How I Re-made Myself After A Breakdown

I have 23 cousins on my father’s side, but when I was a young boy, Ernie stood out above all others. Ernie was my brother’s age, 8 years older than me, and he was a real farm boy. He was always with my Uncle Charlie on his frequent visits to help Dad out in our early years on our own farm. One day Ernie was helping fit a “quick hitch” to the hydraulic lifting bars at the back of a tractor when the heavy steel implement jumped and cut him above the eye. I cried for ages because Ernie was hurt.

When I was 13 we received a phone call in the middle of the night. It was my uncle (or perhaps aunt) informing Dad and Mum that Ernie had taken his own life. My siblings and I had woken and come out of our rooms in time to understand what had happened, and to see Mum tell Dad that he needed to go and be with his brother.

My father’s response never left me: with eyes wide like a wild cat trapped in the corner of a pen he said “Why, what am I going to do, tell him I’m sorry his boy bumped himself off!”

I now understand that he was in shock and did not know how to cope with his own emotions. But as a boy the shock of seeing and hearing that compounded the confusion and shock that I was feeling.

A few years later when I was 15 that same inability to deal with strong emotions led to an even greater shock to my system in a near catastrophic way that bore many similarities. I discussed the event briefly on the “About Me” page and in my post “People Before Money“, and will not add further detail here.

Many years later, the consequent impacts on me were revealed when I reached a low point as I had to face up to grief at the loss of my career, of hopes of what I wanted to achieve for myself and my family (e.g. home ownership), and even of my original family connections, the strains of which had been growing since I decided not to go back to the farm after completing my undergraduate degree.

In the preceding years the strains on me had been growing inexorably. By the time I finished my PhD I already felt exhausted as for the final pivotal 2.5+ years of that program I had to manage a very difficult relationship with my supervisor. In fact, if it were not for the fact that in that second last year we were on separate continents for 9 full months, through the most critical and most productive period of my research, there is a good chance that I would have quit my PhD program.

I recall saying to my wife that I felt that I came really close to a breakdown then and I never really had a chance to recover. And the threat that was made to my career, which on the one hand drove me to excel in an attempt to create some buffer against this threat, was a continual source of extreme anxiety as I felt as if I was forever walking on eggshells. No it felt like I was continually dancing on burning coals.

After completing my PhD I had a series of professionally unfulfilling roles. All the while I was doing extra work in my own time to keep up a publication record in order to get my research career on track. Then a brilliant opportunity to work alongside JR Bonami in France proved that it is difficult to have everything – the price of taking up the opportunity was an enormous drop in family income (of 80%), severe isolation for me as nobody would talk to me in the lab while I was unable to speak French, and extreme isolation for my wife which left her in such awful shape that I almost declined the opportunity to take a prestigious fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for the following year.

If conditions were difficult in France they got downright surreal in Munich. The first 6 months were productive even though there was little interaction with colleagues as the person I was going to work with had been seconded to another city to work on a project. But about half way through the year I somehow offended a favourite student of the head of the institute and the next day all of my work disappeared from the lab. After a series of meetings the head of the institute suggested that the (histology) technician would continue looking for my work and would let me know if it was found. That night I returned to the institute and found that all of my samples were stored behind locked doors in a long series of store cupboards outside the histology lab. Even though I could reach them from the adjoining unlocked compartment by contorting myself in a way that I could not hope to repeat even a few years later, rescuing my work would have to wait until the final night of my fellowship as they were worthless to me without access to the equipment I needed to process the samples. I informed the Humboldt foundation of developments all the way along, and they were very apologetic, but there was nothing they could do. I spent the final months in Munich working in our apartment on papers and reviewing others’ papers while my wife had an excellent job working on an international project with Wrigley confectionary company.

I said that I “somehow” offended the student, but here is the full strange story if it is of interest.

We were stuck in limbo in Munich. For my career the best approach was to accept the opportunity to work in Don Lightner’s lab in Tucson, Arizona, whose partnership with Bonami led to them being the leaders in the field of crustacean virology. But my wife had personal reasons for wanting to move to Brisbane, many of which she did not even fully understand. To breach the impasse I acquiesced even though I knew that the chances of me being able to continue in my career were not good.

I spent 18 months in Brisbane unemployed, working from a desk at an institute at University of Queensland, furiously writing research proposals for a fellowship and/or research funding, along with trying to prove my worth to the institute as a potential staff member. Universities across Australia have long been full of such unemployed or massively underemployed people with PhDs and Masters degrees – it is an enormous waste of human capital.

Although I had been with the love of my life since 20, and we both desperately wanted to have a family, it never seemed the right time due to the pressure that we had been living under for my career and now I was 34. Just as we decided to try for a family, I was approached to take up a 3 month contract position in Bangkok. I accepted it, but it did more damage to my mental health in that I do not think that I slept well even for the fortnight that my wife joined me, as I heard every creak and groan in my colleague’s apartment – essentially I was a place-holder, and at a local wage about a half of an Australian wage (which was not going to help us to afford to buy a home in Brisbane).

A few months later we were blessed with the news of our expecting arrival, and for that next door to open it was clear that the door must be closed on my career. I knew that the pursuit of my career had done a lot of damage to my mental health, after dancing on those burning coals for 14 years so well as to be considered an emerging world leader in a field that had value to my country. My mind had become accustomed to running at 120% of capacity since I had returned from Europe as it continually whirled to come up with the right plan to continue my career.

The grief at my loss was overwhelming, and the hole that was left in my thoughts was so immense that I fell into a very dark and frightening place of despair. I was warned by friends that I needed to begin to fill that void even before I retired, but my pain felt so great that I felt unable to do that. I think I felt that I needed to experience all of the pain and self pity, to let it almost destroy me.

The weaknesses that had been built into my thoughts and resilience at home before moving to university then came into play. These strains pulled at every fibre of my security. Home prices in Brisbane had doubled in the few years since we first moved to Europe and it seemed like the pursuit of my career had cost us a chance at ever owning a home. Virtually all family relationships had been straining for years, in part because of the stringency of conditions under which were raised fearing the loss of our farm, and in part because both families struggled with dealing with a mixed culture marriage. Both my wife and I were struggling to find our feet in a new city with all of these pressures. 

After presenting at a hospital, panicked with anxiety at how I could possibly find the strength to go on, I was referred to a psychologist who helped me to confront these fears that I had been avoiding. It was not easy by any stretch, and it was not achieved in one session or even one period of sessions. After that initial breakdown I spoke with her for a period mainly about my professional career, decompressed for a while, and then as I got low again I went through another period of sessions this time to mostly sort out what had happened with my family. 

I have gone through cycles because there were a lot of issues to cover. The psychologist suggested that the shock that I experienced as a 15 year old was so great that it probably manifested a form of post traumatic stress disorder, and that such things often create blockage to development especially when it happens at such a critical age for maturation and personal development.

Twenty years of emotional stunting cannot be overcome quickly, and as the therapist once said to me, there is no need to put pressure on myself to solve everything – some work must be left for the next generation! 

Thankfully, each cycle has been less acute and frightening than the previous, and it is my sincerest hope that I have not passed on too many weaknesses for my sons to work through for themselves. But anxiety and panic is like an addictive disorder – one can never feel cured, and an important aspect of recovery is accepting that it is a lifelong affliction that will need to be managed carefully.

I was always a very shy lad. I don’t really know how much my school friends were aware of it. I was always well liked but I felt unconfident. I remember in high school riding the school bus home most afternoons sitting near the front facing out the window continuously out of fear that the other kids would see my watery eyes seeping as a symptom of social anxiety. I was big and well-built, captain of the rep football team and even captained my region, which is well known for birthing football stars, at the state carnival. My social awkwardness meant that I would rather sit at school with other young lads who were probably a little less mature, and less socially competent, and play sports (mostly football) at lunch time.

When I finished year 12 I asked my parents if I could stay on the farm, but they said that I needed some sort of qualification behind me in case they one day sold or lost the farm. School came very easily to me even though I barely studied, while I never felt competent or interested in any trade skills, so I decided to go to university.

My parents drove me the 275Kms to university in our early 70s Toyota Landcruiser single cab, me on the outside and mum in the middle. I was 17 and 1 month to the day. For the first 6 months I called home regularly, sometimes in tears, begging to be able to come home. My parents stayed strong, even though they surely would have been tempted to weaken, and then I began to flourish socially. When I shaved my head for a university ball towards the end of that first year, they must have realised that I was not coming home soon, and the possibility that I might never come home should have crossed their minds (although I almost certainly would have returned to the farm if I had not met the love of my life in the final year of my undergraduate degree).

Even though I was popular, big and strong, no doubt a “real country boy” for the “city slicker” students who were common in my marine biology course, I was still extremely shy and unconfident behind those shoulders that could bench press 130 kg by the time I was 18 years. In my second year at college a meeting was held with just the first year students to find out why they were not joining in the social activities, and I snuck in with a mate and sat on the billiard table at the back of the room. After some discussion a common theme emerged, and then a young female stood and said that she was afraid of me. Virtually everybody agreed, and the story went along the lines that when walking along the long corridors towards them they found my size intimidating, and that I only “grunted” at them. A senior female friend assured them that I was really a nice guy if they just looked past the muscles. The truth was that I was more afraid of them, especially the girls, and the prettier I considered them, the less able I was to get out any intelligible words.

The ultimate irony is that the young lady who stood first to say that she was afraid of me had a long-term boyfriend, but later that year, on the night that she broke up with him, her friends rushed to tell me what had happened and that she was on a mission to find me!

Admittedly, for the guys I was happy to let them believe of me what they wanted.  For boys the relationship historically did involve some level of intimidation, especially in O Week which culminated in the Fresher Vs Fossils football game, and the football field was my domain. Part of that is to see who has grit and character to earn the respect of the seniors. But people assuming who I was based on how I looked was also a bit of a defense mechanism. The truth is that I was not an aggressive guy. I did do very well at 2 of the 3 “F’s” which marked an archetypical country boy good night out – and the third which I was hopeless at should be plain from above – but I was far less angry than many other lads that I came up against. I never picked fights, but as a big young guy there are often lads with a chip on their shoulder who feel they need to continually prove themselves. I did not take a backward step to that behaviour, and most of the time they were very quick to realise their error, but on a few occasions I came up against other lads that clearly had so much anger and aggression that they would do anything to win and would not stop until either they or I were unable to continue.

I was a mixed-up lad, not an angry mixed-up lad, thankfully.

I carried my pain in a less explosive way. My bombs tended to blow up internally in me, creating continual and profound sadness, and lingering self doubt. I remember as a teenager I asked my family at the breakfast table once whether anybody else woke up every morning feeling sick in the pit of their stomach. 

These were all symptoms of the pain that I carried but I had never addressed or even acknowledged until that visit to the hospital. They had undermined me for over half of my life, and had robbed me of contentment and joy. I knew that I had to come to terms with the events of my life to become the father that I desperately wanted to be to my unborn child, and to continue to develop into the best husband I could be to my beautiful wife.

In those first few years after the breakdown it literally felt like I was thinking through mud. Actually, through molten copper as the wiring in my brain had overheated due to the over-revving, never managing to gain traction, causing everything to shut down as in a burnt out electric motor. 

I was extremely fortunate to have the love of an amazing woman who understood what I went through and prioritised me and our family’s wellbeing. 

In this world where we are encouraged to be forever competitive and aspirational, and always on a treadmill, wheels spinning endlessly but never appearing to go anywhere, I learned that the secret to me not feeling anxious was to stop placing expectations on myself. In my role as primary caregiver for my family there were just a few things that were absolutely vital, but even many of them could be flexible based on how I felt on the day. For instance, if I did not get around to making dinner, well there is always another solution – leftovers or something in the cupboard or a quick visit to the shop. 

When I worked professionally I used lists, physically or in my mind, to hold myself to account and make myself guilty when I failed to accomplish every task. In the early days after my breakdown the only time I used lists was when I felt a little confused and muddled, so it acted as security when I was feeling low to give me ideas on things I might want to do.

Being kind to myself mostly meant not making myself accountable to lists of things that “needed doing”. In many ways I now live like the archetypical Italian where the philosophy is the reverse of typical Anglo culture – put off until tomorrow what you possibly can and want to. And given our links into Italian culture nowadays, it was interesting to learn that just how Anglo’s can become stressed by Italians’ apparent unwillingness to commit themselves ahead of time, Italians become stressed by Anglo’s desire and pushing for them to commit themselves to plans ahead of time. It is not in their nature or culture, and for me it works, too.

If I reflect on it, I probably have three levels of priority of tasks (and nowadays I very rarely use lists of any type). There are a very few things that I must do according to a strict routine, like dropping the kids at school; there are things that I should do some time during the day or even week, but if that slips it’s not the end of the world; and things that I would like to do some day but only when I feel like it.

What I find is that I do a lot of those tasks that I would like to do some day – my home and  surrounds are full of those completed projects – but I don’t beat myself up and feel guilty when I let projects slide.

This attitude should not be confused with a careless attitude. Not at all. The nature that led to me being a world-class scientist remains and I still have a strong internal drive to always seek improvement, optimisation, efficiency, and always seek to excel at whatever it is that I do. I just learned to stop kicking myself, concentrating more on the process and effort, not so much the outcome while understanding it will take care of itself, and I have raised my sons in the same fashion.

My ever supportive wife, having seen me at my lowest, understands how I must now work, and even if it is not her style, she actually has been realising that there are very significant health benefits to this attitude towards tasks.

I have learned through my life that people’s perception of me usually has more to do with them than me, and no matter whether it is positive or negative, it often acts to fulfill a need they have for whatever reason. To some I have been a wonderful person of real character and substance who can be depended on, while to others at the same time I have been a terrible person, and in fact the source of all that was wrong with their lives. 

Sadly the latter has been the view of some who under different circumstances may have been very close to me, and I have learned to console myself in the fact that I have at least played some purpose in their lives by being their villain.

I never was the person many people thought I was as a lad. I may have been a big strong country boy, good and tough footballer, but I never was a “blokey bloke”. Perhaps it is my fault that I never set about putting them straight, but my social awkwardness meant that if they assumed that I was somebody not to be messed with then that gave me some buffer of protection. I had never been in a fight until I was 15 when a guy almost 2 years older than me thought he would call my bluff. He was right, it was a bluff, but that day in the school ground he and I both learned that I could back it up in dramatic fashion.

If how people perceive us has at least as much to do with them as it does us, and if authenticity is a rare commodity in adults, well lets just say that genuine authenticity in teenagers is feared by them as much as superman fears kryptonite.

When I returned to my home town while I was studying for my PhD, old football mates would ask whether I was still playing, and my response that I was concentrating on my PhD invariably drew the response “that’s a pity”. On one level it was humorous to me, on another it was an uncomfortable feeling of not meeting others’ expectations based on past perceptions of me.

Now that I have fully set the scene on what led me to have a breakdown, roughly what happened, and what was the immediate aftermath and effects, here are some final thoughts and specific tips on my recovery and my life dealing with the consequent challenges.

One thing that I have learned from dealing with depression, anxiety and panic is the absolute concrete truth in that no psychological state lasts. Those predisposed to melancholy know only too well that happiness is fleeting, as is excitement, and here I have to admit that the breakdown did rob me of the ability to feel excitement because excited energy always gives way to anxious energy in me, so I have had to suppress this emotion. But I have learned to tell myself that depression and anxiety will pass, too, and then the days will feel lighter and brighter again, and that will be even quicker if I can manage to turn things around before becoming anxious about being anxious. That is the insidious nature of dealing with depression and anxiety.

I was introduced to guided meditation as a lad by a body builder from my home town who gave me some tapes which I really enjoyed. Back then I could manage to relax very deeply. I have found guided meditation an excellent way to regain control when I feel quite anxious. Even if I have rarely managed to achieve the depth of relaxation I did as a lad, with practice I always manage to gain quite a good deal of relief and control over anxious thoughts with guided meditation.

The last time I got fairly low, which was quite a few years ago now, I did a course in cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). I found it extremely helpful because I learned some useful physical techniques, such as stomach breathing to calm myself down quickly if I feel anxious, and I learned to monitor my stress and anxiety levels, and then techniques to deal with the thoughts that were creating anxiety. I recommend CBT highly.

The most important takeaway that I would give anybody about my experience – the one thing that I would say if I could somehow send a message to myself at a prior point in time – would be to do everything possible to find the courage to seek help before falling into that hole. Even if I could not bring myself to develop another focus before ending my career, if I ensured that I began talking with a therapist before and regularly during those weeks I may have been able to limit the damage.

For the first few years after my breakdown, it was not only the loss of my career and the personal challenges that I needed to deal with, I also lost a part of myself through the breakdown. I had to accept that I would never be the same person that I was before it. I had a youthful exuberance and excitement to my personality, yes about my work, but also about a lot of things. I lost the ability to feel excitement, and I had to learn to live with a far greater level of background anxiety, or at least a far greater appreciation of its presence.

I felt like the breakdown stripped me bare, so that I was just the core of who I am as a human being. It was frightening, and for many years I felt like I could almost feel that my nails were raw and bleeding, with dirt and muck stuck under them, from fighting my way out of that hole.

I feel that less so these days. Instead I feel mostly proud of myself for achieving what I have.

In many ways I have rebuilt myself, and because I genuinely love who I am, I feel that I built myself back better. It would have been a lot more difficult, and I doubt the result would have been nearly as complete, without the love of an amazing woman to whom I will forever be indebted.

One thing that I accepted early was the importance of learning to talk about myself, about all of the things that made me sad and angry, about how much hurt I harboured for what had happened, even how much I wished things could have been different.

I learnt in those early teen years that a man unable to let out what he is feeling is a danger to himself as well as others, and after my breakdown I learned what was real courage.

In truth I think it is unlikely that I could have avoided some form of breakdown in my life – I just carried too much emotional baggage into my early adulthood. A coalescing of events led me to be unable to continue to suppress all of the pain that I felt, but it was always there and always would have been if I did not deal with it.

Nelson Mandela told us that courage is not the absence of fear but the conquering of it. While I did not manage to find the courage to act before I fell, I found the courage to make myself my own project.

My life, my values, my behaviours, they might not be for everyone. That is the beauty of the diversity of the human condition. But when I see what I have remade of myself reflected in my sons, it is then that I know that I have achieved all that I need to on this Earth, and I have found a profound truth and contentment amongst all of the continual daily challenges.

And it is that which gives me the confidence to share my own solution to what I have termed The Human-Time Paradox, which I now feel ready to complete drafting, and which has never been more relevant in my lifetime given the challenges that humanity currently face and the consequent changing perceptions towards our life and our time that we are all now experiencing.

Oh, by the way, if you are wondering whether Joel Edgerton is one of my 23 cousins, or many more second cousins, or their children, hate to disappoint if you have read this far just to learn the answer to that one question. Is it relevant to your perception of me?…

Dedicated to my beautiful wife. My parents may have provided me with my first “compass” and a good heart, but it is knowing and being loved by you that inspired me, and provided me with the opportunity, to work towards being the best possible version of myself. Thank you. I love you to infinity and beyond.

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2020

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