“The depth of darkness to which you can descend and still live
is an exact measure of the height to which you can aspire to reach.”
— Laurens van der Post
In my previous blog, “Back in the Dark House Again: The Recurrent Nature of Clinical Depression,” I reported on my recent relapse into depression that began this summer. As I have comtemplated the seriousness of my episode, the question has arisen, “Am I having a nervous breakdown?”
Although the term “nervous breakdown” may seem antiquated today, it was commonly used to describe a major depressive episode during the 1950’s and 1960‘s. Indeed, many of us may remember listening to the Rolling Stones 1966 hit called “19th Nervous Breakdown.”
On the surface, nervous breakdown seems like an implausible term, as the nerves in our body do not actually break when we depressed. But something else breaks — our ability to cope and to function. I have a distinct memory of this during my last major break.
It was the fall of 1996 and I had recently been released from my first hospital stay. Despite all of my attempts to stabilize, my anxiety continued to escalate to the point where I had to quit my job. I became so agitated that I couldn’t even sit down to read a book or to write on my computer. On one particular day, a friend agreed to look after me by driving me around town while he did some errands. At one point he stopped at a store to pick up some groceries. As I sat on the steps waiting for him, I wondered if I would ever be able to return to my previous level of self-expression writing books, lecturing, and teaching young people. Like Humpty Dumpty I had shattered, and I couldn’t imagine ever being put back together again.
Yet although I couldn’t see it, there was a reason for hope — for a breakdown can be a precursor to a breakthrough. This was demonstrated by Czech physical chemist Ilya Prigogine through his theory of dissipative structures. Prigogine showed that “open systems” (those systems having a continuous interchange with the environment) occasionally experience periods of instability. When this imbalance exceeds a certain limit, the system breaks down and enters a state of “creative chaos.”Yet out of this chaos and disorganization, a new and higher order spontaneously emerges. This phenomenon—known as “spontaneous transformation”—has been recognized as the basis of physical evolution. It also earned Prigogine the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1977.
I believe that what holds true on the physical plane is valid on the psychological plane as well. Hence, so-called “nervous breakdowns” can be seen as rites of passage into a more mature spiritual consciousness. As survivor researcher Julius Siegal describes it:
In a remarkable number of cases, those who have suffered and prevail find that after their ordeal they begin to operate at a higher level than ever before … The terrible experiences of our lives, despite the pain they bring, may become our redemption.”
I certainly can identify with Siegal’s comment. After I emerged from my depression in the fall of 1997, not only did I return to my previous level of functioning, but I engaged in new endeavors–writing the book Healing From Depression and running support groups–that I would not have done had I undergone a lesser ordeal. In other words my breakdown turned into a breakthrough. If we could look at mental health crises in this way—as potential rites of passage into a new birth—then we would do much to eliminate the stigma that still surrounds “mental illness.”
Fortunately, I do not believe that I am experiencing a breakdown during the current depressive episode. My symptoms are milder than before, and there are a number of daily activities that I can still carry out. It is like having bronchitis as opposed to pneumonia. Nonetheless, I hope that my recovery leads to its own mini-breakthrough. At the very least, my powers of endurance and perseverance will be enhanced. As the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche observed, “What does not kill us makes us stronger.”
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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.