Breakdown or Breakthrough?

The year 2010 was at once the most horrendous year of my life and the most transforming year. In retrospect, I recognize that it actually had to be that bad to get me to move. At the time though, all I knew was that life had become sheer hell.

My marriage was in deep trouble, but instead of dealing with it and how I felt, I threw myself into my work. As luck would have it, at the beginning of the year, I was deeply immersed in a project that was way beyond my scope. I recognized that right away, but subconsciously, I think I welcomed the distraction. If I was too busy at work, there was no time to think about how unhappy I was at home, right?

I also have an “I can do it all” attitude that was soon going to be my demise. I started working 50 hour weeks to get the project back on track. When that wasn’t enough, I bumped it up to 60 hours weeks and then ultimately 70 hour weeks. The more hours I put into the project and the harder I worked to get thing back on track, the more things fell apart.

I stopped being able to sleep at night because I would always think of just one more thing I could do. When I ran out of things I could do, I couldn’t sleep because I was so stressed out. I would toss and turn, trying to shut my mind off but it never worked. Those wee hours of the morning were the only time I couldn’t quiet that inner voice and she was taking full advantage. Frustrated, I would get out of bed and head down to the basement where I would start pacing back and forth and inevitably I wound wind up sobbing on the basement floor.

A couple of months later, my dog Bella was diagnosed with heart failure. I know many of you will feel me when I tell you that Bella was not just a dog to me — she was my baby, and I was devastated at the news. Shortly after that my aunt who had been sick for many many years took a turn for the worst, and told me that there wasn’t much more that could be done for her. Oh, and the upstairs bathroom flooded when we weren’t home, which caused the living room ceiling to cave in. To add to that, my marriage had deteriorated even further and my home had become a daily war zone. There was nowhere for me to hide.

The anxiety got so bad that most days I couldn’t get out of bed. I knew I was in trouble. My mother suffered from debilitating depression when I was young and I was sure I was following in her footsteps, but I just couldn’t muster up the energy to do anything about it. Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t do my job anymore. All I did was cry all day. I wasn’t sleeping. I couldn’t keep a thought straight in my head. I finally made an appointment with my family doctor to ask for some time off, hoping that it would lessen some of the stress so I could get back on my feet. On the way to the doctor, I clearly remember passing a light post and thinking how nice it would be to just drive my car into it. The only thing that stopped me was I couldn’t figure out how to do it without hurting anyone else.

My doctor told me I was suffering from exhaustion. She gave me a couple of weeks off work to relax and heal, and offered me some medication that I refused. I saw first hand what pills could do to a person and it wasn’t pretty, so I preferred to do this on my own. She asked me to come in a couple of times a week while I was off and talk to her about how I was feeling. Every time I had an appointment with her, I passed that same light post and each time I had the same thought “Gosh it would be so nice to just crash my car into that post. If only there was a way to do it without hurting anyone.”

By the end of my second week, my doctor gave me two options: take the medication, or submit to a psychiatric evaluation because she was worried I was going to harm myself. I agreed to the medication, not because I thought it would help but ironically, because I didn’t really care anymore. My life had become unrecognizable.

I pretty much spent the next three months in a haze. Even the simplest tasks seemed daunting. The medication gave me what I called “brain shocks” and “body shocks” that were so painful I tried not to move around too much just to avoid them. Not that I could go anywhere anyway. I developed debilitating anxiety. Anytime I tried to go out, I had a complete meltdown. Finally, after looking online for some help to supplement the medication, I found a meditation-based stress reduction (MBSR) program offered at North York General Hospital. I needed a doctor’s referral, which I easily got, and for 8 weeks, I went to the hospital every Friday without fail. It was only then that I started the healing process.

In August I returned to work. I was still taking my medication and attending my MBSR program. I was struggling, but I was definitely making progress. In September, I went to New Orleans with my two best friends and volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. I figured the best way to start having some gratitude was to see first hand the cards that other people had been dealt. It worked. I was humbled by my experience there, and I learned that no matter how hard the struggle, there was also room to live with grace and to be proud of yourself for just getting through.

It was on that trip that I decided to end my 18 year relationship. I realized that it was no longer serving either of us to stay together. We were both young enough to have a chance at a second chance and I wanted to believe it was possible. We were both good people and we deserved to be happy.

Recently, I was discussing those tumultuous few months with a friend of mine, and he said “You need to stop saying you had a breakdown and start calling it a breakthrough. Remember, your words are powerful.” Huh? My head spun. Was I placing a negative connotation on those few months with my words? Did I have a breakdown, or did I have a breakthrough?

The answer is: I had both.

I am not ashamed to lay claim to my breakdown and there is no doubt in my mind that a breakdown was what I experienced for most of 2010. Everything I was so sure of — my job, my home, my marriage, my dog — was stripped away from me and I literally could not move.

It’s only in the healing of my breakdown that I started to experience a breakthrough. The healing that came from admitting I was in a relationship that no longer served me, from an opportunity to help others who were struggling even as I was struggling, from facing my shadows instead of pretending that I didn’t have any. I needed to experience my breakdown to have my breakthrough, and I will not try to pretty it up or make it into something nicer than it was. It was ugly, and it was nasty, and it was downright debilitating. But it got me to where I am now.

Today, instead of pretending that nothing is wrong, I acknowledge when I’m slipping back into old patterns and I take steps to stop myself from falling back into the hole. Instead of being attached to a failing relationship and a home that is a war zone, I have created a loving and safe place for myself where I can rest my head and my spirit. Instead of trying to be everything to everyone and putting pressure on myself to never fail, I take time for myself and I am learning to say “no.” And I am just as grateful for my breakdown as I am for the breakthrough that followed. Without the experience of each of them I wouldn’t have had the courage to lead the life I’m living today.