'My life slowly unravels, my mind breaks down. How did this happen?'

You’re wearing a sweater. There’s a small hole in the sweater, maybe in the back, where you can’t see it. The hole becomes bigger as the sweater unravels and you have no idea it’s happening? – you feel a little drafty but you don’t question why? – until you’re standing there wondering why you’re freezing. You look at the pile of thread on the floor and you can figure out what happened. You nod knowingly. “Ah, makes sense now.”

Now imagine that sweater is your life.

It took years for my life to unravel. It happened in such small increments that by the time it was fully a mess it was too late to gather up the strings and make something whole of it again. I just ran around unraveled for a while, not sure how to handle it.

Image: iStock.

It started in 1996, in ways you almost couldn’t notice if you weren’t viewing my life through a microscope. The mess, as I like to call it, eased its way in, making no real marked changes. It was all so subtle, like moving the furniture in your house an inch either way. It ramped up in 1998 and spread like fire until 2002 rolled around and I was in a full-fledged mental breakdown. People around me, people dear to me, they noticed. But not me. I was running around in half a sweater and was telling people I was fine, there was nothing wrong.

This lasted until late 2005. I had an almost 10-year long mental breakdown that caused me to lose sight of who I am, make terrible decisions, nearly neglect my children, and become an angry, brooding monster ready to bite the heads of anyone who challenged me.

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There was no sense of priority in those days; work, mothering, housekeeping, finances; I gave none of them priority because I had no priorities. Life was this flat expanse of dirt that went on for miles, an expanse where nothing mattered because nothing was in front of me. I couldn’t see a year into the future, let alone 10 minutes into the day. I lived in each moment, minute by minute, never thinking about consequences or taking other people or my responsibilities into consideration.

This is what happens when your mental state is unraveling: people will follow you around, picking up the pieces and handing them to you, hoping you put it all back together again. They mean well, you think. They have your best interests at heart, you say. But they’re wrong. You’re fine. You’ve got it together.


But there comes a time when you are, say, lying awake at three in the morning and it comes to you. You feel those little pieces of dangling string. You know it, somewhere in the recess of your mind, that you’re unraveling. Then 3am turns to 7am and things look better in the daylight. You’re going to be ok. You pull that sweater tight against you, or what’s left of it, and you go on not noticing the gaping hole.

Realistic panic attacks are rarely portrayed in films. Watch this scene from YA movie, Perks of Being a Wallfower. Post continues after video.

I had panic attacks, sometimes up to 20 a day. I was in a constant state of anxiety. I would have moments where I could swear my tongue was swelling up, or my throat was closing and I was going to die. I gasped for air. I called for help. “I’m dying,” I’d say, and I’d get a lecture about pulling myself together. I am together. I just can’t breathe. There’s something wrong. We called an ambulance once and the paramedics came and fed me oxygen and lectures about letting my head get to me. I swallowed the oxygen greedily. The lectures went ignored.


This is also what happens when your mental state unravels: you make unwise decisions. Or, sometimes you are at a stalemate with yourself and you make no decisions at all. Everything around you goes blank. Nothing matters. Nothing but taking your next breath, getting through the next minute, hour, day. Agitation and anxiety are what you’re made of. Anything you were before? - ?brave, kind, patient, smart? - ?becomes a shadow that hides along the walls of your consciousness. Everything else takes over. And you let it, you let it become part of you, the anger, the bitterness, the rage you never knew you were capable of.

I married someone half my age, even though I knew it would be a disaster. I became impulsive at the same time I became lethargic. There was a birthday party for my kids I didn’t see because I was on my couch, immobilized by fears, both rational and unreal. I stopped caring about my work, and it showed. I called in sick more than I went to the office.

I became afraid of the world around me and wanted only to be home, in front of my computer, where this other world I built existed. I thought the online world I created for myself would help purge the darkness from my mind but it only fueled the anger and rage and sadness. Yet I immersed myself in it, like this was where I wanted to be. I reveled in my madness, though I would not have called it madness at the time.

Hindsight is a terrible thing. You can look back and see where you unraveled, see the string trailing you along, unwinding ever so unceremoniously, becoming longer and longer while the sweater you’re wearing falls apart. You can’t fix things in hindsight mode. You can’t gather the threads together, you can’t sew up the hole, you can’t just put another sweater on. You can only relive and revisit and feel the pain that comes when you realise that years of your life lay to waste.

Image: iStock.

I missed birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, a bat mitzvah. I missed out on precious time with my family. I missed out on milestones because I just wasn’t paying attention, or I was in my bed, pillow over my head, drowning myself in alcohol and Stabbing Westward CDs.


I rarely left the house and because I had, at the time, a husband who enabled all that, who liked me helpless and sad, I had no real chance of escaping my mind. The panic attacks persisted. The thoughts of suicide were ever present. A darkness invaded my soul and clung on to me like sap on a tree. I alienated people I loved. I alienated myself. I was alone and that made it all worse, that there were people around me but I could not, would not reach out to them to stop the unraveling, even when I became somewhat aware of what was happening. Years later. Years.

My brain had become a sponge that soaked up only the negative, my home had become a tomb, the outside world a hellscape, the darkness of night a prison. There came a time when I wanted to tear out of myself, to escape everything I had become but I didn’t have the energy to do it. So I just gave in. I finally saw that I was wearing what was now a threadbare sweater and I shuddered from the cold but did nothing to get warmer, to make things better.

If reality was a sea, I parted that sea and walked through its dry bed while walls of water lashed at either side of me. I walked that bed for miles, alone, depressed and ashamed. I felt the water. I felt its coolness, I knew that rejoining the sea would make me whole again. But I also knew that if I swam that water, I might drown in it. There was a part of my mind that was cognisant of it all, aware of what my life had become, and kept that reality at bay, choosing instead to live in a world my corrupt brain was feeding me, bits at a time. I lived outside of myself.


For years I drifted in a land where I didn’t belong. It was like living in a dream, where everything was filtered through a haze and I had no control over what would happen. As I unraveled more and more, the dream became deeper and harder to climb out of. I was operating under the pretense that nothing mattered because, in my bent-out-of-shape mind, nothing did. Everything was just a dream and I’d wake up one day it would all go away. I really did believe it would all magically go away, that one day I would just “snap out of it” and not feel drugged, not feel like the only thing I could accomplish well was going to bed.

I lashed out at people. The negativity looming inside me forced its way out of me and I snapped, yelled, berated. Sometimes I ignored. The people around me couldn’t quite figure me out, I had become a great puzzle to them, a riddle with no answer. I wanted to tell them. I wanted them to see. But I also wanted other things? - ?I wanted them to feel the depression, the sadness, the anger, the panic, the breathlessness and the sense of detachment. I wanted them, even for a minute, to know what it was like to unravel.

Cate Blanchett has a breakdown in Blue Jasmine. Image: Tumblr.

The sweater had become completely undone. I was naked, bare. And I knew it. At last, I knew it. It didn’t come suddenly, but gradually. It didn’t come from anyone else, just myself. No one told me. No one pointed it out. They stared, they questioned, they shook their heads, and I don’t blame them for not getting to the point of telling me I had parted with reality, because I don’t think they knew. I think they assumed I had just made a different reality for myself and that was it, I was going to be this way from now on.

I don’t know why reality came back to me. I don’t know why the parted sea suddenly encroached on the dry bed. I don’t know why I decided to gather the threads trailing behind me. The dream-like state cleared.

Maybe it was when I met someone who finally decided to shake me like I needed to be shaken. Maybe it was when I ended a toxic marriage and felt like I could breathe in my own house again. It was like I was filled with poison and I cut myself open and let it pour out of me. I saw a doctor. I got medication. I stopped drinking.


All this is maybe a way of explaining myself to people, of setting up a grand apology where I say I’m sorry for the neglect, the alienation, the misplaced anger and the avoidance. I want to apologise for the missed functions and lack of communication. I want you to know that it wasn’t your fault that you couldn’t heal me or help me. I was beyond that, in a place where only I could help myself. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t you at all. I appreciated the efforts and the love and I understood when you gave up. I gave up for a while, too.

I know there were people who walked behind me, gathering up the threads of my unraveling sweater, trying to repair it as I ran ahead of them, oblivious. That you all stayed in my life is a testament to the unconditionality of your love, and I thank you.

Is an apology worth anything years later, when everything is good and safe and I can talk about this from the safe distance of time? I’d like to think it is.

I still live with anxiety and depression, though they are somewhat controlled now. I still take medication every day. And I still live in fear that I’ll break again, without warning. I’m very careful these days to watch out for stray threads and fix them up before they fall apart.

Click through the gallery below to see how some breakdowns have been portrayed on screen. 

This post originally appeared on Medium and was republished here with full permission.

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