A Reflective Journey - From Breakdown to Breakthrough!

by Tina Gibbons

mental health services suffolk

When I was at my worst, during times that could best be described as “breakdowns”, or episodes of psychosis, I experienced a mix of extreme emotions, from anxiety to joy, through to terror, despair and total confusion. I didn’t sleep for days. I couldn’t eat, wash or dress properly and my thoughts didn’t make any sense.

I was convinced that some of my friends had telepathic powers; at times, I thought I was the devil and other times I thought I was Jesus. I believed that if I thought something it would happen, and that my actions controlled outcomes that really I had no direct influence over whatsoever. For example, I knew quite a few people who had lost a parent while they were studying at university. I became convinced that the acquisition of knowledge came at a price and that the price was the death of a parent. It didn’t matter to me that thousands of people attended university and their parents lived. I was convinced that if I didn’t return to Suffolk, either my Mum or my Dad would die and it would be my fault. This triggered a rather long train journey from Edinburgh to Peterborough, during which time I believed that if I drank water my Mum would be okay and if I drank coffee and smoked cigarettes, my Dad would be okay. When I met my Mum at Peterborough station, I was like a little girl greeting her mummy after being apart for years. I went running down the platform, arms open wide, sobbing and crying “Muuuuuum!” On the outside, I was a full-grown adult, on the inside I was a little girl.

Obviously, I was extremely relieved my Mum was still alive. It had felt like a race against time and I had won. I phoned my Dad, he was still alive too - phew - I could breathe a sigh of relief. It didn’t stop there though. I visited my doctor who prescribed me Prozac I think at that point. The following day I felt worse. My Mum had cancelled most of her appointments, but she had to nip out at one point and I was left alone. At that point, I started to become convinced that my entire family were going to die in a ferry crossing on our way to Ireland for a family holiday. I was certain that because I had thought the accident up, it would happen and it would be my fault for thinking it. Soon the whole world would end if I carried on thinking this way! I phoned an ambulance in desperation, because I wanted medication to stop my brain thinking.

From the early symptoms of anxiety to the time I took myself to the hospital, I experienced many other events and emotions, and thought many different things. It’s really difficult to recall everything from memory and when I asked my doctor for my medical notes fairly recently, so that I could check I was writing accurately about dates, circumstances and medication, I was refused (another story for another day!). The scenario I’ve described is the one I remember the most clearly.

This was actually the second or third breakdown I experienced within a one-year period. I did experience a couple more at a later date, when I wasn’t on medication. They were less severe, both came after a relationship breakup, and I managed to navigate my way through what I can best describe as semi psychosis, without medication. I did use sleeping pills at times, to combat insomnia. This seemed to stop things from getting worse. All of my breakdowns were preceded by long bouts of insomnia.

I haven’t experienced anything like it for over 5 years, apart from a minor relapse recently, when I went into hospital for a minor operation and came out dosed up on morphine. That sent me a little do-lally and led to a short depressive episode.

Why Did All This Happen To Me?

I think environment, circumstances and history all play a part in our mental health and psychological wellbeing, so it’s important to set the scene and layout the landscape of my life at that point in time. Only then do I feel able to put my symptoms and experience of mental illness into some kind of context.

At the time of my “breakdowns”, I was 26-27 years old. I was a mature student at the University of Edinburgh studying anthropology, economics and sociology. Within the space of a year, I had quit my job in the finance department of a large organisation, where I’d worked for 8 years since leaving school. I had moved from Norfolk to Edinburgh, leaving friends and family behind. I’d ended a 5-year relationship with a wonderful man, who had been a rock in my life. And I’d moved in to flat share with an American, Belgium, Spanish and French girl - all of whom were amazing women, very intelligent and from completely different backgrounds to me.

In hindsight, it’s actually no wonder that I felt unstable. I had stripped away the essence of everything that I had held to form my identity. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I would look in the mirror, and didn’t know the person looking back at me. It was very surreal. Looking out at the world, I didn’t recognise that either. Everything I previously held to be true and real, was I realised, just a product of what I’d been brought up to believe, representing how I’d been culturally shaped. Studying anthropology and sociology, certainly wasn’t helping to ground me at this point!

I think genes certainly played their part, but in hindsight the process is clear. Life changing events - lead to anxiety - led to insomnia - led to breakdown and psychosis.

What Do I think Of All This Now?

Well it’s debatable isn’t it? It’s obvious that the life changing events contributed to my experience significantly. But I had created the situation myself. I had quit my job. I had moved from one of the country to another. I ended my relationship and entered myself into a degree programme that was far too intense and academic for me, at a University that was in a different league to anything I’d ever experienced before. Were these the actions of a mentally healthy person?

At the time, I was trying to escape depression. I was unhappy in my job and I wanted to do so much more with my life, but never actually did it. The dramatic changes were a result of me pursuing my dreams, creating some kind of purpose to my life. I wanted to make a difference. I guess I just did it all a bit too quickly. Or did I?

You see, no matter how painful my experience of mental illness was, I now regard it more as a breakthrough than a breakdown. I eventually came through the other side, more “awake”, more “aware”, with a much deeper understanding of myself and the world.  My experiences have made me who I am today and I don’t think I would change them if I could.

I wrote a short poem about it, based on the quote by Richard Bach "What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly." You can read the poem here. Beyond Depression

There are many things that have helped me along the way, not least my Mum and Step-Dad and some amazing friends. I hope through sharing my experiences, someone somewhere gains inspiration or at least feels less alone.


I am a butterfly, I will try and remember this when I feel like a lowly catarpilar x
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When we feel like a caterpillar it's hard to remember and believe that one day we will be a butterfly... we need all the reminders we can get :-) Thanks for your comment..

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