I had a job interview today. As part of the process, my interviewers asked me what my biggest strength is. In an act of what I later learned many consider bravery, I told them about my mental breakdown.
I’ll bring you up to speed: I’ve struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember, but on 1st January 2016 I was happy as could be. It was the start of a promising year for me; my partner had proposed two weeks before so we were looking forward to a year of wedding planning and excitement. I had a great job, beautiful home with a beautiful dog, my family life was great. Then, that night, my world was turned upside down when my parents announced their separation, just 5 months shy of their silver wedding anniversary.
In hindsight, I’ve realised that I suppressed all my feelings about the separation, and decided to focus all my energy on making sure the rest of my family were coping and adjusting to the changes an announcement like this brings. I lent on my fiancé for support when I was feeling overwhelmed, but I didn’t take the time to process it and heal myself, I just carried on.
Six months later, my partner deployed with the army and suddenly I found myself without my crutch. I was left coping with fear in my family unit, mitigating numerous arguments about who said what, who was keeping what, and who was living where (being an adult child of divorce is a totally different topic), running my own household solo for the first time and working a full time job without the only coping mechanism I’d taught myself (my partner).
'Before I knew it my day to day life was decided by asking “which option is less scary?"
I could feel myself falling down a spiral, but I was too ashamed of losing the view I’d convinced myself people had of me, the star child, the one that always kept it together, the one people could rely on, you know the type.
I started withdrawing, at first from Social Media, then I stopped texting my friends. I stopped visiting my family and I wouldn’t leave the house unless I was going to work. I’d get to work and I’d break down at the tiniest thing, yet I’d refuse support when offered as I didn’t think there was anything they could do to help. I withdrew in the office, sitting with headphones in, in an effort to make myself completely unapproachable to anyone.
Before I knew it my day to day life was decided by asking “which option is less scary?” I’d still go to work, because my fear of phoning in sick was greater than any anxiety associated with travelling to the office. I’d stopped walking the dog because playing in the garden was less scary than talking him out for a walk. After all, he could be attacked by another dog, he could run away. He’s a rescue dog who can be reactive on a lead; someone could think I’m not in control of him and he’s be put to sleep as a dangerous dog.
When I wasn’t feeling anxious, everything just felt grey; two-dimensional, almost. I was torn between wanting to do everything, but feeling too paralysed by fear and apathy to actually do anything about it. I’d then worry I wasn’t doing anything, and the vicious circle would continue.
One day, it got too much and I left work early to visit a local GP. I took my mum for support, but made her wait outside. I sat in his office and broke down in front of him, I told him I didn’t know what was wrong with me but I knew I needed help and support. Through the tears, I remember him telling me that if my partner being away wasn’t helping, maybe he should get a new job. If my job wasn’t helping, I should get a new job. Like it was that simple; I could just snap my fingers and my love would be home, I’d be in my dream job and everything would be coming up roses. “Come on Beth, why didn’t you think of that? It’s all anyone does, you don’t have real problems!” He advised I take a few days to self-certify as sick and made another appointment for a few days’ time to discuss how I was getting on.
I left the surgery in a worse state than I went in. I felt completely invalidated and as though he didn’t care or believe me. I felt alone, because I didn’t know anyone else feeling the way I did and I thought at least a doctor would try to understand. My mum took me home, made me pack a bag for me and the dog, and I moved in with her for a few days. For the first couple of days I barely left my bedroom; staring at the walls, picking out the specks of paint and making faces. Watching cars fly past the window, wishing I could bring myself to be that free.
I went back to the GP, filled with nerves because of how they made me feel only days before. My mind was racing with a million different ways they could judge me or let me down, and leave me feeling trapped in my own mind for what felt like forever.
I saw a different GP. A GP who not only let me talk, cry and ask for literally any kind of help that would stop me feeling like I did, but he listened. He cared. He made me realise I was suffering with anxiety and depression (a fact I hadn’t actually realised up until that point). He reassured me I wasn’t going to be committed and given electric shock therapy as I initially feared when hearing “mental health condition”, he prescribed me antidepressants, referred me for counselling and provided me with a sick note in an effort to make me take some time off work and focus on myself. A GP, who ultimately changed my life.
Don’t get it me wrong, I was sceptical at first. “What difference are poxy tablets and talking to a stranger going to make to my life?” – I later realised that was the depression talking. I started taking the tablets, and over the next couple of weeks things seemed less monochromatic. I started playing in the garden with the dog, I reached out to friends to see how they were doing. I distinctly remember my mum making a comment, because she heard me singing in the shower. Something she hadn’t heard for months.
I started counselling a few weeks later, it was a group session designed to give a variety of coping mechanisms for trying to manage anxiety and depression. From counting, and breathing exercises, to creating a spreadsheet planning every hour of your day, and making sure at least one task in that spreadsheet was something you knew you had to put effort in to.
Two counselling sessions in, I moved back into my own house. I used the techniques I’d been taught and I worked up the courage to leave the house, just me and the dog.
Counting a number as I inhaled, and telling myself to relax as I exhaled, before I knew it I was at the top of the street. Elated, we had achieved it, but not wanting to push myself too far, we ran back to the house and I called my mum, my sister, and even managed to contact the other half, who was 4,000 miles away and still cheering me on.
That sense of achievement pushed me to try something new every day my that my partner was away. Before I knew it I was adorning the walls of our house with pictures, redecorating our spare bedroom, my dog and I were going on longer, more adventurous solo walks and with each accomplishment I felt a bigger and bigger sense of pride.
I returned to work after 7 weeks absence. My colleagues were astounded at the different person that had returned. It’s been 6 months since I returned to work now; I’m finally feeling confident enough to find a new position to challenge me, and last week was my first interview in three years.
They asked me what my biggest strength was, so I told them.
You may hear the words “mental breakdown” or “anxiety disorder” and see a huge red flag, but I see it as my biggest strength. Because of my breakdown, my partner can deploy all over the world with the armed forces and at the same time I can work a full time job, performing in the top few percent of my team, then come home, look after two German Shepherds and make sure I’m happy and healthy too.
'Thanks to my breakdown, I've found the confidence I didn't realise I'd lost until I got it back'
My breakdown gave me the opportunity to learn coping mechanisms if I feel things are starting to get too much and help me find the strength to carry on on those grey, two-dimensional days - I’m not ‘cured’, they still happen occasionally.
I, along with many other mental health warriors, can show more resilience, strength and sheer tenacity in a single “bad” day by simply getting up and carrying on, than most people can in a month. It's not a weakness, as you may also think. It’s an open door that's lead to a mountain of courage, and strength.
Thanks to my breakdown, I've found the confidence I didn't realise I'd lost until I got it back. Instead of hiding from hurdles, now I have the confidence to jump them. Instead of burying my head in the sand I have the courage to raise my hand, and make myself heard. I continually work to better myself in a way I was too scared to do before, and because of that I was sitting in front of them giving them this answer.
My biggest strength? I live with an anxiety disorder and so far, I’m winning.
Bethany Miller is a 25 year old Social Media Specialist, working in the utilities sector. When not working, her interests include writing, walking her dogs, practising positive mental health and raising awareness of mental health, particularly in the workplace. You can get in touch with Bethany via Twitter or Linked In