What it feels like to have a nervous breakdown

For a while, I was not a person. I passed the time with droll thoughts about how terrible everything had become. Sunsets? Rubbish. Seaside? Disgusting. Chocolate? Tolerable.

I had stopped functioning, at a very basic level: I didn’t even go to the supermarket.

(I started writing ‘I couldn’t even go to the supermarket’, but of course I could, I just didn’t. That’s how it feels. Sometimes I was so determinedly not going to the supermarket that I could see the obstacles in the road. I can’t. I can’t. I want to, but look at the size of those penguins at the end of the street. If I try to drive through them, they will kill us all. It’s safer to go home.)

It turns out that I was having a nervous breakdown. The only person I know of who’s had a nervous breakdown is Garry McDonald. I remember that being on the cover of Woman’s Day: NORMAN GUNSTON — MY NERVOUS BREAKDOWN. It’s a real 90s thing to have, isn’t it? A nervous breakdown is something you have in a lounge suit, drinking a brandy-and-dry from a Waterford tumbler.

Of course, they’re not like that. They’re actually invisible. A nervous breakdown is something you notice from the middle (or if you’re lucky, from the end). One day things seem a bit more difficult than they did the day before. And the day after that, they’re even more difficult. By the end of the week, you have to physically pick up your legs and move them in a way that imitates ‘walking’. You feel tired and you don’t want to eat and you’re stuck in your bed but it’s just an episode, right? Just a moment before you’re back to normal. If you just wait a second, I’ll be me again. Just wait. Just a second.

Having a nervous breakdown is a bit like getting some tree sap on you. At first, it’s just a bit of tree sap that’s on you. Then you realise it’s stuck there. It’s stuck in your arm hairs and every time you rub it, it just gets more stuck. But then it’s tangled in your arm hairs and that hurts quite a bit, so you rub it and rub it because you don’t know what else to do, and then your whole arm is covered in tree sap and you cannot see how you will ever get it off.

I had fear in my heart every day. I woke up with it there, and it stayed there all day and into the night and in my dreams. I sobbed in my sleep. I dreaded 8am, 9am, 10am, 11am, 12noon, 1pm, 2pm, 3pm, 4pm, 5pm, 6pm, 7pm, 8pm and 9pm. I was a person for brief grabs as the sun came up and again when watching Letterman. But that wasn’t right either, because Letterman was sitting next to me in bed and we were doing a crossword.

Having a nervous breakdown is a bit like planning and planning and planning for a one woman show and then realising you don’t know how to play any of the instruments. This only occurs to you one instrument at a time. You pick up a tambourine and it turns into a caveman. You blow into a harmonica and ducks fly out of it. The days pass and your show launches to an audience of none and the curtain comes down. And it comes down and down and down.

There I was, sitting with my nervous breakdown at the bottom of a well. But even then, it wasn’t a nervous breakdown. It was probably just Sadness. I was just Despondent. I was just sitting in the well with my old friends Terror and Overwhelm. Eventually we would dig up until someone could reach in far enough to pull us out.

Having a nervous breakdown is a bit like going for a walk down the street to get some milk. But while you’re walking, you realise that what you need isn’t milk but a whole cow. And that actually you can’t get the cow at the end of the street, but it doesn’t matter because the street has turned into a paddock and actually, there’s not just one cow but forty cows and they are all staring at you and demanding you make a choice about which cow you need, and now you don’t even know where you live so you just live in the paddock with the cows.

I didn’t realise I had been having a nervous breakdown until a day when I went to the supermarket without thinking about it. I had thought about the experience of going to the supermarket every single time for 18 months. I had run the dialogue with myself: don’t go to the supermarket, we’re all going to die anyway; everyone at the supermarket hates you; you can’t go to the supermarket; look at those fucking penguins. Then one day, I went. I got in my car, and I went to the supermarket and I probably bought a packet of biscuits or something and I didn’t even realise until I was driving home again. When I looked through my windscreen, I saw people in their cars and people on the street and people in windows and I saw the ribbons strung up between us because I had, obliquely, reconnected to the place where they lived.

That was how I noticed I had had a nervous breakdown.

Having a nervous breakdown is a bit like swimming between your own flags. You think you’re rescuing yourself. You look through your binoculars at yourself in the water and you think, yes, this is the correct way to protect that person from the sharks. It is only sensible, after all, to notice the box jellyfish and call out to yourself to watch out, to swim closer, to be nearer to shore. COME THIS WAY! you shout, THE JELLYFISH ARE EVERYWHERE! and you think yes, this can only be helping myself, though the distance between the flags is smaller and smaller and actually, maybe we should get out of the water.

And then you realise you weren’t waving at all.

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