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.
At 5 a.m., I knew I wouldn't be going in to work that day. This was the first time I woke up still drunk from the night before. Usually my hands shook, but my mind remained clear. Now back on anti-depressants however, I spent my days and nights in a hazy stupor spotted with terrifying blackouts never before experienced in my drinking. Plopping in front of the TV and putting on a movie, I grabbed my jug of cheap vodka for company. When my mother stopped by my apartment and found me at ten in the morning babbling about how I might be schizophrenic when clearly I was just drunk, I knew I had reached my breaking point. The jig was up.
I was two years into a three-year Master's program. I smattered together a livable income with two low-wage jobs, and had been laid off twice since moving out of my parent's house at 23. During the times spent with only half an income, I racked up enough credit card debt to make interest payments suck up any money I could have saved, creating a cycle of fruitless frustration. After the last layoff, I spent four months underemployed until I settled for a job as a barista at half the wage I had previously earned. A month after accepting the job, I remember putting out the papers the day the stock market crashed and the world fell apart. Prospects of better work seemed hopeless. As the recession wore on, it became evident that the career for which I had been killing myself would all but disappear in the next few years, and my hopes of finding a job in my field shrunk to nil.
In the meantime, I started having a nightly drink to quell the anxiety. The nightly drink became two, then four. Once I started working the four AM shift at the coffee shop, my internal clock went haywire, my body no longer knowing an acceptable hour to start drinking. Why would it? I began my day at 3:30 a.m., rolled out of bed and powered through work on fumes and caffeine until 9:30. I would have a few hours off to nap or do homework until my next job started around one. Then, I would work some more until dashing off to my evening classes, getting home anywhere between 8 and 9 p.m., only to study or write papers until I fell asleep with books on my chest and my laptop on the floor by the bed.
I did this six days a week for more than a year.
After several months, I started my drinking before work, simply to stop the shaking. I didn't recognize this as a symptom of withdrawal, slating me into the category of alcoholic, because I still functioned at a remarkably high level. I continued to get all A's and show up to work and school without exception.
However, I was miserable beyond description. I didn't have insurance to go to the doctor or receive any psychiatric help, but I finally managed to scrape together enough for one doctor visit and a prescription for generic anti-depressants. Little did I know, this signified the beginning of the end. For those unfamiliar with anti-depressants, drinking alcohol while on them causes severe drug interaction. This did not stop me, and I soon discovered why the two don't mix.
When my roommate told me she was moving out, I knew I had to find another, and fast. I couldn't swing the rent alone because the amount exceeded my entire paycheck. The days zoomed by, the new roommate never materialized, and I was frantic. Another drink would ease my anxiety, but then I would black out, calling people and not remembering or calling in sick to work. Within a few weeks, I called myself defeated, asking my parents if I could move back in with them.
On that first morning of missing work, when someone saw me as the mess on the couch with my plastic gallon bottle of liquor, I couldn't hide my alcoholism anymore, even from the hardest person to convince: myself. Though I didn't understand what I needed to do next, I did know that I could not figure it out while keeping up the same mad pace. Quitting one of my jobs and taking a leave of absence from the other, I hoped that by eliminating some of the stress, I wouldn't need to drink as much.
It was too late for that, though. I had become a full-blown alcoholic without realizing it. I didn't know how to quit. Not long after moving back home, I poisoned myself, desperate for a drink and half-crazy.
After hospitalization and the darkest, loneliest night of my life, my parents asked me to leave. They told me I needed treatment, and that they would help me get it, but I couldn't stay with them. For the first time, I started to agree. Though the idea of dropping everything seemed insurmountable and irresponsible, I did it. I had to. I had nowhere to live, no way to support myself, and no way to stop drinking on my own. I quit my other job, took a sabbatical from school, and started the business of starting over.
After a rocky beginning with nights spent crashing at friends and my boyfriend's house, I landed in a nine-month long inpatient program. I went from a 150 miles an hour to zero. I had nothing but time: time to reflect, time to heal, time to learn my limitations and time to understand that imperfection is not a character flaw. Honestly, rehab was the best thing that could have happened to me. It was where I learned to be human, where I learned just how toxically stressful my life had become. I could have a fulfilling life without alcohol, and rehab taught me how to recognize overload warning signs.
When I exited the program three years ago, I eased back into life, trying to be kind to myself. Living off of other people's generosity until I could get full-time work was a blow to my pride, but I accepted it as graciously as I could until I found work. I went back to school and finished my final year and a thesis. I learned to put my health -- physical, mental and spiritual -- first.
Today, I don't try to tackle superhuman feats of endurance. I make time for exercise, for downtime, for activities with friends and family. When I feel the stress creep back in, instead of reaching for something to numb me, I step back, remove an unnecessary obligation, and take time for what I need, whether that is journaling, painting, reading, jogging or even crying. It takes strength to release control and find another way to live, strength to let yourself be weak, be vulnerable, be helped. I learned the hard way that stress can destroy your life if you let it, but I also learned you can rebuild, and what I am building now is far more satisfying.
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.