Content warning: contains mentions of suicidal ideation.
One night in August of 2019, I had a thought. "What if I just quit my job and moved back to Adelaide?" Twelve hours later, I quit my full-time job in Sydney, and a month later I moved my entire life back into my childhood bedroom.
When I made what I believed to be a completely sound decision to quit my job and move states, I could never have guessed what was about to happen. As it turned out, I was more burnt out than I'd thought, and the second I stopped, the house of cards collapsed. Physically, mentally, emotionally, I had nothing left.
In the months that followed, I had what my medical team refer to as "a complete mental and physical breakdown", leading ultimately to a 10-week stay in a psychiatric hospital last year. The road to recovery has been long, and it's still ongoing.
So how did I get here? In hindsight, there were a lot of red flags, and a lot of contributing factors. I've had complex issues with chronic pain since 2010, I have issues with my mental health -- anxiety, depression, pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder, which was undiagnosed at the time. Looking back, these are the red flags I missed.
This is probably the biggest red flag of them all, it's so big it looks more like a blanket when I think about it now, but here we are.
In 2019, I was in a work environment that was exacerbating my physical pain and mental health issues. Like Brene Brown says, I was "a turtle without a shell in a briar patch". Instead of getting out of the briar patch - leaving my job, figuring out how to better manage my life - I became dependent on prescription painkillers.
I don't remember when I started taking them to numb out my emotional pain. It started slow. Stress and anxiety were exacerbating my physical pain, so I'd take painkillers. But as my mental health declined, I started taking my meds preemptively, trying to ensure a good night's sleep. A bad night's sleep meant worsened pain, and worsened pain meant a worse night's sleep, so that was just smart, right? Turns out chronic pain doesn't respond well to the short-release drugs I was taking and the frequent pain flares I was experiencing were withdrawals, and it took me a month in a psych hospital to wean off them and get my meds under control.
I've had a pretty tumultuous relationship with food over the years, but during this period, my eating habits were awful. Having absolutely no energy, I couldn't comprehend the idea of standing in the kitchen to prepare food. I couldn't bring myself to get dressed and go to the grocery story. Mentally, I couldn't work up the motivation to do anything more than order junk food on Uber eats, because hey, when things were so awful, I at least deserved a treat, right?
Spending and "self-care"
In an attempt to get myself through the week, have something to look forward to, or reward myself for another day done, I would spend and spend, well beyond my means. With my health, I felt like I was in an endless pursuit of "wellness" and nothing was working, so I'd justify spending money on all kinds of things I thought would improve my physical health -- like the $200 I once dropped on essential oils.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my relationships were tumultuous throughout this period, and rather than logging off and figuring out a way to cope, I took it to Twitter. Not only was I documenting every overwhelming, uncomfortable emotion and moment for the masses, my social media search history bars looked like a who's who of people I was upset with at the time. All of which is mortifying -- in hindsight.
Before I'd even open my eyes in the morning, I'd be thinking about how completely and utterly exhausted I was, no matter how much sleep I had. It was a full-body fatigue that I just couldn't shake. On my days off, I'd lie in bed, re-watching a mindless TV show I'd seen before.
Doing anything more than the bare minimum to get through the day - showering, eating, sleeping - felt like a monumental task. The thought of listening to a new album by an artist I liked, or watching a new show that someone recommended to me, felt so beyond my energy. Catching up with a friend would wipe me out for days.
It's not so much that I was crying about my situation, or things that were going on in my life, but rather, I was so overwhelmed and overstimulated that I was constantly on the brink of tears. Anything that made me feel anything had the ability to make me cry, regardless of how inane it was. I was so exhausted, and so busy trying to numb out all of my emotions, that they were begging for me to pay attention, constantly bubbling up mid-sentence while talking about how I liked the vocals in a song or recalled an emotional scene in a film.
You'd think this would've been a pretty obvious red flag, but in the moment, it was far more insidious, creeping around the corners of my mind.
At the slightest inconvenience, I'd get these intrusive little thought. Dropping a piece of toast? "LMAO I wish I was dead". Running out of cling wrap? "Kill me, I hate this." At first, I brushed these thoughts off, thinking I was just being dramatic. What I should have seen as a red flag was when I'd be standing at the bus stop and idly think, "What if instead of getting on the bus, I just jumped in front of it?" I wasn't about to do it, but these thoughts would just pop up wherever, whenever, in more and more alarming ways. Everything and anything was overwhelming. It wasn't so much that I wanted to die, I just wanted it all to stop, to be able to rest.
And now, 18 months later, and I'm doing better. Not great, admittedly, but better. My physical health has improved since last year, my meds are sorted, I'm in therapy and working out more effective coping modes. I've begun working again and I feel a little more connected with the world around me.
Looking back, I don't think I realised how bad things actually were. While I certainly wouldn't recommend having a nervous breakdown to a friend, I can now see the benefit of it. It forced me to re-evaluate my priorities and to work through a lot of issues, and while the road to recovery is frustratingly slow, I can now see a version of myself in a better life on the horizon. I look forward to one day getting there.
Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue 24/7 on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at beyondblue.org.au. For 24/7 crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or seek advice from your doctor or medical or health professional.
Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
Stephanie Anderson is a freelance writer.