Welcome to the first of my personal self checklist of Am I Having a Breakdown or Do I Need Food/Water/Sleep? Before we launch into it, I need you to know that this hasn’t been run by any medical professional and is strictly my own set of red flag searching questions for myself. These reflection questions are the product of my own experience, maybe we overlap, maybe we don’t. We’re different people! Who am I to tell your body how to have a breakdown?
I also need you to know that this post contains lightly detailed but fairly specific descriptions of dissociating, routine maintenance in relation to food, and repetitive thinking. Please take care if these are triggering topics for you.
When Was My Last Meal/Hydration/Sleep?
In high stress or high focus/hyperfocus periods, I don’t eat or hydrate or sleep the “standard” human amount, and it means that I’ll be much more likely to have a breakdown. If it’s not one of those reasons and I still can’t or don’t do any of those things, it’s likely that something else is bothering me and my depression/anxiety is manifesting because of it.
This is an extremely important first question for me - are the things that I’m doing the cause or the symptom of what’s happening? Is there one particular thing that I’m doing less of than the others?
People affected by depression often talk about not being able to sleep, not able to get out of bed, or both at the same time. This is a huge factor for me - if I’m having trouble falling asleep, it’s likely that I’m anxious about something that I need to find the root of and bandaid as well as I can. If I can’t get out of bed, it’s likely that I’m depressed and need to address what’s probably an interpersonal issue that I’m having.
Not being able to eat, or forgetting to eat or hydrate is mostly something that happens in relation to my ADHD. At one point in my life when I lived the majority of my time alone I had to set up alarms for at least 2 meals in the day (of my 5 alarm daily limit - more on this in a different blog post) and even then would forget one of them and end up passing out. My mother had started sending me meal replacement shakes from before I started having this problem, which were a lifesaver when I started living alone, especially because I also often forgot to get groceries on time if I was chasing a university deadline.
Am I Dissociating Right Now? Where Is My Body? Am I Safe?
This set of questions will probably seem weird to people who are able to stay aware of themselves. Dissociating is not like daydreaming (which is what I used to think I was doing), where your mind drifts off and you think about something else.
The easiest way to describe what happens in my mind when I dissociate is a dial on a series of settings that all happen at once, occasionally slowly but mostly almost immediately. I begin to hear a ringing or white noise kind of sound that gets louder while ambient sounds around me get softer, I stare at fixed spots without focusing on anything (often away from what’s bothering me or at my hands if I can’t get away), my vision narrows down to one spot directly in front of me (I call it tunnel vision but I'm not sure if it's actually termed that), and I often need to sit down because I’m no longer steady on my feet (if I’m lucky it’s happening while I’m already seated and also sober so that I don’t literally run away, which I've been infamous for in the past).
If I feel that dial in my brain box being touched, I need to go out of my way to ask myself the second 2 questions because bringing those thoughts into my conscious mind is important to establish what I want to do, instead of reacting to emotions that make me do things I don’t actually want to do.
I would say that most people who have known me from the last few years (especially those of you who knew me in Europe in 2015, R.I.P. my memories of that year) have witnessed me running away, which happens when I dissociate while drunk. I’ve always said that I’m 100% a flight person when it comes to dealing with pain or discomfort, and all my usual social niceties are gone when I’m drunk. If things are spiralling, I’m probably not even drunk because I want to be, because I won’t enjoy myself and will probably cry. But I’ll do it anyway. Big yikes, am I right?
Where Are My Thoughts?
Another big one. Those of you who are familiar with mental health memes would have probably seen variations of the concept of anxiety making you worry about what everyone thinks about you while depression is making you worry that no one cares at all to think about you.
Over the last few months since my ADHD diagnosis I have been able to slowly work on identifying which parts of my depression/anxiety are related to ADHD things and which parts are related to my Trauma. It’s been eyeopening, to say the least, and I’ll go into it more some other time but here are some of my Red Flag Thoughts from both ends:
People are, or one particular person is disappointed in me, even though I haven’t done anything wrong (or I’ve made a small mistake), and I spend hours thinking about this without being able to stop
Hypothetical scenarios are suddenly at the front of my brain space, things like what if one small action 5 years ago was different, would I be happier? Would I still have depression?
I miss the Old Me, so looking at photos and being sad about it feels justified even though I am better off and happier now more than ever
Where are my keys? Ad nauseam. I’ll start checking and rechecking my keys, sometimes up to 5-6 times in 2 or 3 minutes. This usually happens in the morning on my way out the door and I will most certainly be late because of it, but I have to check or I’ll cry (and I'll probably cry when I eventually get to work late anyway)
The Classic Too-Short-Still-Good Haircut
Over the years of various manic pixie dream girl tropes in film, it’s become a cliche to get a dramatic haircut in the midst of emotional turmoil. Regardless, my hair shape and cut has been increasingly central to my overall feeling of identity since I started cutting it myself 10+ years ago, so when my sense of self feels threatened by whatever kind of distress I’m going through, I dramatically change my hair. If it's an overwhelming need to be someone fresh and curated, I'll actually go into a hairdresser.
I do actually also enjoy having short hair but the process of keeping it short is annoying at best and expensive at most, so usually I'm somewhere in the middle of growing it out.
These things individually don’t necessarily mean that I’ll be close to risk taking or big soul wrenching cries or any of the other things that happen to me during a breakdown, but observing if there’s a combination of and frequency of each is a pretty good indication. A lot of brain things seem to be like that - traits individually don't mean you have the stuff, but if it's a lot of them and they happen often, then maybe go and have a chat with a mental health professional.
If the Bad Stuff happen increasingly often with additions of other Stuff, it’s likely my ability to cope is wearing thin and I’ll need time off from “Regular Life” things like work or social engagements to both identify the source of my overwhelming emotion(s) and/or take care of my emotional wound(s). If I don’t take the time I need off, then the breakdown(s) will likely brew into a full blown episode period, which is where the heavier risks and danger is.
It’s been years and years of getting too close to get to this specific red flag list. I hope it can help you identify your own.
We'll be ok,