If you've ever found yourself hanging by a very fine thread, you know what it's like to feel a breakdown coming on. It's like watching a tidal wave approach; you can see it coming, but it hasn't yet hit the shore.
I speak from experience. I have had two breakdowns -- one after the end of my marriage, and a second one of the career/identity variety. Based on my experience from the first, I handled the second one differently.
I fought the first one. Hard. I saw it coming, but I kicked into overdrive and convinced myself that purchasing things from Ikea for my new apartment was more important than processing what was actually happening. I wasn't going to have a breakdown, I decided. I was going to have a beautifully furnished apartment instead. You can probably guess how that turned out. I had a beautifully furnished apartment...followed by a breakdown.
Miserable though it was, a breakdown is exactly what I needed. A wave of exhaustion washed over me. I slept for days. I sobbed. I rested. I let in a few tried and true friends. Amazingly, once I actually let myself unravel, I felt the fog slowly start to lift.
This is why I handled the second (thankfully, milder) breakdown differently. I knew not to fight it. I knew that it would be uncomfortable as hell, but ultimately cleansing. It's timing was inconvenient - embarrassing even, at a professional conference (which triggered the fact that I was on the wrong career path) - but I felt it coming on and I gave in. Back in my hotel room, with a trusted colleague and friend, I had my big, messy, inconvenient, unprofessional meltdown. It was not pretty. And I felt immensely better afterward.
If you find yourself on the verge of a breakdown, here is my advice: Let it happen. The mental and emotional energy you put into trying to make it not happen will make you sick. Literally. You'll find yourself unable to sleep, unable to eat, suddenly battling illness; the immune system can only hold out for so long when you're in fight or flight survival mode.
Like a tidal wave, a breakdown cannot be controlled. Trying to keep it at bay is not only futile, but actually prolongs your suffering. Let it wash over you. You may fear that it will wash you away entirely, but you will survive. Build yourself a little life raft of support -- you'll need someone you trust, time and space, and the willingness to endure some deep emotional pain. It may get worse before it gets better, but it will get better.
I recently offered this same advice to someone I love very dearly. He fought the idea of it, determined to push through. Then he called me an hour later and asked if he could crash on my couch. He gave himself permission to rest and to process, and he sought a soft place to land. I am proud the fortitude he demonstrated in addressing his suffering.
As I write this, he suffers. The part of me that wishes he wasn't suffering is calmed by the part of me that knows it is a healing process. Painful though it is, wonderful things will be borne of his suffering.
The unbearable end of one chapter will ignite the spark for the beginning of another. He can't see it yet, but the light is near. Eventually he will find his way out of the woods and see the light. You have to be willing to stumble through the woods before you can break through to the other side.
Originally published at Aspire.