Breakdown: the warning signs

Don’t ignore the warning signs of a breakdown

I’m writing this in the hope it might help someone who’s afraid to reach out about what’s going on in their world or who, after reading this, may recognise the warning signs of a nervous breakdown before it’s too late.

I hit rock bottom with a ‘nervous breakdown’ a couple of weeks ago. I’ve put it in inverted commas because we all know what it is, though it’s not a term the medics use. There was no mistaking it; I simply couldn’t function anymore. I knew it was a breakdown and at the point of collapsing I felt like a fool because it had been coming for a long time and I’d brushed off the signs. The relief in actually realising and understanding what it was, was significant, because I knew that however bad it had got I could deal with it, heal it and make sure it never happens again. In that respect there was a certain reassurance in hitting rock bottom.

Watch my video, where I talk more detail about this article:

I had a breakdown once before after two life-threatening experiences happened within a year of each other: being robbed at gun- and knife-point and being abandoned by a jealous friend on a South African game reserve. This was in 2000. The trauma of these things left me terrified of people and of the outside world but I never realised what was happening in my head, even when I had a complete breakdown and couldn’t really walk or talk for about three weeks straight. Going to the toilet was as much as I could do during those few weeks without my legs going from underneath me. Even then I didn’t really compute how serious it all was. I lived alone so I covered up how bad it was and I just got on with it. I never dealt with it head on.

I nursed myself back to health and a couple of years later I met Dave, who helped me to rebuild my life. But even he didn’t realise what the repercussions were because apparently I never talked to him about it. We talked in-depth a couple of weeks ago and he told me that I’d always brushed over the details of my robbery and being left in Africa and a few other things like they were no big deal, so he never pushed me for more details. Apparently I always changed the subject or laughed it off.

There were apparently a few times when my legs would turn to jelly in the kitchen if he was holding a big kitchen knife, because my robber used my largest kitchen knife to threaten me. I remember a few times darting out of the room or cowering on the floor but because Dave and I always laugh about everything I would quickly check myself and giggle about how silly I was being. Neither of us realised that it was actually a sign that I was seriously affected by the robbery that happened a decade before. Call it PTSD if you want to label it.

We feel like idiots now, of course – all the signs were there but we had no idea they were so relevant. So with the benefit of forced rest and as I put the pieces of the puzzle together now, I realise that I’ve suffered from extreme stress and anxiety for the last 20-odd years and before that was pretty highly strung from the age of 16 when I ran away to discover the world.

The thing is – and the critical thing is – that I became used to being stressed. I thought it’s just the way I was. I never realised how serious the impact of ignoring stress and living in such a heightened state long term would be on my physical and mostly my mental health. It’s only now that I’m able to piece it all together and make sense of certain behaviours and actions.

My recent breakdown is not to be feared or dealt with behind closed doors. It’s been one of the best things that’s ever happened to me and hopefully it can help other people. Ironically it’s a sign that I’m functioning normally because my brain is doing what it’s designed to do and it’s protecting me from further, potentially more serious damage. By making me stop in my tracks it’s forced me to face, finally, what happened to me and from here I can understand it, heal and flourish.

Here’s why I’m telling you this: when we think of a mental breakdown or a nervous breakdown it’s easy to think of someone rocking in a corner, drooling at the mouth and then being dragged away in a straight jacket. It’s really nothing like that; it creeps up on you over a long time. It gradually shuts you down. You withdraw from people. You can’t concentrate. You become irritable. You can’t remember things. You can’t cope with even the simplest of everyday tasks. You can’t sleep. You feel like a coiled spring. You find excessive noise disturbing. You feel lightheaded. You feel low but you don’t know why. You feel restless. You can’t stick to one thing for too long. You feel like you’re in a bubble when people are talking to you. 

Those are just some of the signs. These are all things, of course, that everyone experiences from time to time – it’s part of being human. But if you’re experiencing these things day in, day out, you feel like they’re getting worse gradually, you feel like they’re getting in the way of everyday life, you feel like you’re getting to a point where you can’t function very well – and actually you don’t really care that you’re not functioning very well – it’s time to do something about it.

Stress does not get better on its own. It gets worse and if it continues to get worse your brain will do what it’s designed to do and it’ll reach breaking point so that you can’t do yourself more damage. The good news is that stress is actually quite easy to deal with just by making a few changes and if you’re prepared to take action you can stop it from taking over your life. It’s just that you need to recognise that you have a problem in the first place.

I’m exhausted but confident and know I’ll bounce back from this, twice as strong. I wanted to reach out while I’m going through this because I hate the thought that other people are living with anxiety and stress and are maybe headed towards a breakdown. Hopefully my experience can highlight a few warning signs before that happens.