What does it tell you when it tells you now you grow up?
What does it tell you when it tells you now you be a man?
Tidy your thinking up, finish your drinking up?
Be the Tom, be the Jack, beat the beaten track,
Die the slow death your forefathers died, in fact
Be ever lonely and angry inside of that
Maze of rage and inchoate affection.
Those words are from Melbourne band Augie March. The song ends with: “After the fall, after the crack up, Nothing then? Nothing then.” Nothing, it is true. There is no reward for going through shattering and hell. Not that it is nothing to go through it - it can be all-consuming - but the experience itself is a negation, a destruction. One which exposes a nothingness in us. So what then?
“Emotional breakdown.” That’s not a technical term, but I am writing of an experience, not a diagnosis. I want to speak of its inside, of the fear, the desperation. Many people will suffer a point – or several – in their life where they come apart at the seams. All of us are prone to this, and it is a matter of luck whether the crack up comes to you or not. Perhaps the more emotionally alive we are, the more we are at risk.
Such a breaking down is usually a combination of two things: internal and external stresses. Relationship catastrophes, bullying, job loss, traumatic experiences, these are the external contexts of a breakdown. But not everybody reacts in the same way to the same events, and here is where the internal dimension comes in. Different people possess different psychological structures, and walk in varying worlds of meaning. We possess different architectures, with different strengths and pressure points and can weather different kinds of storms. One person handles relationship break-up well but goes to pieces when they lose their job, and for another it is the opposite. Certain events at certain times will come together like a “perfect storm” for an individual. Certain events constitute psychological bombs for certain people. This explains suicides, but also breakdowns. Many people will not recognise their bomb before it hits. It is only after being shattered that we can look back and begin to make sense. To imagine that you are strong and so free of this danger is to be deluded and arrogant.
To break down is traumatic. To experience one's being succumbing to pressures that break it apart is immensly frightening. To feel that you cannot hold your mind or your life together is terrifying. First you fear for your material survival. Will I lose my job? My home? And perhaps even, will I take my life? Secondly you fear you may lose love and esteem. For human beings secretly hate the sick or broken, even though they deny this to themselves. (The hate is a defence; people want to believe they will not suffer the same fate as others, and so they unconsciously locate the source of the problem in the sufferer, blaming the individual rather than our shared, vulnerable condition as human beings.) Of course human beings are divided souls, and so we are also compassionate. For this reason we disavow our secret contempt, because we would be ashamed to admit it to ourselves. Nonetheless the afflicted can perceive it. To break down is humiliating. And because every person has a degree of that secret contempt in them, and the broken one is guilty of exercising it toward others in the past, they turn it on themselves when they come apart. They hate themselves. Such a person may recognise that they are doing this to themselves, or they might imagine that it is coming purely from others. They feel rejected by the tribe. They fear they may never again function or be loved or respected as they were. They may fear becoming a loathed, broken object. And that takes us to the devastating core of a breakdown with respect to the issue of love and esteem. You may feel ugly as a person. Fundamentally bad. Like an utter failure.
What people need most at all times, but especially when they are coming apart, is others who will help hold them together. A person can repair themselves with the help of others, but the container for that healing is the love and esteem and reassurance which they are temporarily unable to find for themselves. Love is the contrary of the negation. After the crack up? We lay our hands on one another. "You are not alone."
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.