In my late twenties, after being dumped by a long-distance boyfriend and fired from a job I hated in the same week, I stopped being able to function. This shift happened suddenly, a tremor leading quickly to an earthquake. I stopped sleeping. I didn’t know and couldn’t talk about what I was feeling. Numbed and exposed, I was no longer able to care for myself. Even buying groceries felt insurmountable.
I fled home to Ohio, and I was lucky to be able to do so. You don’t really know vulnerability until you’re waking up in your parent’s condo as a 27-year-old, unsure of how to support yourself and fearful that you may be stuck on their couch for the rest of your life. My future felt like a big empty yawn, my present a black hole.
Over the next month, I slowly came back to myself. My mother said, “I can see the color returning to your cheeks.” I went to see a psychiatrist with my father — I remember him sitting next to me, as confused about what was happening as I was. Dad did everything he could to help, including making an appointment for me with a local Toledo, Ohio career counselor. I stumbled through my interview with this nice woman who took notes like “Likes to read” and “World Wide Web?”
The internal pain receded slowly. I’d wake up early in the morning and see my parents sitting next to each other in their side-by-side reading chairs, Dad with the paper and Mom a crossword, drinking coffee and whispering to each other. The constancy of their habits was soothing. That same psychiatrist gave me a new medication called Paxil, and it seemed to help too.
Over the next few weeks, I started to grow a new kind of shell. Bit by bit, I was able to make eye contact with people I didn’t know. I started sleeping again, short naps getting longer, then overnight. The earthquake had passed, and what remained was the cleanup. Eventually, I returned to the West Coast and started over, making the kinds of life changes required for the next phase of my life.
For years after that, when I thought about that month, I described it (somewhat flippantly) as “some kind of nervous breakdown,” never really thinking too deeply about what that implied. Something had happened, I got through it, end of story. A part of me knew it must have a meaning, but I never stopped long enough to figure out what. I broke down, I stitched myself back up, and I carried on. End of story, right?
Lately I’ve been reconsidering my experience. I’m starting to see it differently as I witness other people—friends, family members, characters on television shows, in novels, in politics, in sports—going through something similar. What happened no longer seems like the bizarre aberration it did when I was younger. I’ve seen friends go to the ER for what turned out to be panic attacks and loved ones breaking down in physical pain as a result of their mental state. Despite how common the experience seems to be, I’ve never heard it described the same way twice. I’ve listened closely to therapists who use terms like “an anxiety event” or “a depressive and anxiety moment” or a “disordered nervous system.” Is that what it is?