As it turns out, having a “nervous breakdown” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Not that I used to think it would be this great life experience, like childbirth or skydiving, but I did think it would be a teensy bit more dramatic and significantly more beneficial.
Like this post I wrote back in October.
It took me years to realize that the work I have to do will be there no matter how high my stress level gets. I used to say, “something’s gotta give! I can’t keep going on like this!” every other day. But nothing could give. Everything I was doing was necessary, either for my family or for me. I kept thinking that if I got more and more stressed, until I had a nervous breakdown or a heart attack or something, fairy unicorns would magically change things because doctor’s orders and I wouldn’t have as much to do.
In my imagination, a nervous breakdown would involve some kind of flashpoint, probably hospitalization (where I would get to SLEEP! ALONE!!!!), and then a (sheepish) return to normal life, after the doctors cured me of nervous breakdownism and gave me strict instructions to Hire a Maid and Possibly a Nanny. Basically, I figured if things ever got that bad, they’d get easier, because they’d have to. Once life become too much to handle, life would have to change.
“Nervous breakdown” isn’t really even a clinical term, but it’s colloquially used to describe some kind of disorder becoming so overwhelming that a person is literally unable to function in their daily life.
This is something that would be quickly noticed and tended to if your daily life included, like, working for money. But if your daily life mostly includes wiping butts and folding laundry, sometimes you can slowly start falling apart without even realizing it yourself. That’s what happened to me. I thought everything was fine, even though I started noticing (with a little disquiet) that the house was kind of getting out of control and I kept forgetting to make dinner. That went on for almost two weeks, until I woke up one day and was like, holy shit. I have completely fallen apart without even realizing it.
Sure, I was aware I was snappier, more irritable, angrier, weepier, and generally unhappier than I normally am. I was aware that things were messy and I was behind on laundry. I was aware that maybe I had let things slide into a worse state than my usual bi-monthly funk allows. But as I walked through the house in a kind of daze that day, completely confused by the utter chaos in every room, on every surface, and everywhere, I started to realize that this was something new. Laundry was half-folded, half put-away, and half-washed, but I couldn’t remember which half was which or how long it had been that way. I had random notes scribbled to myself on random pieces of unopened mail that were utterly indecipherable. The calendar was filled with doctors’ appointments that had been scheduled for the week before. I spent fifteen minutes searching in vain for a package of bacon that I remember buying, but still have no recollection of cooking. But the moment it really hit home that something was deeply wrong was when I put the dishes away and realized we were missing two dinner plates.
Two whole plates. Like the kind you eat dinner on. The big ones. They were just…gone. I had no clue where they had gone to. I was almost positive they didn’t break, because I figured I’d remember having to clean that up, but…well, maybe they did, and I didn’t. All I knew for sure is that I had lost some plates, plates that make a small loop from cabinet to table to dishwasher and back again. Where I could possibly have misplaced them along the way is a mystery. But even more pressing was the dilemma at hand: how do you go about searching for dinner plates?
Retracing my steps, a tactic that has never worked for me anyway, was completely impossible. I could hardly retrace the steps I took to the kitchen. So I called the Ogre, hoping he broke them while I was sleeping or something. At first he sounded confused, then when he understood what I was saying, his voice got a little quiet and a lot composed. This is never a good sign, and it almost always ends with him asking me to do something I don’t want to do.
A few weeks before this, I had two inexplicable days where I felt normal. Or at least, I felt the way I imagine normal people feel. I wasn’t stressed and frazzled, and I didn’t cry or yell. I just did my work and felt happy, because my kids are a blast and I adore my husband and we have a nice life. Things like the laundry or dinner were not huge, insurmountable obstacles because they came attached to a thousand tiny other stressors. I didn’t freak out when we decided to go to the dog park instead of bathe the kids and get them in bed by 7:30. I just went, and who cared if they were in bed a little late, a little dirtier than usual? I didn’t.
The Ogre said the difference in me was like night and day. He said he’d never seen me relax like that, not in our eight years of marriage. That’s when I understood, for the first time ever, that all human beings don’t actually go through life as big unstable wrecking-balls of frazzled emotional turmoil. And I was aware that if that sudden, inexplicable peace disappeared, I would have to make some major changes. Because that is the wife, mother, and person that I want to be. Not the wrecking ball one, you know. The happy one.
That peace receded slowly, but like low tide it pulled back much further than I expected. Stress and turmoil returned, doubled, tripled, quadrupled, until I was so paralyzed by irrational fear that I stood sobbing one day in my driveway, unable to walk next door to a birthday party. The Ogre had to buy new socks for Sienna because it was too overwhelming for me to try and find the dirty ones in all the soiled laundry, and I had begun crying hysterically every morning when she asked if I had clean socks for her. I had become convinced that my family would be better off without me…not that I wanted to die, mind you, because I don’t and never did. I just thought I should leave so they would be free from the shackles of me, unstable. I thought whatever vague sense of missing me they might experience would be rapidly replaced by relief and then profound peace. Even with a sitter, they’d be able to count on normal rhythms of life and appropriate, controlled reactions. One night I seriously contemplated running away on my bike, with a backpack and my dog like freakin’ Dorothy, which is proof positive that I am not a rational planner even in the midst of a crisis. I got so far as to run a google search for buses that allow dogs before I remembered that I had no clean underwear. The thought of doing the laundry so I could pack a bag was so overwhelming that I cried myself to sleep instead.
But when I lost the plates, I knew that things had gone too far.
Seriously, who loses dinner plates? How does that even happen? They’re not like keys or sunglasses. They’re giant plates. I mean, where in God’s name could they have gone, and what could possibly have led to their loss?
So the Ogre made some phone calls, made me make some phone calls, and then made me make an appointment for therapy and psychiatric care. I was willing but not enthusiastic, mostly because I felt like I was still being a big sissy and making a fuss for nothing, and if I would just shut up, stop whining, and do the freaking laundry already, this would all disappear.
My therapist thought the saga of the plate loss was funny, because it’s so absurd. It is funny, actually, but it’s only funny because now I know what’s wrong with me.
Funny how one word can change everything. I never considered the idea that anxiety disorder is something that I could have. I figured, like the asshat I am, that people who can’t leave their house and who have panic attacks are probably just super unable to suck it up and deal. In a way, that’s true,
they we are. But the idea of all that stress and fear being even partially a physical reaction wasn’t something I gave a lot of credence to. Again, asshat here.
My therapist said that anxiety, while not always simple to treat, is always simple to understand, because it is always, 100% of the time, based on avoidance. That’s not always a bad thing; we’re biologically programmed to be flooded with adrenaline and cortisol when our brains sense danger, so that we can avoid it. But when you can’t chillax and everything you see is danger everywhere you look, when disaster and death and the downfall of your family and probably civilization as well is lurking behind each heap of dirty laundry, you become completely paralyzed by the fear of failure, of what will happen if you don’t get it together, which paradoxically renders you incapable of getting it together because when you try to open the laundry room door and it won’t open because there’s too much laundry, you collapse in hysterical sobs on the floor and gasp for air and hold your head together with your own hands because you’re really afraid it’s going to split in half. But not in the cool way, like where Athena jumps out to save you from the laundry. In the way where you’ll have to put it back together with superglue and live the rest of your life with a broken head, which will make doing the laundry completely impossible forever.
Clearly, this is not an academic description of anxiety. It might not even be a terribly accurate one. It’s just my description of how I spent the first month of 2014.
It’s liberating, though, to have a diagnosis and a battle plan. It’s comforting to know that I’m not making all this up because I want attention or I’m tired of laundry. I mean, subconsciously I’m obviously making up the terrors of the laundry basket, but I’m not doing it on purpose, and the reason I haven’t been able to just force myself to stop it already is because I literally don’t know how to do that. So now I get to learn.
Yep, that’s the reward for having a nervous breakdown. I didn’t get a few nights’ sleep in the cozy silence of the inpatient mental crisis ward, nor did my therapist send me home with strict instructions to have someone fix my life, seeing as how it’s clearly too much for anyone to handle. But he did promise me that he could teach me how to recognize and control my reaction to the pressures of life so that anxiety is not debilitating. That means I have to confront myself and everything I avoid, and figure out why I do it and how to stop. Basically, my nervous breakdown resulted in tons of soul-searching homework. Plus I still have loads of laundry to go before I sleep.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s false advertising. Can I sue a colloquialism? I feel like I deserve some compensation here…AND A MAID.