IT HAPPENED TO ME: A Nervous Breakdown Ended My Nursing Career

I was given an ultimatum: take a leave and get help or lose my job.
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I was given an ultimatum: take a leave and get help or lose my job.

I got the call when I was in a bookstore. I had just come off a long night shift, and I was blowing off steam. My phone rang, and it was work. I needed to come in. NOW.

As a nurse, I loved my patients but didn’t exactly love my job. I had felt unhappy for months, but what was I to do? My family was depending on me for the money. I had school bills I had to pay. No matter how miserable I was, I had to keep on going, doing my best.

No patients were ever in danger. I was always a conscientious nurse, and that was part of why I was so stressed. I had made a mistake, and all of this happened because they didn’t want me to make more that were not so easily fixed. There is no way I would have worked as a nurse if I felt that my patients were in danger.

It also didn’t help that I suffer from mental illness. Bipolar depression with a hearty helping of anxiety didn’t exactly go that well with the high-stress, high-pressure job of being a nurse. I always made sure my patients were safe. I was a good nurse, all of my coworkers agreed, but it was only a matter of time.

When I was called into the office, it was because I missed something crucial with a patient. I didn’t mean to, but my mental state was such that I just plain missed it. Mistakes like this happen in nursing, but my manager knew I was sick. I was given an ultimatum: take a leave and get help or lose my job.

My psychiatrist was worried about me. I had been talking about suicide for a long time. You may be asking yourself why I didn’t notice these red flags; everyone around me did, but I knew I had to stay in my job. One of the problems with mental illness is that you don’t always realize when it is sneaking up on you. I didn’t realize I had that big a problem until things exploded.

My doctor recommended an outpatient psychiatric program. I, of course, was resistant. I didn’t need that crap. I just needed to woman up, put on my big girl panties, and grin and bear it. No one around me agreed, and I found myself in the intake office of a partial hospitalization program at my local facility.

The therapist was very nice and understanding, but she said under no circumstances could I work as a nurse; I was unsafe to both my patients and myself. I would need to enter their program until such a time as they deemed I was fit to go back to work.

I was devastated. I was angry. I didn’t want to do it. I just wanted to be left alone. I thought it was all just so much bullshit and couldn’t possibly help me. It is what I had to do to get my job back, though, and I really had no choice. 

I started going to the meetings. They were all day, five days a week. Most of it was group therapy. It isn’t like it is in the movies. We sat around a table, we wrote about our feelings, we talked about problems we were having, and the group leader would help us to think about them differently.

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I found that I was storing a ton of grief about the loss of my mother. I also found that I hated nursing. Of course, I resisted that so strongly that I had my therapists shaking their heads. I had to get back to work. I had to support my family no matter what. It was my responsibility, and that meant so much to me.

I broke down several times in therapy. At one point, I was so bad that they wanted to hospitalize me, but I assured them I was OK. I learned a lot of things about boundaries, about self-soothing, and about how to control anxiety. I also did a lot of crappy craft projects, watched stupid movies, and generally felt annoyed that I had to be there. We went on field trips, too. I actually made friends and found that it was refreshing to finally find people who understood what I was going through.

Most of my fellow participants were just normal people. Some were there by order of the state, but that didn’t matter so much when we were sharing. We could all be ourselves in that little room, and eventually, I learned to relax. I realized how nursing was killing me and how horrible it felt to work in that profession day after day.

I was in the partial program for over three months. I started hearing repeats of the same information -- that’s how long I was there. Eventually, they decided I was OK to return to work, and I felt a mixture of elation and dread. I had learned that nursing nearly destroyed me. I wasn’t looking forward to trying it again, but I still felt that I had to.

It didn’t work. I won’t spare you another long story about what happened. No one got hurt, but my manager decided I was too unstable. I was fired. It was for the best. My husband said no more. He didn’t want me in nursing anymore because he could see that it was killing me.

So, I decided to use my knowledge of nursing and of medicine to become a freelance writer -- something I had wanted to do since high school. I was always told that I couldn’t, that there was no money in it. They were largely right; I don’t make nearly what I made as a nurse.

But I am happier now. I can wake up and not dread the day. I don’t pray for death. I came through the storm, and now I am happier for it. I still have bad days. I still have a mental illness that I must treat. My nervous breakdown nearly killed me, but I struggled through the darkness with the help of therapists, my psychiatrist, and most importantly, my husband.

If you are suffering and merely surviving, take a look at your life. You may need something to change, and you are resisting it. You won’t feel better until you change it, and you may crash and burn like I did if you continue to ignore it.