'My Mad Fat Diary' Author on the Messy Reality of Surviving a Breakdown

Rae Earl writes about the way breakdowns rumble like a storm in the distance for weeks and months—and how they finally arrive in your brain and crush you.

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Aug 14 2017, 1:39pm

Photo courtesy of Rae Ear

Blame my breakdown on a hedgehog.

Well, don't. Of course it was a lot more complicated than that. A thousand moments thread together to make the intricate tapestry of a mental collapse. Mine was years in the making.

The problem with thinking you're the devil or God or a god for a lot of your life is that the job comes with a great deal of anxiety. Stopping wars and plane crashes by touching things a certain number of times, preventing my pet cat getting hit by a car by praying—it was all my responsibility.

Then there was the ordinary stuff, like school. Being a god always got harder at exam time. I created endless rituals to ensure an exam pass. My time would have been better spent revising but that was sense and my brain was mainlining non-sense.

The waiting for results killed me too. I had no control. I scribbled on my bedroom wall predicting my results as if to make them fact. My mum found "Just give me C's!" graffiti tucked under stray flaps of paper decades after my exams had finished.

Stress translated into endless hypochondria. I was dying from every disease going. Appendicitis, meningitis, rabies. Fear upon fear. A layer cake of neurosis.


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I wasn't divine or dying. I was mentally ill. My mum cried on a wall in Peterborough. It's not easy to watch someone you love disappear into madness. And I had gone. That's when they put what was left of me in a psychiatric ward.

When you've had a breakdown, you have to work your way back so everyone asks the same question.

"When did all this start?"

It was the question I could never really answer.

People want a moment. A clear trigger. That precise time when you lurch from wellness to illness. The professionals look for it because they want to help you. A reason. A dreadful experience. The lightning bolt in your head that flattens you out.

Breakdowns aren't usually like that though. They take a scenic route. They rumble like a storm in the distance for weeks and months, and then they finally arrive in your brain and crush you.

Psychiatrists would ask it as I fiddled with a legless Barbie. Someone in a group therapy session would toss you a bean bag and ask you the same question. I'd give an answer. This thing. That thing.

What best explained it was that time with the hedgehog.

As a teen I walked at night a lot. Less people. Less abuse about my weight.

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I saw them outside an old people's home. A group of geriatrics crouched over something. A tiny bent circle. About five of them. They stopped me. A small lady stared at me and pointed at a terrified, static hedgehog lying perilously close to the road.

I asked them to get me a carrier bag. I picked it up (it was like holding a hairbrush), put it in a garden and they thanked me.

I walked off and looked back. All the old people had disappeared. Gone. Vanished. It was a test. A divine test. Those old people were probably angels. Sent to see if I had compassion to wildlife. It was all a test. Every waking moment of my life was an examination. I was being watched.

That's what mental illness does.

I shared this incident with a counsellor. They explained that these old people were not angels testing me. The hedgehog was just a hedgehog doing what they do when they are frightened. Curling up in a ball and playing dead. What I was doing in human form. Sharing the odd thoughts and the shameful feelings allowed me to start getting well.

After a breakdown you slowly you find your way back to reality. Recovery is real but it is not overnight. One time, I kicked leaves to "Orinoco Flow" by Enya in a state of euphoria, convinced I was cured and strongest person alive. I wasn't.

There are still ups and downs but I have found good ways to cope. Good mental health is a lifelong commitment. Like how you look after your body by eating well and exercising, you have to do the same with your life. Every life is testing. We have to work out what makes us mentally healthy and make sure that our heads are cared for.

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Years later, I was walking home from work and an old man asked me to help him save a hedgehog.

"It's just a coincidence," the healthy part of my brain told me.

And it was. Another hedgehog and my sanity was saved.

Rae Earl is the author of My Mad Fat Diary, a bestselling book that was later turned into a BAFTA-nominated comedy. Her new novel, It's All In Your Head, a memoir-guide to surviving mental illness, is out now.