Am I Having a Breakdown or Breakthrough? Further Reflections on a Depressive Relapse


“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.


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  1. I’ve been wondering how you are doing…I agree that breakdowns can be breakthroughs…my hope is that we continue to build alternatives to the medical model so people have choices about how to understand and grow through their pain…Take Good Care…Thank you for this insightful article.

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  2. When my beautiful 24 year daughter rode away on a bike from a secure psychiatric facility about five days ago, purportedly to escape another six months of being forcibly committed and locked up, where she is medicated by force and/or coercion with toxic neuroleptics, and when she hasn’t been heard from since, I just wanted to crawl in a hole and die. Not knowing if she is dead or alive, not knowing where she is sleeping, if she is on the streets, being pimped out, every horrible scenario wormed its way into my terrified mind.

    I felt so helpless, hopeless, and washed up as if five year’s of being on an emotional roller coaster had finally, irrevocably killed all hope and done me in: her being locked up constantly, running away, the police catching her, taking her to the ER for evaluation, being admitted for agonizing months in a small, private hospital waiting for a bed to open at the State Hospital, staying for an agonizing year at the state hospital, moving at last to a step down facility, only to run away again. Every time she gets caught, they put her on more and more drugs and her spirit seems to depart a little with each new drug added to her cocktail of chemical restraints.

    Part of me admires her courage like the end scene in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ when ‘Chief’ breaks the window of Oregon State Hospital and runs towards freedom. A part of me wishes she would use some kind of discretionary ploy and pretend to comply until somehow she gets off the radar of the state and find a supportive household where she can safely wean off the toxic drugs and return to her baseline. This story is only to illustrate a point about depression. I was so depressed and anxious when I got the news, the only way I could function was to submit to a higher power.

    It worked for a day or so, then I hit rock bottom. I felt like my body, mind, and soul was being put in a meat grinder. I felt wretched and lower than a worm. Absolutely broken. I couldn’t conceive of going to work the next day during our busiest campaign season of the year and honoring all of my commitments in this state, so that night while lying on bed, staring up at the bedroom ceiling, I decided to resign effective immediately from a job that I love, working with people that I adore. I memorized a explanation for my boss and I stategized how I could pull myself together long enough to train a replacement and the quickest way to recruit a replacement.

    Then magically, the next day, my prayer was answered and a giant weight was lifted off my shoulders. I worked from home and experienced a banner day with all of my clients satisfied and oblivious to my personal situation.

    My point is that I think so much depression is related to situations and shifting circumstances. I think the serenity prayer, friendship, self forgiveness and forgiveness of others, including the psychiatrists who unknowingly harm people like my daughter out of ignorance, and most importantly, learning to live in the moment, is how I climbed out of this dark rut. One can only do so much to change the mental health system.We may not even see all of the changes we long for in our life times. Justice for our loved ones who have been harmed or abused by the mental health system may seem elusive. Yet we are alive and as long as we have hope we are alive. As long as we continue to dream of a better mental health system, keep our heads held high and exercise dignity, we are human.

    The bible says that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. I can’t think of anyone is more marginalized and discriminated against more than people who experience episodes of ‘psychosis’.

    Anyone who has suffered the indignity of being stigmatized and institutionalized and forcibly injected with Haldol for trying to flee one of these nightmarish psych wards is first in line to experience heavenly rewards and a peace that surpasses all understanding. It’s only fair.

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    • This is a heartbreaking story. However, perhaps it would be better to aim at educating and informing rather than forgiving those psychiatrists who ” ignorantly” and “unknowingly” harm poor vulnerable people like your daughter. Time to hand articles from this site by people like Dr. Sandra S. or Dr. Healy to these “doctors” and tell them to educate themselves.

      As a parent, are you not in a position to discuss removal or tapering of the drugs destroying your child.
      How is it possible you have no recourse and there is no place of safety and recovery for your child??

      When I look at the frivolous spending in society, where music stars or movie stars throw $300,000 birthday parties for their 18 month old baby, I am just speechless.
      Donate the money to fund places of recovery for those who are suffering. Is the $3 million dollar price tag for a splashy celebrity wedding not obscene? But I guess there is nothing sexy or appealing about mental illness.
      I just read that James Gandolfini is being hit with a 55% tax on his estimated 70 million dollars worth of assets. After all his chats as Tony with Dr. Melfi, it is too bad in real life that he did not donate $30 million to innovative mental health programs. But, given how much it would take to fix this broken, underfunded service as it exists, I guess that would be a pittance.

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      • We are trying. I’ve been told that I need to develop a relationship with the county commitment agent and maybe with the judge both of whom trigger overwhelming fear and anxiety for me. The public appointed attorneys are always ignorant about the issues raised by Robert Whitaker and I haven’t found a way to educate an attorney in the 1/2 hour allotment. The system hides my daughter’s commitment dates/locations from me and if I do find out, they often switch the time without telling me. Plus, I’m scared to play my hand and burn what may be the only bridge left to help my daughter escape psychiatry: guardianship. An underground railroad is needed for people like my daughter with safe houses. But harboring individuals who are going through acute drug withdrawal and psychosis at the same time is very very difficult.

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    • madmom, To escape in their face when the pseudo science machine thinks they’ve converted you into the lifelong captured is already ,for your daughter a peace that surpasses all understanding in her living life in the here and now. If you can, when you talk to her again , help her stay escaped.

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  3. Laing popularized this idea in his most underrated and most well known book The Politics of Experience (1967). A year later Julian Silverman wrote “Shamanism and Acute Schizophrenia,” published in American Anthropologist. Anyone who has read on shamanism can’t help but see the parallels between the neophyte shaman’s initiation and psychotic “breakdown.” Mircea Eliade
    wrote before Prigogone but the point was the same. “The return to primordial chaos” makes possible a new creation. The shamanic initiation often involves the experience of having one’s body torn apart
    and then reconstituted. My first book, Madness, Heresy and the Rumor of Angels: The Revolt Against the Mental Health System provided more evidence for this argument. Oddly Szasz wrote the Foreword to my book despite its Laingian strains. (It seems for a few years after Laing premature death Tom’s feelings toward Laing had softened.) I could go on citing more and more evidence. My latest book focuses more on madness and social change, but it does discuss those who saw madness as individually regenerative–John Weir Perry, Anton Boisen etc. The same argument could be made for Douglas’ crisis–although he wasn’t labeled “schizophrenic.”.
    But most people are caught–captured– during this time of vulnerability, or put themselves in the hands of the psychiatric butchers. Thus as I wrote “yesterday’s shaman is today’s chronic schizophrenic.” Whereas a breakdown used to be a prelude to a breakthrough, and frequently still is–as people from Laing to Whitaker have shown the mental health sysatem defines any crisis as symptom of a mental illness and inducts the souls in crisis into careers (Goffman) as chronic mental patients. No one in grad school even reads Laing or chaos theory today. The patients are drugged, indoctrinated, terrified and cajoled into
    accepting the identity of the chronic mental patient. Until the psychiatric-pharmaceutical complex is destroyed, the extraordinary spiritual potential of our great spirits or of modest but keenly sensitive souls will continue to be destroyed by the “mediocre minds” (Einstein) who are certain that their impoverished vision of human possibility must be foisted on everyone as “reality.” Those who propagate this vision of reality currently have no motive to change–like the MIC, or PIC the PPIC is big business. AS Peter Breggin showed in Toxic PsychiatryPsychiatry made its deal with the Devil in the late 70s. Now it’s up to those modern shamans who escape psychiatry’s clutches to bring the system down.
    Seth Farber, Ph.D.

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    • You wrote “Now it’s up to those modern shamans who escape psychiatry’s clutches to bring the system down.”

      Szasz basically said follow the money, as in “who benefits?”
      Coercive psychiatry gets its money from the Government, the Government has unlimited funds.

      ” government envisaged 350-450 CTOs would be issued … 4,764 people were subject to such orders.”

      The psychiatrist doesn’t pay the taxpayer does, then in public the taxpayer is pissed off at the non-working S.M.I. , so we have conflicts between the working average Joe and the psychiatric-drug-brain addled victim.
      Few blame the psychiatrist for predicting the future, the need of “medication” to prevent a possible “bad” future that has not happened yet.

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  4. Seth, you and Douglas are exactly right on the mark . My experience is proof of it. I have been through it as you both write. It is difficult to express the understanding you come out with when people want evidence based double blind studies that only the corrupt system can afford to conduct even though all their studies are suspect and “evidence based” implies them doing studies on your findings as corrupt as they are.. A person needs to accept the breakdown -reintegration may happen more than once and that it is a natural occurrence considering especially how far south our “civilization ” has gone and find a place somewhere to be supported through the process or at least be in a safe place relatively unharassed . I managed to take advantage of social security disability and then social security. Persistence and determination is the key . When the universe understands what you are trying to do in a persistent and determined focused way over time, help comes to you.
    Best wishes , fred

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