My 19th Nervous Breakdown
About 4 years ago, I experienced what used to be called a nervous breakdown, but it’s referred to now as a major depressive episode. I’d been fighting depression and anxiety for a long time, but my tenuous hold on sanity finally evaporated.
Every morning when I woke up, I would have a panic attack about going to work that day. I was a dedicated teacher, but chronic insomnia, panic attacks, and depression left me exhausted, which I will admit affected my ability to teach and to complete my duties. I was also deathly afraid of “losing it” in front of my students or coworkers.
As if on cue, I started having panic attacks at work. Then I had to go through the embarrassing process of explaining to my bosses what was happening. I had to be taken home at least once by a counselor because everyone who saw me hyperventilating and clutching the wall for support was afraid to let me drive.
My absences began to rack up, and I finally went on Family Medical Leave. Twice, actually. I tried to come back, but I think I lasted a couple of months before having to go back on leave. Then FMLA ran out, and I was on unpaid leave. After a meeting with the principal and the Human Resources representative, I faded away into the sunset; my contract was not renewed.
My life became the “downhill slide” everyone fears. Our finances suffered severely. I began to develop panic attacks at the prospect of going other places, like the grocery store or church. As at work, sometimes I’d make it to the store only to have to turn around and go home. I started spending more and more time in bed, not necessarily sleeping, just staring numbly into space. My husband, and even my daughter, had to take on more and more and more responsibilities because of my illness.
The guilt I felt because of my failure to hold it together seemed unbearable. I had destroyed my family’s “American Dream.” Not only was I in the depths of misery, but I felt I was dragging them down with me as well. I would lash out at my husband even though my anger and increasing hatred was directed at myself. Worse, I felt that even though I wasn’t actively abusive, my inability to be a “normal” Mom was unforgivable. I needed to be a good mother to achieve some form of atonement with mine, and I could not. In my own mind, I was tried and convicted without question.
Finally, I was facing Hamlet’s famous question, “To be or not to be? Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them” (Hamlet Act III, scene i). I confess that I contemplated suicide quite frequently. I told myself that I was a burden to my family. At least without me, they could move on.
To die, to sleep
I began to form a realistic plan. I analyzed various methods to see which one would be the most painless and leave the least amount of mess. Also, I’d personally known a mother who was a failed suicide, and after hospitalization, her husband divorced her, and she was forbidden to see her daughter, so I had to make sure it was final. Because I didn’t want my husband or daughter to come home and find me, I was going to dial 911 first. I was too savvy to let my psychiatrist or therapist know my thoughts. I’d be hospitalized immediately. I’d already had bad experiences with hospitalization in my late teens. That wasn’t an option.
To sleep perchance to dream
The contemplation of death led to a contemplation of my life’s purpose and my afterlife, in whatever form it would take. I had to admit to myself that my family would be devastated. I would solve my problem but compound theirs. Then what happens after death? What if it were infinitely worse? This life is frightening, as much an “undiscovered country” as death. If I failed in this life, then I would surely fail in the myriad possibilities that would confront me after death, or if there was nothing, then what was the point of my having lived at all?
Conscience makes cowards of us all
My thoughts naturally began to justify my existence. There would be so many projects, explorations, and relationships left unfinished or unattempted. I would be giving up precious time watching my daughter grow. There was also a faint hope that I could get well, and because of that faint hope, I owed it to my husband and daughter to fight to live the best life I can. A very small voice inside also whispered that I owed it to myself, especially to my child self that deserved to know loving kindness, to know success.
The Long and Winding Road
And so here am I. I cannot say the question is answered. It’s not. In fact, it is ever present. There is a quote by a favorite author, Chuck Palahniuk, which sums up my condition, perhaps the human condition in general. “You have a choice. Live or die. Every breath is a choice. Every minute is a choice. To be or not to be.”
Since becoming aware of that choice, I have embarked on a search to find a purpose to live, to make meaning for my life, to find peace. I read philosophy, self help books and blogs, study spiritual teachings, study myself, study my experiences and the experiences of others. Mostly I just find more questions, but ironically, the original question itself, “To be or not to be?” has been the catalyst to motivate me to find a better way to live.
Notes from the Author
Suicide is obviously a very serious subject and a very real threat when dealing with major depression. Follow this link for resources on suicide prevention.
Did you notice the subtitles? Yes, they’re the titles of songs by The Rolling Stones, Billie Holiday, Ozzy Osbourne, and The Beatles. I would have provided you with a playlist, but I had some technical difficulties.