What will they say?

Dealing with people who don’t believe you

You’ve had a nervous breakdown and are recovering slowly but surely. You’re doing okay – making progress, slipping back, making progress again – but certain people’s comments aren’t helping. In fact they’re causing you undue stress, which is exactly what you don’t need at the moment.

Your nerves are raw and you’re aware that you’re hypersensitive at the best of times but it’s as if some people are completely disregarding what you’re going through. Perhaps you feel as if they don’t actually believe you’ve had a breakdown at all. I’ve been there and it cuts like a knife.

Before I help you to shrug this off – perhaps even chuckle out loud at the ridiculousness of human nature – let me share one experience I had.

It was around four months after my mental breakdown and I’d had an exhausting rollercoaster of a journey back to a place where I could just about allow myself to believe I was going to be okay. I was in the middle of a brief relapse where stress levels were rising and capacity levels were falling and I realised that social media was the cause of most of my post-breakdown anxiety (with thousands of followers it can be a demanding place, particularly in terms of responding to a constant stream of messages). I decided to post in my Facebook group, explaining that I was going to take a lengthy break from social media and focus 100% on my recovery.

I was, as usual, blown away by the support my online friends showed towards me – genuine care, concern and understanding – but there were a couple of comments that made my blood boil. I couldn’t help but feel irritated and it set off a wave of destruction inside my head.

The comments suggested that I may in fact be suffering something far less serious than a breakdown and that I should get my hormone levels checked.

Cough. Splutter. Wha….t?

I have to tell you, I was livid. More than livid, I was flabbergasted and heartbroken – not to mention highly offended – that my breakdown seemed to have been pushed entirely to the side as if I was imagining it. I wanted to scream in their faces. I felt belittled and discredited. I shook with rage as I thought about the traumatic events that had led to my breakdown and what I had been dealing with behind the scenes – things they had absolutely no idea about because I’ve never shared them publicly.

I admit I completely lost the plot as I mulled it over that night and well into the next day. I was in the middle of a serious nervous breakdown. There was absolutely no question about it. How dare they suggest so matter-of-factly that it was something else entirely? How dare they dismiss what was happening in such an off-the-cuff way? How dare they not take my word for it? How dare they suggest it was something other than what I was telling them? How dare they overlook such destructive symptoms? How dare they discuss me in my own group like I was delusional about what was happening to me? How dare they assume they knew more about what I was going through than I did?

Feelings of despair gradually gave way to rational thought. They were only sharing advice based on their own life experiences and their intention was to help me, not belittle me. I knew that from the outset yet couldn’t control my reaction. I was annoyed at myself for wasting precious healing time allowing myself to get upset, stressed and angry. I knew what was happening; I was overreacting because of my breakdown, not because of what had been said. But blowing it out of proportion then stewing on it for a day or two had served no purpose other than to set my own recovery back.

There is no mistaking a nervous breakdown, whatever the cause. It’s a truly horrendous thing to go through. I’ve gone into detail in other posts about the symptoms I had before, during and after mine and it doesn’t make for pleasant reading. A breakdown is a distressing, confusing, heart-breaking, frightening, humiliating, challenging time. You can’t function. You can’t focus. You can’t think. You can’t take in information. You can’t move much. You can’t take noise. You can’t do anything at all for a while and that can reoccur at any point during your recovery.

It’s a very serious, life-changing event. So when you’re going through it, the last thing you need is someone telling you that you’re probably going through something totally unrelated, whether they mean to help or not. It’s like telling someone with Parkinson’s that they’re probably shaking because of a sugar rush. Or telling someone with flu that they’re probably sneezing because of an allergy. Or telling someone with colon cancer that they’ve probably just got irritable bowel syndrome. It’s dismissive, irrelevant, presumptuous and an insult to real, human experience.

If you’re in the middle of a breakdown and you’ve found yourself on the receiving end of unsolicited and unrelated ‘advice’, I hope the following will lighten your mood. The most important thing for you to remember is that you’re stressed to the hilt and stress causes overreaction (I’m not patronising you, I’m going through it myself at the point of writing this). That’s not to say that what you’re feeling is not valid but you need to keep it in perspective and not allow it to sink you. Your recovery is important. What people say is not. Just chill out a bit …

I know, I know. Having someone tell you to chill out when you’re furious may well make you blow a gasket, so let’s just chill out together and have a giggle because we know how each other is feeling. Humans – gotta love ’em!

Look, life isn’t perfect and a couple of people will enjoy kicking you while you’re down; ignore them – they’re living their own version of hell. The vast majority will understand and say the right thing and they’re how humans should be. A select few … well, they just cannot seem to deliver advice without coming across as patronising know-it-alls. It’s not their fault and here’s why:

  1. People need answers. They’re trying to put their finger on what’s wrong with you by linking it to something they know or have experience of because it’s easier for them to deal with it that way. Bugger you and how you’re dealing with it – people don’t like the unknown. It freaks them out. They’ve clearly never experienced a breakdown and it’s all a bit mysterious and scary to them. They’re trying to help and to do that they must identify with what you are going through by pinning the best label on you that they can. The fact that the correct label is ‘nervous breakdown’ and you have a) already identified it for yourself and b) already identified it for them too is, apparently, irrelevant. Just smile and keep on suffering quietly. The poor dears are just trying to be supportive.
  2. People take a symptom and run with it. You can outline twenty symptoms of how you are feeling and their ears will prick up at the one thing they can relate to. You could have broken your leg and have all kinds of bones sticking out, but mention that you’re slightly light-headed and they’ll probably put it down to you not having eaten enough. In fact, you’re one step away from being labelled an anorexic, even though you’re the size of a rhino. The fact that you’ve broken your leg, have told them you’ve broken your leg, have had it confirmed at the hospital that you’ve broken your leg and are now hopping around with a nice white plaster on display doesn’t change their assumption that you have secret eating habits. Somehow your broken leg is secondary and they know exactly what your real problem is, even if you won’t admit it to yourself. Yawn, move on and be glad you’re not like them.
  3. People will try to help by telling you what happened to their friend so-and-so, and how so-and-so’s experience was exactly like yours (except it wasn’t). They know exactly what’s wrong with you (except they don’t) because it happened to so-and-so (except it didn’t) and it can’t be any different (except it can) because you have exactly one symptom that so-and-so had (except so-and-so had it far worse). One symptom is all it takes for them to deliver an expert diagnosis and so solve all your problems. You know they’re wrong but they don’t. They know best. So let them get on with it. You’re never going to convince them that you are suffering the hell of a nervous breakdown because so-and-so hasn’t had one, so why add to your own stress by worrying that they won’t accept the truth? You know what’s happening, my friend, and you don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. Best to avoid such people for a while.
  4. Breakdowns make people uncomfortable so they’d rather conclude that it’s all in your head (they can’t even see the irony in that). Family are the worst of course; it’s too much for them to deal with, after all, you’ve been fine up until now, haven’t you? You’re not giving them anything they can work with, you see – no blood, no pain, no limbs hanging off, no vomiting, no unsightly growths. They can’t see, touch or smell a mental breakdown so, in all honesty, it would be far better if you were to have contracted leprosy because that way you’d have lumps breaking out all over your body, which would mean something was really wrong. Which is ironic, because they might as well be treating you like you have leprosy – you’re likely not to hear from them for a while and if you do hear from them they’re unlikely to ask after your breakdown.

When all is said and done, this is about you, nobody else, and you need to be strong in this moment because this moment is going to lead to the next and you want to be heading forwards, not backwards. Remember this: opinion does not change reality and other people’s opinions are none of your business! You know the truth. That is all that matters. Now, put all of your energy into your recovery and think no more about it.