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5 Lessons from a Breakdown: How to Make Hard Times Easier

Depressed Man

“Never apologize for showing feelings. When you do so, you apologize for the truth.” ~Benjamin Disraeli

Three years ago, at twenty-five, I had a breakdown that stole over two years of my life and almost killed me.

People often think of breakdowns like car accidents—one almighty crash that results in the dissolution of that person’s being. But for most of us, breakdowns are a slow descent into madness. They creep up on you. They change you one small step at a time until you no longer recognize yourself.

You get exhausted walking around the supermarket for your weekly shopping. You have a panic attack because you’re supposed to go out with friends but can’t face them. You’re reduced to tears because even getting dressed feels overwhelming.

I went from someone who was strong into someone I didn’t know; I existed, but I wasn’t there.

I couldn’t leave my bed, didn’t eat, and could barely even talk at times. Though I had suffered with depression since I was thirteen, I had never known pain like this. I wanted so desperately to end my life but had no energy to do so, which only added to my misery.

I felt lost, stuck, and hopeless, and believe I would never find myself again.

Though I’m still left with remnants of my breakdown, including post-traumatic stress disorder, I can appreciate the lessons it taught me, however difficult they were to learn at the time. If you’re going through hard times yourself, you may find these lessons helpful.

1. Let your friends be there for you.

The saying goes that when you are at your lowest point in life, you will discover your true friends, and I am blessed to have discovered mine. The ones who would allow me to Skype from my bed so that we could enjoy breakfast together. The ones who understood when I couldn’t face them for dinner like we had enjoyed so many times before. The ones who would say nothing, but lie on my bed and hug me when I couldn’t talk.

Friends often don’t know how to help you when you’re struggling, so you have to ask for what you need. Allowing them to be there for you in this way can really strengthen your relationship. It shows that you can count on each other when times get tough.

2. Learn to say “no.”

Instead of accepting things that were no good for me, be it other people’s negative behavior or situations that upset me, I began to say “no” and walk away.

If friendships were bringing me down instead of lifting me up, I ended them, and instead of feeling obliged to attend gatherings, I cancelled because I recognized I needed time to look after myself.

We are conditioned by society to believe that saying “no” to invitations or commitments is selfish, but when you are struggling so intensely, you need to get selfish. Learn to look after yourself in the smallest of ways and evaluate what works and doesn’t work so you can eliminate the latter.

3. Stop worrying about what others think.

Mental health (or lack of it) can be a difficult concept for others who’ve never struggled with it to understand.

If you have cancer or physical symptoms, such as a broken leg, you can explain a lot of your mood away, but when your pain is neatly wrapped up in your head and you have nothing to show for your illness, you find yourself having to justify not being able to get out of bed. So I stopped worrying about what others thought.

As long as you know your truth, nothing (and no one) else matters. While we often seek acceptance from others, if you can accept that you are not “crazy” and that you are sick, needing help, it can often take away the guilt and embarrassment you may feel.

4. Become grateful and proud for the small things.

As a healthy person, we really do take the most routine and mundane things for granted; it’s not until we can’t do them that we realize just how treasured they are.

Simple things, such as reading a book, become impossible because you can’t finish a sentence without forgetting the beginning of it. You have no energy to leave the house even when it’s sunny. You can’t bring yourself to go out to dinner with friends you’ve known for years.

When you are able to read a whole page of the book, walk to the shop for some milk, or spend an hour with a friend, be proud of yourself!

Don’t beat yourself up because you couldn’t leave the house; be proud that you managed to get out of bed, even if it was to sit on the couch. Every little thing becomes a big achievement, and one you should be proud of.

5. Listen to yourself and look after your needs first.

Being depressed made me incredibly introspective and therefore, very in tune with my body and what I craved on a daily basis. Sometimes I needed company, so a friend would visit to offer their love and comfort. On other days I needed to be alone and cry until my head hurt.

Your needs will change daily, and that’s okay. Some days you might want to go for a walk in the sun with a friend, but other days you might just want to snuggle up at home with your phone off and a good movie. You should remember that both are different ways of looking after yourself.

As Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” And I did. Every day I woke up (despite not always wanting to) and I survived.

My breakdown changed me in ways I couldn’t hope to put into words. Though I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through the despair that I did, I’m thankful for the painful, yet necessary, lessons it taught me, and the person it has made me become.

Depressed man image via Shutterstock

About Toni White

Toni is a writer, thinker, and traveller with a love of nature and the African continent. She attempts to turn pain into beauty through her writing in the hopes that it will comfort, help, and encourage others to live despite their troubles. She is currently writing at reclaimingyourfuture.com and can also be found on her Facebook page (facebook.com/reclaimingyourfuture).

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  • Peace Within

    Hi Toni, glad you are doing better! All of the points you brought up are really good. This is reminding me of one of my worst times in my life. I wanted to be alone, so I pushed people away. That only depressed me more. When I started to surround myself with the loving people in my life, things turned around. I also learned how to say “no” without guilt. I learned how to listen to myself and fulfill my own needs. After I went through my struggles, I wasn’t the same person. I was stronger and wiser. Now I feel like I can get through anything. Also, Winston Churchill’s quote, “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” was one I lived by. It is amazing how powerful words are and how they can make us feel so much better, when we feel so bad inside. Thank you for sharing. Take care!

  • Sharon

    Thank you for this..I spent 2 years in the same situation. Nobody understands a breakdown unless they’ve gone through it. I’m trying to pick up the pieces and move on. Thank you for being vocal about it.

  • Bullyinglte

    I, myself, found myself in this dark hole for 1 1/2 years. I would call it a mid-life crisis, but it was more of a loss of self-esteem. It was at first hard to understand what had happened and then to try to answer the why. In the end I learned that the only way is through, not around depression and anxiety. It was the hardest I ever worked. I read everything I could and seeked the help of specialists. In the end, I learned so much about me. There is a light at the bottom of top of the well, but it is so hard to see from the bottom. I made large life changes in my recovery, not the least of which was to take care of me first. You can’t help others if you don’t help yourself first. You can’t love others unless you love yourself first.

  • hedi

    I have tried too. It was too hard to pass it but I did it. Hope you best things in the world my friend

  • Stephanie

    I am in the middle of what would be considered a breakdown. I’m 9 months into it and it’s difficult to see an end. Everything seems to take so much energy I don’t have. I don’t even recognize myself anymore. Your article has given me hope. I hope to see the light at the end of the tunnel soon too.

  • JDKM

    You are so very brave to share this! I read the first few paragraphs and they described what I went through a few months ago perfectly. The tips you outlined are great – although I had never explicitly thought about them as a list of guidelines, the things you mentioned are what started allowing me to get better and move forward. Thank you for sharing!

    To anyone who is going through the hard (not to say excruciating) parts of the process, know that it will get better – even though you are sure they won’t. Feel the pain, as eventually it does mean you will feel greater happiness!

  • JDKM

    You will! Just please hang in there, try to get good rest, and take one step at a time. I was convinced I’ll never move out of it a few months back, but after one hell of a battle, I am feeling more happiness and peace than i ever did before i broke down. The author of this is great – hold on to the hope she has shared!

  • Bullyinglte

    Many of us have been where you are and many are still there. Embrace the new you and find the way up the ladder to the light. It is a journey and you will get through it as we all have. Think of depression as a broken bone that needs mending. Don’t go it alone. Don’t sit and let your mind run amok. If you create distractions and find the courage inside to fight your own mind, you will win.

  • Thank you very much for your post and glad you are doing much better. It also brought me to tears for I have spent my life angry and hanging on to the past and not realizing how lucky I am for the people I have in my life. It caused me to look at things differently and to appreciate life because it can change in a moment. I also thank you for letting me know it is ok to say to especially to things and people I do not want in my life without feeling guilty.
    I have also choose from your post to become more grateful for small things and to appreciate where I am while working to get where I want to. I also am happy that through those dark times you managed to reach out to people who love and care for you. True friends will always be there in the worst possible times the others are not worth having around.
    Thanks very much for sharing it makes me realize that I am not the only one who struggles.

  • Dahlia

    Every single word of this spoke to me. Other than work and family get togethers, I basically haven’t left my house for the last 2 years. My bf doesn’t understand why it’s so stressful that I have to mentally prepare just to go grocery shopping (I’m amazed he’s stuck around this long honestly.) We had to move last month, downsized to a small inconvenient apartment from a house I was in for 4 yrs. I didn’t expect to be so effected by it, even coming up with a “pro list” about moving. But my natural pessimism killed that quickly and I’ve been going from my bed to couch since we settled in. I feel immense guilt for not being productive, not wanting to do anything or see anyone, and knowing that I don’t have it that bad so why does living feel so difficult? I know there’s more I could do to improve myself, but i’m tired of feeling guilty because I just don’t want to do ANYTHING. Sorry for the vent. I don’t have any close/good/unbiased/non-judgemental friends to talk to. Writing helps, even if nobody reads it. I enjoyed the article a lot and I’m so glad you shared your experience.

  • F

    I am probably still in the middle of a breakdown myself. To me it’s related to not finding work and not being able to finance my studies, which puts me in the constant fear that I might have to drop out of university soon and going to university is one of my few life goals.. I took a gap year for other reasons, so I’ve known the pressure of having to find a job for one and a half years now.. along with other stuff it makes me feel worthless because I don’t even get job interviews.. probably no surprise since I feel so insecure and withdrawn from everything and everyone. I hope that I will get a job at some point, but it makes me feel like there’s nothing in my life besides the work I have to do for university at the moment, sometimes I don’t even feel like a person anymore..

  • I completely understand the vicious cycle of wanting to be alone and then regretting it realising you want support and love; I’m so very pleased to hear that you allowed yourself to accept it from others. Saying ‘no’ without guilty is a huge step so good for you!!
    We are definitely not the same people after we go through something like this but as you said, it makes us stronger and wiser for it however much it hurts to go through it at the time.
    Thank you for sharing your story Peace! x

  • Dahlia, I’m so very sorry to hear of your struggles right now. I understand the pain you’re going through; truly. The guilt, the ‘I should’s…’ we tell ourselves. Please don’t apologise for the vent; you’ve clearly been bottling a lot up! A house move is difficult under any circumstance but particularly when you’re suffering with anxieties etc so be proud that you even came through the move!!!
    Please try and push the guilt away. Yes, other people do have it worse than most of us but our brains won’t allow us to see it. It doesn’t mean that we’re horrible people because we can’t empathise with others or see their suffering, it simply means that for the time being our hearts and minds won’t let us see past ourselves which isn’t our fault.
    Living feels so difficult because we live in cultures of instant gratification and being told that we ‘should’ be successful the moment we become adults but that’s another post for another day.
    Please try and be kind to yourself. If you manage to leave the house (on something other than errands) be proud, don’t beat yourself up because it’s the first time in ‘ages’. You know where to find me if you need me x

  • I was very much the same as you JDKM! I never realised the things I were doing were ‘guidelines’ until I came through it, looked back and noticed all the things I had done that had helped myself. I’m so sorry to hear that you went through something similar; as I said, I would never wish it upon anyone!

    And in reply to your second paragraph: we learn far more from suffering than happiness however much we chase the latter 🙂

  • Talya Price

    I feel like I go through a breakdown every other year. I am going through one now. The past few months I have dealt with rejections, loneliness, suicidal thoughts, anger, depression, trying to make a career in this crazy industry and sometime I feel that I cannot cope with everything. Life is crazy and I am trying very hard to hold it all together.

    I want to thank you for making this article and you have no idea how it is helping me now.

  • I wish I could take your pain away from you. I know all about the insecurities of not getting a job when you are trying your hardest. I experienced it both when I went home to the UK for a few months and here in Sydney – the endless silence from employers making me constantly wonder what I had done wrong when it reality there is probably nothing, someone else just came along that suited the role a little better. It’s the unfortunately silence that allows our insecurities and doubts to grow.

    All I can suggest is that you keep trying. To tell everyone single person you know, have known and total stranger that you are looking for a job. Please reach out to the most unlikely of people because it does work. I met a stranger, got his details and a few days later he recommended me just for some waitressing work to tide me over.

    Hand in there lovely x

  • If you only remember one thing in life Rose, remember this:
    For every person that is open in their struggles there are more who suffer in silence. You are never alone in your struggles even if everyone around you seems to have their sh*t together (which they usually don’t).
    Never feel guilty for removing yourself from a situation or person that doesn’t do anything positive for you. Being selfish is necessary when you are already struggling; surrounding yourself with negative or unsupportive people is an extra problem you don’t need.
    Even if you’re grateful for the fact that your bed is comfortable and makes you feel safe, it’s something to feel thankful for. I hope your journey continued to brighten Rose!

  • I’m not going to lie to you Stephanie, my breakdown was 2 years in total and even now, as I said, I’m still left with remnants of it but I got through it and you will if you manage to find courage each day just to wake up and keep yourself alive until it’s time to go to bed again. I know nothing about the dark tunnel feels temporary right now. I spent weeks desperately wanting to kill myself but lacking the energy too because I saw no future and no way back to the old me. But you know what? I’m a new me now and yes the breakdown was excruciatingly painful at the time but I am a better version of myself because of it.
    I know who my friends are. I have the strength to say ‘no’ to things or people that don’t support me. And I have the ability to empathise on a whole new level.
    I wish I could give you an end date to your feelings but I can’t. I’m not even going to call them temporary (I despise that word) because I know that nothing about the tunnel you’re in feelings temporary right now but please just keep going. Keep waking up, brushing your teeth and doing whatever you can, able or want to do each day to exist; you will learn to live again one day.

  • I love your broken bone analogy! I completely agree that we need to treat mental health as a physical health problem; we wouldn’t walk on a broken leg without support of physiotherapy and crutches etc so why are we trying to do that when we have a broken mind?!

  • Rest is absolute key isn’t it?! Sleep, physical and mental rest and instead of seeing huge problems, breaking them down to step by step as you say!

  • I am a person who needs to understand the ‘why’ of a situation so I can understand how difficult that must have been for you! I absolutely agree that there’s no point trying to ignore depression and anxiety and that you need to work through them. You have to feel whatever wave of emotion is coming for you.
    You’re right on the point about learning to take care of yourself first because, as you say, how come you look after or love others if you can’t do the same for yourself?!

  • I’m sorry to hear that you went through something similar Sharon. You’re right, a breakdown is very difficult to have others understand without having been through it themselves but there are always people like us to be found if we search hard enough!

  • I’m so pleased to hear that you got through it! It is so very hard so well done.

  • Stephanie

    I want to thank everyone for your kind and encouraging words. It helps me to feel less alone when I know there’s someone out there who understands.

  • Mer

    You have no idea what a great time it was for me to read this… Thank you from the depth if my soul for writing it. Someone I love very dearly doesn’t love me back, and it’s absolutely tearing me apart mentally and now physically. It’s good to read that I’m not alone in periods of fear and anxiety and pain and I’ll get through it.

  • lv2terp

    Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing the darkness that is depression/a breakdown, it really helps to gain perspective for someone like myself that has never lived in that space. I am thrilled you made it through, and you are sharing your experience! hugs! 🙂

  • Peace Within

    I hope you feel better now. There are a million different options in this world. Make sure this career is what you really want. Never sacrifice your health and well being for anything or anyone. Take care!

  • Mark8v29

    I can highly recommend the book called “Feeling Good” by David Burns. Its very competently written, and is much cheaper than therapy or counselling. If you are able to read and enjoy reading, its definitely worth considering.

  • Parker Christina Boudreau

    I have been there myself Toni, and it is a scary place to be. For myself I think that the most important thing is what you mentioned in # 4. I guess that I am a glass-is-half-empty kind of person, and that gets me focusing mostly on what is wrong and lacking in my life, rather than on what I still have. I have a beautiful, healthy family. My kids are happy. I love my spouse. We have two cars that get us from A to B… I always forget to be grateful. But I read somewhere that if we start to recognize those small things, that we can kind of reprogram our brains (over time) to be more positive.

  • dancesexmusichiphop

    Wow thank you for those kind and encouraging words. I needed to see this post today because I have been in that position before and it is taking some time to heal properly. When I do get frustrated or disappointed with my decisions I tend to beat myself up and forget about all of the progress that I have made so I begin to doubt myself.

    When you wrote about taking the most mundane things for granted that struck a cord for me. I have always been a veracious reader but for awhile it has been hard for me to finish a book and it hurt deeply that I couldn’t do something that I loved to do so so much. I would borrow so many books from the library and most of them would be returned back unread or unfinished. Now I have gotten excited reading again and I didn’t even think to be very grateful for being ton finish a book within days like I used to.

    I guess I just need to realize that I am making progress no matter how small it is and that I can keep going!

    Thank you so much!

  • It’s been about 18 months since I began to get better and I’m still recovering so I can understand where you’re coming from!! Beating ourselves up is such a common occurrence it’s scary and unfortunately our brains don’t allow us to prevent it.

    It’s so sad to hear that you lost your ability to read when it obviously helps you so much! Strangely when I get too low I can’t write which is my therapy so I understand your pain. I’m so pleased that you’re now able to enjoy reading again and hopefully taking finished books back to the library 🙂

    Be grateful for every step you take LLG!

  • Thanks for the recommendation Mark! I’m always on the look-out for good and interesting reads so I’ll have a look!

  • Thank you so much for your kind words 🙂 I’m glad I helped you gain some perspective for it!

  • I couldn’t have said it better myself!!!

  • Oh Talya, that sounds so overwhelming. I’m right there with you – I remember the pain so acutely! You don’t mention what career you’re in but is there is any opportunity for you to freelance or offer your skills for free to get your name out there?? I have to wonder if your career is worth it however if it’s causing you this much anguish?!
    Whatever emotions you’re going through my best advice is not to fight them; just accept them (however shitty they may be) and work through them naturally. And when you’re suicidal take the day minute by minute and do whatever you can to stay safe whether that’s staying in bed all day or speaking to a friend or a hotline.
    Much love x

  • You’re very welcome Stephanie. Be kind to yourself in whatever ways you can! x

  • I’m so so sorry to read this Mer. I can’t imagine the pain you’re going through right now. I can’t give you an end date but take each day as it comes and you’ll reach a point where you realise you’ve come through it and every day it begins to hurt a little less x

  • Kirsty

    Hi Toni
    Thank you so much for this. It’s like seeing inside my own mind. Everything resonated. Learning to listen to your own needs is so hard but so important. A friend of mine visited one day. I was torn as I didn’t have the energy to shower and get dressed yet knew I needed a shoulder. I compromised and stayed in my pjs. She couldn’t understand why I hadn’t showered so I explained it to her…every step. Sitting up in bed, finding the energy to stand, getting to the bathroom, remembering why I was there, sitting on toilet to rest and think what I needed to do….I’m sure I don’t need to go on. That was a turning point for us as she finally realised what a struggle the simplest things become. I’m just coming out of my second breakdown. This one has been slightly better in that I knew who I could talk to and be honest with. I set ground rules for communication so there wasn’t that exhausting expectation that I had to call people everyday..a simple text would suffice and if I was having a good day I would call.
    Thank you for sharing your experience

  • I’m so sorry to hear that you can resonate so deeply with my words Kirsty; I’m sorry you’ve been going through it again.
    As you say, it really is the most minute of things we cannot accomplish when we’re going through a breakdown so when we can achieve them, they really are great accomplishments for us!

    I’m pleased, however, that you managed to convey to your friend just how much effort ‘living’ takes when you’re going through something like this. I agree on your communication guidelines too. I’m struggling right now and I find Facebook messaging/emails etc exhausting right now so I simply reply that I thank them for asking how I am and I’ll reply when I’m a little lighter. Great point there Kirsty!

    I really hope you manage to get yourself through this – you know where I am if you need an extra someone! x

  • Oh I’m with you on the ‘glass half empty’ Parker so please don’t think I find being grateful an easy task to achieve but I do think it’s possible. Even if you can’t think ‘wow I’m so lucky to be a dad’, you might just smile at something they do or say and that little smile or burst of joy can be enough to be grateful for in the day even if there’s nothing else.
    I’ve actually been studying mental health and the physical effects recently and gratefulness and mindfullness do, in some studies, appear to show that we can ‘train our brains’ to get a little better…very interesting stuff! 🙂

  • Wave

    I’m interested in your mention of having PTSD after your breakdown. What were a few ways it manifested itself, or other resources on the topic in relation to this context? I’ve suspected it was the sort of thing I have been experiencing after having a severe “functioning breakdown” over the course of the past year. Reading your reference triggered contemplating that possibility again. Thank you for a helpful, well written article.

  • Hi Wave…I’m sorry to hear that you think you’re going through something similar; you have my sympathies. I have PTSD in the sense that I see the person who caused my breakdown ‘everywhere’ (despite now living in Australia – the other side of the world), I can’t smell similar aftershave without feeling sick and stressed, I struggle to have anything to do with hospitals or the medical field in general (I worked in the hospital which caused my breakdown) and even hearing someone with the first name as him will cause the ‘fight or flight’ mode internally i.e. panic.
    If you want to talk over it some more, feel free to drop me an email x

  • memory

    i think this is ok article but it really doesnt decribe a mental breakdown and their are different severities of one and it no breaktrough at all

  • Lee

    I love what you have to say. I’ve been reading several Tiny Buddha sites and they all have a common theme “lean on your friends”. Do you have any suggestions for some one that is going through difficult times and doesn’t have anyone in their life to lean on?

  • drgardner

    How did you get past this? Or have you?

    I have a similar situation. I was abandoned by a therapist and have largely broken down as a result, with similar symptoms of PTSD. It’s been over four years. I’m fixated on it and can’t get past it. Everywhere I go, everything I do brings some reminder, even small, of something she said or did.

  • PJ

    I live with major depressive disorder and have had 4 full breakdowns and 2 ‘mini’ breakdowns in the past 11 years. #4 was a key for me to recovering from the last one. So much so that when other friends are struggling I prompt them to find at least one thing they can be grateful for and when they say they got nothing accomplished I run through a list of questions like ‘did you eat/get dressed/feed your kids or at least ensure they’re cared for’. One of my dearest friends realised after that prompting that she’d actually done a whole lot that day, and felt a bit cheered up.

    It’s not a cure, but it sure helps keep you going when you want to give up!

  • cory

    thank you for posting stop worrying what others think… my mental cognitive function is not up to par and it needs work but people who don’t understand why i can’t just function are not helping me i know I’m not lazy i just need to find a way to beat this.