The Importance of Complete and Total Mental Breakdown

mental breakdown

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life” – Thoreau, from Walden

Your neighbour quits his job and moves to Hollywood to try his hand at acting. Your sister relocates to Penang to raise a baby in a shack on the beach. Someone you know moves to Kyoto to become a ninja.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably watched others make great sweeping life changes and thought to yourself all the reasons this is not possible for you. You may even have a list that looks something like this:

Why I Can’t

I dropped tens of thousands on my education; Why would I change careers now?

I have a lease and an apartment full of things; How can I travel?

My student loan payments have reached epic proportions; How can I take time off work?

I worked on this list for years. It grew and grew. My limitations grew bigger and more insurmountable with each passing year. I kept a second list as well. This second list was potentially more dangerous than the first, since it only further justified my immobility with things over which I had no control.

Why Others Can

They don’t take life seriously. (Hollywood? Are you kidding me?)

They have no debt.

The have parents or a trust fund to pay their way.

They’re single and fancy-free.

They don’t have the responsibilities I do.

As my list grew bigger, my life grew more entrenched. What were once minor limitations (a $1000 visa bill) grew to epic proportions ($50k in student debt). I began working against myself, trying to prove to others the myriad of ways in which my life was exceptionally difficult; I enrolled in law school, I chased ambivalent men, I starved myself down to a perfect 110 pounds.

Anyone with an ounce of sense could see where this was headed:

Complete and Total Mental Breakdown.

Lots of people have these; maybe everyone, at some point in their lives. Life offers us such a delicious array of catalysts for change, does it not? The Complete and Total Mental Breakdown though, is a personal favourite.

Think how many lovely life changing adventures have started this way. How many bestselling books have you read that began with the protagonist climbing out of utter darkness? Visit the travel memoir section of your local bookstore and observe the same beginning to so many fabulous adventures: Wild, The Lost Girls, Eat Pray Love.

It happens every day. People extract themselves from the most disagreeable situations and create whole new sources of light and goodness that never existed before.

Which is exactly what I did. After my Complete and Total Mental Breakdown I did almost every single thing on my ever-expanding list of “Things Amy Will Never Do.” I dropped out of law school. I sold all my stuff and sublet my apartment. I travelled to faraway lands. I had wildly inappropriate love affairs. I swam in the ocean every day for months at a time.

In retrospect I wonder if the Breakdown is something we do intentionally. Faced with a desperate situation, do we not back ourselves into a corner on purpose, get ourselves so desperately tied down with loans for things we don’t need, jobs in grey offices on ugly streets, houses in very proper but utterly boring suburbs?

Once you get backed into a corner, the only way out is up. Total innovation. Complete reinvention. No one can judge you for it when you’re up against a wall. When you have ugly purple bags under your eyes and an unsightly ribcage poking out of your oversized t-shirt, who’s gonna judge?

Fortunately there’s another way. What I’ve figured out is this: You are responsible for your own life. That includes your actions and your reactions, the flux of your emotions, the job you work at and the balance of your bank account. The whole shebang.

It seems trite to say, but you can do anything if you want it bad enough. Since coming back from overseas, I often talk with people about where I’ve been, what I’ve done and who I’ve seen, etc. (I’m rather boastful, I must admit, a habit I intend to break in the very near future. After this article, surely.)

Almost always this conversation is met with the same response. “I’d love to change careers/travel/do something extraordinary too but…”

Aha! Have I been there, my friend. It seems human nature to set the possibility of change outside yourself. If I had a different job, I’d be able to do X. If my wife wasn’t afraid of flying, I’d be able to go to Y. If this, if that. If you, if me. It’s all pretty much that same thing.

You can start today by becoming aware. Awareness is the first step to change. Had I known what I was doing, Complete and Total Mental Breakdown may not have been necessary to propel me out of the disagreeable life I was living.

Every time you say, “Yes, but…,” every time you say, “I can’t…”; catch yourself. Is this an actual limitation or is it a perceived limitation? And before you apply the former too liberally, remember: Terry Fox ran half-way across Canada with only one leg. He ran the equivalent of one marathon every day. Canada is a big-ass country. It’s huge.

If the cancer hadn’t spread to his lungs you can bet he would’ve run the whole way. Death, it would seems, is an actual limitation. And yet Canadians run the “Marathon of Hope” every year in Terry Fox’s name so even that is debateable.

Next time you consider your limitations, do me a favour and consider Terry Fox first.

What are your limitations, perceived or otherwise? Have you ever been bogged down by a seemingly insurmountable roadblock only to realise it was a complete illusion?

Photo by Cia de Foto

25 thoughts on “The Importance of Complete and Total Mental Breakdown”

  1. Yes, I’ve had these circumstances. I’ve been teaching my clients to meditate all along so simply so that they can better align to their lives and understand that quitting is not situation or subjective.

    We take a lot of decisions when we’re not in alignment with the happy side of our lives and those actually, those taken up during the negative state make us further depressed and into the trouble.

    I’ve learned something over the years – never take decisions when you’re unhappy. Make up your mind, get in to mood, and then decide if that thing still counts in your life. If not, leave it. If yes, a little pain is worth it.

    1. Agreed! I’m late responding because I just got back from 10 days of silent meditation at Vipassana. What a change you experience when you can see the world clearly. Wonderful to know you are teaching this too.

  2. Wow. Seriously. Your blog have helped me. I am today, in a depression. And I hate my life for being so dull. I don’t like my scholarship. And I want to study abroad. But everybody think I can’t because of my dissability. I have a disorder called Borderline and Autism/Social Phobia. And Yes, I am very dependent on people. I hate it! That’s why a lot of people could consider it’s a too big step for me!

    So that’s why I want to change today….

    I am a very depressed person, a lot of days, because I hate the way I live. I don’t like the place where I’m living. i don’t like the school where I’m at. I don’t like the way I act during the days. I just don’t feel happy and it’s terrible believe me…. I just really need CHANGE. So badly. And the baddest part is, I need to change myself…

    I will make a list what I want to do… And this year, 2013.. I WILL do ALL OF THEM.

    I will even book a flight to the other side of the ocean to Canada. I will study abroad. I will write a book, I will sing lots of songs for producers. I will go to the Gym… Anything that makes life more pleasurable.


    1. I feel your conflict, Saskia. Truly. As I just mentioned to the previous commentator, meditation has really helped me in working out my own phobias and “disabilities.” If you can get into the roots of what you are feeling, then you have a place to work from . I did almost all of the things on your list and they brought about great change in my life. Keep on fighting the fight, Saskia.

  3. You write so powerfully! Your words are poking me in the “I’m too old, I’m stuck, I can’t do that” place.

    And I still don’t see the path to action, the way to manifest the first of those items on that list. But I’m looking…

    Thanks so much.

    Love and light,

    1. Thank-you for your generous compliments, Sue. I recently completed a meditation course at Vipassana and you’d be amazing how many people of ALL ages were there starting over, starting again, fights epic battles and jumping hoops. We all have it within us. It’s the starting point that can be tricky, I agree. Keep looking!

  4. I think I missed some of the steps or requirements here. How were you able to pay for the travel abroad?
    I have 4 children, a mortgage, a job that doesn’t pay enough to rise above poverty level. I do have a supportive husband who would institute change with me and my children would as well. How do you do it without the resources though?

    1. Hey Jennifer,

      Thanks for your question. I completely sympathise! I wrestled with the question for a long time too. I had a little money for a plane ticket and put the rest on my credit card. When I arrived in Australia, I had about $500 in the bank: not much at all. Fortunately, minimum wage is higher in Australia (about $20/hr) and regional positions often include food and lodging. Not only was I able to have a fabulous adventure, but I was also able to pay off a few thousand in debt!

      Of course, I didn’t know that when I left. I was just flying by the seat of my pants. Funny how many things are provided for you when you have a little faith. If it’s just a trip you’re after, you could try volunteering and couch-surfing. It’s great for all ages and the internet has plenty of info to help you do it at little cost.

      I don’t have children. Undoubtedly you’ll have to get creative there. Just recently I read a story of a couple who sold their house, bought a sailboat and used the rest of the money to sail around the world with their kids while home-schooling. Pretty neat, huh? With a little research you’ll find stories like this are a dime a dozen.

      All the best. Please keep me posted. I’ve love to stay in touch. (Click my name for links to my website which includes contact info).

  5. Hi Amy…. Good post…. However, I don’t agree with few things here, all the roadblocks are not complete illusions. In my case I am the backbone for my parents and my sisters, I need to support them financially, emotionally. Any thing I do, affects their life. I can’t even think of taking a break from job for few months to give my complete time to my little daughter, though I miss her so much when I am in office. I need to give almost equal importance to my parents, sisters and my daughter. I can’t think of investing any money to start few things which I like to. These things are few examples, there are many other things. This is not an illusion. This is the path of the journey which I have selected. I like it or not, I have to travel through this.


    1. Many any of these stories about people who give it all up to travel and live a carefree life, while they can be inspiring and fun to read, they also seem to imply that the only way to make changes to improve your life and mental state is to go big! Quit your 9-5! Sell all your possessions! Run away to Bali and live with the locals! I take from this article the highlighted line, “you are responsible for your own life,” and apply it to my own life circumstances. Like you, I have responsibilities to my elderly parents so I know I’m not going to move across the country any time soon. But I am going to take courses at a local college so that I can learn a new skill set and apply for jobs in the area that will make me happier. I don’t have a lot of extra money to spend on travel, but my work is sending me out of state for a conference, so I will spend whatever free time I have exploring the local area and enjoying myself. Life is what you make of it -the little changes can add up to make a big difference.

    2. Hey Roopa,

      Thanks so much for your comment. We must all seek our own truths. I should specify that, for me, those were illusions. For others they can be very real. They were also very real to me when I felt them.

      The fact that you are here on this blog tells me you are probably on your own path of personal growth and seeking more peace and harmony in your life. It’s different for everyone. I hope you find what you’re looking for, Roopa, and I will be thinking of you. Please feel free to contact me anytime if you want to jam out some ideas for positive change.

  6. A+ on ditching law school. I feel like most people go not out of an actual interest in law…but because they want to “get a skill” that they can “get a job in”.

    Bravo on making the leap to empowering yourself to make meaningful change in your life. Everything is hard for everyone, even if it’s a bit easier for some (even the guys with the connections and money are going to struggle to be successful). It’s up to us to make the leap. Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. My brother had a “nervous breakdown” once. It was not good. I think we need to be careful in confusing true mental health issues with self-improvement issues. I don’t think people want to have a “breakdown” of mental health proportions.

      1. Thanks, guys. I will definitely keep you comments in mind for next time. For what it’s worth, I did struggle with a bonafide mental illness for several years leading up to my eventual emancipation, which was accompanied by a healthy dose of therapy. While I use the term “mental breakdown” loosely, sickness is not a joke. Thanks for keeping me honest, both of you.

  8. I’ve learned something over the years – never take decisions when you’re unhappy. I think we need to be careful in confusing true mental health issues with self-improvement issues.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *