Before I tell my story, I want to note that some of the below may be triggering for those who are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts. Please know you are not alone and there is help available. If you are in a serious, life-threatening crisis, call 911.
Two years ago, I had a breakdown.
It took a long time afterwards for me even to be able to say it out loud – I had a mental breakdown.
I had a mental breakdown.
I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression since I was 10 or 11, maybe even earlier, so much so that their presence was often just background noise to me. I thought the feelings of hopelessness and constant worry were just part of life. Life sucked, and that’s all there was to it.
I wasn’t officially diagnosed with anxiety or depression until I was in university. The resources available at school allowed me to explore my thoughts and behaviours with a trained professional who recommended medication and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).
By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had tried out a few medications and more than a few therapists. So, at the age of 27, it wasn’t exactly a surprise that I finally broke down– but I still didn’t see it coming.
The breaking point
There I was, successful for my age and right on track (career-wise at least), and I had never been unhappier. My entire life was my job, and as I grew to dislike my work, my discontentment with my life only grew.
I began to spiral, but because I had the mindset that life is never happy, I didn’t recognize the warning signs. I had spent so much time planning the next step of my life – first university, then graduate school, then moving across the country for my career – and now that I was in it, I felt like I was a failure.
You are not always a reliable source
I honestly didn’t think things were that bad. I had gone back on medication and was seeing a therapist. I thought I had things handled.
It turns out when you’re sick, your brain isn’t exactly a reliable witness.
It wasn’t until my boss pulled me aside to check in on me that I realized I wasn’t passing publicly either. When I brought it up to my sister, she told me how worried she was about me. It took me a few weeks after that to admit to myself that it was bad and even longer until I acted.
Now when I look back, I can’t believe how bad it was. At that point, I was having suicidal thoughts on a daily basis. I was going through the motions of life, but not really functioning. I was having several panic attacks a week, if not daily.
Ask for help
When I finally realized that I couldn’t keep going the way it was, I was lucky enough to be in a position that provided me with paid medical leave, to have a family doctor (who was kind and understanding), to have a therapist I liked, and to have benefits that could allow me to access those resources.
BTW… Anyone who says Canada has universal health care has never tried to access emergency mental health treatment.
When I finally went to see my doctor, he asked me, “Why didn’t you come in sooner?” Before I could answer, and because he likely knew the answer, he said, “You don’t have to feel like this.” I broke down crying because it felt like such a relief to have a medical professional tell me that.
I decided (was told) to take time away from my workplace to focus only on myself and getting better. It was intensive and more exhausting than if I had kept working because I no longer had the excuse of “I’m too busy” to push away the problems I’d been avoiding.
Utilize your support system
When you’re in a dark place, it’s easy to become isolated. Because I had taken time off work, I would have been able to hide away – but it would have only made things worse.
At the time, my family mostly lived across the country – 4,000 km and three large provinces away. My support system was flimsy and mostly work-related. I was ashamed and didn’t want to tell friends across the country if I didn’t have to. My sister had to call and tell my parents for me; I certainly couldn’t.
Do your best not to isolate yourself. Go outside. I had a dog who forced me to go for three walks a day, even if it was only down the block, a sister who called me daily, a dear friend who checked in on me regularly, and a therapist who held me accountable and forced me to make changes. Without them, I wouldn’t have made it through.
Be kind to yourself
Celebrate the little victories. When you’re recovering from depression or dealing with anxiety, it can take a lot of energy to do even the smallest of tasks.
More often than not, I’m my own worst critic. I used to say I was just a perfectionist, but I’ve grown to learn my perfectionism is just my anxiety in a different coat.
Say to yourself what you would say to your best friend if they were going through the same experience.
It’s more common than you think
The stigma around mental health is real. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I felt like a failure, and like I couldn’t handle life.
I know, rationally, I’m not the only one.
But at the time, I was afraid everyone, especially my coworkers, would look at me differently and treat me like I was more fragile and delicate than before. It felt like a secret had been revealed without my permission.
Even now, I feel anxious about the possible reaction of current or future employers and coworkers. But if sharing my story helps someone with theirs — it’s worth it.
Take your time
Returning to work was hard. On my first day back, the HR person, who is supposed to be supportive and have training in dealing with mental health issues, joked that I should have chosen a nicer time of year to take off work. Yeah, thanks, I’ll remember that the next time I have a breakdown.
When I look back, I actually wish I had taken more time off, but I was determined to get back to work. I believed that because I was no longer a productive member of society, I was even more of a failure somehow.
I know if I had been diagnosed with a visible illness or someone had died, I wouldn’t have hesitated to take time off. Because those felt like real reasons, and even though I knew my mental health was also a real reason and a real illness, I felt like I was faking or cheating somehow.
Your mental health is more important than your work, your career, your obligations.
I’ll say it again a little louder for those in the cheap seats – your health, mental and physical, are more important.
I do acknowledge that I’m saying this as someone who was privileged to be able to take paid time off of work, the ability and resources to take time off, to access a therapist and medications quickly due to my benefits at the time.
I know not everyone does.
In the months after my breakdown, I decided to quit my job and move back to London.
To be closer to family and friends.
To use the worst time in my life as motivation to take chances and improve my life.
I was terrified I was ruining my career, but I felt like if I didn’t, I’d be ruining my life.
Healing isn’t linear
Recovery’s not going to happen overnight.
I’ve come to accept that I’ll always have to think about my mental health. When I first started seeing a therapist, I remember thinking, I’ll get some tips on how to make it through and that’ll be that. How naive I was.
I can feel the crippling anxiety coming back when I stop taking care of myself or stop paying attention to myself. I have overwhelming days and crappy days. But I have great days and better-than-I-ever-could-have-dreamed days too.
Checking in with myself has become as important as the meds. I ask myself a million questions a day. Can I handle being that busy? Am I sleeping enough? Am I sleeping too much? Where can I schedule in a break? Am I overscheduling myself to avoid dealing with an issue?
I often pause during a moment of anxiety and ask myself – what’s triggered this feeling? It allows me to slow down for a moment and try to pinpoint the feeling before it becomes a runaway panic attack. These coping mechanisms may seem small, but they’ve made all the difference in my resiliency.
Now, I look back and don’t even recognize the person I was two years ago. I’m thankful I feel like a different person.
And, most of all, I’m thankful I’m still here to be able to say that.
If you need help and don’t know where to start looking, here are some great local resources and hotlines to call.
London Middlesex Suicide Prevention Council: 1-844-360-8055
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
Canadian Mental Health Association Reach Out: 1-866-933-2023
Connex Ontario Mental Health Helpline: 1-866-531-2600
If you are in a serious, life-threatening crisis, call 911.
Feature photo by Laura Thorne