“I was 22 when I took an E at Electric Picnic and had a breakdown. I’d had angsty teenage years, but I’d had no history of mental health issues. I had taken drugs, smoked a lot of weed and taken E on big nights out while I was in college, but I thought I was quite moderate. When I was a teenager the drugs message was you’re going to either die or become a prostitute.
If you take a pill and don’t die you think great. I was in NCAD, which is a very intense, competitive atmosphere. I was really high achieving, even though I had this other side to my life. But I was like ‘I’m grand, I just got a first in my degree’.
I definitely think it’s relevant that I did other drugs, that it wasn’t just this isolated incident. However a fair few people who emailed me have said they never did any drugs before and they had one episode. I think the biggest message that needs to be talked about is you’re never going to know your limit until it’s too late.
For about three months from that night I was assailed by horrible, violent thoughts and I had the sensation that the thoughts weren’t my own. I thought is that what happens to people right before they commit murder? I was obsessed that I had been replaced and that my life and my memory were all false. It’s a kind of disassociation thing and it’s really common for people who are suffering with psychosis.
Every waking moment felt so bleak and terrifying and I thought that I’d broken my mind permanently. I thought I was doing a great job hiding it and pretending to be normal. But my now husband, then boyfriend, said ‘no, it was insane to be around you. It was like you’d left.’
When I started to plan my suicide, I did feel terribly guilty for him and my mum. And I think his presence did probably keep me hanging on. That’s the thing about suicide, it is all about people intervening right at that moment.
All I wanted at the time was proof, that you could feel this insane and actually come back from it. Then I meet this guy, *Andrew who’d been hired to replace me at the bookshop, who had had almost an identical experience. I thought I was hallucinating him.
I hadn’t told anyone the story, not even my boyfriend knew the full extent of what I was going through. Andrew gave me real hope and he was really open with me about the medication he was on. I thought ‘well there’s Andrew and he seems like a really functioning person and maybe this could be me.’ He was the proof I was looking for.
In the last chapter of my book I describe when my dad was admitted to the psychiatriatric ward in Vincent’s for psychosis related to early onset Alzheimer’s. There was a guy who I had gone to school with who was on the ward. It was a Sliding Doors moment because I was seeing an alternative future where it could have been me. I knew him when we were teenagers and he was a fantastic guy, he was really creative and artistic. The guy I met then two years ago had been completely robbed of himself.
His diagnosis was a type of schizophrenia, but also drug-related. His dad told me he took some acid when he was younger and smoked a lot. This is the kind of image that teenagers need. They don’t need something unrelatable like you’re going to die, they need something like you’ll have a bit of fun and then you’re going to have no fun for potentially the rest of your life.
My diagnosis was a form of drug-induced psychosis but I think diagnoses are more nuanced than that. I was treated with antipsychotics and antidepressants. My counsellor did Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with me. In my case counselling would not have worked without medication. The thoughts were roaring at all times inside my head and the medication toned it down enough so the counselling could really help.
Someone called me out on Twitter for using the phrase ‘nervous breakdown’, suggesting I was trying to whitewash it. So it prompted me to Google it for the first time, and the result I found ‘an intense period of severe mental disfunction’ does, I think, accurately describe what happened to me.
It’s brilliant that we’re having loads of conversations about mental health, but I still thought I hadn’t really heard my story, and the relevance of drugs. I couldn’t get over the response. When there are days when if someone’s trolling you on Twitter, I can think ‘did I have to go write that book?’ Then I get an email to say thanks which is absolutely fantastic. What’s really interesting is that most – about 80% – have been young men.
When I was younger mental illness wasn’t something that was talked about. A friend of mine attempted suicide when we were teenagers. His dad was away when he did it and a bunch of us went over to clean up. We were 16 or 17 yrs old and we were cleaning up blood in a bathroom and yet none of our parents sat us down and asked how do you feel about this?
I was on the Ray D’Arcy show and I could see Ray blanching when I said ‘suicide as a relief’. And he was like ‘someone shut her up, she’s going to say something and Twitter’s going to go insane’. I think people who’ve never been suicidal find it impossible to tap into what is going through a person’s mind, and understand people could see it as an option.
I have a friend who runs a charity called Suicide or Survive. I think it’s such a really positive message that people who survive are not weak, that they’re really strong, and I really want to change that narrative. I have no idea if recovery is possible for everyone, I think it’s luck, and that you get the right support at the right moment.
I was so lucky I could afford to go to private counselling. I think the public system is a slightly ailing system with great people. But when you’re in the dark of night alone contemplating swallowing pills that 18-month waiting list is redundant.
I go through phases of going back to CBT. I had some counselling during my second pregnancy because after my first son Rufus was born I’d had crippling post-natal depression. When I was asked about history of any mental illness, instead of saying I had a giant nervous breakdown when I was early 20s, I lied. I know they would have been really sound and say why don’t you go and see one of our therapists here.
With compromised perspective I went into real crazy denial about it. I could see that I was having massive disproportionate reaction to becoming a mother. You know the baby blues, everyone telling me the first weeks are really hard and I was still feeling horrendous 60 weeks in. I remember my son’s first birthday vividly feeling like I’d finally come up for air. That a year had passed I was like oh my god I made it.
I think the statistics for mental illness are not realistic. Life is hard, everyone’s just trying their best, everyone has their struggles and we all have degrees of madness is where I’ve come to it in the end.
Sophie White, Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown, sophiewhite.info
Sophie White is a Sunday Independent columnist and author
This article first appeared in Magpie magazine February 2017