What I Learned From My Mental Breakdown

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Growing up in the 1970s I remember the whisperings about the mothers particularly who had suffered mental breakdowns — the suggestion being these women were delicate, fragile creatures who were no longer fully capable members of life.

Now I’ve joined that society — the mothers who have experienced a mental breakdown; and whether it’s a sign of the times in which breakdowns symbolize a path to enlightenment, to a richer, more meaningful life, I now consider a breakdown is an opportunity to harness one’s strength and re-organize essential life priorities.

Don’t get me wrong. My mental breakdown was harrowing. I essentially collapsed under the strains of a busy life as a mother of three young children with a marriage to sustain and a career as a clinical psychologist, sitting with people in immense pain and helping them to navigate towards peace. My sense of peace eventually shattered amidst a whirring mind that wouldn’t stop and a frenzied pace to keep up with never ending commitments.

Two years on from my mental breakdown I share the following lessons I have learnt about sanctifying the need for balance in one’s life and keeping vigilant to your core values about what makes your life have soul:

· Never take your mental health for granted — be it regular early waking; a mind that can’t switch off; or an irritability that pervades your connections with loved ones, be vigilant for signs with your mind and body that any on-going stress may just push you over the edge into major mental illness;

· Set aside time to reflect on what is really important for you — take a pen and paper; look at key domains in your life such as family, career, parenting, spirituality, friendships, leisure and sense of community/giving; and review what matters to your heart in each of these areas; how you want to be — not simply as another string of points for your ‘to do’ list but as qualities that mark your legacy on what you consider important in a meaningful rich life;

· Engage regularly, even daily, in activities that make your soul sing — for me these days creativity brings mindfulness, spark and peace;

· Commit to an attitude of gratitude — scientifically shown to change the activity of the brain (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26746580), focusing on what you are grateful for and, even better, sharing this with others in your life, is very powerful in empowering you to stop and ‘smell the roses’ and move the brain from a pathway of feeling victimized, exhausted and out of steam, into fullness, appreciation, and vitality. Take out your pen and paper again and try recording three aspects of your life you appreciate each day — this could be a miniscule event such as you drank your coffee hot (or not so miniscule to many busy people!) or a loved one came through a difficult operation;

· Daily express and receive physical affection — hug and receive hugs; hold another’s hand mindfully, and alongside, smile and make meaningful eye contact with others — prevent a busy quick glance that isolates you to the hectic speed of your life; and

· Admit vulnerability — I can’t speak for men but I’ve found there is never such relief as when a woman expresses she doesn’t have it all together. Joy oh joy, the other women sing — someone has the courage to say that it’s not all ok all the time. Such sharing brings authenticity and hope — including hope that the younger people in our world will not create false lives where the striving becomes the enemy of one’s true self and strikes an arrow in the heart of a life that desires enrichment with passion.

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