I had a pair of nervous breakdowns within the last 12 months. I’ve been trying to find ways of talking about them, but it’s been hard. I’ve been afraid to expose my mental state while I was looking for a new job. I was afraid I wouldn’t explain myself properly, and people would think I was nuts.
I concluded that I needed to do this. Like my site’s tagline has been for years, blogging is cheaper than therapy. I’ve pushed myself to talk about things here that are hard for me from the moment I decided to write seriously. I’ve already disqualified myself from working in any public office by now, so on with unpacking the baggage!
Note: This article gets deep and dark at some points. If you don’t want to read something like that right now, consider bookmarking it for later.
My first nervous breakdown occurred in Boston. I was at a conference that I didn’t ask to go to. I was overloaded with work for several months before that and this trip was going to take a week of productivity away from me without pushing back my deadlines to compensate. I was working 60 hours or more each week for months leading up to that, and my managers ignored my repeated requests for additional help.
I was away from home, which I never like for too long. Home, to me, is Kati and my dog SooCoo. I can take solo trips to visit family, but I don’t like to be away from my normal routine for more than a week generally. I’m perfectly fine being alone too, but I don’t like being around strangers by myself.
I also don’t like failing (not that anyone does). I’m good at what I do. I don’t fail often, but I take it hard when I do. I take it even harder when I feel I’m being set up to fail by people I trust. Too many priorities were at the top of the pile, and I was going to fail at them all. All despite doing everything as I was told: Communicating accurate statuses, requesting additional resources, and even contacting people at the top of my organization to try to get things done.
My mind split into pieces on my last day in Boston. I felt like three different people, depending on what I needed to do at the time. If I was sitting in a conference session, I was trying to absorb helpful information. I ignored everything else. I was only a sponge. My work emails went unanswered for that hour or two. I didn’t think about home, the upcoming holiday trips, or wonder if SooCoo was getting her walks. I had tunnel vision, and the light at the end of that tunnel was the Oakland Airport and home.
I think it was a self-defense mechanism. I’m normally meticulously organized, and I generally do 3-5 things at a time. I feel under-stimulated and unproductive otherwise. But there’s a big difference between doing 1 critical task along with 2-4 non-critical tasks and what I was doing.
I definitely needed to stop accepting other people’s priorities as my own. When I was switching between tasks one mind at a time, there was only one that gave me a burning acid feeling in my chest and stress headaches. It became clear what had to be done to get back to sanity.
I quit my job about 6 weeks before this breakdown. I already had a new contractor gig, but I didn’t really like it. I had a big interview with another company on my birthday, and I was really hoping I got it so I could switch over from contracting. I was stressing myself out because I was wondering if I made a big mistake leaving Message Systems.
Of course, this was ridiculous. It’s probably easy to see from my previous section of this article that I couldn’t stay there. But at the time I was really over-thinking things. In hindsight, I think much of what caused my previous breakdown was left unresolved. I ignored them so I could get back into my comfortable routine again. Working on myself, breaking and re-aligning neural pathways, is hard work.
The piece I left unresolved was my paralysis of choice. What do I want in life? Do I want to keep building websites? Should I change back to design? Should I keep working toward management? Should I go back to school? Should I move someplace that isn’t so expensive?
I went to my interview and did my best, but I thought I failed. The coding questions were difficult, and I didn’t think I got enough of them right to qualify. One of the people interviewing me didn’t even bother to show up. The person that did my last portion of the interview said he had to leave early. These things indicated to me that I wasn’t going to get the job. I was crushed, and I dreaded going back to my contract job the next day without a light at the end of the tunnel.
I had a rough couple of days up to that point. I didn’t sleep well and I wasn’t eating much. After leaving my interview, I stressed out and I could sense myself over-thinking things. I can sense when the mental downward spiral starts its whorl, so I did what I normally do when I need to calm down. I took my medicine. It wasn’t a huge dose or anything; just a normal half-dose I normally do for my commute home. But when I got home I began freaking out.
Luckily, Kati was there. She helped me through it. I was babbling all kinds of weird and frightening things in my existential crisis, and she stuck with me through it. Once I was finally wore myself out enough to fall asleep, she went into her room and locked the door. I was that fucked up.
The next morning we recounted what happened. I realized that in the 48 hours before I took my medicine I had a grand total of 5 hours of sleep. I ate one small meal (a bagel), and drank at least 4 large coffees. Of course I freaked out. It was as if I constructed a plan specifically to drive myself nuts. I felt fine once I slept and made myself a big breakfast that morning.
I trudged through Thursday and Friday, then spent that weekend working out a plan for resolving this baggage.
A few days later, I got a call from the company where I interviewed and received an offer.
What I Learned About Myself
I don’t like most people, and that’s okay.
I resisted this notion for a long time, because I try to think the best of people. And I got a bit scared when I would relate to crazy people in movies and television.
But I’ve come to terms with it. The things that make these characters crazy — and thus entertainment-worthy — are their actions, not their feelings.
I have a lot of friends that I really like. I’ve accumulated the very few great people I’ve met in my travels across the country and they’ve become numerous in combination.
I don’t dislike anyone I choose to be around or talk to. Even if I flake on your party or don’t go out with you all the time, know that I still like you if I say so. I just don’t like crowds, tight spaces, loud environments or traffic.
When I meet a new person, I don’t expect anything from them. I don’t go around trying to make new friends, because it’s depressing to be disappointed. Sometimes it even feels like rejection. I’m okay with myself. I’m fine being alone. I even prefer it to being around people I don’t like.
I’m tired of fighting it. I’m done forcing myself to give new people chances. I’m not required to like a certain percentage of people I meet, and I’m not required to meet a quota of them to choose from.
Life doesn’t need purpose or meaning.
During my breakdown in July, I was unraveling myself in my mind. I kept visualizing my physical components and then unraveling them as well. I was searching for my consciousness. My mind. My spirit. The part of my body that made me. This was my existential crisis.
I was thinking about how people have limbs and other body parts removed but they’re still themselves. I mentally whittled parts of myself away to find a core. If I were just a brain in a jar, would I still be me? I wouldn’t have any inputs (eyes, ears, tongue, nose, skin) to relay information with. Would that change who I am? I wouldn’t be able to communicate with other brains. Would I still be me?
And that’s when things got darkest. I started asking myself what happens if our ‘essences’ aren’t actually in our brains. What happens to people when they die? Does consciousness die with the body? Or do people continue on, existing as a particle floating among our ashes? What parts of me are truly essential? I was simultaneously driven to suicidal thoughts and an incredible fear of death and dismemberment I had never experienced before.
I remember saying to Kati, “This is why people are religious.”
Feeling insignificant sucks, but I’m not beholden to the universe. If I’m just a microbe on this planet, I don’t care if the planet is aware of me. I’m not insignificant to anyone I care about. I have a positive impact on my immediate environment.
If you zoom in or out far enough, you can easily find places where you’re completely insignificant. Perhaps that’s why our biology evolved a singular consciousness. We operate on a plane where we can deem ourselves significant, and worthy of our place in the ecosystem. So I’ll keep myself present on that plane instead of dwelling on how I’m viewed from the outside so much.
The mind is a lot more fragile than I ever realized.
I began wondering how I could know what to do in the world if I couldn’t even nail down what I was. The chaos of the natural world seemed to come to light to me. I saw humankind as roiling piles of independent entities — cells, bacteria, etc. — all working toward their own goals, knowing nothing about what they amounted to.
I began to see myself the way we view muscle cells. Each the same, only meaning anything to us because they assemble a muscle.
And because I started viewing myself from that perspective, I realized how quickly and abruptly a human being can just fall apart. The line between a perfectly sane human being and Charles Manson is much thinner than it seems.
I kept picturing newspapers (I have an old-fashioned imagination I guess) with stories of normal people who snapped one day and went on a killing spree. Workplace rampages, mothers that killed their children, and people who joined suicidal cults. I had always distanced myself from these people, and marginalized them to some weird exception to what humans are like. A faulty model, a failed mutation, an evolutionary dead-end. I saw how people can end up that way when their minds and bodies get pushed to extremes. I related to them for the first time.
I phrased this all very poorly when I was babbling about it to Kati. This is why she locked her door that night. We laughed about it the next day, but I feel guilty about scaring her that night.
I built a failsafe.
I have this weird thing I do with my mind, where I can partition parts of it away from the critical parts. I can wait tables right after discovering that my girlfriend has been cheating on me for months with dozens of other guys. I can smile and make small talk with my neighbors while walking my dog amidst an existential crisis. I can attend a conference and absorb information from it while having a nervous breakdown.
It’s the same way I try to think of things objectively. In programming, we might call this a Virtual Machine (VM) for a test environment.
I don’t want anyone to worry about me based on this article. I’m fine now. My mental partitions keep me from ever taking action in any of the things I was allowing my objective and abstract thoughts to dwell on. If I ever need a break from it, I can usually just distract myself by switching to a stable partition.
I need more sleep now than when I was younger.
The thing that caused my freak out was a lack of fuel. I needed rest and calories. My body cannot be neglected in matters of the mind. After all… I am the sum of my parts. When I came full circle on that thought, I was able to finally calm down and fall asleep.
Because of all this, I’ve gained a newfound sense of empathy for the mentally ill. Many of the homeless people I see every day have gone through worse than I ever have. When the mind is as frail as I’ve experienced it to be, and our mental state can be thrown so far out of whack simply by not having a place to sleep or enough nutrition… It’s easily conceivable that a perfectly normal productive person could end up a ranting lunatic living on the street.
All of these things have led me to a new philosophy.
I need to stop giving a shit about things that don’t actually matter.
When I looked back on these breakdowns, I traced their roots back to a few things:
- Attempting to perform my job to the best of my ability, despite already knowing the task was impossible.
- Forgetting that I have support from my loved ones, and that I don’t have to carry any burden entirely on my own.
- Not giving myself the credit I deserve, and having a negative outlook on my purpose.
- Over-analyzing the nature of the universe, and inflating its importance in my life.
- Thinking that I need a purpose in life, when I’ve known for more than a decade that there was none beyond what we make for ourselves.
None of that stuff truly matters to the point of placing my sanity or life in the balance. I’ve come to this point in my life with a critical combination of luck, support, and effort. I have a wide variety of high-demand skills. I have a ton of friends and family that love me and support me. I’m superhuman. I can work wherever I want. I can say no to people. I can focus my passion on things that warrant it, and exclude it from things that don’t.
I saw this video of Bill Murray at some point during all these occurrences, and it resonated with me:
Because I agree with him about being relaxed in all things, I will not let myself stress out by giving a shit. Especially about work or money. If I don’t want to do the work I’m being assigned, I won’t agonize over it for a year and have a nervous breakdown about it. If I’m not happy in my circumstances, I’ll change my circumstances.
I know other people can keep themselves calm and stress-free while still giving a shit, but not me. If I care enough about something to do it right, that often conflicts with the orders given to me by managers or clients. I have been proven right time after time, but few people ever care about that. They want it done their way.
So I’ll do it. I’ll squeeze as many best practices as I can between the lines, but I won’t go against the grain. If they ask me to do the impossible, I’ll tell them no. If they insist, I’ll put in my 40 hours calmly and get as far as I can. I’m not going to work myself to death because someone writing me a check doesn’t understand what I do.
Because after all, I don’t live to work. I work to live. And I work hard now so I’ll be able to retire comfortably as soon as fucking possible.