STORIES & STORYTELLERS PRESENTED BY TORCHLIGHT SYSTEM
Every month we'll be publishing stories from the Torchlight community on two key themes: What We Know & How We Help These and other stories will be published in a printed anthology in 2019.
Find out more in the video below
COUNTDOWN TO BREAKDOWN
By Zaren C
One man tells story of the breakdown he suffered, the winding path to get there,
and what helped him begin the process of recovery
A few people have asked how my breakdown happened, did I see it coming, what did it feel like? I’ve often used an analogy of an old, trusty laptop finally breaking down to describe it as close as I can to how it was. It's 2018 as I write this, but around six to seven years ago was when the countdown began. I was standing in the sun on the balcony at work, looking down and tried to decide if, by jumping, I’d die or just break something. I wasn’t sure it was high enough. That was the first suicidal thought I could remember when my psychologist, in the clinic I was admitted to in 2017, asked me if I’ve had suicidal thoughts or attempts. It turns out that mentally healthy people don’t have these kind of thoughts. These thoughts increased in number over the years but I wasn’t opening up to anyone about them. I kept dismissing them as “normal”, not stopping to think that there could be something more to them.
WHAT WE KNOW
“If you can take anything out of this, let it be that you start to speak about feelings, thoughts or problems. Find a way to communicate them. Even if it’s sending people texts, it’s a start“
– Zaren C
I’ve often felt like a loner, the spare wheel, the odd one out, but in truth, I was always able to make friends, seemed well-liked and was generally comfortable in the company of others. I don’t think I ever felt truly lonely as there were always people around me, especially being married with two kids, there is little time to be alone. But, in the six months prior to June 30, 2017, this changed… although I can only see it now. I was completely unable to interact with anyone. Sure, I could manage a simple “hello” and a short, superficial chat about the weather, but that was about it.
Work had become impossible. Too afraid to pick up the phone to speak to people, I became hard to reach. I avoided meetings where possible and at those I did attend I’d barely speak. Questions became impossible to answer, decisions impossible to make. So much so that the toilet cubicles at home and work became my sanctuary. I began to spend so much time hiding in them in the month preceding my breakdown, that I considered hanging an “Außer Betrieb” or Out Of Order sign (I live in Berlin) on one at work to ensure I’d have a retreat. And It wasn’t only at work: at home I was barely speaking, unable to communicate more than the basic level required to bark orders at the kids.
Thing is, I didn’t notice this withdrawal and neither, it seems, did my colleagues and friends – mainly, it seems, due to my ability to wear a mask of “happiness”. “How are you?” they’d ask. “Fine, a little tired but ok, good, you?” my preferred response.
It turned out that I’ve been using that response for a significant part of my life.
* * *
I was never one for going to bed early, but I’d always get at least six hours of sleep a night. It seemed enough. I used to be able to get up in the mornings, of my own accord, too. But in those days, I couldn’t get up. Not just that one day of the week where no one wants to get up, but every day. I’d be awake, usually from the time that I needed to be up by, but I didn’t have the strength to lift up my duvet and stand up. No joke. That duvet was the heaviest f***ing thing I have ever had to lift and I just couldn’t.
Not even the screams of “Zaren, get up!” from the other room from my wife and children could encourage me. They just seemed to make the duvet heavier. If I could have stayed in bed all day, forever, I would have. No idea how I got out most mornings: rolled out the side, I think, on to my knees like I was crawling through a trench on my way to a battlefront.
After a day on that battlefront, sleeping became more of an issue. When I finally managed to pull myself away from the black mirror in my hand, I’d lie in bed hoping for someone to find the switch for that radio, the one that’s constantly on, filling the head that should be sleeping with thoughts. Who the f*** leaves a radio on, buzzing away with random thoughts when they’re trying to go to sleep? Oh, where’s the radio you say? In my head? That would explain it. Where’s the switch? There isn’t one? You mean, I need to pull the plug to get it to go out? In the months before June 30, 2017, it seemed as though I was carrying that radio around with me, always, just turned up as loud as it would go through noise-cancelling headphones, making sure I was the only one who could hear it so as not to share it with the world.
As June approached, I’m pretty sure I’d lost the ability to remember anything. I’d have conversations at work that I thought I’d had already, or that I hadn’t had but should have had. Still I wore the mask, but now it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the friendly British gentlemen act I’d maintained for so long. I pity my assistant at work. Years ago I was renowned for my patience, now… not so much. “Why haven’t you done that?” “You didn’t tell me to.” “Sure I did, last week” (didn’t I?). Instead of confronting this issue head-on, it was off to the sanctuary of my toilet cubicle.
You might be wondering why I’ve not mentioned home so much. Well, thing is, as I’ve now discovered, for various depression-related reasons, I’ve not been in the best of moods at home for around 10 years, except for flashes every now and then. Didn’t realise that I was such a grump/dick/strain, until my stay at the clinic. But it was at work where things were becoming most noticeable, and now I was starting to see it.
Over the past three years, I’d heard from other depression sufferers what they had been going through, that therapy helped, and so on. But I wasn’t depressed though, I didn’t need help (or so I thought). I couldn’t ask for help even if I wanted to. I’d tried a few times to find a therapist, which is hard to do (the first step is, of course, admitting you need help). Every now and then – okay, twice in a two-year period – I'd managed to find the courage and energy to pick up a phone and call a list of therapists. Why was I so nervous? Why was this so hard to do? How heavy is that phone?! Great, so that’s four voicemails left. I’m sure they’ll call me back, there’s no need to call them again and again. I feel better already. A year later, no answer, but it's okay. I don’t need help. Or so I thought.
* * *
The two weeks before my breakdown were quite, quite surreal. It was like I was heading towards a final day, by when everything needed to be done, handed over, sorted out. I’d been involving myself in too much extracurricular stuff: work, DJing, event management, work for my daughter’s school, helping friends with stuff; all distractions from the issue at hand and now I had to get out of them, fast. Within a week I’d told everyone I wasn’t able to help them anymore. I wasn’t totally sure why, but it felt as though I couldn’t do it anymore.
I don’t remember why exactly, but I certainly don’t remember it being an admission to myself that I was sick and needed help, although on a subconscious level that must have been what it was.
As Friday 30 June, 2017 approached, the pace increased. It didn’t help that my assistant was having her last day at work that week and handover was being done to me, unbeknown to anyone that it was a total waste of time. I was cracking and now my wife could see it too. By now I’d seen a private therapist for a session, but that was just to say Hi, my name is Zaren. My wife encouraged me to visit a local psychologist's practice on the Tuesday. I said I would (outwardly expressing some form of stability). Despite me walking in there and telling them that I can’t cope with life any longer, they turned me away. I called in sick to work. I made it in on Wednesday, but my wife suggested we visit a day-care centre on their information day. So I left at lunch, went to their info day, expressed my interest at coming there six to eight weeks from now and feeling better (mask on), went home. That week, I had one important appointment left – the test to get my German citizenship.
Thursday afternoon, 5pm. I made it into work, the test place was just down the road. I struggled through work, made it to sit the test, popped back to the office then went home… aaaaaand break.
I remember very little about Thursday, other than at one point I could no longer comprehend what my wife was saying to me. I demanded that she write what she was saying down to me in an email so that I could see it. Then, laying down on the bed, a conversation across the room felt like a screaming in my ear. I don’t remember getting back up that night. My wife organised me a couple of addresses to try for a therapist in the morning.
* * *
Friday June 30 2017: unable to cope anymore I drove in search of therapist No.1 on the list. Hidden somewhere behind some other buildings, I finally found it. “Closed until July XX”. That was pretty much the final straw. Thankfully, my wife had written down a second address, this one a short drive back into town. Upon arriving at the residential street which was home to the second therapist, it appeared that there were no parking spaces. Yet another boundary between me and help. I continued to look, albeit driving twice the speed limit, thrashing up and down the street like a madman.
That’s when the unbeknown actions of my friend Kevin saved me. In his “Torchlight” book, he’d written about landing at St. Hedwigs Hospital in Mitte on the day of his breakdown. I’d bought the publication not two weeks earlier. I only managed to read a few pages, but I’d seen the name and now it was in my head. Somehow I managed to put the address in my navigation and drove the 20 minutes to the hospital. To this day, I still have no recollection of that drive, none at all. All I remember was standing in the reception and uttering the words “Ich kann nicht mehr [I can’t anymore]".
If you can take anything out of this, let it be that you start to speak about feelings, thoughts or problems. Find a way to communicate them. Even if it’s sending people texts, it’s a start.
What I’m left with now is the same laptop I started with, but the hard drive is virtually blank, save for a few images, a handful of documents and a smattering of memories. Some of the programs still work, but run a lot slower than before. So:
Talk with someone before your hard drive fails.
Stuff that helps
Cloud Hands (A Tai Chi standing meditation).
Activate the Qi. Twenty minutes is good.
Do whatever you can manage
Go a Practice to share? Get in touch
Five helpful things we discovered this month
OTR is a mental health project for young people in Bristol and South Gloucestershire
Jonny Benjamin's book The Stranger On The Bridge is out this month on Pan-Macmillan
Vitamin B is important for mood and energy. This supplement is really good
Maison De Choup offer T-shirts supporting Young Minds
Torchlight System made a ”Loveboat" (above) for the fantastic This Little Boat project
Thanks For Reading