How to Have a Breakdown

Gillian May

Image by Photobank on Adobe Stock

My breakdown began in 2011 after a painful breakup. The rumblings of change had been stirring for years before, but I ignored it. I didn’t want to change, the thought of it nauseated me. But suddenly, I found myself unable to continue.

I thought all that was needed was to end my relationship and start over. So I set out on my own, got a cute apartment closer to work with new dishes, a new cat, and a view to the lake. I thought all was well, but it wasn’t.

First the headaches, then the body pain, then copious amounts of alcohol, sleeping pills, antidepressants, and then suddenly I was unable to move at all. There was nothing I could do to stop it or make it go away. Everything in me just collapsed. I had no choice but to put my life on hold and face the terror slowly approaching.

The most poignant memory I have was lying on my bed at 3am.

It was another sleepless night full of physical and emotional pain. I was watching the light-beams from the cars outside creep upwards on my wall, bending at the corners, then sliding across the ceiling and fading out of sight. I thought to myself, “if I can’t find a way out of this, I don’t want to go on anymore.” My mind raced, trying to find a solution.

“What am I going to do?” I repeated over and over, rocking myself back and forth. If there ever was a moment that describes a person before a suicide, this was it. The pain was unbearable. No matter what solution I entertained, I couldn’t find any part of me that was able to go back to my life as it was.

Then I heard a voice. It said, “you need to leave.”

I answered back, “what do you mean? Where am I going to go?”

No answer.

“Great,” I thought, “now I’m really losing it.”

But something in that voice was comforting to me, so I lay there as quiet as I could and tried to listen.

“You need to go and leave everything behind,” it said. “This life doesn’t belong to you.”

The realization hit me. I had spent years building a life that had nothing to do with who I really was.

Boom, in came another realization, “I don’t even know who I am.” I said this to the mysterious voice and the dark room with the car lights coming and going. Then I collapsed into uncontrollable tears.

And in that dark moment, the voice said, “just go, and you’ll figure it out.” I raged against the why’s and how’s. But the more I demanded to understand, the worse I felt. In the end, I followed that voice because I had nothing else to lose.

Within a month, I quit my job, sold my belongings, found homes for my animals, put some things in storage and went to a quiet rural place in Mexico. I burned my life down and set out on a path that had no certainty, no promises, and no structure whatsoever

There’s a lot that happened in the years that followed.

I spent 6 winters in that rural Mexican town. Being close to the ocean and immersed in nature was the most potent healer for me. When you take a leap like I did, you’re bound to meet new people and experience new things that really open your world.

I met new friends that had gone through similar situations as me. I found plant medicine and energy healers that helped me get to the roots of my breakdown. I learned a ton of new skills that flowed naturally with my talents. I spent months alone in a grass-roof hut just staring at the ceiling, watching a line of ants that would come at the same time everyday. I changed my diet, quit drinking and gave myself permission to feel everything. I connected deeply with myself and found my way towards a more authentic life.

In those years, I went in and out of deep depressions but was always seeking to learn and grow. Every time I came up out of the dark, I felt a little more clear. Bit by bit, I put myself back together, but in a new way.

Recently, I’ve felt a new chapter opening. The beginnings were subtle, a little peek of green through the mud. A sprout of something that is ready to grow and give back to the world.

Here’s what I know now.

My breakdown was a dissolution of everything fake in me. It fell apart and dissolved like compost into the dirt. I had to stay there for a while, churning with the worms. People thought my living in the dirt pile was vile and irresponsible, but it wasn’t. It was a resting place for my mind, body, and soul while I shed the stuff that wasn’t me anymore. It was a sort of death if you will. But I assure you, I’m very much alive.

Those years were the laying of fertile ground, out of which, I’m now growing. But this time, the growth is stable, authentic and more resilient.

Image from Free-Photos on Pixabay

Here’s another thing I know is true.

That voice was real, and it was exactly right. At the time, my mind made up a lot of judgments about it. I thought the advice to leave and dismantle my life was “crazy” and the very opposite of what I was “supposed” to do. But I had a little spark in me, that knew I needed to follow it. I’m thankful that I listened and I shudder to think what would’ve become of me had I not.

We’re so afraid of breaking down because we think we might not make it.And I’m not going to lie, some of us don’t make it out. But then again, none of us are getting out of here alive anyway.

This is not to say you should break down. There are no “shoulds.” There’s only that inner voice and the decision to follow it or not. I think everyone has a voice that guides them. But we may not know how to hear it. Some of us may need to dissolve our lives while others need to stay put and keep it together. We each have a reason for “being,” and our paths are not the same.

For me, I needed to completely start over, and I needed to get some distance from my hometown to do it. I needed nature and plants and to be alone. I needed to find my creativity again and for some reason that meant completely dismantling the barriers and constructs that shaped my world.

We are so reliant on these structures that when they become shaky, we often lose our grounding mentally and physically.

Unfortunately, our breakdowns are often lumped under the umbrella of mental health issues.

And while this may be true to some extent, it’s not the whole story. Coming to terms with a false self that was created through trauma or societal pressures doesn’t necessarily constitute mental illness. And while breakdowns are frightening and de-stabilizing, they may also be…normal.

Indeed for some, a breakdown may be due to the onset of psychotic illness. Some people hear voices that aren’t nice. Those are not their true self either. Thankfully, some find their way back through treatment and medication.

As a former mental health nurse, I’m very aware that mental illness can be destructive when stigmatized and untreated.

But we need to understand more about what is an illness and what is a normal path of discovery from a false self to a true self.

It’s important to know that not all voices we hear are due to psychosis. We have a beautiful consciousness that is so disregarded. We have a powerful intuition and a wise higher self. You can call that God, a wise inner being, spirit guides, or whatever deity you worship. I believe they’re all trying to guide us to our true selves.

We’re living at a time when virtually no one knows who they really are anymore.

We’re slowly waking up to that fact, and it hurts. Transformation is an ugly process but it’s worth it if you can make the journey. For anyone who’s sat in the fertile ground of their breakdown and made it out, I bow to your courage.

If you feel a breakdown coming, but life won’t allow it, don’t worry. You’re exactly where you need to be. Just keep your heart open to whatever voices may be trying to guide you.

If you see someone on the edge of breakdown or already in it, don’t try to fix them. Don’t shame them out of the process they’re in. It might be the exact thing that will save their life. You don’t get to decide if they will make it or not.

If you meet someone who’s sleeping in the dirt of their breakdown, cover them with a blanket and let them rest. All they need from you is kindness. If someone asks you for help, know that the asking is a testament of their faith in you. Help if you can, but remember that it’s not your responsibility to lie in the dirt with them.

You know why we’re uncomfortable with breakdowns? Because there is no answer.

There’s very little understanding or force that can be exerted outside of the person who’s in it. Most people who make it out will tell you that no one else could have really helped them.

I’m thankful no one tried to pull me out and that I chose to listen to my inner voice. Trying to stop what was happening would have been akin to removing dirt, along with freshly germinating seeds, just because it’s ugly.

My breakdown was fertile ground for this new life I’m living.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational. Join my email list if you want to read more of my work - I also have a book on Alcoholic Liver Disease coming out in 2021.


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