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How My Breakdown Became a Breakthrough

“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

When I was undergoing the depressive episode that I describe in this website, a psychiatrist told me that I was having a “nervous breakdown.” To me nervous breakdown sounded like a scary term. I remember in the 9th grade one of my friends did not show up for school. I was told that he had a nervous breakdown and had been hospitalized. At that point I told myself that a nervous breakdown was something I never wanted to experience. And yet, here I was in the middle of one.

On the surface, nervous breakdown seems like an implausible term, as the nerves in our body do not actually break during a mental illness. But something else breaks--our ability to cope and to function. Our spirit and will our broken, and the world we knew is shattered. What could be worse than that?

This is precisely what was occurring with me in the fall of 1996. Despite all of my attempts to stabilize myself, my anxiety continued to escalate and I felt myself falling apart. On one particular day, I was being driven around town a friend who 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, teaching young people. Like Humpty Dumpty I had shattered, and I couldn’t imagine ever being put back together again.

Yet, there was a reason for hope. In 1977, Czech physical chemist Ilya Prigogine won the Nobel Prize for 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.” This is the state that most of my clients and I have experienced during our depressions.

Yet, Prigogine observed something remarkable. Out of 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.

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 Segal 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 Segal’s comment. After my healing, not only did I return to my previous level of functioning, but I was able to accomplish new things that I would not have done had I undergone a lesser ordeal—such as writing the book Healing From Depression, teaching classes on depression recovery and running support groups. In other words my breakdown turned into a breakthrough.

Thus, if you find yourself in the midst of a depressive episode, do not despair. There is reason for hope. Tell yourself, “What goes down must go up. In time, my breakdown will turn into a breakthrough.” Like the Phoenix bird, you will rise out of your ashes and experience a wonderful rebirth.

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