Things You Only Know If You’ve Had A Nervous Breakdown

Forget some Girl, Interrupted clip. The reality of mental illness is tough - but at some times poignantly funny


by Kate Bellamy |
Published on

If you’re not a whisky drinker, working your way through a bottle of it before you start work for the day could be one of the first signs you’re not quite right. It’s what caused me to stop for a second before the tears started and realise something bad was happening. Then the tears started and they didn’t stop. I was having a nervous breakdown.

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It happened in 2011 when I was living in Belfast, away from all my friends in Essex and my family. It was a combination of nervous exhaustion and an emotional crash that came about after months of ignoring how unhappy I was. My friends had deserted me after a night which featured a very drunken row and I had been in an unhappy relationship for months.

Now I'm getting back on my feet, but I still have chronic depression and am prone to mania at times, but it is treatable with medication, counselling and keeping an eye on myself. It's not fun. But it has made me want to talk about the truth about mental illnesses. So here's what I learnt:

Breakdowns don’t have a textbook definition

'What do you mean you had a breakdown?' people have asked, when I haven’t been wearing my ‘Team Nutter’ T-shirt or when I've tried to explain why I left Belfast so abruptly. 'It can't have been a breakdown, you didn't get committed,' etc. etc. Wait, what? I didn't get committed? I didn’t have to spend weeks in hospital sedated? Lucky me, I'm committed to a lifetime of medication and constantly keeping a check on my emotional state but sorry that doesn’t fit your Girl, Interrupted fantasy. The Oxford English Dictionary will give you a definition of 'nervous' (adjective: easily agitated or alarmed, anxious) and 'breakdown' (noun: failure of a system; mechanical, relationship, system) but there's no rules for losing it.

Looking back isn’t always 20/20

I thought it was a one-day thing but, in retrospect, there were about three days of true madness, after years of profound sadness. For months, the aftershock continued. It’s strange, like the Dallas shower scene, such as waking up repeatedly and realising that bad day in 2008 continued until 31 August 2011. The physical pain in my chest, the inability to stop crying just took over. I had the telly on, then I just crumpled on the sofa and didn't move until that evening when, in a panic, I called my mum and she got straight in the car to come and get me. At the doctors, I was given a cocktail of anxiety and depression medication to initially calm me down before we could establish a routine of Prozac and other drugs. I still drink quite a lot, more than I should. Sometimes it helps and then it really doesn't. But it's the idea of self-medicating that tells me that I'm still not fully recovered.

It’s a great opener for parties, not so much job interviews

Once I couldn't sleep and had so much energy I paced the bedroom for 40 minutes before my boyfriend kindly told me to go and walk round the living room. So instead, I started baking. He woke up to a full array of sweet treats, all made in a daze and with no measuring cups so there were was a 3am apple tart with 3lbs of sugar in it. Taking the piss out of myself relieves the tension around the subject that is still wrongly stigmatised, but sometimes you can see people look at you and mentally fit you a straitjacket.

I gave up my job at a time when the answer to ’what do you want to do when you grow up?’ was simply, 'be employed'. But I couldn’t go into work smelling like I could personally recommend the entirety of Tesco’s alcohol aisle. Or switching from gut-wrenching physical pain to hyperactive squealing. My colleagues and my friends thought I was mad, and I was. The prospect of ever finding work again was terrifying, not only because if asked in an interview why I had to leave my last position the answer would be, ‘Because I had a nervous breakdown’, but because I didn’t think I would actually be able to do it. What if the next time I drank a bottle of something and then another, and another, or left the booze and went straight to a motorway bridge?

**Daytime TV is a black hole **

My parents wanted me home, where I wouldn't be at risk. Trying to think about the actual breakdown was like that feeling you get with a hangover, when you’ve made a tit of yourself at an office party and know you’ll never live it down, but magnified a thousand times. I did nothing but watch UKTV Gold for about four months after quitting my job. Then I started six hours a day of yoga on The Fitness Channel. Jeremy Kyle is as much fun as poking yourself in the eye with a pitch fork and This Morning is like self-flagellation without the fun (I joke, Schofield and Willoughby are pure magic). Work began to look more appealing. After all, who wouldn’t want to employ someone with mental health problems?

Dogs should be prescribed on the National Health

The minute I met Dora, I fell in love, and embarked (pun intended) on a course of emotional and physical therapy. Walking her gave me time to think and, as always advised – but as attractive as climbing a mountain with no shoes on and a 30-stone man on your back who insists on singing the full score from The Sound Of Music, repeatedly – exercise does help to improve your mood. She has become my guru in how to live: eat, sleep and rigorously demand cuddles. Dora needs to be looked after like I do, but I’m the only one that can say it. Asking for help is the only way to begin the climb out of your pit. Ask me you can borrow my dog for a bit if you like, but I want her back!

Now I'm back in work – not in Belfast – and living with a boy, I must be really mad! But I'm managing. I have episodes every now and then, but I'm getting pretty good at recognising the signs: carelessness, overspending, bags of energy, insomnia, heavy drinking. It's something I deal with daily but it doesn't define me. Life's a bit completely mad anyway.

Follow Kate on Twitter @KateMate

Picture: Lukasz Wierzbowski

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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