When we asked readers to tweet about the moment they knew they needed to de-stress, the responses were alarming. Breaking points were marked by health crises, family problems and other types of suffering. We decided to go deeper into some of these stories in the hope that others can recognize signs of extreme stress and start to figure out their own paths to de-stressing.
My life has been shaped by two diagnoses: Being a chronic overachiever, and having bipolar disorder.
The first diagnosis was made by my high school teachers. I was known for doing things like translating my English term papers into French for extra credit, doubling up on honors classes instead of taking a lunch period and burning myself out studying for Advanced Placement exams that eventually yielded enough college credits to knock off my freshman year of college. My efforts landed me not just on the honor roll, but at the top of my class, and in 1999 I graduated -- exhausted -- from my suburban Long Island high school as valedictorian.
The second diagnosis was made about a decade later, in my mid-20s. In between impulsive behaviors like suddenly deciding to quit a great job, maxing out my credit cards with shopping sprees and being a horrible bitch to my significant other, I explored the depths of depression -- often wondering if people would miss me if I committed suicide. I wondered if people would name something after me, like a scholarship or a foundation. I fantasized about my own funeral.
Some background to note here: I am a journalist -- not exactly a low-stress career choice to begin with, but one that has always excited me. Without acknowledging the fact that it would take time to build my career, I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed immediately. Being an overachiever combined with having a behavioral health disorder was becoming harder and harder to manage. I wasn't sleeping much; I put everything I had into work, driven by my obsession to be perfect at what I do while ignoring the fact that bipolar disorder was getting harder and harder to manage.
I was slipping out of control, and it was only in retrospect that I realized that others were starting to notice. Late one night, in April of 2011, my boss sent me a simple email asking me how I was doing. I found myself hunched over my iPhone at the local 24-hour Dunkin' Robbins, in tears, for the first time telling someone other than my psychiatrist exactly how I was feeling. I wrote back:
"The truth is I am not doing well right now. ... On Sunday, I wound up in the hospital because I was having chest pains, crying for hours at a time, and I was thinking about intentionally crashing my car and hurting myself. I'm afraid to be alone so my friends and roommates have been babysitting me. This hurts to admit. ... I'm kind of just falling to pieces. ... 'How are you' is kind of a loaded question these days."
Still, though, this wasn't the moment I knew I needed help. That came a couple of days later, when my skin started to physically hurt. I felt like cutting myself would help -- something I'd done in the past -- but instead of picking up something sharp, I picked up a Sharpie. I drew thick black 'X' marks on top of all the painful spots, and looked at myself in a full-length mirror, naked body covered in ink. Something inside my head shouted Go. To. The. Hospital. Now. I tried calling a few friends who might have been able to take me, but no one was awake at 2 a.m. With tears streaming down my face to the point where I could barely drive, I went by myself.
Soon after, in the summer of 2011 and on the eve of my 30th birthday, I landed in an outpatient hospital program for behavioral health. There I spent nine days both building a relationship with my disorder and understanding how trying to achieve on such a consistently high level all the time was hurting me.
I learned what to do and what not to do. I learned how to identify triggers and how to mitigate them. I came to understand the wide range of mental and behavioral illnesses, having now spent time alongside people who were living their lives at many different points on that spectrum. We did therapeutic art activities; we were taught the benefits of journaling; we did group and individual therapy sessions. Think along the lines of "It's Kind of a Funny Story," only without the awesome soundtrack. I began to feel better.
While it couldn't cure either one of my diagnoses, being in that hospital program saved me for sure.
Two years later, I am still trying my hardest to succeed as a working journalist, aspiring author and human being. Now, though, I'm able to cope with the occasional failure at work. I can take it easy, realize it takes time to do things the right way, work towards larger goals over time and understand that I need to have down time to myself. The collage I made while in the hospital program still hangs on my wall, a daily reminder of everything I experienced and everything I learned. And I've finally got a new diagnosis: stable.
Is there a moment you hit a stress breaking point and knew you needed to change your life? If you'd like to share your story, please send personal essays under 1200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration in this series.