I’ve been watching a lot of TED Talks on YouTube recently. For those not in the know, TED Talks are seminars delivered to an audience and also recorded professionally, featuring inspiring people from all walks of life who, while talking about their work and life, also comment on the state of humanity at the moment. In a way, they are the kind of seminars you wish you actually had in college all the time. The ones that I have been watching(there are thousands of videos on the TED channel) have more to deal with Psychology and Philosophy since those are subjects I am most inclined towards. Among many interesting and inspiring videos(without the nauseating self-helpish tone that popular inspirational material often has) that I came across was one called “Anxiety: Hibernate, Adapt or Migrate’ by Summer Beretsky, a young, multi-talented, interesting and funny lady who, in a very specific manner, related her own experience of anxiety and how she went through various anxious responses until she “gave up” and realized that quitting was the best decision she made. Her breakdown, being stuck in a job she hated, led to a breakthrough where she took the riskier path and worked on what she was more interested in. I will not go into further details about her seminar but it got me thinking of breakdowns and breakthoughs in relation to each other. A nervous breakdown is a common idea,though I am not sure if it is medically or academically recognised as a condition. It is a most common symptom of again, most thoroughly unofficial but existent conditions called mid-life or quarter-life crises. It also happens after some huge life-event. It can even happen after a prolonged accumulation of stressors and bad experiences when the person finally “gives up”. For Beretsky, however, it was the opposite when a billboard in front of her office actually carried a motivational poster saying “Never give up” which made her not give up even when her job caused her panic on a daily basis.
A nervous breakdown does not usually happen because of a single event, even if it might be triggered by one. Everyone has to experience significant loss at some point in their lives. But, we are largely the sum of the history of our personalities. Our inner world(again not an official term) is not a definable thing and is in a state of constant modification. However, if stressor after stressor is laid upon us, be they large or small, quite regularly in our lives, we are all capable of going over the threshold(the breaking point) at some time, no matter how “strong” we are. Being “strong” is not a constant, personal attribute. Neither is a person who suffers a breakdown or is on the verge of it to be considered “weak”. Emotional strength is when you have personal conviction which are often formed by real motivations in your life. Your determination to brave the storm and reach the goal can stem from ambition or from demands and priorities you may have. A breakdown occurs when one is confused or unsure of how to reach their goals. A lot of people say that they are not particularly ambitious and having a modest home, family and job is enough for them. But, if they were to assess the actions and persistence needed to achieve their ‘ordinary” lives, they would realize that a lot of effort and even luck goes into achieving these modest goals. Everyone has expectations for themselves. They are all different and they go about differently in achieving them. So, a breakdown isn’t specialized for someone who has a more observably demanding ambition, such as an athlete. A breakdown occurs when a series of bad decisions, bad events or incidents of bad luck takes over and life becomes static and one doesn’t realize the next step to take to reach the ideal one set out to meet. Worse, this confusion or seeming dead-end is followed by despair where the ideal not only seems distant and unreachable but one gets confused about whether it was the right goal for them anyway.
So, is a non-technical breakdown really a technically depressed episode? I think it is. There are various levels of experiencing it of course. Like Beretsky, some might continue to be in a social atmosphere and continue to turn up for the activity that causes them to have a breakdown in the first place(though I think, upon further inspection, she might have other tendencies in her personality that contributed to how she behaved in the situation). Others might even fake enthusiasm and continue being in the stressful situation while feeling depressed inside(what Beretsky calls the adapt mode). While some might actually take the migrate option and instead of moving on to riskier ventures like Beretsky, choose to wallow in social isolation and self-pity and spend days, even years being stuck in the mode of past, unrealizable dreams instead of acting upon newer opportunities of either following their previously conceived dreams or making new ones.
Which brings me to breakthroughs, the desired culminations of breakdowns. I would say it was easier for Beretsky than it is for most people. Her breakthrough occurred when she quit her paying job to take up ventures that were closer to who she was. I would say that more than being a cautionary tale of anxiety(and I am not trying to be sarcastic when I say this) she was actually a determined person who had the “strength” to pursue goals truer to herself. Most do not have this clear vantage point of a breakthrough, an Edison bulb in the darkness of a breakdown. It occurs in stories but it does not occur in real life all that often. In reality, most adapt, lead that proverbial life of “quiet desperation”.
But maybe, instead of only recognising the negative effects of a breakdown, what if we tried to see it as a learning period? A period of growth, a period of change, a period where we realize what we had been doing wrong and how to either get rid of it or modify it to our benefit? What if we actually give up on a dream to make way for new ones? Human life is full of possibilities. I am not saying opportunities or chances of getting richer or more successful or beautiful or having happier relationships. Those are the defining posts of our lives but those are also the hardest to reach and never look the same on the other side. I am talking about possibilities, trying new things, having new experiences. Again, doesn’t have to be a textbook example of a hobby or a new job. Frankly, I find both those ideas impractical. When you cannot earn enough to live on, how are you going to be able to takebmusic lessons? And what about other stressors in that stuation of an expensive music lesson where you have to explain your place in life in the mildest and most acceptable way possible to those you are in the class with? The worst example of a breakthrough happens in movies where someone in a dead-end job suddenly decides to spend all their savings to travel around the world. Beretsky was working in a call centre after she got her degree in communications. She quit that job to do things in her field that were intellectually and emotionally gratifying for her. A breakthrough doesn’t have to be about behaving uncharacteristically. If the breakdown period is about learning about yourself, the breakthrough action is about putting that new found self-knowledge to action.
A breakthrough seems the most elusive thing when in a breakdown. However, the only way to reach that release is to sift through all the clues provided in the breakdown that got one to it in the first place. Once you have reached that clarity, only then can you prepare to be out and determined again.