What I've learned about caring for my mental health since having a breakdown
October 10th is World Mental Health Day.
You can’t tell by looking at me, but three years ago, I had a complete breakdown—or an emotional health crisis. A lot has happened in the time since. I’ve taken a few steps forward, then twice the amount of steps back. I’ve been split apart and put back together. But most importantly, I’m still here, still navigating who I’ve become in the aftermath of something so earth-shattering, and still hoping to be seen.
If you’ve never witnessed, experienced, or heard of a mental health breakdown, it’s an acute manifestation of an already lingering anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. The result is an inability to function in everyday life, feelings of hopelessness, and/or a feeling that you will never be “normal” again. It’s an isolated state because you’ve either hidden the warning signs from loved ones, or denied them yourself. Even when managed, my anxiety and depression have me white-knuckling a cliff so as not to drop. If you know what panic feels like, then imagine a breakdown as a heightened version of that state—like trying to see through your car windshield while driving in a monsoon. That feeling doesn’t let up until you’ve quite literally cracked up.
My experience, which happened after months of ignoring red flags, was a combination of stress, undiagnosed disorders wreaking havoc on my everyday life (specifically OCD and PTSD), occasional suicidal ideation, and the smallest of triggers (an argument that quickly went awry). In an instant, my panic inflated from 1 to 100. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see past my rapid heartbeat. I not only felt like the room was collapsing in on me, but the whole world. This definitive moment—one so burned into my memory that I can recall an internal sound, like the heated sizzle of my short-circuiting brain wires—became the catalyst for why I split in two.
There was the me before this event, and the me after. The in-between no longer existed.
Immediately after, I was numb. I’d been protected by a shell until the shell splintered and disintegrated to nothing. Left to fend for myself (or so I felt at the time), I became catatonic, fueled only by tears and the belief that I could never be okay again. I still remember lying on the floor with my laptop in front of me, desperate to find the help I knew I so desperately needed. But, as I quickly found, mental health care is complicated.
Here are some things I learned throughout this incredibly raw time. I hope this information can help you if you ever find yourself in a similar situation:
1You have to reach out, even if you don’t feel like it.
At the time, I was blessed with an amazing support system at my job. They weren’t only my friends or my coworkers, but my family. Even still, I hesitated telling them what had happened to me, for fear of judgment. I was embarrassed by something that I couldn’t control.
When I finally sent the emails and texts explaining what I was recovering from, I felt a sense of relief by getting it off my chest and I was greeted with the exact love, support, and encouragement that I should’ve come to expect from these people. I will forever consider them my saviors for hearing me, seeing me, and reminding me that I am not alone in this world. If you don’t have a support system, it’s imperative that you talk to someone. Take advantage of counselors through accessible mental health resources. It could mean the difference between coming back from the brink or dropping from that aforementioned cliff.
2 The path to recovery may be tedious.
Shortly after my breakdown, as I lay on the floor with my laptop while my husband desperately tried to understand, I searched for help. And I searched. And I searched. And I searched. Turns out, when you factor in insurance barriers, the fact that you are not feeling suicidal in that exact moment, and a doctor’s track record for successful treatment, finding good health care is more difficult than it sounds. Most of the professionals who I wanted to see were completely booked with appointments that had already been set months in advance. and had room for emergencies only. I wasn’t a threat to myself—just more dazed and lost than usual—and I told myself that those spots should be reserved for someone in far darker places than I felt at the time. But I still needed help.
Days later, I called a help line and an inpatient facility, and the reality of it all terrified me into hanging up. I believed I could figure it out on my own—however wrong that idea was. But I forced myself to keep searching for treatment because my life and emotional well-being was at stake. I am so glad I did, because I eventually found the right, available doctors for me.
No matter how much work it is, you have to keep searching.
3Go to the appointments and do the work, even when it gets exhausting.
At the beginning of my treatment, I went through three forms of therapy. I’m a believer in going big or going home, and this was the most important thing I’ve ever needed to go big for. One therapist specialized in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), where I learned tools for grounding myself in the present moment. CBT challenged me to stop grieving my past and to stop looking into the future so I could breathe in the present. I’m not going to lie; it’s hard. I failed (still fail) often. It takes practice, and sometimes, I don’t feel mentally fit to go through the motions. But when done properly, it works for me.
My second therapist helped me work through childhood traumas that were the long-standing cause of my breakdown. These sessions were emotionally draining and I often left exhausted after cleansing myself of all that plagued me. Seeing this therapist meant facing my demons head on. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done and, to be honest, I stopped going after my grandmother died. As my therapist herself warned, my grandma was the glue holding a lot of me together. Without her in my life, I didn’t feel strong enough to continue such intensive therapy. That’s what’s so hard about these disorders: They lie, convincing you that you aren’t strong enough. I know I am now.
The third form of therapy was group grief counseling to address my deepest wound—the loss of my biological father to cancer. As I sat, listening to others share their stories of loss, I began to understand that I truly wasn’t alone. On some level, we all understand pain.
4Practice continual self-care.
As the mother of two children with multiple jobs and to-do lists, I’m never not busy. That takes a toll. After the incident, I took a hard look at all I’d done to take care of myself despite whatever life demanded of me—a kind of inventory. Turns out, I’m the last person that I care for, often shorting myself in the event that someone else needs something first. I wasn’t doing myself or my emotional health any favors by trying to please everyone all the time, holding my frustrations inside, and blaming myself for every upsetting moment in the history of life.
5Accept that caring for your mental health is an ongoing, imperfect journey.
Three years ago, I didn’t know how to forgive myself for things beyond my control. I didn’t know how to move on from my past or how to admit I’m a flawed human who sometimes needs more than she’s willing to ask for (if she’ll even ask at all). I still suffer from my disorders and I still have to work to manage them. But now, when all starts feeling lost again, I don’t ignore the warning signs. I take precautionary measures like seeking support and health care, pouring myself into something that makes me happy, practicing self-care, and most of all, being patient with myself.
Mental health isn’t a destination; it’s a journey you’ll be on for the rest of your life.
One bad day doesn’t ruin them all. You will mess up. You will still cry. You will still battle the same emotions that brought you to your knees in the first place. In the three years since I’ve accepted my reality, I now understand things I couldn’t in my “before.” I’m stronger than I give myself credit for, and if you see pieces of yourself in my story, then let me be the first to say that you are, too.
So, hold on, friend. You are seen.
If you are struggling and need help, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), available Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m., ET. If this is an emergency, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text NAMI’s Crisis Line at 741-741.