Nervous Breakdowns, New Skin, And Hard-Won Miracles
Two weeks ago, I had a nervous breakdown.
I wouldn't have called it that then, but looking back on it, it's clear that that's exactly what it was. For two and a half days, I was completely out of my emotional mind, swirling deep and fast into a pit of frightening darkness.
The trigger for this rapid and shocking dive into the depths seemed innocuous at first. My husband and I had gotten into a small argument. I'd gotten angry at him for what I perceived to be a serious over-reaction to something. He gently let me know that his reaction had nothing to do with me, that he'd been surprised and startled. I know I'm being vague here; the details of our disagreement are unimportant. What is important is that by the following morning I'd had a massive realization: while he's spent the past four years - the time in which I've been deep in self-discovery - supporting me every single time I've fallen apart, only rarely do I muster the presence of mind to support him in equal measure. Rather, he let's me get however I need to get and doesn't judge me, while I get angry at him whenever he's anything other than stoic.
This realization - that I haven't been giving my husband even an ounce of the grace he consistently gives me - was the thing that sent me spinning. I could not appropriately handle how horrible this new knowledge felt, like everything I thought I was was a lie. The intensity of my feelings, partnered with the fact that I'd been incredibly sick for three weeks, left me with no coping mechanisms.
And so I spiraled.
I wrote a lot during the two days I was in it. I didn't post any of it; by some miracle I was able to see that I needed some distance before I could share it in a way that felt useful and not destructive.
I could tell that this was big.
I'm going to share some of what I wrote during those days. As I reflect on this episode from a distance, I'm finding it useful to see how how quickly things got out of hand inside my head, and equally useful to see how I got out of it.
The mid-breakdown writing is in italics.
I am in love with the women who are killing it on their blogs and Facebook pages, posting regularly with clear and opinionated writing. I love that they appear to give no fucks about what I think.
I am also in love with the women who step away from their online lives, who reassess and stop and think about what they actually need in real life, who give a shit about getting themselves together before going back out into the world for all to see.
Right now I'm faced with a clear certainty about my frail uncertainty. Yes, you read that right. I have no direction. I have no spine. I have no real idea what I'm doing - like, ever - and it shows.
We both know it shows.
My kids. My husband. I know I give a shit about them. So I'm starting there. I've taken short breaks from social media and blogging before, but I've never really let myself become someone new before coming back; I've been restored, maybe, but not reborn.
I want to be new.
I want to fully explode into something else.
I want to make the transformation from one thing into another.
I don't know how to do that. But I know that waffling around here and there in the imaginary land of the internet isn't taking me there. Still, it isn't taking me there.
I think I need to get new first before the internet will feel sustaining instead of draining.
I'm addicted to it, of course. I crave the sometimes-validation and the constant distraction. I've become terrible at just existing in the moment. So many of us are. As I'm typing these words I'm thinking about opening up Facebook to see if anyone has liked the things I shared earlier while I put my kids to bed. Because sitting here writing is uncomfortable. Because I want to think about something else for a few minutes.
I've been sick for almost three weeks. Yesterday morning I felt so horrid that I wept in my bathroom, desperate to feel better. I wondered if I'll feel weepy and sad like that when I'm dying. I imagined my last words being, "That was tiring. It was hard for me here." That might be the best way to describe this go 'round on Earth for me. It's hard. I don't quite get it. I'm confused and uncertain and the moments of reprieve are so fleeting.
I keep waiting for a miracle.
My writing on Day 1 still resonates. I feel it. I'm not in it, and so I can feel it objectively, without being emotionally drawn in by my former feelings of subtle self-defeat.
I wrote twice on the second day of my breakdown - once in the afternoon and once at night. The afternoon writing was a letter to myself.
Day 2, afternoon edition:
I see you there - disconnected from your house, from your space, the space you consider sacred and holy. I see you there, bedroom shades drawn into perpetual night, covers rumpled and dust beneath the bed frame. I see you feeling both overwhelmed and aimless, self-indulgent and self-loathing.
Mostly I see you lost and forgotten.
Forgotten by yourself.
You've completely forgotten who you were supposed to become.
It's okay. This happens sometimes. This is a chance to rebuild.
Who did you want to be?
Let's talk about that.
You wanted to be the mother who crafted with her kids. You wanted to be the woman who cooked delicious meals, who gardened and preserved food. You wanted to be the woman who laughed and acted silly and made others feel safe enough to act that way, too. You wanted to be a leader. A quiet leader. A "did she just lead me?" sort of leader. A flit of fairy-sparkle-magic-dust leader.
You wanted to be joyful. You wanted to smile. You wanted to start each day with curiosity and possibility.
Simple things, really.
You wanted to be allowed to fall apart. But somewhere along the way, you got it in your unconscious head that in order for you to safely fall apart, no one else could.
You're desperate for a cocoon. You want to wrap up in a soft blanket in front of a wood stove and fall asleep, safe and warm and okay.
It's hard for you not to become indifferent right now. What you want to do is become a martyr, a yes-woman, the one who will willingly subjugate herself and inwardly self-punish and do the best she can to present an okay outside, hoping that her soul extinguishes itself because she doesn't really a deserve a soul, does she?
That's where you are.
Be there. It's okay. You've been here before and you haven't died. You've suffered, yes, and you will suffer again. You are suffering now. It's okay.
By evening, things had fallen apart. I was no longer consciously self-aware. I'd become so blinded by self-loathing that I literally could not think straight.
Day two, evening edition:
I am standing in my bathroom. My husband is out. He knows I'm in a bad way. I am relieved to be alone. I am thinking about leaving him just to spare him from my insanity. A mercy divorce. "Save yourself, honey. I can't get out of here, but you can."
I can't look at myself in the mirror. My self-loathing is too strong. I hate her so much that I can't even look at her. I've never hated anyone this much. How did I get this way? I want desperately to know. I wonder where these thoughts are coming from, why the stream is so endless and quick and why the current of horrifying thinking is so strong. Why and from where and how do I manage this?
My husband will be home soon. He will either want to talk about what's going on with me or will ask if I want to watch something on television. I don't want to do either of those things.
I don't know exactly what I want to do, but I think it might be something like going into the woods into a comfortably stocked tent. Sheets and a mattress and warm blankets, but open screened windows and a breeze and sounds. I want to go out there and scream. I want to pull my hair until my scalp throbs. I want to terrorize myself in that tent, make myself see the mess I've become. Make myself face it. I want to be disgusted by how unraveled I can get, how out of control.
Do you see what happened between the afternoon and the evening?
I was gone.
In just two days I'd gone from being a woman who simply wanted to make her life matter to a woman who actually couldn't look at herself in the mirror because she was so disgusted by what she saw.
The next morning I woke up and my husband told me that he'd gotten in touch with my therapist. "I hope it's okay that I wrote to her." She had an hour and could fit me in. I was simultaneously mortified that I was in this place and grateful that he'd reached out on my behalf. I went to see her a few hours later. I'd told her before about self-loathing episodes, but she'd never seen me while I was in one.
And I'd never had one like this.
I must have looked deranged. I was all over the place with my commentary - "I will follow you," she said. I was crying - "Here are some tissues." I begged her to just tell me what the fuck was wrong with me.
Toward the end of our hour, after lots of back and forth and here and there, she said, "Emily, I need you to hear me." She leaned forward and forced my eyes to look at hers. "There is nothing pathologically wrong with you. There isn't. You're a Highly Sensitive Person. You interact with the world in a very intense way and you haven't been tending to your personality - to who you really are - and that's making you feel broken. That's why things feel so hard. You are not broken. There is no diagnosis. You are simply ultra sensitive."
I stopped crying and pleading. "Wait," I said. "Stop. I need to say that back to you because I think that just made sense. There's nothing wrong with me. I just need to pay attention to what I can and can't handle because of my super sensitive personality. This is a personality thing, not a there's-something-fundamentally-wrong-with-me thing."
"Yes. Exactly. You are not broken."
That was the thing. It completely shifted my perspective. It was the first rung on the ladder back up.
I started breathing again.
After therapy I drove up to Vermont for a breath session I'd had scheduled for a month. The fact that it fell on this day when I was in this place - it was my long-sought-after miracle.
I'd emailed my breath practitioner that morning to let her know I was deep in a thing. I felt she needed a warning. Turns out that she received my email and immediately saw it as the invitation she'd been waiting for. "I feel like we've been pushing up against the same place for awhile now. I've been waiting for a sign that you're ready to go deeper. That was it."
We hugged and I laid down in the nest of padding and blankets and rubbed my eyes. I was still wheezing and coughing from my many weeks of illness. "Just cough when you need to cough," she said. I began the deep, rhythmic, belly-breathing I practice in that space. She breathed with me. Every single breath I took, she took. I could feel oxygen moving deep into places it hadn't been before. My belly rose and fell, rose and fell, for an hour or more.
When it was time for me to come back, to start wiggling my toes and fingers, I was slow to respond. When I peeked my eyes open, the sun was shining through one tiny window, straight onto me. I closed my eyes. I tried a few more times to open even just one eye, but the sun - it was so bright.
"Here," she said. She laid a small pad of paper and a pen down by my side. "Write down whatever thoughts you're having. Take your time." She'd never done that before. A minute or so later, once I was able to adjust to the bright, warm sunlight that was still raining down on me, I started gently scrawling. I did not think - I just wrote the words that wanted to come out of my hands.
This room - this spot - feels like a place to be reborn.
Lots of tenderness, like new skin. Cared for. Held. Supported. Truly, really supported.
It's shocking and good.
Start from nothing.
Go, but gently this time.
You matter. Take great care.
I sat up. My eyes had fully adjusted. She smiled at me and knelt down by my side.
"How does your mind feel?" she asked.
"Quiet," I said. "For the first time in a really long time, it's quiet."
"I know," she said.
She asked if she could read what I wrote. She read it aloud and I started to weep.
She paused when she was done.
"I'm going to read it again," she said quietly. I was heaving, dripping tears everywhere. "Listen. Let these words sink in."
She read it again. And then I collapsed into her, sobbing at the miracle we were sitting right inside of.
I'd been reborn in the light.
In the shocking, bright light, I had new skin.
That was two weeks ago. I still feel new. I've made - and am making, still - some fundamental changes to how I interact with the world around me. I am no longer interacting with Facebook, for example. I simply can not handle it. I'm re-learning how to embroider. I'm actively meal planning again; feeding my family healthy and lovingly created food matters to me. I'm making fewer plans, while simultaneously trying to put myself in the company of my people, the ones who love me just because they want to, quirks and all. And instead of constantly thinking about how and when I'm going to either become a real entrepreneur or find a real career already, I'm sinking way deep down into the fantastic job situation I already have. That right there - not maniacally looking for something bigger and better - that's huge. Letting the foundation of the life I already have just settle down onto itself - well, it's bigger than I can really express. That mindset shift is changing everything. It's changing things I can't even see yet.
I'm interested in talking about different things in my writing - less struggle, more plain ol' life. Not because the struggles have or will disappear, but because I'm ready to focus on other things. Don't we see more of what we focus on? I want to talk about making things and cooking things and celebrating tiny wins and giant laughs. I want to talk about the constant conversation my husband and I are in about whether or not to homeschool our children. I want to talk about the pull I'm feeling lately to find a church full of people who want to remember how to love each other and the world. And I want to talk about the things I like - the essays I find that make me think and the food I eat that makes my brain explode and the clothes I score that make me feel gorgeous - you know, the pleasures of life.
In the end, I got what I wanted.
I got my miracle.
I got reborn.
I remembered how I want to love my husband: with my whole self.
I remembered how I want to Mama my kids: with my whole self.
And I remembered how I want to learn to love myself: with my whole, messy self.
But miracles all the same.
I love you,