The breaking point

The last couple months for me have been pretty heavy. In fact, over the Easter long weekend, I found myself on the edge of a complete mental break-down. And that’s a really pat way of putting it, that doesn’t even remotely explain what happened or what I was going through, but I want to try to describe what happened in my head at that time. Because “mental breakdown” is a really vague phrase, and what happened to me was very concrete and, well, intensely real.

But first, some context: I had been working the same job for nearly four years. It was my first “grown-up” job, and I’d landed it right when I was about to run out of money and have to move home with my parents, by a great stroke of luck. And it was a mildly interesting, and certainly reasonably challenging, job doing administration for a law office.

And let me tell you, on paper, this job was absolutely ideal for me and where I was at in life, and has remained so throughout the years. It paid reasonably well, had benefits (both practical ones like health and dental insurance, and extra perks like free concert tickets in a premium section now and then), and the real kicker was that when I enrolled in a master’s program (which I’ve been taking part-time for the past three years, and is the best thing in my life next to my husband), because I had already established myself as a great worker, I was allowed to cut down to a four-day work-week when my class schedule required it, without even taking a pay cut. It was pretty awesome and cozy.

But, it was also an incredibly toxic environment. I don’t want to get into too much detail on this point, but suffice to say that my politics were diametrically opposed to those of the people I was working with, and I overheard an awful lot of racism, victim-blaming, and general disdain for people who are poor and the mentally ill. My boss also had a bad habit of, when something was stressing him out, calling one of his senior associates into his office and yelling at them (almost always about something someone else had done wrong) until he felt better. I tended not to be on the receiving end of his vitriol, fortunate as I was not to be involved in the legal aspects of the work we did, but I often had to comfort the people who were wrongfully attacked.

Anyway, I hadn’t, strictly speaking, been happy there since the glow of new job, and being able to support myself, had worn off after less than a year. But I had stayed for another three years after that glow wore off, because as I say, on paper it was the perfect place for me to be. As time passed, my dedication to the job started to evaporate, and it reached the point where I would spend half of my day dicking around on the internet and not actually being productive. But by then, I’d figured out how much I needed to do to stay on top of everything, at least enough to not get called out on it. So that’s what I did.

And it started getting harder to get myself to leave the house in the mornings, sometimes. Not so much, that I was ever actually late; just so that I was sometimes not as early as I used to be (’cause that’s how I roll). I was frequently miserable, and spent whole days hating anyone who dared to try to talk to me at work (didn’t they know they were interrupting my lack of productivity?) And I started looking for jobs on and off, but I felt trapped by the sheer flexibility of my hours, something I had only gotten because I had already proven myself in that position. There was no way I would find a job with commensurate pay that would allow me to continue my studies. So I mostly didn’t apply for anything, and just felt more and more backed into a corner about the whole thing. I really didn’t think i had any other options but to stay on for yet another year, until I graduate and find a job in my chosen field (hah! I know).

But then, at the beginning of March, I had some major family drama, involving the hospitalization of a sibling, who was subsequently disowned by my parents, and left homeless (though with a strong support network of friends), jobless, and in legal trouble. I don’t even want to begin on this one, so I’m not going to get into it. Everyone seems to be doing ok now, anyway. (And again, this one of those places where my boss sounds awesome. After a brief phone conversation with my father, I walked into his office (where a couple of my coworkers also were) and, in complete shock, just said “Apparently, my little brother was shot last night?” to which his immediate response was to ask me if I needed money to be able to fly home, because there was obviously no question that I would be leaving immediately and off indefinitely).

My visit home was extremely stressful – I have somewhat strained relationships with both of my parents, and we can really only get along comfortably when the stakes are low, which they obviously weren’t, and the disowning happened while I was a plane back home.

Anyway, after all of that, my daily struggle to get out the door in the morning worsened considerably. I found myself having to stop in the middle of putting on my shoes and sit completely still for periods of time that range from a minute to fifteen minutes, just in order to not burst into tears, for no apparent reason. Every day. I have no idea how I managed to get things done at work, but I still kept on top of everything every day. I was actually more on top of things than I had been in previous years during March. I was mostly on auto-pilot, though, because that was the only way I could function. Whenever something happened that didn’t exactly match up with business as usual (which, honestly, was many times daily, as the work was complex, and all of our clients were mold-breakers) I would react with (mostly internal) uncontrollable rage mixed with sheer exhaustion, which is quite probably the worst feeling I have ever felt in my life. That exhaustion? It was the feeling of giving up, and of submitting to my fate. I didn’t have the energy to be angry, or annoyed. I only had enough energy to do the bare minimum to keep on top of my job. And take the occasional break to cry in the washroom, always for no apparent reason.

And I mean, obviously I knew something was wrong. But I’d had similar stretches of time feeling kind of like this before, especially during busy season, and they’d always passed. And while each time, I hadn’t actually recovered back to the state of productivity I’d been in prior to reaching exhaustion, things did become temporarily bearable again, every time. So, I figured I’d be fine, and I kept reminding myself this was all temporary, and that I’d only be stuck in this job for another year, tops. I could do it, no question. It’d be fine.

Except it already pretty clearly wasn’t fine. I wasn’t just having those moments of paralysis when I was trying to get ready to go to work; one weekend, it took me four hours to get out of bed, get dressed, and get my shoes on to go get groceries. And it’s not like, four hours because I got distracted by shiny things on the internet and fell into a YouTube stupor. I mean, I sat on the edge of the bed with the intent of walking over to the dresser, seriously intending to go get my clothes, for at least an hour (though it didn’t feel like that long). It was as if my brain just got caught in a loop, and couldn’t quite finish the command to my body to move. And each step of the process of getting dressed went like this.

I stood up and opened the drawer of the dresser, and just… stared at it blankly, for I have no idea how long, because I had no sense of the time. I put on one sock, and then stared at the other one in my hands. Once my shoes were on, I stared at the door. It’s like I wasn’t even there any more, I was just a body running on fumes and a memory of consciousness.

The next time this happened, my husband and I were supposed to be going out together (though I can’t for the life of me remember what we were going to do). And this time he witnessed the hours-long process of me trying to get ready to leave the house. And he was really good about it, checked on me, but obviously saw that something was very wrong and didn’t get annoyed or try to pressure me. He sat with me when I was putting my shoes on, and I stopped after the first one and just sat there for a very long time. I don’t know what I said at first, I think I maybe just started crying, but at some point we were just sitting there, and he was holding me, and I said, “I want to go to a hospital.”

This is the point where I struggle to describe just exactly what I was feeling. I was scared, but it wasn’t just irrational anxiety, it was a genuine fear. And I was fearing for my life, though I couldn’t for the life of me, then or now, tell you why or how. But I felt like I was going to die if something didn’t change. Hell, I knew I was going to die if something didn’t change. I suddenly very clearly saw just how unwell I had been, and for just how long, and how slowly and steadily I had been declining until I found myself looking over a precipice, prepared to take that last step over the edge.

I didn’t go to the hospital, in the end. My brain woke up enough to ask the question “what are they even going to do for you if you go?” and I did some research (somehow research is one of those activities that I can do regardless of my mental state; I feel like it’s my version of stimming, the systematic search for information is extremely calming and centring) and found that unless I was a clear suicide threat (and I wasn’t; my fear wasn’t that I would kill myself, only that I would die), the best I could hope for was a referral to a therapist or maybe a prescription of some kind. What I really needed was to for someone to take care of me, and to relinquish responsibility for myself temporarily (which is a very difficult thing for me to do – it was only very recently in my life that I learned to ask for even the simplest kinds of help from other people; I’m pathologically independent) and ultimately my husband was both better equipped and more willing to do that than anyone else.

So I wrote and email to my boss at 11PM on Sunday night, quitting without notice. And I want to be very clear here; quitting this job in the middle of the bust season without notice would have been the one thing I would have told I would never do. That’s four years of work experience down the drain right there. And it involved surrendering financial stability in a terrible job market. I had no idea what was going to happen next. It’s the single most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.

But I started feeling better the second I hit ‘send’. The amount of weight that lifted off of me is inexpressible. I’m not quite fully recovered, I don’t think, but I’ve been rediscovering myself this past month, and my ability to cope with life has seriously improved.

A week after I quit, I joined the ranks of the multiply-credentialed people in crappy service jobs. I’m a retail worker, and I seriously couldn’t be happier about it.


  1. Wow.

    I’m so sorry that you had to go through this, but I’m so glad things are looking up. I felt a similar sense of relief when I left my unbearably stressful lab and consequently quit my grad program. I’m now teaching part time and this summer I’ll probably work retail. And I’m fucking thrilled.

    1. Retail’s pretty awesome, if you’re the kind of person who likes people. I also lucked into a place with a really solid team and a great cooperative atmosphere, so it’s pretty awesome.

      High five for dropping out of the “right way” to success, though. (Your post this week on that was amazing, btw)

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