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Chapter 4: self: Virtues of Character

The Importance of Having a Breakdown

One of the great problems of human beings is that we’re far too good at keeping going. We’re experts at surrendering to the demands of the external world, living up to what is expected of us and getting on with the priorities as others around us define them. We keep showing up and being an excellent boy or girl – and we can pull this magical feat off for up to decades at a time, without so much as an outward twitch or crack.

Until, suddenly, one day, much to everyone’s surprise, including our own, we break. The rupture can take many forms. We can no longer get out bed. We fall into a catatonic depression. We develop all-consuming social anxiety. We refuse to eat. We babble incoherently. We lose command over part of our body. We are compelled to do something extremely scandalous and entirely contrary to our normal selves. We become wholly paranoid in a given area. We refuse to play by the usual rules in our relationship, we have an affair, ramp up the fighting – or otherwise poke a very large stick in the wheels of day-to-day life.

Breakdowns are hugely inconvenient for everyone and so, unsurprisingly, there is an immediate rush to medicalise the problem and attempt to excise it from the scene, so that business as usual can restart.

But this is to misunderstand what is going on when we break down. A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction, it is a very real – albeit very inarticulate – bid for health. It is an attempt by one part of our minds to force the other into a process of growth, self-understanding and self-development which it has hitherto refused to undertake. If we can put it paradoxically, it is an attempt to jumpstart a process of getting well, properly well, through a stage of falling very ill.

The danger, therefore, if we merely medicalise a breakdown and attempt to shift it away at once is that we will miss the lesson embedded within our sickness. A breakdown isn’t just a pain, though it is that too of course; it is an extraordinary opportunity to learn.

The reason we break down is that we have not, over years, flexed very much. There were things we needed to hear inside our minds that we deftly put to one side, there were messages we needed to heed, bits of emotional learning and communicating we didn’t do – and now, after being patient for so long, far too long, the emotional self is attempting to make itself heard in the only way it now knows how. It has become entirely desperate – and we should understand and even sympathise with its mute rage. What the breakdown is telling us above anything else is that it must no longer be business as usual – that things have to change or (and this can be properly frightening to witness) that death might be preferable.

Why can’t we simply listen to the emotional need calmly and in good time – and avoid the melodrama of a breakdown? Because the conscious mind is inherently lazy and squeamish and so reluctant to engage with what the breakdown eventually has to tell it with brutality. For years, it refuses to listen to a particular sadness; or there is a dysfunction in a relationship it is in flight from or there are desires it sweeps very far under the proverbial carpet.

We can compare the process to a revolution. For years, the people press the government to listen to their demands and adjust. For years, the government makes token gestures but shuts its ears – until one day, it is simply too much for the people, who storm the palace gates, destroy the fine furnishings and shoot randomly at the innocent and the guilty.

Mostly, in revolutions, there is no good outcome. The legitimate grievances and needs of the people are not addressed or even discovered. There is an ugly civil war – sometimes, literally, suicide. The same is true of breakdowns.

Yet a good mental physician tries hard to listen to rather than censor the illness. They detect within its oddities a plea for more time for ourselves, for a closer relationship, for a more honest, fulfilled way of being, for acceptance for who we really are sexually…. That is why we started to drink, or to become reclusive or to grow entirely paranoid or manically seductive.

A crisis represents an appetite for growth that hasn’t found another way of expressing itself. Many people, after a horrific few months or years of breakdown, will say: ‘I don’t know how I’d ever have gotten well if I hadn’t fallen ill’.

In the midst of a breakdown, we often wonder whether we have gone mad. We have not. We’re behaving oddly no doubt, but beneath the surface agitation, we are on a hidden yet logical search for health. We haven’t become ill; we were ill already. Our crisis, if we can get through it, is an attempt to dislodge us from a toxic status quo and an insistent call to rebuild our lives on a more authentic and sincere basis.

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