I was 27 when I had a nervous breakdown, almost exactly 10 years from the first. I should have seen it coming.
I grew up on Dartmoor, and had a typical middle class upbringing. I remember very little of my childhood, but from time to time when I visit, memories erupt like little volcanoes from the familiar hills scattered around Devon. I remember being scared, a fear with no discernible origin that often enveloped me like quicksand. My father and brother are both bi polar, but at that time undiagnosed and untreated. I remember the storms that would tear through the house and my desperate search for shelter – in my room, in computer games, in fantasies, in nature. I remember the darkness that hung in the air, the unnerving quiet when my dad lay in bed for days and my mum said he wasn’t well. I remember the arguments, the melt downs, the madness, and my unending desire for peace, inside and out. I remember the eventual divorce and separation, the confusion and heartbreak, but most of all the fear and the need to escape it.
There were many beautiful moments in my childhood. I know there was a lot of love and support, beautiful hazy summer days in the garden, playing with animals, exploring the moors, trips abroad, and a very privileged life. Despite these numerous positive experiences, the memories imprinted on my mind and nervous system are the ones infused with fear. I never knew when the people closest to me might suddenly turn things inside out, upside down or sideways, and neither did they. My way of dealing with all this ‘madness’ was to avoid it, to repress it, to push it into the recesses of my psyche where it would stay suspended in silence for years before exploding into my life again.
After the divorce and separation my mum and brother and I moved to a nearby town, and my father went to live alone. My mother in many ways was a saint, and hid her own suffering and anxiety to protect and support us. Unfortunately that also meant letting us do what we wanted, which wasn’t entirely her fault as we were cheeky and manipulative and had her wrapped around our little fingers. My brother is slightly older and was always one step ahead of me – with troublemaking, with music, with trends, with girls, and with drugs. Whatever he did I followed. He gave me my first smoke at 13 and my mum came home to find me stoned out of my mind singing Bob Marley with a hat pulled over my face, but she could never put her foot down. My brother also gave me my first magic mushroom trip when I was 13, and again my mum found us and stayed up until 6am with me as I explored this new psychedelic world in my bedroom. There were never any repercussions. I smoked weed every day from 13 to 18, and without even realising it I’d found my medicine. I no longer felt anything; the fear, the sadness, the loneliness and torment. I felt ok because I didn’t feel much at all. I’d found a new way to repress and avoid, like taking out a loan thinking I’d never have to pay it back.
I was 17 when I had to give up smoking due to a severe case of tonsillitis. Within days I started to feel very wrong inside, the world became dark and sinister, my nerves were on edge, I couldn’t relax. I tried to smoke but it only made me feel more strange. Then began the panic attacks – stomach turning waves of fear surged through me and I quickly descended into what I can only describe as hell. Nothing had changed externally, but inside I’d fallen apart. Every time the phone rang, or someone spoke, or the TV was on, or I heard certain words or music it would send cold shivers through me. My mind would spin into paranoia and shame, feeling people were talking about me and looking at me strangely. I cried endlessly for no apparent reason and felt like the world was an assault on my delicate system. I no longer had skin, I was an open wound. I stopped functioning and my life fell apart.
I took months off college, my friends thought I was weird and had no idea how to support me. My life consisted of trying to get through the day without losing my mind.
I only felt capable of going for walks at the reservoir with my mum. This went on for months before I was able to get back to college, and when I returned I was no longer the same person. Something in me was irreversibly changed, and I lived in a state of chronic anxiety, panic always nipping at my heels and dark thoughts filling my mind like a poisonous gas. I was at war with myself, and everyone and everything was a threat. Soon after returning to college I had a panic attack during a presentation, and ran away. This was the genesis of a severe phobia of being the centre of attention, and compounded this cycle of fear and dread I was stuck in.
I eventually found some semblance of normality by creating a world that didn’t challenge me. I didn’t go to University because I was too scared, yet I never told anyone how scared I was. I always smiled and had a thin veneer of confidence that carried me through social situations, creating the illusion I was ok. I was angry and upset that nobody understood my suffering, and yet I had no idea how to show it.
I spent my 20s doing various projects on my own, always busy and obsessing over something. Control and perfectionism were my new addiction – if I could just make sure everything was ‘right’ I might feel ok. I became more and more tense. My 20s were a blur of drugs and parties, which at times were enjoyable and meaningful, but in hindsight just another way to avoid my feelings. As I approached 27 I could feel a pressure building up inside me, like a dam ready to burst. Struggling with insomnia and using drugs to sleep, drugs to feel good, drugs to stay focussed, I knew I needed to do something. I signed up for my first meditation retreat. I’d been interested in Buddhism since I was a teenager, when I found my first buddhist book on my mum’s book shelf and read it over and over during my first breakdown. The teachings felt like a balm for my agitated mind. The first noble truth – ‘In life there is suffering’, something I could relate to!
The retreat was horrendous, I couldn’t sleep at all. I lay awake listening to my roommates mocking snores, while the pipes creaked and cracked in the creepy old school building. I even tried to sleep in my back car seat to no avail. I was put on the spot on the first day in front of the group and had a panic attack. I spent the whole retreat on edge, running from myself. I felt like a freak, a failure, in desperate need of help yet people only saw my smile – the facade.
Just days after the retreat I started to feel very odd and though I wasn’t sure what was happening, it felt eerily familiar. Before long I was plunged back into hell and went through a nervous breakdown just as violent as the first. I barely stopped crying for months, and often thought the only way out would be to kill myself. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and yet I felt each of these breakdowns was like losing a limb, and I’d have to stumble and crawl through life from then on. I was broken and sad, and deeply ashamed.
Years passed, and with the help of counselling I managed to find some footing again, but it was shaky and I was still battling with crippling anxiety and insomnia. After a long heart wrenching break up, I knew I had to go. I didn’t know where or what for, but only that something had to change. I booked a flight to Thailand to do a Vipassana retreat. I was in a terrible state on that journey. My brother drove me to Heathrow, and we stopped at Avebury on the way to see the stones. I cried in the car and as I walked around and saw these ancient rocks, stoic and constant as I drifted unhinged through the world. I saw my brother’s concern as he said goodbye, I held back tears in the airport queue, and on the plane I took valium to force myself to sleep. But even in sleep there was no escape, with hideous dreams of my teeth falling out and me shouting bloody-mouthed in front of shocked strangers. I woke up silently screaming, my mouth so dry I couldn’t swallow. The whole plane was asleep, and I sat in the toilet and cried my eyes out, feeling a million miles from home, wondering where that even was anymore.
I realised that an intensive meditation retreat was not a good idea, and felt I would’ve been better off in a psychiatric ward, if only I could externalise what was happening in me.
There have been many moments that changed my life, each as sharp and sudden as the last, leaving me almost unrecognisable after. My breakdowns had changed me profoundly, they’d ground me down to powder and left me to piece myself together again, more vulnerable and sad, but more human. Life was no longer the jovial game I once imagined it to be, and now I was seeing it’s breadth and depth. I had a lot of unfelt suffering to attend to, and a lot of missed steps to take.
I was searching online for somewhere I could go in Thailand that might offer some support and I stumbled across a place in the north called New Life Foundation which was in its infancy. I looked on the website and saw groups of smiling people and it made my stomach turn. It was my worst nightmare and yet I knew that I could no longer stay in my cocoon. Uncharacteristically I booked on an impulse, and was flying to Chiang Rai days later.
I arrived at the community and a kind girl from the UK showed me to my room and showed me around this little paradise. I was desperately uncomfortable, and squirmed inside as I smiled at community members, who I foolishly assumed had their lives completely figured out. From what I was used to their friendliness only seemed suspicious and my mind drifted to all the documentaries about cults I’d seen!
I had my orientation with Mark, a lanky, friendly faced Dutch guy who was the same age as me. We got along straight away with a shared dark sense of humour, and 10 years later he is still one of my closest friends. I was told I’d have to introduce myself in the morning meeting, so I didn’t sleep at all that night. It was hot, the mattresses were rock solid, the rooms were like army barracks, and I lay in panic thinking about how broken I had become, and how far I was from my family, my ex girlfriend, everything I knew. The gong went off at 6am and my nerves felt like they were piercing out of my skin, I was in a state of pure dread. I went to the morning meeting, where 60 people of all ages and nationalities sat in a huge circle silently. Some had blank faces, some looked happy, some hugged for what felt like way too long, and some looked annoyingly pleased with themselves, and then there was me. I don’t know how I looked, but all I could feel was fear. I managed to eke out a few words whilst my heart threatened to explode in my chest, and I watched the whole scenario from outside my body.
The first few weeks were incredibly difficult, I was in fight or flight from all the groups and sharing circles, and the social stimulation. Yet I knew somehow that through this pain I was changing, and it was happening quickly. Through exposure to so many of the things I’d avoided my whole life…people, being vulnerable, expressing my pain, speaking in groups, I was realising there was more to me than just fear. I had an amazing counselling from a Buddhist nun who helped me see this, and find ways through. The people were so genuine and kind and struggling with similar or often much worse issues. You could assume it would be a dreary and depressing place, but my first stay there remains one of the most joyful times of my life, full of laughter and jokes. I was no longer alone, and it was a revelation.
I had friends back home but I couldn’t speak to them about my emotions, and they had no idea how to support me as they’d not been through anything similar. Through my multiple breakdowns almost nobody had asked how I was or what happened. It’s hard enough to suffer, but when your suffering makes others uncomfortable you have good reason to hide it.
My initial one month stay turned into 8 months, and in the succeeding years I spent 3 years living and working there. I eventually ran groups and workshops as I faced my own fears and limitations. I found a new family of misfits from all over the world, new lifelong friends, love, compassion, understanding, and I found a purpose.
Nearly a decade after that hideous arrival in Bangkok I’m writing this from my room in Portugal, on the side of a mountain in Serra De Estrella where New Life Portugal has finally opened its doors. We often spoke of how great it would be to open a place in Europe, and I visited this magical piece of land years ago when there was nothing here but ruins. As I walk around now, seeing all the new buildings and people I’m amazed that it’s actually come to fruition.
That little paradise in Thailand has been recreated here and I’m so grateful to be part of it, especially as New Life Thailand is closed for now due to Covid restrictions. I’m grateful to be here in Portugal, not so far from home and to see the people who became a surrogate family for me. Seeing the ruins rebuilt seems an appropriate metaphor for what New Life has meant to me and so many others.
Only now, looking back on my whole story, of which so much is missed out here, I realise that it was all worth it. I’m a cynic and under no illusion there will ever be a ‘happily ever after’, but I know that finding that little safe haven in Chiang Rai changed my life forever.
I often think if I hadn’t found it I’d likely not be here now, and for that I’m forever grateful. I found my place in this community in the middle of nowhere in Northern Thailand, and in doing so found my place in the world.