I Can Pinpoint The Day That Marked My Descent Towards Total Breakdown
At 24, Georgie Dent had the world at her feet – but within a year she found herself in the midst of a nervous breakdown, suffering such crippling anxiety that she admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital.
In her new book BREAKING BADLY Georgie shares how it all fell apart, and how she rebuilt her life.
If I had to pinpoint a single day that marked the beginning of my slow descent towards total breakdown, it would be that day: the 15th of November 2001.
In that moment, it dawned on me that my body was truly flawed. I’d known for a while that something was awry.
For at least the past two years my days had started, like clockwork, with a sharp twisting sensation in my abdomen that thrust me out of bed before I had properly woken up.
I would rush to the bathroom in a semi-conscious state just in time for my stomach to purge itself. Beads of sweat would form on my brow, my heart would thump, and through a cloud of adrenaline, relief and pain, my days would begin.
This pain – and purging – came and went throughout the day, and despite the discomfort, it had become second-nature to ignore it. After a while, I grew so accustomed to this routine that I couldn’t remember my days starting any other way. When I did think about it, I was mortified.
At nineteen, living in Brisbane and working through a double degree in business and law, the intricacies of my digestive tract weren’t exactly preferred topics to explore with my friends. So I kept it quiet.
This silence became much harder to maintain when my abdomen began regularly blowing up like a balloon. It would swell to resemble a half-term pregnant stomach, then it would become as tight as a drum before I began to feel stabbing cramps, like a pair of knitting needles were fighting ferociously in my belly.
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The pain was breathtaking, and it caused me to keel over on enough occasions to prompt a visit to a general practitioner, who referred me to the gynaecologist, an appointment that set me on the path to breakdown.
Obviously one medical diagnosis wasn’t enough to single-handedly undermine my self-worth – that had been fractured to begin with – but it provided me with the first piece of tangible, physiological proof of something I had long suspected: I was faulty goods.
The idea that I was broken, deficient and malfunctioning wriggled its way into my mind. Like the endometriosis wreaking havoc in my pelvis, these specks of shame settled in to tear at my self-esteem.
I was a natural-born worrier. For as long as I could remember, I had been permanently preoccupied with worries – big, small, highly likely and entirely fanciful.
For me, worrying was the rule rather than the exception, and if I ever caught myself without an active worry, I immediately began worrying about whatever it was I had temporarily forgotten to worry about.
As a child I worried that my parents would separate, that my dad would die, that my mum would have an affair and that robbers would break in and kidnap my sister and me while we were sleeping.
I worried that my aunt and uncle housed criminals because he was a lawyer, and in my small mind that meant he was in close contact with felons. (I was too young to know that a Glen Innes solicitor whose workload consists largely of property and estate matters barely has any contact with law-breaking citizens.)
I worried that my little brother would get sick, that a car accident would kill my whole family and that Dad would lose his job, even though he had his own business, so effectively worked for himself.
I worried that snakes or spiders or dogs were lurking, ready to attack at the first opportunity. I was convinced that all white vans were driven by violent fiends who would lure children from schools with lollies before taking off with them.
These were not special-occasion concerns: these fears, and many more manifestations, formed the silent soundtrack to my life. I cannot recall a time when my mind wasn’t quietly consumed with the vague sense that disaster was imminent.
Curiously, mental illness is not a concept I remember having any awareness of at that point in my life. I knew that stress and worry were my mind’s natural state, but had never considered that it might constitute a mental health condition.
It’s almost unfathomable now, given the breadth of the public conversation about mental health, but this was 2001. The information age, spurred by the ubiquity of the internet and greased by the proliferation of social media, online news and smartphones, wasn’t yet upon us. Reading the newspaper was a ritual I enjoyed, but did mental illness crop up? Not that I can recall.
With the wisdom of hindsight and the context of evidence that suggests three in four adult mental health conditions emerge by age twenty-four, and half by age fourteen, it is more than likely I suffered from generalised anxiety well before I was diagnosed with it.
This is an extract from Breaking Badly by Georgie Dent (Affirm Press) is out now at all good bookstores and Big W. $29.99