At 24, I appeared to have the perfect life. So why did it all fall apart?

At age 24, my life was almost a cliché. Six years of study were behind me, I was holding down a plum job as a lawyer, I was living with my lovely boyfriend, I had great friends and the world was seemingly at my feet.

From the outside it might have looked charmed; in truth it was anything but. I was miserable and chronically ill, my self-esteem was in tatters and I was strung out, constantly panicked and painfully thin.

“I fell apart because I did not cut myself a break. Ever. Not about my health, notabout my work, and certainly not about my mind.”Credit:Stocksy

For 12 months I had been ignoring the worsening symptoms of my autoimmune disease, the heightened state of stress in which I existed, the self-loathing I couldn't overcome.

I woke up day after day, ignored how wrecked I felt and kept pretending that if I pushed aside my misery for long enough, it would go away. It didn't.

It came to a head one night when I fell over at work with what I believed was a spell of vertigo, which developed into debilitating dizziness. It soon became apparent that it wasn't going to pass as quickly as it had arrived. Instead, it gathered momentum, and within a few weeks my life had crumbled around me.

I was unable to work, I moved back in with my parents and I spent four months either in bed or in various hospitals, unable to function.

Physically I felt horrendous – my days were plagued with nausea, dizziness, weakness – and as my head continued to spin, my grip on the world slipped with every passing day. It culminated in depression and anxiety severe enough to warrant my admission to a psychiatric hospital for two weeks.

One day, it seemed, I was a functioning member of society, the next I had been more or less sectioned, barely able to participate in the world.

How did that happen? What went so wrong? These are questions I was forced to examine forensically in the psychiatric hospital, and subjects I returned to regularly in the weeks, months and years afterwards. My nervous breakdown quickly became a landmark in my life that I couldn't – and didn't want to – forget.

The phrase "nervous breakdown" is not used in medicine any more, and it has no agreed-upon medical definition. It's an umbrella term that describes a period of intense mental distress where physical and emotional stress becomes intolerable, impairing the sufferer's ability to function effectively. This description matched my experience sufficiently well – perilously well, in truth – for me to say, unequivocally, that I suffered a breakdown.

It didn't happen because I had a traumatic childhood, suffered abuse or endured anything truly ghastly.

With the exception of having Crohn's disease, which can't aptly be described as a stroke of luck, my hand in life was more notable for its abundance of good fortune.

I didn't fall apart because I had a nasty autoimmune condition, or because I worked around the clock in a big law firm, or because I was a natural-born worrier. I didn't fall apart because I developed anxiety. I fell apart and suffered a breakdown because I did not cut myself a break.

Ever. About anything. Not about my health, not about my work, and certainly not about my mind. The consequences of this toxic habit cumulated over time and were eventually devastating: I unravelled physically, mentally and emotionally because of it.

Knowing I was lucky and privileged only proved to be corrosive. I believed that because I had been lucky in many of life's lotteries, I had no justification for struggling or suffering.

If you are looking for a Cliff's Notes version of how I turned this situation around, it is this: I changed my life because I changed the way I thought. It was as complicated and straightforward as that.

Escaping the clutches of anxiety, which had escalated from moderate as a teenager to major as a young adult, was unbelievably liberating. I came to recognise the relentless expectations I had wielded over myself and, for the first time in my life, I wrested myself free from them. The difference was life-changing.

A decade on, I work as a journalist, editor and speaker. I'm married to the man who was kind enough to ignore my frequent instructions, in the midst of my meltdown, to abandon this ship in search of a more stable vessel. We have three delightful daughters and, chaos notwithstanding, I am a (mostly) healthy, functioning adult.

My 25-year-old self wouldn't recognise me, and the sad and humbling truth is that she couldn't live the life I do. Not because my life after the age of 25 became vastly easier, but because I'm not sure she could sideline the fear and doubt that stopped her from doing what she wanted. The only reason I am able to do that now is that I broke so badly that the only way was up. If rock bottom has anything going for it, it has to be the clarity of perspective and purpose that crystallises in the dark.

Since I started speaking openly about my breakdown, I've been struck by how many people have experienced something similar, or have watched a loved one go through it. My hope is that by being honest about falling apart, others will know they are not alone if it happens to them.

I can still vividly recall each day of the turmoil I experienced 10 years ago. I remember how desperately alone I felt, despite the fact I wasn't actually alone. I had the love and support of family and friends, and the almost constant presence of someone to care for me. But I still believed that I was falling apart in a way no one else could understand.

Now, of course, I know that many, many people, young and old, for different reasons, will find themselves trapped in a place they don't like and can't escape. Not everyone will land themselves in a psychiatric hospital because of it, but life will test all of us.

We will all have the wind knocked out of our sails at some point, and for many of us the aftermath of that won't be fleeting. But we don't always know what to do. We have rituals for celebrating many of life's happy milestones – weddings, births, anniversaries, graduations – yet when it comes to traversing the inevitable troughs of life, the monumentally difficult times, there is very little. We are ill-equipped to cope as individuals, but also as families, as workplaces, as friends, as a community; we don't know what to say or do when people break.

The good news is that even when you break in a calamitous fashion, when you seriously doubt you will ever feel happy or healthy again, it is possible to recover.

There probably isn't a single pill, mantra, diet, yoga guru or acupuncturist who can magically resolve your turmoil (trust me, I tried everyone and everything), and the darkness won't disappear overnight, but it need not last forever. If you, or someone you love, is finding life increasingly difficult, I hope my story can help you plot your way out, even if it's merely by offering hope.

Edited extract from Breaking Badly (Affirm Press) by Georgina Dent, on sale now.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale June 9.

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