It Happened to Me: I Had a Nervous Breakdown at 24

I find myself fascinated with the ways people find to hold it together: whether with drinking, drugs prescribed and scored, strings of sexual partners, knitting, cutting, calling their mom every Sunday to cry into the phone

Feb 16, 2012 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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It started with waking up hourly. Making endless lists of all the things I had to do the next day, lists of all the things that were wrong with me, lists of the careers I would try out when I finally failed. Around 5 am, I would finally stand up, pace around, then go back to sleep for an hour.

I don't think of myself as an anxious person. Sure, I would work myself into night terrors in sixth grade, convinced I wouldn't finish my (what, 100-word?) history essays or make the cheerleading squad, but I was a determined little person.

One day, I moved to the mecca of neurotic former sixth graders who want to be the best: New York City. Every single human here asked their elementary school teachers for extra credit on a regular basis, I assure you. 

So, here I was, strolling along, living my routinely panic-stricken life, when several really cool things happened on the same day:

  • -At 11am, I discovered I'd made a mistake at work so enormous that I was absolutely convinced I would be sued, never mind fired.
  • -Around 2pm, I got rejected from an apartment application a mere four days before I had to move. I was to be jobless and homeless.
  • -At 10:27pm, my sweet, wonderful, geographically-challenged boyfriend dumped me, suggesting I couldn't handle a long-distance relationship anymore. He was right. I could not.

Fun! It was super fun. How fun is life sometimes? I went to work the next morning in my very favorite dress, thinking that looking nice would keep me from jumping out the window. But I didn't feel depressed, I felt ... distant. I felt removed from my body and from everyone around me.

All I could feel from the other side of the aquarium wall was my own hummingbird heart rate and sparking, tingly hands. I couldn't type with them.

That night, I had "Fuck that guy, anyway!" drinks with friends. I drank precisely two beers, took the subway up to Washington Heights, and walked straight into Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. A nurse took pity on my quiet self-diagnosis -- "I suspect I'm having a panic attack" -- and squired me away from the broken arms to a more private waiting area. I think my being white had something to do with this.

I sat in an armchair in my work dress, reading "Let the Great World Spin" and crying for five hours. At 2 am, an attending psychiatrist handed over a Xanax, ascertained that I didn't want to kill myself and didn't possess a gun, and asked me perhaps the most poignant question of my life: "What did you hope to get out of this?"

Yeah. Huh. What did I think they would do? Make everything better? Make things stop hurting? Shut down my brain? I had no idea what I thought a medical expert would do. Fix me in an hour, perhaps. Give me really good drugs. Tell me that my life was harder than everyone else's. Tell everyone to be nicer. Tell my boyfriend to come back. Not in the job description? Weird.

I could either tell them I wanted to kill myself, and be admitted for a few days, or I could go home. They gave me a prescription for Effexor and I walked home at 3 am. I told my mother and a few friends what happened, and went on about my minutiae.

For exactly one week. The very next Tuesday, I felt myself shrinking down even smaller inside my robot body. The terrfied woodland creature that was my consciousness managed to fake it for a few hours of the work day, then I excused myself and walked a block to St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital. Wowie! What a place! With an emergency room just for nutballs, they took my purse away, handed me an Ativan, and put me in a locked room with an observation window. This was the big time!

The Ativan did exactly nothing to calm me down in the slightest, so they went on ahead and gave me another one. I literally blacked out at this point, and woke up in my mother's bed in New Jersey. Benzos are the coolest.

The jig was kind of up now. I told everyone that mattered that I was losing it. I got a lot of concerned head tilts and endless doctor recommendations. It turns out that every person I've ever spoken to has a closet full of Klonopin. This should have been comforting, but it wasn't in the least. What felt like the collapse of my world was run-of-the-mill. Ordinary. Ho-hum. It only made me more depressed to know that most people I know are barely holding it together.

I swore to all of those head tilts that I would start taking it easy. I would stop working so late. I would stop going out every night. I would get more sleep. I stayed in one Friday night and then everything went exactly back to normal. No one checked in, except my insurance company, which kept trying to find me a psychiatrist who would see me. I still haven't found one. 

Why should anyone pay extra attention? As I've learned, they have their own soul-stuttering shit to deal with. They are petting their own internal squirrel. I find myself fascinated with the ways people find to hold it together: whether with drinking, drugs prescribed and scored, strings of sexual partners, knitting, cutting, calling their mom every Sunday to cry into the phone. Or my personal method, honed over the 10 plus years since sixth grade: staying as busy as humanly possible so you never have to think. 

So I've been doing that. I still don't sleep enough. I still don't have a therapist, though I do have a Klonopin escape hatch. I still wake up at least once a week to make stressed-out lists of my failures. I ponder if maybe my mental break of fall '11 was a one-off, or if it'll happen again. When are you the person who had a breakdown, singular, and when do you become the person who's just kinda broken?