Breakdown Of A Breakdown

Posted by Dan | Posted in Blog, Mental Health | Posted on 05-02-2015

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Trigger Warning: This is a first-hand account of suicidal despair. If you’re going through something similar it may help remind you that you’re not alone in how you feel, and I will do my best to answer any questions and support you if you get in touch below. But please remember that you can immediately talk with a trained professional any hour of the day or night, anywhere in the world, for free. These guys know what they’re doing and choose to do it, so I promise you won’t be wasting their time. Here is an international suicide support directory.

screaming-womanOn Thursday, March 20th 2014 I had a mental breakdown and I’m not supposed to tell you that.

Think of the damage it would cause: the way people would look at me; the whispers of “be careful around him, he might snap”; the potential friends, lovers and employers I’d scare off. That’s how dialogue around mental health goes: you might be comfortable enough telling people you’ve “experience of depression” or “know what they’re going through” up to a point – after all, everyone has some emotional baggage – but it’s talked about in manageable terms. The odd sick day or excuse for missing a social occasion. What you don’t talk about is when it gets so bad you need to be hospitalised.

If you’re off work with a broken arm you’re off work with a broken arm. There’s probably a story behind it that gets passed around the office and you can expect visitors and Get Well cards filled with friendly jokes about the injury. But if you’re off work with a broken brain you’re just “ill”. There’s no story. There’s not even a specific problem. The few members of staff who need to know more are told in hushed tones and feel they ought to keep the details secret from the rest of the office. If you get a card at all it’ll be humourless; no one’s going to add a quip about you being crazy or joke about moving your office chair away from the window when you’re back.

But why? Why are people so averse to talking frankly and openly about health the moment we stick the word “mental” in front of it?

I believe we need to end this culture of attaching shame and embarrassment to talking about mental illness, thus ending the discrimination, misinformation and stigma such an attitude breeds. We’re making progress, thanks in no small part to celebrities speaking publicly about their personal battles and the great work of organisations like Time to Change, but we’ve still a long way to go before calling in sick because you want to die is as easy as calling in sick because you have a migraine.

That talking about mental health can invite awkwardness is undeniable. Suicide in particular makes people very uncomfortable and many prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist. But I believe the damage of not talking about things is potentially far greater, even lethal. That’s why I’ve decided to tell the story of my breakdown. It won’t be pleasant and it certainly won’t be a quick read. I won’t sugar coat it or dot it with uplifting messages like “things will get better” which I know all-too-well fall on deaf ears to the depressed. I’m telling it to show that you can talk about mental health issues and that there is no shame in doing so. That these issues are actually quite common; you’re not as alone as you might think. And, perhaps most importantly, that such experiences – no matter how painful – might just save your life.

 

Meet Depression

I’ve battled with depression since I was a teenager, and a feeling of detachment from the world as far back as I can remember. I’ve described this previously on my blog, but the key thing to know (at least with me) is: depression hijacks your thoughts. It installs a sewer grate in your mind which lets positive and neutral thoughts float through but catches and keeps every doubt, fear and worry. You go to a party and receive five compliments and one minor criticism… guess which one sticks in your head every day for the next two years.

One of my biggest recurring thoughts is that I am a bad and toxic person. Perhaps because kindness is so integral to my identity (I’m a human rights campaigner and believe helping others is a tremendous virtue) the idea that I may be unwittingly causing harm terrifies me.

The fears aren’t entirely unfounded because, like everyone, I make mistakes. I’m also slightly on the autistic spectrum, and while I’m fortunate enough to not be drastically impacted by this, one of its more obvious symptoms is a difficulty in picking up on subtler social cues. (The best way I can describe this is as if socialising is a complex game and everybody but me got given a rule book.) There have been times I’ve tried to help and made a situation worse, bringing unintended suffering to others. If I can repair the damage and learn from the mistake with no lasting harm done that’s generally okay, but if I can’t rectify it then the guilt and regret consume me at every opportunity they get. I lost a friendship as a result of one well-intentioned act and was haunted multiple times a day, as well as regularly in my dreams, for three years. Because losing a close friend came as such a bewildering shock to me – I thought I was being helpful and might receive a smile or a thank you, not excommunication – this really cut me deep. The idea that something I hold close to my heart can be unequivocally revoked, the door locked forever without even a warning first, is my kryptonite. Particularly at night I could feel paralysed with fear knowing that, at any moment, a well-intentioned act or even a poorly-planned sentence could be enough to destroy a friendship forever. The thoughts didn’t change, although I found they lessened when I was prescribed Prozac. Thinking the same thought – experiencing the same feeling of sadness and worrying that if you hurt one person unintentionally it stands to reason you might do it again, thus over-analysing everything you say and do – day in and day out – is invisible torture. Running laps around your head is exhausting and it drained my concentration span and my energy levels. This should give you some idea of how constant, intrusive and debilitating depression can be.

 

Note:

What follows is a personal account of events which happened to me almost a year ago and while I was in the throes of depression. There are always multiple sides to any story. It’s not a complete picture and shouldn’t be taken as such: this is my story.

I don’t believe anyone who was involved is inherently a bad person. Everyone has their own battles they’re fighting – often that we know little or nothing about – and I believe it’s far more likely that they are good people who were dealing with their own crap and acted out of fear or frustration than out of malice.

 

My Story (Pre-Breakdown)

{This is the cliché romance section of the story. Sorry about this – I totally understand if you want to skip this bit – but to fully understand the reasons leading up to my breakdown you need the context.}

I entered 2014 oddly full of optimism. Despite the extended cut of Everything Harmful Dan Has Ever Done in the History of Ever playing constant reruns in my head, I’d taught myself to function pretty well: I had a job I enjoyed and was good at, good circles of friends and was still in the honeymoon phase of a new relationship (let’s call her Notorious B.I.G. – partly to protect her identity but mostly because it’ll make writing this feel less real). Things were looking up and the prospect of a happy future worked wonders on quietening my depressive ruminations.

The relationship was a big factor in this not just because of the “hey, someone likes me” ego boost, but because the two of us shared a lot of our emotional baggage. Talking to someone about your deepest fears and conflicts is tremendously helpful because it shares the load. It sounds cheesy, but a problem shared really is a problem halved. The more she told me of her upbringing the more I understood how it had shaped her and vice-versa, and I ended up confessing some very personal stories to her. I won’t go into details except to say that she was somewhat ruled by a fear of commitment: it sometimes felt as if I were dating two people – one who used words like “smitten”, talked about introducing me to all her relatives and gave me regular updates about her family and cat; and another who would run a mile at the slightest mention of a serious relationship (which jarred a lot with my dreams of living happily ever after). By the middle of February this had reached a point where I would rarely initiate conversation or suggest to meet up for fear of being told I was being “suffocating”, so the majority of our interaction happened on her terms. During these times my ruminations would sometimes get stronger as I’d become somewhat dependent on her company to keep them at bay but I remained respectful of her wishes and gave her some distance.

At the beginning of March she called me, excitedly, and announced that she was moving to America. My heart sank and my mind raced with confusion: how was this the first I’d heard about her applying for a green card? I tried my best to sound supportive but I probably came across as more miserable and confused. We talked about what this meant for our relationship and both agreed that long-distance doesn’t work. I tried to gauge whether me going with her for a few months was an option or whether this was definitely goodbye – it was the latter. She said we’d still hang out and do the various things we had planned before she left and that it was “up to me” whether things between us remained amorous in the final months. The romantic in me wanted to keep things going in the hopes we’d fall madly in love over the coming months and we’d magically find a way to be together forever; the cynic in me knew it was already over. In retrospect I should’ve listened to the cynic.

After her call I began spiralling down, reaching out to anyone for support. I spoke to people online and socialised a lot more than usual. People who I’d often go months without talking to I was suddenly messaging and chatting with nightly. At this point I definitely felt the familiar sting of depression, of “I knew it was too good to be true; you’re never going to find lasting happiness.” But this was just breakup-induced misery which everyone can relate to; it would have passed given a few weeks. I missed her but knew she must be going through an awful lot and probably didn’t need me adding to it so, when I didn’t get replies to my messages, I went back to leaving contact on her terms. Our plans fell at the wayside: our stuff was still at each other’s places; I didn’t know if I was still invited to her sister’s wedding; I had a birthday present for her niece but no way to get it to her… everything just felt a bit in Limbo. I played a lot of computer games and buried myself in work to keep myself distracted. I did receive a phone call in which she reassured me she wasn’t ignoring or avoiding me, she was just extremely busy. This reassurance helped calm me a great deal and I was very thankful she took the time to do that.

Also at this time I was helping to plan a wedding as I was to be Best Man. At times I appreciated the distraction while at others it felt like stress I could really do without. I loved spending extra time with two of my best friends, but seeing their beautiful family home – adorned with literary quotations and towering bookshelves – while discussing marriage and an incoming baby, really hammered home just how much I want those things and that I was unhappy.

These friends happen to live just a street away from Notorious B.I.G., and one evening as I was leaving I gave her a call to see if she’d like to chat or even just exchange our stuff. She didn’t answer. I resigned myself to the fact I wasn’t going to see her anytime soon. It was her niece’s birthday that weekend and I still had the present in my bag so I posted it through her letterbox and sent a text explaining what it was and saying that I was there for her if she ever wanted to talk. The following morning she replied, saying thanks and asking if I wanted to meet up for lunch. I leapt at the opportunity as it had been ages since we’d hung out. Had I paid more attention to my inner cynic I wouldn’t have been so distraught when this meeting turned out to be “the talk” and the official end of our relationship. So we talked, and while it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, the most important aspect of the talk was positive: we would remain friends. As I explained earlier, losing friends is something I really take to heart, so hearing the words “We’ll still be friends. I think you’re awesome and I’m still going to hang out with you” meant a great deal.

She knew, better than anyone, how painful I find people just disappearing from my life. Which is why what she said next meant the world to me:

“I’m not going to just disappear. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

While my next step was to dwell miserably, assume everything was my fault and go through most of my phonebook texting people asking for a virtual hug, her parting words were exactly what I needed to hear. They transformed the situation from “this will play on your mind every day and night for months while you wonder what you could have done differently” to merely “it’s a shame we broke up and I’ll definitely feel blue and need a lot of hugs and company for a few weeks, but ultimately I still have an awesome friend so everything will be alright in the end.”

Breakups suck but we all experience them, and I’m sure you’re wondering how feeling understandably blue for a few weeks can lead to something as major as a breakdown. After all, we’d only been seeing each other a few months and there’s every chance we would have broken up regardless of the America thing.

There was a lot I didn’t have time to say in our brief lunch meeting, so I decided to write her a letter. I wrote it in a major depressive funk late into the night and it was more an exercise in catharsis and self-deprecation than anything, but it was from the heart. The gist was: “Until you explained today I had no idea I was doing anything wrong or upsetting. I’m truly sorry for any offense or discomfort I caused. The fact that we broke up is completely my fault and I’m sorry.”

Depression is the antithesis of arrogance. With depression everything is your fault.

To me writing a letter is the most heartfelt thing you can do for someone and a sign that they truly matter to you. I suspect she doesn’t share that sentiment: I never heard from her again.

My Breakdown [Strike 1]

“I’m not going to just disappear. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

With depression you get used to reassuring yourself against negative thoughts. Thoughts like “she’s ignoring you” were countered with “no, she’s just got a lot on her plate and needs some time to herself.” I recalled her telephone call a few weeks before, reassuring me that she was just busy, and it set my mind at ease. But after a while these thoughts would return, louder, clinging to some perceived evidence to support their claim.

Then one day she blocked me on Facebook. Again I tried to rationalise it – “maybe Facebook is broken and it’s only affecting certain profiles?” – but testing that theory only shone more light on my fears when the only other profile to have been “affected” was her mother’s. This didn’t add up. I trust her implicitly; she wouldn’t lie to me. She certainly wouldn’t look me in the eye, swear not to attack my Achilles’ heel and then do precisely that… so what’s happened? Have I done my thing of unwittingly destroying a friendship again? If so, what might I have done and how can I repair it? I found myself frantically searching for answers, messaging our mutual friends to see if they could help solve the mystery. I was unable to rest until I found some clarification and reassurance.

On the evening of March 20th came the tipping point. I came out of the shower to find 4 missed calls from Tupac, a friend of 8 years who introduced me to Notorious B.I.G.. Tupac was one of the people I’d been messaging quite a bit in the last few weeks, both for emotional support when I’d been feeling blue and in the hope she could shed light on B.I.G.’s inexplicable silence.

I don’t think she’d ever rung me before so I called her straight away, wondering if there’d been an accident or something. She answered in a tone reminiscent of a parent lecturing their teenager:

“I’m very angry with you. I’m going to talk and I don’t want you to say anything, just listen.”

I felt a chill sink down my chest and into my stomach. “Okay…” I replied, nervously.

“If this was anyone else I would have deleted you off Facebook, but because you’re my friend I’m giving you this chance. I think that since your breakup with Notorious B.I.G. you’ve been using me to replace her. You keep sending me “hugs” and that is not appropriate. I’m engaged!”

I’d been chatting to a lot of people lately – her included but by no means exclusively – and I do have a tendency to type *hugs* a lot because hugs are awesome. But I hadn’t the faintest clue that either of these things might have made her uncomfortable. I apologised profusely and made a mental note never to give her hugs or e-hugs anymore.

She continued: “Don’t contact Notorious B.I.G. again. She’s scared of you.”

I became acutely aware of my heartbeat. It seemed to become louder than anything else in the room. “Wait, what?!? What do you mean she’s scared of me?? Have I done something scary?”

“I told you not to ask questions.”

I pleaded with her for more information. Was it something I’d done? If so, for the love of God please tell me what so I can make amends! What should I do? Please will you tell her I’m sorry?

“I’m not getting involved.”

“But she said we would stay friends! She looked me in the eye and swore we would keep in touch and she wouldn’t just disappear.”

“Girls just say things like that to make breakups easier.”

It was clear from the outset this wasn’t a conversation, it was a lecture.

All the creeping worries, nagging doubts, pangs of paranoia – everything I’d batted off with the assurance it was just unfounded negativity – began to surface. I started to panic. I’d done it again. I’d destroyed a friendship with no idea how. Because I didn’t understand the reason I was doomed to destroy future friendships in the same way. My very presence in the world hurts the people I care about and I’ll just continue to hurt and alienate my friends until there are none left.

“Look, just accept that you are never going to see her again…”

She carried on talking but everything after that was mute. Those words stuck in the forefront of my consciousness and overshadowed everything else. NEVER. NEVER GOING TO SEE HER AGAIN. NEVER. AGAIN.

That’s when it happened. The dam broke. Every defence I’d ever built was washed away in an instant. I had nothing. I was nothing. I don’t know how long I lay there, or whether Tupac was still talking to me, but eventually I found the strength to speak a few words: “What should I do? I’m afraid I’m going to kill myself.”

Just saying those words: I’m afraid I’m going to kill myself. They were the hardest words I’ve ever had to get out. As the words came so did the tears. I hadn’t cried since I was a child.

My words must have shaken her (hell, they shook me) because the sternness in her voice seemed to dissipate. I’m not sure whether we talked for five minutes or two hours, but the one thing I vividly recall her saying to me was “talk to your family”.

After the phone call I kicked off the towel I still had on, crawled under my duvet and cocooned it around me. Mentally and physically naked I lay there and cried like a baby.

*

Earlier that evening I’d published a particularly worrying blog post. That, and my behaviour around that time, was the closest I’ve come to crying for help. I’ve never called a crisis line because I felt I might be clogging up the line for someone more deserving or more in need. A friend messaged to see if I was okay and I asked her to drive me to the nearby mental hospital. I know nothing about the place but I didn’t trust myself to be alone and knew I needed help. I packed a suitcase and, not knowing when I’d be back, wrote a long message to the former friend whose life I accidentally screwed up 3 years ago, apologising yet again, and waited for my ride.

When she arrived we made hot chocolate. Another incredible friend came over soon after and we all sat in my kitchen and talked very frankly about my options. They’ve both danced with depression and have been hospitalised for suicide attempts, which was just what I needed: instead of clueless optimists trying to tell me how wonderful everything is, these guys knew exactly what I was going through and didn’t bullshit me. They explained that turning up in the middle of the night at this hospital might not result in the holiday resort I’d pictured and that it could make me feel more cut off from the people and things which give me strength. After talking with them I felt a little more at ease and decided to sleep in my own bed and to see a doctor first thing in the morning.

To describe how I felt when I got into bed that night is extremely difficult. It was as if some fundamental core of my being had been rebooted. I had a heightened awareness of physical sensations throughout my body and a feeling of being rooted firmly where I didn’t want to be: the present. Up until that point I was almost constantly lost in thought: either dwelling on the past or dreaming or worrying about the future. I wasn’t able to reassure myself with “this pain will pass in time” because suddenly the concept of “tomorrow” or “next week” was meaningless. All there was was right now, face-to-face with the pain I’d spent so long avoiding and supressing. It was terrifying and confusing, but in some way it was also liberating: despite the cacophony of confusion in my mind, certain things became abundantly clear and forced me to reprioritise my life. Up until that point my To Do list was mostly populated with things like “finish this project before the deadline”, “clean the dishes before they smell” and “pay that bill before you get a fine”. Things like “maybe look into seeing a counsellor” or “joining a gym and eating healthily is something I probably ought to do one of these days” were present, but incredibly far down on the list and never climbed any higher because real life always took priority. Suddenly work was the farthest thing from my mind. All that mattered was getting better.

 

Longest Weekend of My Life

Another friend came over in the morning, helped me write a very brief email to work explaining that I wouldn’t be in for the foreseeable future, and took me to the doctor. I was referred to the Primary Mental Health team who I was told would assess my situation and advise me on what to do next, but the earliest appointment was on Monday. The doctor told me to take it easy that weekend and gave me the number for a crisis line.

What followed was the longest weekend of my life, and I doubt I would have made it through that time without the support of my friends who kept me afloat. I had almost constant company and support for which I am eternally grateful. The times I was on my own I frequented forums and Facebook groups for depression sufferers and wrote constantly on them. I don’t think I spent a single minute relaxing or doing anything for pleasure. I couldn’t bring myself to eat. The muscles in my leg would periodically cramp and have me doubled up in pain. I barely slept because I’d jolt awake from nightmares, and what sleep I did manage was restless and twitchy. I smoked and drank a lot.

I received support from some unexpected places. Former Friend replied to my message, forgiving me and apologising for the way things had ended between us. She also recommending a counselling service which I still use today. I messaged Tupac and apologised for making her feel uncomfortable with e-hugs and for breaking down on the phone to her. Her reply was kind and heartwarming, and she reassured me that everyone feels sad and needs to lean on friends sometimes – that’s what friends are for.

Two of my major lifelines came in the form of a friend who travelled down to make me food and do my washing up (this may not sound like much, but tasks like this can seem insurmountable to the deeply depressed), and a friend who asked a psychiatrist he knew to give me a call. That one phone call really helped, and the psychiatrist recommended some resources which I now advise to everyone, whether or not they suffer from depression:

The Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, Jon Kabat-Zinn

Headspace.com

He also recommended a book called Mind Over Mood which I’ve not actually managed to read yet, but based on how great his other recommendations were it’s a safe bet that’s one to check out too.

Armed with easy-to-cook food, a clean kitchen, and the tools to proactively do something about my condition, I felt less helpless and vowed to myself that I’d fight this feeling and not let it kill me. I booked an appointment with a counsellor, found and enrolled on an Acceptance Therapy course, and – something I never thought I’d do – I started meditating.

 

Moving Forward

My Primary Mental Health appointment was supposed to take an hour. It took 3. I’d pinned a lot of my hopes on this assessment and had imagined it would conclude with them saying “We’re recommending you to a psychiatrist who’ll see you later today”. Instead they said that I should talk to my GP about getting signed off work for a few weeks. They also offered to put me on a list for NHS counselling, but that this would only be 6 sessions which probably wouldn’t be enough to put me on the path to recovery. When I mentioned I’d found a paid-for counselling service they said I should just go there instead if I could afford to.

It wasn’t what I’d expected, but getting signed off work was very good advice. The following day my parents returned from a holiday and I called my mum and told her my depression had got really bad. She helped me get my affairs in order (mostly sorting outstanding work commitments and making more formal contact with work explaining my absence) then insisted I move back to the family home for a while. I resisted at first but soon conceded it was for the best. I slept an awful lot, ate barely anything, and the evenings when I had slightly more energy I would watch a DVD with my mum and dad. I rested, which was exactly what I needed to do because it took all my strength to stand the tide of negative thoughts and worries constantly filling my head. I was signed off work for up to a month, but told I could return sooner if I felt up to it.

I am so fortunate that I have such a large, supportive group of friends, family and understanding employers. A lot of people are nowhere near that fortunate, and much more reliant on the NHS and, ultimately, themselves.

I still spent a lot of my time talking to people online and practically lived on Facebook, but I tried to reduce the amount I burdened others with my worries and kept it more to casual conversation. Unfortunately this was easier said than done, and I all-too-often found myself bending people’s ears and pleading for insight into why Notorious B.I.G. acted the way she did. Did she mean what she said but then change her mind? Was she actively being malicious? I became convinced that I couldn’t find solace until I found the answer.

After a fortnight I returned to my flat and ventured out a bit more. One night the inevitable happened and I found myself in the same bar as her. I was mid-hug with another friend when I realised. I turned the hug into a panicked grip and asked “What do I do? What do I do?” I briefly explained the situation: that I have no idea where I stand with her and if/what I’ve done wrong, and the stress of not knowing or understanding on top of the heartbreak gave me a mental breakdown.

A little confused, my friend replied: “Why don’t you just ask her?”

Was that allowed? I didn’t think the solution could be that simple. I tried it.

“I-”

“I don’t wanna talk to you!”

“Bu-”

“I DON’T WANNA TALK TO YOU!”

She turned to leave and, to my shame, I tried grabbing her arm and making her hear my question. This is very out of character for me and I surprised myself by doing it. She snatched it away and stormed off. I left and had my first ever panic attack. Again I became consumed by the fear that I must somehow be a bad and toxic person: one that is so evil and so hurtful that my victims are too afraid to even explain to me why they’re so afraid. From that day forward every time I go out in public I find myself constantly scanning my surroundings in case I run into her. Even if I’m in another part of the country where there’s zero chance of running into her. Hell, I don’t even know if she’s still in the country but my senses still go on heightened alert the moment I step out of my front door. I found socialising a struggle anyway but now it’s debilitating.

 

Fire [Strike 2]

I wish I could tell you that the drama ends there and what follows is just my recovery. But the thing about mental health stigma is it fuels the fire, as I was about to learn.

Imagine this: you’re at a party when suddenly you catch fire. How do you treat others? Not with the same grace the not-on-fire you would, I’m sure. (If you did you’d probably die.) Your priority shifts from “I’d better not interrupt that conversation” or “I know that person to be quite shy and I don’t want to startle her” to running, screaming at anyone within reach for help. This is how you operate when you’re in free fall.

Now replicate that scenario, only this time the fire is invisible. It still burns, it still spreads to others if you get too close, but the reason for your panic isn’t obvious. The kind souls who approach and offer help mean well, perhaps assuming you have a bee sting or something, but when you latch onto them in desperation they are engulfed in flames.

This is how a number of close friendships were destroyed during my breakdown. People who offered support but were unprepared for what that entailed, and didn’t understand why I couldn’t calm down and patiently explain that I was on fire. They only meant to help, but the reality was that offering help and friendship initially, then panicking and leaving permanently, made the pain far worse. I went from mourning the loss of one friend to the loss of a whole bunch.

I knew the fire had spread when I realised Tupac had blocked me on Facebook.

Yet again: it came out of the blue, I was unprepared and I didn’t understand. I thought we were friends and things were going well between us. It became even more important that I find this missing piece of the puzzle, to understand why friends around me keep disappearing. I fell right back down to the bottom of the ladder I’d been climbing the past 3 weeks, and retreated back to my parents’ house. I sent Tupac a diplomatic email asking why she had blocked me because I just had to know. That evening I received a hysterical text message from her, saying that she already gave me a chance to back off (presumably the phone call saying she didn’t appreciate hugs) yet I still contacted her on Facebook, and if I ever contacted her again she would report me to the police for harassment.

I was gobsmacked. Harassment?? What had I said or done? Had I contacted her too frequently? I counted 3 things in the past week – I talk to some people a hell of a lot more than that! I looked through all our recent correspondence in case I might have said something that could have been misconstrued. Since her heartfelt message I felt very safe when talking to her, knowing that she had an understanding of sadness and assured me she didn’t judge me or think any less of me because of what I was going through. Since the longest weekend I seldom spoke about how I felt with her, instead just trying to repay her kindness by being a good friend who keeps in regular contact. The transcripts of our last few interactions hadn’t indicated anything weird: I’d asked her if she knew who this person on Twitter was, congratulated her and her fiancé on their anniversary and wished her well for her upcoming birthday. She had Liked both comments. Nothing that set off any alarm bells.

As I was trying to figure this out, while growing increasingly convinced I must be insane, evil and toxic because it was the only rational explanation, her fiancé called me. He sounded like he’d been crying. “I’m tired of coming home to find my girlfriend crying. It ends now.”

She’d been crying? Because of me? Why? And why didn’t she tell me so I could put a stop to whatever the cause was? I did my usual thing of apologising profusely and assuming it must all be my fault because all I’m able to do is ignorantly harm those I care about and the world would be better off without me. I resumed the tearful foetal position, only this time clothed and in a less comfortable bed.

I did a lot of meditation exercises and had a good chat with my mum, who persuaded me to delete both gangsta rappers from my phone and focus on the positives in my life. I switched my phone off and we went downstairs and watched a DVD. Half-way through we had to pause it because the police turned up at the door looking for me.

Tupac had called the police, apparently neglecting to tell them about her threatening to report me for harassment, and told them I was a danger to myself. I don’t really blame her and believe she meant well, but it was certainly an interesting way of expressing her concern. The police had turned up at my flat, panicked my flatmate who tried ringing to find my phone was off. By the time I spoke to the police, thanked them for their concern but assured them I wasn’t about to top myself, and switched my phone on I had a barrage of missed calls and concerned messages from people. Knowing that I do matter to some people, and not everyone must think I’m a poisonous demon, was a wonderful feeling and really helped battle the flood of negative thoughts and emotions. Even so, I was back to square one in my recovery. I was forced to cancel my return to work, and I no longer qualified for sick pay.

Kicked When You’re Already Down [Strike 3]

The fire was spreading. Every time I logged onto Facebook my friends list had decreased. Even Fatman Scoop unfriended me. While an optimist would take joy in the 500 friends he still has, I obsessed over who the latest person to disappear without so much as a goodbye was and why they had left. They were all good friends of Biggie and Tupac. I couldn’t take the pain of watching a growing number of people I regard as friends inexplicably cutting themselves off from me. I did what I should have done to begin with: I left Facebook. I contacted every volunteer group/project I’m a part of and informed them I couldn’t continue with them – not just temporarily like the last few weeks, but indefinitely. I went down to one monitor on my computer desk. I bought a scented candle.

I booked extra counselling sessions, enrolled in a Compassion Based Mindfulness course, turned up to every Acceptance Therapy class and even did the homework. The doubts, thoughts and fears reared their ugly heads often but I persevered. I didn’t understand why many of these painful experiences had happened, but I wouldn’t let them beat me. I’d already been knocked back in once… I was going to climb out of this pit. I set my return date for work and looked forward to returning, I even visited the office to catch up with people and see how everyone was doing. This would probably be a good time to mention that I’m a youth worker and my job is dependant on me having a clean criminal record and background check.

9 days after the police had first been called, I received another visit. And this time they weren’t just concerned for my safety…

Someone (they still won’t tell me who) placed an emergency call to the police at lunchtime. The call was very specific and time-sensitive. The caller had information about me: I was mentally unstable, a danger to myself and others, who was obsessed with the Columbine high school massacre and had access to weapons I had bought in Vietnam. They were convinced I was going to use these weapons imminently in an attack.

No, I’m not making this up.

After I’d recovered from the shock and made sure I wasn’t dreaming, and when the police were satisfied that the call was bogus and I wasn’t about to embark on a killing spree, I asked for all the information they were allowed to give me about the call, which is how I learnt about the weirdly specific claims above.

Whereas the previous incidents had played on my doubts (“Am I just blind to what terrible deeds I’m committing?”) the second police visit was so ridiculous, so over the top that it made me stop and think: maybe it’s not me who’s the crazy one here.

I want to make a joke about how they didn't fit in my hand luggage, but I'd probably get another visit from the police...

I want to make a joke about how they didn’t fit in my hand luggage, but I’d probably get another visit from the police…

I went through the list of things the policeman had told me. They didn’t seem to have been made up randomly. Mentally unstable? I have depression and it seems everyone knows about that lately. A danger to myself and others? I’ve self-harmed on occasion and felt suicidal despair at my lowest point, but would never dream of harming another person. My Facebook was full of pictures of me backpacking around the Far East and in a number of them I’m posing with various swords, guns and things. I brought back some novelty ninja stars and a cool lighter from Thailand, but definitely left the AK-47 at the shooting range. The only one that seemed completely out-of-place was the obsession with Columbine: when I was a teenage goth I was really interested in Columbine, but that’s not something you could deduce from reading my blog or browsing my photo albums. Had this call been placed by someone from school who’d harboured a 15 year grudge and suddenly decided this afternoon was the time to have their revenge? It didn’t make sense. I hadn’t posted anything on my blog recently, I had left Facebook, and the last thing I tweeted was expressing confusion towards parents who get their babies’ ears pierced. Certainly nothing that should trigger an alarm, but then I thought the same thing about my innocuous Facebook comments before Tupac banished me from her life.

But eventually I remembered something and the pieces started to fall into place. Notorious B.I.G. had gone to high school in America and we’d once had a conversation about school shootings. I remembered telling her that, as a teenager, I was really fascinated by Columbine and used to follow web communities about it and still had it all in a backup somewhere. Another time she was telling me about shooting galleries she used to visit and I told her stories of my travels to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and some of the crazy weapon ranges they had out there, and showed her some photos. She was the only person I had used the word “Columbine” in a conversation with for over a decade. She had to be involved.

To this day I don’t know what actually happened (or whether anyone was charged with wasting police time) although I have a few ideas. I know how fallible the mind can be and one of the biggest barriers to my recovery is how much weight I lend the idea that I’m actually Patrick Bateman and I just haven’t realised it yet.

So that’s the story of my breakdown, and how every time I thought I’d got a handle on the situation life threw something else at me and made my recovery a hell of a lot harder. My time off work went from an initial sign-off of 2 weeks to 3 months (2 unpaid), only having the head space to handle part-time work (to this day) and needing to go to the police station and get a “Dan is definitely not a serial killer and is allowed to work with kids because we’ve now closed the case” badge to pin to my forehead. As much as experiences like this monumentally suck, they cast light on who is truly a friend and who is just an acquaintance who’ll drop you the moment that relationship is tested. And that knowledge is priceless. Maya Angelou said it best: “Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.”

If you’re still reading this you deserve a medal, by the way. I’ve written over 7,500 words which is far too long for a blog post. I’ll leave you with these pearls of wisdom I’ve learnt from my experience:

  1. You can’t fix other people. You can only fix yourself.

  2. Breakdowns can, in the long run, be just what you need to reassess your life. See below:

 

Old Car

I think of the mind as an old but mostly-reliable car: you’ve had it as long as you can remember and it’s taken a bit of a battering over the years but it’s always got you where you needed to go. Occasionally it stalls or a brake light goes out, and you’re dimly aware that “one day I ought to get that looked at”, but overall it does its job well enough so you keep driving it. Then one day the engine breaks while you’re on your way to work. You’re not able to ignore its faults any longer and are forced to cancel your plans and focus on making a significant change to the car. Maybe you pop the hood, take a look at the engine and go “Aha – I see the problem and I know how to fix it. Now I see why it’s been stalling as well; I should’ve fixed this ages ago.” More likely you get it towed to a garage where professionals fix the problems gradually and for a price. Either way, it’s time and effort you had no intention of spending on your car. It ruins your day and burns a hole in your wallet. But then you get the car back, fully fixed. Suddenly it’s a joy to ride again. The mechanics have fixed things you didn’t even realise needed attention: the steering is smoother, the CD player actually works… Yes, you missed a day of work and your plans were ruined. You had a painful and expensive day you weren’t planning on. But now every drive to work is faster, healthier and less costly.

 

 

Okay, I’m going to stop writing now.

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