Life after a breakdown: letting go of the reins
Recovery can mean many different things for people. In 2019, following the breakdown of her relationship and being signed off from a job she loved, Sarah decided bold steps were needed to find her path back to health and happiness. This is her story.
I’m Sarah, 38 and recovering from a mental breakdown. I had experienced periods of deep depression and anxiety since 2016, with episodes of suicidal ideation, and attempts at taking my life. After a new low in November 2019, I got help, made positive life changes, and took the plunge to travel solo and reset. I’m now ending this year in a much better place, in a new home with my rescue cat Sparkle. Here’s my story.
If the world sees 2020 as the annus horribilis, my personal hell came one year early. I had been reeling from PTSD following two miscarriages and an ordeal with a partner struggling from drink and drug misuse.
Back then I was a wreck, staying at my sister’s house following a breakdown in a toxic relationship. Signed off sick and spaced out from new medication, I was barely getting out of bed, utterly exhausted from a year of panic and pain.
I was grateful to be receiving daily visits from the crisis team and seeing a brilliant clinical psychologist. In his words, whilst I may be starting from ground zero, the phoenix would rise from the ashes. But, I had a lot of work ahead of me. I needed to completely focus on my recovery. The communications job I’d recently started had to be put to one side, and I had to stop fighting myself. I let friends and family take care of me for the first time. Exhausted, I spent my day doing calming, mindful activities like colouring, writing in my journal and going for walks. Slowly those walks turned to gentle jogs when my energy increased. I needed to repair the damage with self-soothing. Something I’d neglected for far too long.
With the help of the clinical psychologist and understanding Professor Gilbert’s Compassionate Mind theories, I started taking real care of myself. Perhaps it was this that spurred me to be bold, and on December 20th I booked a one-way flight to Melbourne, where I had a close friend and cousins.
I wasn’t sure what I was heading to. I just knew I needed to seek physical space far from the environment of my breakdown; the home I had been living in with my then partner. The home where I had been desperately trying for, and then lost two babies. The home that had been the scene of pummelling panic attacks after my partner arrived back drunk, high, verbally and emotionally abusive. Once, that home had held so much promise. We’d lovingly restored the fireplace, laid out new tiles, set out our dreams for the spare room. It was now slowly suffocating me.
“It might not make much sense. Someone clearly in an incredibly vulnerable place, deciding to dust off her backpack and head across the world on her own. But in that moment I felt a sense of calm.”
I knew I had to take this chance or I’d end up treading water for who knows how long. I had nothing keeping me here anymore. I wasn’t trying for a family, my relationship was in pieces. I had been signed off sick from the marketing communications job for so long I couldn’t feasibly go back to that temporary job. I was all I had left.
I had to get the crisis team to release me, but once they knew I was being met by friends and family down under, they gave me their ‘blessing’.
Armed with a letter from the Psychiatrist explaining why I had stashes of medication on me, I made my way to Heathrow. For forty minutes I avoided nervous glances on the Picadilly Line as my overstuffed backpack threatened to flatten neighbouring passengers. By 6pm on 31 December, I was checked in.
The departure date was a deliberate decision. I wanted to fly out across the time zones on new year’s eve. To wake up on the other side of the world in 2020. To slide the shutters on 2019, minus the ceremonial celebration.
Was I nervous about travelling solo soon after receiving daily visits from healthcare teams and round-the-clock help from loved ones? Of course I was. But I’d travelled alone since I was 17, and knew this was a way for me to prove I was still me, still capable. I was also arriving to the comfort of a close friend who was out in Melbourne. I had family in this city too – cousins and an Aunt, so I knew I’d be in safe hands for the first leg of my adventure.
After a year of trying for a baby with military precision, I had deliberately not planned the hell out of this trip. From the moment I booked the flight spontaneously that day in December, I promised myself I’d try to be as in the moment as I could. After years of recurring anxiety, I learnt that releasing control could make me see life can be lived fully, without micromanaging every minute. If I had a wobble, I resorted to the tools I’d worked on with the crisis team. Things like mindfulness exercises to help me hone in on the (beautiful) surroundings. Or writing three things I was proud of achieving that day in my journal to give me a boost when I was feeling vulnerable. Most importantly, I learnt to show myself compassion every day. If there was something I wasn’t feeling up to doing, I didn’t force it or beat myself up.
I’d not thought beyond my initial few weeks in Melbourne. While I was there, I’d decide my next steps as I slowly built up my confidence.
And build up confidence I did. From the odd stroll around the Melbourne suburbs while my cousin was working, to a full beach day basking in the fierce Aussie sunshine. By the end of the month, I was ready for the next part of my adventure. Truly going it alone in a new country.
"I realised I wanted space and nature, two things that had always helped my mental health. I sought soaring landscapes where I could feel tiny against the backdrop of the wild, putting my troubles into perspective. It was obvious where I should head next. New Zealand."
I’ve been back in the UK for nine months now, but those few months of travel made all the difference for me. Of course, without putting in the work beforehand, and getting myself into a stable place I’d not have been able to go on that adventure. But, it was a big motivator for me. And, adventures don’t have to be about flying to the other side of the world. It could be promising yourself to try something new, or going away for the weekend on your own to focus on a passion like cooking or hiking. Anything that invests in yourself, and makes you feel like you’re worth taking care of is a brilliant way to start believing that you are.
I know I was fortunate to have the support of friends and family, a crisis team who were there for me and the opportunity to travel, but I also know that others in a similar position might not be so fortunate. Recovery is finding what works for you, no matter how large or how small that step. Believing that recovery is possible is so important, whatever that path looks like for you.
Sarah is a mental health campaigner, blogger and member of the Rethink Mental Illness Communications Advisory Board.
You can read more about her solo adventures on her blog Xenaworrierprincess