Some time ago, I broke my foot in a boxing class. I’m not even sure how I managed to do it – I wasn’t actually boxing at the time, just doing the warm-up exercise, which involved sprinting from one side of the room to the other when the trainer yelled “GO!”.
I tripped over something (myself? the floor? air?) and landed crumpled-up on my foot. It broke. I spent some time at home, not walking on it and keeping it strapped up and elevated, until it eventually healed.
Nowadays, especially when it’s cold or I’ve walked a lot, I get small twinges of pain in the place where I broke it. It doesn’t affect anything particularly. It’s just an occasional reminder that at some point in life, something was broken, and then was fixed.
Some more time ago, I knelt on the cold tiles of my bathroom floor. A collection of pills was lined up along the side of the bathtub. The showerhead had been detached from its station on the wall and was sitting in the bottom of the bath.
A bottle of Jack Daniels and a razor blade sat next to the pills, on the side closest to me. I was wearing, for some reason, swimming clothes. I think I’d decided it’d be easier to clean up that way.
I’d told my friends I’d be offline for a few days, I forget the excuse I’d made. My landlord would be the one to find me. I’d decided he’d be the least affected by it.
My phone buzzed. It was sitting in the hallway, and I could just about see the display: my friend’s name. It buzzed a few more times. I realised that this particular friend would probably keep talking to me until I replied. If she did that, I reasoned, and I did what I’d been planning to do, then I ran the risk of being found before I’d completed my plans.
So I crawled over to the phone and picked it up. She’d WhatsApped me about a situation that was going on in her life, which was getting her down. She wanted to meet for a drink.
I think it’s fair to say that I have a reputation for dropping everything and turning up when my friends need me. So it would have been weird if I hadn’t replied, especially if I’d read the messages.
I replied and we fixed a time that evening.
I was so exhausted that the thought of leaving the house was almost overwhelming. The only thing that drove me outside was the knowledge that someone else might be feeling this bad, too. And I might be able to help.
We went for a drink. We didn’t talk about much, really, just discussed her situation and then caught up on life. I mentioned nothing about how I was feeling.
I went home.
Walked into my bathroom, flipped on the light, saw the preparations on the bathtub.
Suddenly felt that I couldn’t go ahead with it, because what if she thought she’d had something to do with it?
So I packed up all the items into a little box and stuffed it under the bed. A back-up plan, for later.
It was not a good time.
I’d reached an impasse which I couldn’t imagine ever being able to traverse. I’d had a particularly horrible year and the idea of having to go through any more of them was untenable.
Part of me had broken.
Fast forwarding briefly through subsequent years:
A couple of friends went through hard times, too. Oddly, this kept me going. The belief that I was still able to help someone else, even in my own fucked-up state, really helped.
I tried, and failed, to get myself sectioned.
I changed a few things in my life to make it slightly easier to survive on a day to day level. I got a cat. I went through several rounds of intensive therapy.
One of my closest friends killed herself, and I realised the impact it has when someone does that. I knew, because we’d spoken about it often, that she didn’t – couldn’t – understand how much her friends cared. How much we’d miss her and grieve for her. When she died, it made me second-guess my own thoughts. Maybe, just maybe, I’d be missed too.
I continued the therapy. I worked hard on getting well.
Hit the ‘Play’ button again.
It’s several years on. I’m in South Carolina. I’ve been there all week for a forensics conference, and have been having the best time exploring the area and topping up my suntan.
It’s evening. The sun is setting and turning the clouds shades of pastel pink and pale yellow. It looks like I’m standing in a watercolour painting – like I’m in Mary Poppins and have stepped through the chalk on the pavement.
My feet are in the water. It’s warm. I can feel the waves lapping over my ankles. The tide is retreating. The world is winding down for the night.
And I am suddenly filled with gratitude that I am still here, still able to have this experience.
If you’d told me all those years ago that one day I’d find myself standing with my feet in the Atlantic ocean, filled with happiness at being alive, I don’t think I’d have believed you.
But I was.
I am now more balanced than I have ever been. Life is good, on the whole, barring the day to day stresses that we all deal with. I no longer turn to dark thoughts of suicide or self-harm when things go wrong. I turn to my friends instead, or read a good book, or go for a long walk.
The twinges are still there, very occasionally, when something brings them up. When – metaphorically speaking – it gets cold and rainy outside and the bone I broke decides to remind me of its presence. But they’re not the same. They’re echoes of something past, rather than overwhelming currents.
But we, as a society, still don’t see it like that. The fact that I probably won’t even post this – or if I do, that I’ll delete it relatively soon afterwards because I’ll be worried about clients or friends or colleagues reading it – only goes to show just how much stigma we attach to breaking metaphorical bones, rather than literal ones.
No one would judge me for breaking my foot. No one would judge me for still feeling the occasional twinges of it years later.
But people do treat you differently if you “come out” about things related to mental health.
It happens to a lot of us. It’s not like it’s new, or unusual. It’s part of the human experience. Just like falling over, and breaking bones, and getting a cold.
And only when we start talking about it like that, will we be able to move forward as a society. To help others who are dealing with their own sprains and breaks, and ourselves when we go through it.
We can’t hope to understand the human experience if we refuse to admit to living it.