THE LONELY, FEARFUL HELL OF NERVOUS BREAKDOWN
IMPOSSIBLE — it can’t happen to you! Then you are alone with secret fears in an anxious, inner world that can’t be reached, or understood, even by those who want to help you most. It’s a world I know: I was there
ONE DAY IN 1964 my doctor gave me the verdict. “Organically,” he said, “you're fine. But you've reached a stage of complete emotional and physical exhaustion. I want you in a hospital, under sedation, for six weeks. Otherwise, you're headed for one of the prettiest nervous breakdowns I’ve ever seen.”
I knew this was no snap judgment. This man had known me as a patient, off and on. for 15 years. And 1 knew lie wasn't inclined to overdramatize people's conditions. But a breakdown? That was absurd! All my working life I’d lived with tension and resisted pressure. In fact, in the jobs I'd held — as a 1 V script editor, producer of a daily TV show, editor of a hotel magazine and now as publicist for a national magazine — pressure and tension were practically the name of the game.
True, I was exceedingly tired and illogically depressed. But Id had several minor illnesses lately (which. I've learned since, are a common symptom before a breakdown). Certainly 1 was not having a breakdown — whatever that meant.
I was, of course, but the prospect was just too terrifying to consider. We all like to think we're too enlightened to harbor any old-fashioned “snake-pit” notions about mental illness. But here I was, fiercely rejecting the diagnosis of a man I'd trusted for 15 years. And soon my friends would be treating me like someone to be humored or bullied, patronized or scoffed at. Few would see me for what 1 was: a person with an illness as difficult to describe or explain as it is to endure. In fact, you could almost define a nervous breakdown as a sickness in which you know something is wrong with you, mentally or emotionally, but you can't explain it even to yourself, let alone to anyone else. You don’t see little green men or listen to disembodied voices or otherwise lose touch with reality. But you do lose control of your emotions, and you lose energy and the ability to cope with normal tasks and personal situations. As a result, you lose your self-confidence — and, finally, most of your friends.
That day in the doctor’s office, I adopted the attitude I was to hold for almost six months. Shrugging off his diagnosis, I made
elaborate promises to eat more sensibly, sleep longer hours and avoid unnecessary stress. My doctor, obviously skeptical, handed me some pills, and I walked out. gaily declaring I’d beat this rap.
Back at the office, I went on a deliberate slowdown. I moved my most frequently used files over from the filing cabinet to my desk drawer, thereby saving seven steps each way. Even phoning was tiring, and so I made a habit of telling our receptionist to “take all calls” — and then I ignored the messages that piled up. And I never wrote a letter or memo that could possibly be put aside for another day. Meanwhile, I acted like a real hypochondriac, visiting doctor after doctor and stuffing myself with pep pills, tranquilizers, anti-depressants — you name it, I tried it. Nothing helped. And since even the most casual social occasion exhausted me, I began avoiding my friends.
Soon I was faced with the unsympathetic and even hostile reactions that would complicate my illness immensely and prove as hard to bear as the affliction itself. A friend who dropped into my office one day and noticed my efforts in slow motion chided. “Don't you think you're carrying this self-pampering too far?” And a woman friend heard about my frequent medical appointments and told me angrily, “You're just going into menopause, and there's no excuse for all this nonsense.”
After several weeks, I decided maybe my problem was mostly emotional. Having written radio scripts on mental health and having talked over some problems with a psychiatrist at one time, I didn't have the strange feelings some people have about “headshrinkers.” I phoned a psychiatrist and made an appointment.
But even with the psychiatrist I wasn't yet prepared to face the facts, and I tried to conceal both my fears and my true condition with gay banter. I remember walking into his office and asking cheerfully, “Well, doctor, do you think I ought to have my office walls padded?” And even when we got down to serious discussion, I couldn't admit I was frightened. Instead, I tried to be droll, using expressions like, “I seem to be coming apart at the seams.”
My levity fooled him at first (he / continued on page 76
NERVOUS BREAKDOWN continued from page 25
“I still couldn’t admit I was sick”
told me later) but in the weekly sessions that followed, we did probe seriously into the causes of my emotional turmoil. Some causes dated from my early childhood; others occurred during adulthood, when the pressures and tensions of my work got complicated by some unhappy personal involvements, including several broken engagements.
I had only begun to understand some of these old problems and their effects on me, when a new crisis arose at the office. One day, without warning, my boss announced that my responsibilities were to be increased. For me, the question wasn't, “Could I handle it?” It was simply, “Do I dare stay on the job even one more day?” The answer was plain. I handed in my resignation.
By now it was January 1965, nearly six months since my doctor had prescribed six weeks’ rest. Yet even now, I still couldn't admit I was in the middle of a nervous breakdown. To explain my resignation, I told my superiors lamely that I felt the need to “patch myself up.” As bewildered as they were by my recent conduct and now by my desire to quit, they were graciously considerate. Why not take six months’ leave of absence? one of them suggested.
Right then, perhaps for the first time, I realized how bad things were with me. A leave of absence would put a time limit on my “patching up.” It implied that I would be well in half a year. I wasn't so sure I'd
ever be well again. No thanks, l said, let's make it a clean break.
Once again, though, I encountered the problem of human reactions — a problem that has plagued me ever since, even to this day. On the day I resigned, a friend who had suffered a severe emotional illness himself offered me some advice. “Don't explain everything,” he said. “Tell people you're finishing a book. Otherwise” — he tapped his forehead — “they'll say, 'That girl is sick in the head.’ ”
But he had forgotten that when you have a breakdown you feel so insecure that you have a fierce compulsion to justify and explain everything you do. You lack both the poise and stamina to tell a social lie and let it ride. To every inquiry I babbled that “my doctor said I was exhausted” and “now I’m going to be sensible.” I'm sure many people never understood what I was telling them. I couldn't bring myself to say the word “breakdown.”
Regardless of what I said, or failed to say, what I was doing seemed literally crazy to a lot of my friends. Why would I quit a good job, without moving to one equally as good, or better? Throughout my first week at home, the telephone rang repeatedly with calls from the puzzled and the curious. Some were convinced my resignation was evidence of a fascinating case of office politics. They wanted the details. Others insisted I was “being silly.” One man thought it would all go away if I took a long continued on page 78
trip, and he just laughed when I said I’d still have to take myself along. He had missed the point. Time and again people told me. “It's all in your mind.” Ironically, that was true, but not the way they meant it. They implied I could cure myself if I would smarten up, which was like telling a man with a broken back that he just needed gumption to gel up and walk.
A few friends were unintentionally dangerous. My conversations with
them got quickly reduced to observations about the bleak futility of life. Such thoughts seemed reassuring at first: they proved I wasn't alone in my misery. But they soon heightened my sense of impending doom. One day when I told one friend I thought I was pulling out of my slump, he cautioned. “Don't count on too much. It's worse when you go back again.” On a second, similar occasion, another friend shattered my optimism with, “I'll check back in a day or
two. By then you might want to leap off the balcony.’’
Other friends, equally well ¡mentioned. decided to challenge me out of my condition. One denounced me for what he called my “sickening weakness.” Then he delivered the punchline: “Or have you always had this yellow streak down your back?” His sarcasm had an extra sting for me as I wondered whether he was tight.
The Instant Analyzers weren’t any
easier to take. One called on the phone to ask probing questions about my inner feelings. I knew where he was heading but I couldn't stop him. Finally he announced his verdict: no doubt about it — I had a serious psychotic disorder.
"But that’s not what my psychiatrist says.” I replied.
“Better check with him again.” my Iriend said knowingly, and hung up.
There were the pleasant surprises, of course, mostly from people who showed a capacity to accept the situation even if they couldn't understand it. One woman I had met only twice sent a note which said simply. “Conic back to us soon. YVe need you." A colleague called to say he wouldn't nag but “any time you want to talk, or need anything. I'm here.” And one day a member of The Saints Club, a group of so-called juvenile delinquents with whom I had been associated as a sort of volunteer den mother, called at my apartment and dropped an envelope of money onto my coffee table. “This is from a couple of us.” he said, “because you were always there when we needed you.” I hadn't told any of the Saints about my real problem, yet somehow they had sensed I needed their help.
“I was cheating myself”
I've learned since that it’s a common tendency for people in my condition to try to shield close friends and family from the full impact of a nervous breakdown. I have a friend who was divorced during the most critical stage of her breakdown simply because she couldn't bring herself to tell her husband why she was behaving so irrationally. “I didn’t want to worry him at first,” she told me later. “By the time I realized how silly that was, it was too late.”
I made the same mistake with my parents, whom I visited regularly at their home in another city. It was unfair, of course, both to them and to myself. Since they didn't fully understand what was happening to me, they weren’t prepared to cope with my periods of panic and depression. And I was cheating myself out of the moral support and sympathy they would have provided.
The attitude of most friends had a predictable result. I withdrew, putting an answering service on the telephone and holing up in my apartment.
My semi-isolation, combined with growing fears, had its own result. In two months I sank from panic and confusion into melancholy resignation. I felt desperately tired, but the more I rested, the more exhausted I was. Sleeping at night u'as impossible. I spent those hours trying to read or fending off total despair. I couldn't take sleeping pills now. Lisa, my Yorkshire Terrier puppy, had a chronic tonsil condition which — periodically — made her ill. I couldn't take the chance of being in a drugged sleep when she needed me.
During the day I moved slowly and clumsily through the smallest task. Washing a cup and saucer was a major effort. If I broke anything — I and I was constantly breaking things
NERVOUS BREAKDOWN continued
“I felt ashamed, timid, fearful”
— I was filled with a sense of loss and guilt.
1 felt guilty about everything. I couldn't cope. Yet people I respected said I should be able to cope. 1 would wake from a brief, heavy sleep and feel guilty because I couldn't shake off the stupor. When I walked Lisa around the block, it seemed 1.000 miles; yet I felt guilty because for her the walk was too short. Television was my diversion. I didn't watch it; I stared at it — and felt guilty because I was letting time go aimlessly by.
I had never been conscious of my age. Now I was overwhelmed by the years piled up behind me. I was old and finished at 42. The world had fot gotten me, and 1 deserved to be forgotten. I could contribute nothing.
I was ashamed of the person I had become. Everything was my fault. Once, a store clerk unknowingly shortchanged me. But I didn't joke about it and collect my money. Instead. I crept timidly and silently away. Another time, on an intercity bus, the driver discovered that, contrary to the rules, I had brought Lisa aboard with me. In a scene that lasted four minutes (and seemed like four hours), that driver kept every eye in the bus riveted on me while he delivered one of the loudest and rudest harangues I ever heard. 1 sat and took it. verging on tears.
Even in ordinary situations, I could
no longer bear to be noticed. During daylight hours, I kept indoors as much as possible. I preferred the twilight; in it 1 felt anonymous.
At no time could 1 be sure how Ed react in any encounter. Confronted by a mildly embarrassing situation that most people would forget in five minutes—like bumping into a stranger on the street, for instance, or knocking over an ash tray in a café — I might stammer exaggerated apologies, I might cry. or 1 might flee.
Once I was out walking when a man. too drunk to navigate well, lurched toward me. There was no logical reason to worry — it was early and the street was crowded — but I panicked. The man grabbed my arm.
“Come on, sweetheart,” he said, “let's go somewhere and have fun.”
When I tried to pull away, he stepped closer.
“Come on,” he wheedled. "I'll pay you.”
Normally. I would have simply walked on. or cut him short with a curt remark. Instead, I twisted away and pleaded, “Please! Leave me alone!" Suddenly I burst into tears, broke free and fled along a side street. Halfway down the block, I stopped. The tears dried up and I was suddenly angry. I wanted to hit that man. literally to pummel him, as I had never pummeled anyone. I whirled around and raced back. He was gone. For several minutes I
NERVOUS BREAKDOWN continued
“I grew resentful: I was sure everyone was criticizing me”
stood, rigid, overcome by this strange and irrational urge for revenge.
By fall my friends, one by one, had dropped out of my life. 1 knew why it had happened, but I resented it. When the telephone rang, I panicked. When it didn’t ring, I knew it was because people were selfish and faithless and mean. My resent-
ment built swiftly. No one could do or say the right thing; I could always find a hidden message of criticism. When a friend joked one day about “our” persecution complex, I ended the conversation crisply, certain he was both impatient and cruel. I couldn't believe people were just thoughtless; any remark that hurt had
to be a deliberate insult. One friend refused to believe I had not been in hospital. "Tell me.” he said with an embarrassed smile, “how long have you been — ah — back in the world?” I couldn't reply. I began to tremble, then hurried away before he could see me cry. A woman friend called to ask my advice about her
daughter. “She’s acting so funny,” she said, “I thought of you.”
“I'll be glad to share my straitjacket,” I snapped, and hung up.
I hated myself for the way I was behaving, and now even this selfhatred seemed like a threat. I began to fear that it might some day push me to a fatal impulse. I set up elaborate precautions to avoid suicide. I threw out razor blades and even headache tablets. On my better days I drove with excessive care. On bad days I didn't drive at all. I stood well back on subway platforms and I kept right off the balcony of my 1 1 th-floor apartment.
By now I had financial problems as well. Bills were piling up. I had to work, yet I couldn't take a regular job. I decided to make a living as a freelance writer. It was a delusion, of course; 1 couldn't think objectively about any subject, and I couldn't summon the energy. I wrote oddly confused little “humor” pieces about the problems of owning a car and the perils of reaching 40. and sent them off to editors who promptly sent them back. I managed to get a few public-relations assignments, but the way I handled them did little for my self-confidence or my reputation.
“I had to make it alone”
By now I had dropped my sessions with the psychiatrist. I still needed him. but I couldn't afford him. There arc free clinics for people with ailments like mine, but the thought of starting the therapeutic process over again was intolerable. If I was going to make it at all, I had to make it alone.
Then, as slowly and subtly as it had come upon me. my illness began to recede. By February 1966. I had reason to remember a note I'd received many months before — probably the kindest, most encouraging note I'll ever get from anyone. It came from a friend I hadn’t seen for two or three years. “I've brushed close to a breakdown a couple of times,” he wrote, “and one morning you’ll wake to find you are there and the world is there and it is not so impossible after all.”
That's how it was now — not quite so impossible after all. I still couldn’t work well. I still felt sensitive and resentful. I still had the black days. But something better was happening.
I began to look to the future, which seemed brighter, and imagined good things immediately in store. Sometimes I converted such fantasy into action. In one daydream I decided 1 would move into a tiny house with a garden and a tree which would be mine. I called three real-estate agents to ask about their listings. I had no real intention of buying a house, but I salved my conscience by telling them I was making “preliminary inquiries.”
In the summer of 1966 I moved, without knowing it. into the final stage of my illness. Even yet I don’t know what made the difference. The therapy sessions had given me clues about root problems and I had done the hard work of tackling each one. And despite the constant emotional merry-go-round inside me, I had been away from professional stresses and continued on page 82
tensions for 15 months. Perhaps the combination was working at last.
Long before my psychiatrist had urged me to “stall for time — stall on everything, especially the way you feel.” I didn’t understand his advice then, but suddenly it made sense. When I felt depression coming on. I knew anxiety was on the way — but I could stall it off. When I had an attack of senseless panic. I could stall the need I’d feel to run away. If someone hurt me. I stalled my de-
fensive reaction. I was learning the oldest lesson of psychiatry: whatever it is. face it.
I began to have little bursts of energy. I wasn't ready yet to pick up old friendships because I wasn’t ready to make explanations. But I could form new friendships with people who wouldn’t ask the wrong questions. Now I could make small talk again, and chance encounters with friends were no longer exercises in evasion. My sense of humor
began to return. If a friend made a tactless remark, 1 could quip, “Watch it, you're hurting me,” without feeling genuinely hurt. Slowly I learned to cope even with the wrong questions, though I refused to review my experience for the curious, or the Instant Analyzers.
It was time for another round of social reactions. A number of people knew I had not been well, although they didn’t know' why. Now I was obviously well. But I still backed away
from normal living, so they classed me like a cured cripple who must be made to walk again. Some were plainly uneasy, not sure if I’d really “gone out of my mind.” or was putting on a performance which wasn’t a credit to me. Others avoided referring to the 18 months I’d spent as a semi-recluse — as if I’d ceased to exist for that year and a half. Some friends, falling with me into our old pattern of exchanging quips and good-natured insults, would suddenly draw up short and exclaim. "Oh, Jeann! — that didn’t upset you. did it?” I often felt like replying. “Not the comment — just your apology.”
I was still wary and I still tested the climate of every encounter, but at least I was ready to try to cope with the world.
At last, I stood my ground
I got a chance to test my new attitude in the summer of 1966, when my parents and I rented a cottage in the Ontario lake country. The rental agent turned out to be a classic chiseler. He let us discover for ourselves that there was no source of hot water, except for an electric kettle, which didn’t work. Neither did the TV set that was to be part of the deal — nor. for that matter, did the electrical outlets. I had to arrange for the repairs. Later, after assuring us it would be all right for us to stay over the Labor Day weekend, the agent rented the cottage for that period to a group of half a dozen other people. But when they showed up early one morning to take possession, I was no longer the meek and compliant milquetoast. I stood my ground and forced the agent to find the others accommodation elsewhere. Back in Toronto, I got on the phone and told the real-estate company exactly what I thought of their man and his ethics. Even at that. I’m sure nobody else ever realized what a victory the whole episode had been for me.
I had made repeated attacks at the job of finishing at least a coherent draft of a book. Now I plunged in with renewed vigor. I couldn’t admit it might be publishable, but I finished it and sent it to the publisher. A week later he telephoned. He liked the book! I hung up the telephone and walked, trancelike, around the apartment.
"It’s over!” I kept telling Lisa. “Thank God it’s over!”
For some friends it will never be completely over, as I realized just the other night at a party. One old friend was denouncing a business colleague. “He’s crazy,” he exclaimed. “just plain crazy! He ought to be locked up!” Suddenly my friend stopped, turned to me. “Oh. Jeann,” he gasped, “I am sorry!”
Before I realized what he meant, my host, obviously unsettled, hurriedly switched the conversation. Then it hit me; my friend really believed I’d been “crazy” — and maybe “locked up" as well.
Now it was his turn to be puzzled, as I dissolved into laughter. I guess if he’d insisted on an explanation, I would have started out by saying. “A funny thing happened to me on the way to this party — beginning just about three years ago . . .” ★