This story was first published on November 10, 2013.
Today is World Mental Health Day so I thought it might be a good day to share my own experience.
At the tender age of 25 I suffered a nervous breakdown. I was working as a junior solicitor in a big Sydney law firm at the time and it started one night when I collapsed with vertigo in my office. I spent the next four months, in bed, in and out of hospitals, unable to walk because of this debilitating dizziness.
I took an extended period of leave without pay from work. I stayed with my parents in their home in northern New South Wales because I couldn’t look after myself. The 45-odd square metre apartment I shared with my beloved boyfriend in inner-Sydney was not exactly suitable for another person and between completing his degree and being a professional athlete, he couldn’t take care of me every day.
My head was spinning and my world went with it. In search of an explanation, over the next four months I saw five general practitioners, two ear nose & throat specialists, three neurologists, three gastroenterologists, one gynaecologist, one physician, one counsellor, one acupuncturist, one naturopath, a yoga guru, two osteopaths, a dietician and two psychiatrists. I told and re-told my story. Over and over. Time and time again.
I had an MRI, an MRA, a CT scan, an ultrasound, two audiology tests, three neurological assessments, one balance test and too many blood tests to count. I tried countless diets – sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, salicylate-free, alcohol-free and caffeine-free.
And at the end of all that, there was still no answer. I was as dizzy as ever and terrified.
Despite no medical professional agreeing, logic suggested to me, and those closest to me, that my meltdown was most likely the toll eight years’ of Crohn’s disease had taken on my body. Crohn’s is a form of inflammatory bowel disease. It’s ugly and very painful and there’s no cure, so give or take nasty medication, it’s pretty permanent. My attitude towards Crohn’s from the moment I was diagnosed at 19, consisted largely of denial. I was determined not to let it interrupt my life and for years I thought that worked.
Wise words from a kind 70-year old physician, proved the turning point. He looked me in the eye and told me this vertigo was my body’s way of telling me something. In his experience, he said, unexplained physical symptoms are inevitability a symptom of stress. He said stress has a very real impact on the body.
Unlike when other doctors had asked if I was feeling stressed,depressed or anxious, when he said this, I didn’t feel the urge to scream from the top of my lungs “OF COURSE I’M FEELING BLOODY STRESSED/DEPRESSED/ANXIOUS BECAUSE IN CASE YOU HAVEN’T NOTICED I’M 25 AND I HAVEN’T WALKED PROPERLY FOR MONTHS AND NO ONE CAN TELL ME WHY!!!!”
Instead I listened. I knew it was true. I resigned myself to the fact there was no magical cure for my spinning head. Up until that point, I believed I was losing my mind because I had lost my body. Ironically, I was losing my body because I had lost my mind.
I started seeing a psychologist, I started taking medication for anxiety and I started to relocate my feet. It was symbolic, because I hadn’t been there for four months, but I resigned from the law firm. At that point it was a no-brainer, but after slavishly devoting myself to six years of uni in a bid to secure myself a job in a big commercial law firm, and a few years living that reality, it was still terrifying.
I spent a fortnight of my own volition in a seriously unglamorous rehabilitation facility. I took part in group therapy, I learned a lot about anxiety and depression, I did yoga and I enjoyed having some space. I started to feel like me again. The dizziness started to subside and within a few weeks I felt like I had disembarked the boat ride from hell.
As I assume is the case with all major meltdowns the experience redefined my life. There is nothing like a few months living with your parents, facing the prospect of being unable to do anything for the rest of your life, to realign your priorities.
My idea of a successful day went from surviving an 18-hour working day in the law firm, proofreading product disclosure statements, escaping the wrath of pathological partners without bursting into tears, to washing my hair and getting out of my pyjamas.
After my stint in rehab, I moved back to Sydney and eased myself back into life. I started working casually in a clothes shop, I swam, I did lots of yoga, I read and I was kind to myself. A few months later, when I was looking to start full-time work again, a friend told me about a research position that was being advertised at a magazine. It was a 3-month contract that involved working closely with journalists. I applied and got it. On my first day, I met the editor-in-chief and explained that I wanted to be a journalist. At the end of my contract he gave me a permanent role as a real-life journalist.
That was a bit over five years ago now but I remember the experience like it was yesterday. I didn’t feel lucky at the time but soon enough I recognised that I was fortunate to have been forced to navigate the steep learning curve that is good mental health, relatively early in life. Prior to my meltdown I was essentially a battered mind, with the perpetrator being none other than myself. The best bit is I learned to change that.
I learned that maintaining strong mental health is a lot like maintaining good physical health. I’ve always been conscious of eating well. I love all types of food and my diet is far from Gwyneth Paltrow’s macro-biotic regime but on the whole I try to put more good things in my mouth than bad. I hadn’t adopted the same approach for my mind but it’s exactly the same. If I eat hot chips, chocolate, lollies and fast food for a few days straight, my body will feel awful. If I feed my mind a constant stream of negative morsels – dwelling on all the things I don’t do well, don’t have, can’t do … I will feel awful.
The most effective tool I was taught to overcome anxiety and the feelings of inadequacy that often accompany it, was also the simplest. It’s this: at night when you put your head on your pillow think of three things you did that day that made you laugh or feel happy, proud or positive.
Don’t think about the phone-call you didn’t make, or the birthday you forgot, or the words you snapped to someone who didn’t deserve them, or the dinner you didn’t cook, or the email you didn’t send. Instead dwell on three things you did – no matter how inconsequential – that made you feel good. It’s a surprisingly easy habit to develop. Once you turn your mind to it, breaking a pattern of negative thoughts is easy. Until you recognise it though, for many people, it is second nature to beat themselves up daily.
While obviously varying in severity, duration and cause – depression, anxiety, stress, feelings of inadequacy and guilt – are things that every single one of us will grapple with at one point or another. I might be wrong about this but when things fell apart for me I’m not sure, from the outside, whether I necessarily looked like someone who was at risk of having a nervous breakdown. From the outside, in virtually every way, I probably looked to be functioning like anyone else. But on the inside it was a very different story. And that’s one of the reasons I tell people about my experience. Because particularly when it comes to mental health not everything is always as it seems.