When the bough breaks

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the cradle will fall.
Down will come baby, cradle and all.

Many people believe what causes us to break is trauma.  That we need a life-altering or traumatic event to get us to rock bottom when in reality, a lot of the time, it is the smallest of events, comments or situations that ends our lives.  It isn’t the slice to our jugular vein that kills us but the thousand paper cuts we had to endure beforehand.

People often tell me that they’re silent around mentally ill or suicidal people because they don’t know what to say.  That they worry that one sentence of theirs will cause the death of someone they love or cherish which I completely understand but in reality, if you’re worried about making that mistake, you’re likely to be emotionally intelligent enough to avoid saying something incredibly insensitive.  We can’t always know what to say to someone who’s upset or suicidal unless we’ve been in their shoes and experienced their situation which means that any conversation we try to hold requires navigation around sensitivities using common sense and compassion.  Just as parents will say there isn’t a rule book for raising tiny humans, there isn’t a rule book for mental illness because it is comprised of individual experience and subtle nuances; what might offend one, might help another.  No-one said life was easy.  They just didn’t say it was this hard either!

The severe depressive episode I currently find myself in is now 2 years in duration but I have barely cried; I have been numb and so used to daily suicidal feelings, it has become my new norm; I now talk about the topic and my feelings in a very casual manner.  And yet, very recently, I broke twice in quick succession over seemingly inconsequential comments or situations.  Why?  Because when you live with mental illness, you throw a lot of things in ‘the box’ because you can’t face them at the time.  Unfortunately, that box is Pandora’s; we spend our lives putting negative things into it, pretending we’ll deal with them later but eventually, there comes a time when we are unable to fit anymore in and it opens like an explosive Jack in the Box leaving mental and emotional destruction in its wake.  It’s one of the many reasons going to therapy is so mentally exhausting and upsetting; who wants to voluntarily look at their pain week in, week out?

It was a Wednesday when I broke the first time.  From the moment I opened my eyes, I knew it was going to be ‘one of those days’.  The ones where smiling feels like physical exertion and talking feels impossible but, like most days, I crawled out of bed and went to work but within minutes, upon opening a petty email from a colleague, the tears began to well in my eyes.  A few minutes later, I read another petty email and I took myself to the toilets to have a quiet cry; some alone time to let my frustrations and tiredness out.  Except my mind and body had different ideas and I soon found myself crying hysterically, falling into a panic attack because I couldn’t breathe through the tears.  My colleague held my violently shaking hand as I calmed down and by 10am I was already at home in bed and spent two days sleeping off the emotional and mental exhaustion.  Why did my colleagues’ email affect me so much that day?  I don’t know.  And that’s the problem.  If we knew every trigger we had, we would be able to safely navigate around them throughout lives but it isn’t that simple.  What effected me so greatly that day is nothing compared to previous situations I have faced and yet, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It was a week later when I truly broke.  Our landlady had told my housemate and I we were being evicted the previous evening and as I sat on my bed looking out at the river and the peace I had come to know and love, I thought “why does my happy ever after always have to end?!” and with that, I broke.  One fleeting thought and Pandora’s Box was wide open; I couldn’t cope with the onslaught of pain it presented me with.  After 20 minutes of choking on my tears and failing to stave off a panic attack, I rang my soul friend in desperation knowing I needed to calm down but with the inability to do it for myself or even have the physical breath to explain why I was calling.  She proceeded to spend almost 90 minutes listening to me violently sob and wail in pain as I choked on tears and air trying to breathe.  By 8pm I’d knocked myself out with sleeping pills and slept for almost 11 hours before going to work in the morning.  One thought.  That is all it took.  There was no trauma.  No-one speaking to me in a negative manner.  I was already beginning to accept that I needed to move.  Just one, individual thought and I almost ended up in hospital.

Were my reactions to these two events logical?  Absolutely not but as much as other people wouldn’t understand our reactions to certain events, we can’t always either.  We often can’t explain our mental illnesses and the intricacies within them because we don’t understand them ourselves.  We don’t know why we were crying with laugher last night but today we woke up feeling as though our worlds had ended.  If there were manuals to mental illness, we, the sufferers, would be the first ones buying them.  Even when we don’t struggle with mental illness we can often be confused by our reactions.  We don’t know why one email or person’s comment at work leaves us with uncontrollable anger or why a crime drama has us unable to stop crying.  As I often say in life; it is what it is.  Sometimes we know the why, sometimes we don’t but what we do need to appreciate is that everyone and every day is different.

It is not up to us to judge why something so small can feel so big to someone because we don’t know their lives.  We don’t know the journey that person has taken and all the experiences and people who have shaped them up to that point.  Just remember to be as kind as you can, even if it’s not always reciprocated.  Could you word your email or text a little differently?  Could your anger be a little less personal?  Could you offer compassion even if you don’t understand someone’s reaction?  Ultimately, as I’m explaining in this article, you can’t control how people will react to the things you say and do and you can’t self-edit and worry about other people 24/7 but if someone seemingly overreacts, don’t judge, just listen because I can guarantee, we are as confused as you are.

The problem is, no-one ever talks about breaking.  Ask people that know me, even you as a reader, and the same labels are likely to be afforded to me: strong, brave, resilient, confident; you get my drift.  Why?  Because you see me struggling but persisting.  We see successful people or, at least, people we think are succeeding but we don’t see the second mortgage they’ve had to place on their house or the fact that they’re in marriage counselling due to the stress of it all because no-one wants to talk about it.  And we don’t talk about it because it isn’t comfortable and, naturally, we want to avoid feeling uncomfortable.  The problem with our inability to hold difficult conversations, however, is that it perpetuates the myth that everyone is doing better than we are.

I persist because I have no choice.  If I had a husband that made it financially viable to live off one income, I would go to bed for weeks at a time but I don’t which leaves me no choice but to go to work full-time to enable me to live.  If I had a liver that was healthy, I could sensibly drink without consequence but I don’t so, whether I like it or not, breakfast is 3 pills every morning.  If I had my own home, it wouldn’t matter that I was being evicted but I am so as much as I don’t feel strong enough to look for a new place and move, I have no choice.  But just because we persist, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t crying ourselves to sleep at the unfairness of it all.  Doesn’t mean we’re not staring at our children thinking we’re the worst parents in the world.  Doesn’t mean that we’re not having panic attacks in the work toilets because it’s all too overwhelming.

We are functioning with our mental illnesses out of necessity, not choice.  I am considered strong by many because of my ability to persist despite the obstacles life seems intent on throwing on me but do not necessarily mistake our persistence with strength.  So many of us continue to move through the problems in our lives because we have to, not want to.  Don’t assume that our achievements haven’t been accomplished after applying emotional and mental bandaids to our lives for the weeks, months or years leading up to that success. 

Persistence IS strength but that’s often because ‘giving up’ is a luxury so very many of us can’t afford.

In the now infamous words of Senator Mitch McConnell:

Nevertheless, she persisted.

  • Jill


    a really good article Toni. I hate that I don’t know what to say and probably don’t say what you want me to. I’m sure others feel the same too.

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