss them. Many of them involve using your senses to feel what’s going on in the world around you. Someone’s smile, the feel of a cool pillowcase against your face, the smell of coffee brewing – actively look for them, grab them, and your life is instantly enriched. Despite my world being oppressively grey at the time, the real world was just sparking in to life. I decided to go and take some pictures of the blossom that was coming out. There was no tangible reason why, I just wanted to – especially of the gorgeous magnolia tree down our street, which was bursting with delicate beauty. It was the first thing I had done in ages that I did simply because I wanted to, rather than because it needed to be done or someone else wanted me to do it. The pictures in this post are some I took that day. They’re not brilliant, but they mean a lot to me. It was the first positive step towards getting better.
Don’t ignore the signs.My breakdown had been a long time coming, building up over many years, but things had been getting much worse for the past few months. I’d been grimly hanging on, putting one foot in front of the other. It was a real shock to me to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and had I paid any attention to the changes in my own behaviour, thought patterns or emotions, it may have been possible to prevent my illness reaching the stage it did. Life is not a miserable slog, and if that’s how it feels to you, then perhaps you need to honestly evaluate whether that’s a rational reaction to a shitty set of current circumstances or if your mind is playing nasty tricks on you.
Perfectionism is a curse. Give it up.
Four years ago I was trying to be a perfect mother and wife, perfect in my career and to create the perfect home from a recently purchased tip. It’s not possible to do any of them perfectly, never mind all four at once, especially as perfection in one of those areas is directly incompatible with perfection in the others. To a perfectionist, any failure, whether real or imagined, and no matter how slight, is like a dagger through the heart. Whilst it may be possible to live like that whilst life is relatively straightforward, as our lives get more complicated with age, it becomes completely untenable. Learning that ‘good enough’ really is good enough may be one of life’s hardest lessons to learn, but it’s also one of the most valuable.
Have faith in people, especially those you love.
When I broke down, my overwhelming feeling was a sense of failure, of intense shame at crumbling. Unless it was absolutely unavoidable, I couldn’t admit to anyone what had happened. The only people who knew were my husband, the HR contact at work and a few select online friends who I didn’t need to look in the eye. To everyone else I simply pretended everything was normal to avoid having to admit my weakness. Each day, I’d get dressed in work clothes to pick Evie up from nursery or my mum’s house. I avoided friends and any questions they might ask. At the time this seemed like a sensible tactic to protect myself from the terrible things they’d think and say about me. With hindsight, it was a grave mistake. Now I’m better, I still find it difficult to admit that I suffer from mental health problems, (consider this a coming out of the loony closet post!) but without exception, everyone who has found out has reacted brilliantly. They’ve been sensitive, helpful and loving. You might not love yourself, but whether you believe it or not, plenty of other people do, and they want to help. Please let them. Be honest with them and you’ll be very pleasantly surprised, which in turn helps you recover.
Be as nice to yourself as you are to everyone else.
Erm, pretty much as it says. Slow down, stop beating yourself up. Imagine how much easier life would be if you were as kind and forgiving to yourself as you are to everyone else. If you let yourself have time off when you needed it. If you could turn a blind eye to the clutter in your house they same way you don’t even notice it in your friend’s house. To be honest, although I know this point intellectually, I doubt it’s something I’ll ever be capable of.
Seek professional help.
If this post makes it seem like I just thought pretty thoughts and magically got better, that’s rubbish. It took several years, a shedload of various pharmaceuticals, a whole coterie of fantastic medical professionals and the unstinting support of my amazing husband. It will continue to do so forever, perhaps. If the joy has all but left your life, then have a word with your GP, Health Visitor or Midwife. They’ve seen it before, they’ll see it again. They won’t judge you or palm you off, they’ll help. Let them, and act on what they say.
Get rid of the stuff that will stop you getting better.
This is so very much easier said than done, but it’s worth trying every possible alternative and doing anything you can to get rid of whatever is exacerbating your problem. My career, and the devastating effect that motherhood had on it, played a big role in my breakdown. To begin with, ‘recovery’ meant being well enough to get back to work. Six months and one failed return to work later, the idea of ever going back to my old job still terrified me. (If you want a very flowery and effusive version of the full gory story, or at least one about a woman called Claire that’s very definitely not me, it’s here and here) My GP and Psychiatrist both gently suggested that that point was never going to come, and it was time to move on. That was a shock. What to? Who would employ a woman with a mental health problem and 1 and a half kids? As far as I was concerned, no one would, but we couldn’t survive without my income. That was the first time that the idea of working for myself had ever occurred to me, but it seemed to be the only way I could ever earn a living again. Remembering the day I photographed the blossom, the idea of doing something with colour really appealed to me. It took another 18 months, lots of research, sleepless nights, stress and planning before that first thought became an actual business, but I got there, and have never been happier or prouder of myself. However, none of it would ever have happened without that awful breakdown and that beautiful magnolia, which will bloom again any day now, reminding me how far I’ve come.
Keep looking for the joy. Love Ruth x