How to Be Broken: Why mental breakdown is like a broken leg

At the beginning of May, after a six-month battle with the old black dog culminated in three extremely public, extremely hysterical breakdowns within a week (huge apologies to my colleagues, friends, and the staff at Paddington station…) I was finally signed off work with depression. Having lived with mental illness in various forms for the best part of 18 years, I’ll admit this wasn’t my first rodeo – but it never gets easier. It’s a catch 22: the longer I spend in bed with the blinds closed, watching life pass by in a hideous circus of other people’s Instagram stories and Twitter posts, the easier it is to agree with the internal voices of doubt, disgust and self-hatred which put me there in the first place.

As luck would have it, this particular episode coincided with a broken foot, something I’m much better equipped to handle. Whilst using a wheelchair full-time means I now break bones far less often than I used to, the familiar circumstance of physical healing became something of a guide for the cerebral, and I began to see the parallels between mental and physical recovery as not just metaphorical – but actively useful.

So, if you’re struggling with your own recovery – whether mental or physical – here it is: how to treat a mental breakdown like a broken leg.

  1. When the bone first breaks, everything else stops. All your big plans go out the window; taking life one day at a time, you have to relearn the basics: how to sleep comfortably; how to get out of bed; how to shower, clothe, and feed yourself. The priority at this time is keeping yourself alive and well – there’s no point worrying about the bigger picture until you’ve mastered the basics. The bigger picture can, and will, wait for you to get better.
  2. Recovery takes time, and trying to rush that recovery will make things worse in the long term. Some days it feels better so you try to do more – try standing on your injured leg or going outside – and then the next day it feels much worse. That’s normal, and it doesn’t mean you’ll never be better, but you have to rest. Skipping the rest and trying to power through will only make things worse.
  3. Recovery isn’t linear. There are good days and bad days, and they’re not necessarily in the order you’d expect, but don’t get disheartened. Zoom out. It might be hard to tell day-to-day, but chances are, things are slowly getting better overall.
  4. Lots of people won’t understand how long it’s taking to get better. They’ll be surprised you’re ‘still’ in that boot, or ‘still’ off work. They’re lucky not to understand. Don’t take it personally.
  5. Other people aren’t telepathic. They can’t tell you’re in pain.66d12dc4bd4344ba771278402d1d0990
  6. There is no shame in asking for help. In fact, the opposite is true: it’s much better to ask for help when you can than to silently struggle alone until things get so bad you end up in hospital.
  7. Sunshine is good for you, but the fact that it’s sunny doesn’t mean you can magically whip the cast off or jump out of bed. You might feel better if you can get outside, but try not to feel like you’re ‘wasting’ the sunshine just because your calendar of good and bad days isn’t aligned with the BBC Weather app. Going back to point 2: trying to do too much too soon WILL make things worse in the long-term.
  8. Once the cast is taken off and the visual clues have been removed, even your most caring family and friends will forget you were ever out of action. They’ll expect you to be just as active and resilient as you were before. The fact that they’ve forgotten that doesn’t mean they care any less, or that they’re judging you for not being better, but you might need to remind them that, beneath the surface, you’re still healing.
  9. No two breaks are ever quite the same. Sometimes it’s an easy fix, a couple of paracetamol and four weeks in a sling. Sometimes it takes months or even years to recover. Sometimes the bone is never quite the same again. It’s no use comparing your own broken ankle to the time your friend sprained her ankle, or the time your colleague broke his back, or even the time you yourself broke the same ankle a few years ago, and you seem to remember it healing more quickly, with less fuss, because this is a different break. Our brains and bodies are unique, and that makes them wonderful – but they’re not infallible, and it is neither selfish nor self-indulgent to take extra care.
  10. Even after you’re better, certain things will cause pain in the place where you were broken. Certain activities might make you ache for a few days, or might even cause injury again. If that happens, it’s important to look after yourself and to take the time you need to stay well – otherwise you might well end up back in hospital with a new break.
  11. Mindfulness is not the answer to everything. If someone you know is a bit broken – whether physically or mentally – by all means invite them to a yoga class, but don’t take offence if it’s not for them. Ask if there’s something else they might like to try, and be prepared to listen to the answer.
  12. Even if you can’t face yoga, do your physio – whatever that means for you.
  13. Sometimes you get into a cycle of injury which it feels like you’ll never escape. You start to forget the times you were ever well. But if you’ve survived these things before, you can survive them again. You might need specialist treatment – long-term psychotherapy, or an Exogen machine, or a change of medication. Life might be different now, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. Give your leg a chance. It’s worth it.Grafitti pic

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