How to repair after major disrepair?
September 25, 2011 12:46 PM   Subscribe

A few months ago, I had a complete physical and emotional breakdown and actually went temporarily insane. I'm ok now. How do I begin to repair the relationships that suffered during this time?

This past May and June, I suffered a complete mental breakdown-- the short story is: depression led to insomnia led to more depression led to medications led to paradoxical reaction-misdiagnosed-as-disorder, which led to more meds and more bad reactions and then drug withdrawal. Total complete 100% clusterfuck. I thought I was going insane, and that I'd never be able to think or work again. I couldn't stop sobbing. It was that bad.

The good news is I did get better-- I'm actually, miraculously, fine now. (Time really *does* heal-- as well as getting really nasty meds out of one's system.)

The bad news: I happened to be teaching in a high school when this happened. The month of May and early June, I just got more and more crazy (had a benzo-withdrawal panic attack at school, went to ER-- yeah, good times), and ultimately took a medical leave before the school year ended. My colleagues witnessed my complete dissolution (I would literally be crying between classes at school). Some were incredibly sympathetic and helpful; some were understandably scared and disturbed. My students also suffered; I really could not teach at all the last month I was at school; my brain was fogged and simply not working properly.

In addition, during this time, I talked to and relied on many close friends. My friends were terrified for me, extremely concerned, and disturbed. I know I had many, many incoherent, rambling conversations in which I said crazy things. On certain medications I had suicidal ideation.

Finally, my family, who I went home to stay with for the summer, was there with me the entire time. They've seen my gradual recovery, but I still feel overwhelmed at how difficult and scary this was for them.

So my question is: for these different groups of people, what is the best way to slowly re-engage with them, and begin to repair some of these relationships? How much do people want to know? As for more distant colleagues, who simply witnessed a breakdown, should I make some attempt to contact them and say, "Hey, I'm ok now! Just wanted you to know!"

I opted to take a year of leave from school, so I'm not teaching right now, but I do feel the need to somehow make amends/explain what happened. I know there is a large contingent of former colleagues who think I just went completely insane. And the poor students! How/what to say to them? I may not go back to the school even after my leave is up-- so it's possible I won't see them again. Do I owe them some explanation for their teacher's crisis?

Sorry this is so complicated... I'm just hoping for general advice (or specific advice) on how to go about reestablishing contact and connection with people after they witnessed a hugely uncharacteristic, scary, and disturbing breakdown.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
To anyone who witnessed anything, just say that doctors had you on the wrong medication and it led to what they saw. It's since been sorted and you thank them for their understanding, but apologize if you scared them.

You don't have to go out of your way to explain anything to people if you don't plan to see them again and you don't owe anyone a detailed explanation unless you want to. The students are and will be fine without an explanation.
posted by inturnaround at 1:07 PM on September 25, 2011 [10 favorites]

I say just hang in there and take it one day at a time. I know it's cliche, but actions speak louder than words. Once people start to see you gradually go back to normal, they'll see that you are better. If it makes you feel better you can always write an open letter to the school or to your students, but I don't think any explanation is necessary. Explanations may make it look like you're trying to prove something to them, and that's not fair to yourself.
posted by starpoint at 1:09 PM on September 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you feel you need to absolutely just tell people that you were on funky medication that made you react in an unexpected way. If they delve, tell them you had really bad insomnia and it really knocked you for a loop. But you really owe nobody any sort of explanation at all.

The students will live.

As for your colleagues and peers, well, you sort of have a key written right into your question: you were "acting uncharacteristically." They will have all of their past experiences with you to rely on, and once they see you back to normal will probably just shrug the whole thing off.
posted by nevercalm at 1:23 PM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sometimes (most times) I want to give people the fullest, most complete explanations for things. And what I've learned (what I have to keep learning, actually, because I tend to forget) is that often you don't need any explanation, and when you do, sometimes what seems so complicated to you is really very simple, or at least best summed up simply for others.

I bet your friends and family will see you getting better over time and they'll be happy for you and everything will be fine. Your colleagues and students, I don't know if you need to say anything. But if you want to, something like "Last summer, as I'm sure you know, I was very sick and went through a difficult time getting the right treatment. I'm doing fine now, and I wanted to say I'm sorry if I scared or inconvenienced you, and to thank you for supporting me." would be fine.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:27 PM on September 25, 2011 [17 favorites]

Make sure you're dealing with whatever caused the breakdown in the first place, before the meds came into play.

Because you're under the obligation, now, to make sure this never happens again. Especially not in front of students or in a way that interferes with your work.
posted by chasing at 1:39 PM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Agree with starpoint. You'll have to be patient; actions do indeed speak louder, and it'll be a gradual thing. For years after a similar kind of meltdown I was sad thinking about how I'd always be "the crazy one" in my family and circle of friends, that I'd never regain their trust I was really alright, felt my every action might be second guessed bc of my past. But it just slowly fades away as you move on in life and are stable. I don't know of any quick fix and frankly I think trying too hard to convince folks to forget quickly would just make some wary.
posted by ifjuly at 1:50 PM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure about the students. Here's what I might write to individual, close family members in an actual letter (which seems like it might be a healing thing to do anyway):

"Dear Mom (Sis, Dad, whatever),

As you know this past summer was a very difficult time for my physically and mentally. I want to apologize to you for (specific thing or general whatever). I know it was hard for you, watching me go through this and trying to help me recover. Please know that I appreciate your love and support, this summer and always. You were a big part of the reason I am recovered/stronger now.


Here's what I might email to colleagues, especially those I didn't know very well, when it got closer to work time. I'd probably send it to individual people rather than as a big list.

"Dear Colleague,

As you may have guessed, last May and June I was suffering from a near-debilitating illness that affected my work. I've spent these past months working with doctors to recover, and I'm pleased to say that I am now recovered. I apologize to you for the disruption to my work and your work during the end of the school year. Thank you very much for your patience and understanding. I look forward to seeing you in August.

posted by bluedaisy at 1:53 PM on September 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with the people who say to just attribute it all to the meds you were on. Just send an email to people thanking them for their kindness and concern. Ask some of the teachers to let students know you're better now, if these teachers think it's appropriate.

Save the detailed explanations for that handful of people you're really close to, and only offer them if you're asked.

Take care, feel better.
posted by mareli at 1:58 PM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a family member of someone who went through a similar experience about the same time you did, I just want to say that you have nothing for which to apologize. However, time builds trust and because your family is probably worried about you, it may take time before they trust the new normal. Even though my family member is doing so much better, there is still that nagging doubt, which gets less as each day passes. Acknowledging that they went through this experience too is part of healing.
posted by tamitang at 2:16 PM on September 25, 2011

The thing that surprised me most after a severe breakdown, after I spent five months in a hospital/treatment center for bipolar disorder and drug addiction, was the reactions of my boss and colleagues, as well as my friends. When I contacted them to make amends/explain what had happened, the primary reaction was one of respect. Respect for having gone through it and if not recovered, then at least gotten much better. Respect for having addressed the core issues that not many people do, and that even fewer have the help (and the courage to accept that help) to do so. It shocked me, as I was mortified, humiliated, and very much terrified of contacting anyone who had witnessed my downward spiral and breakdown. It's entirely possible that you will get this reaction too, at least from some.
posted by mireille at 2:23 PM on September 25, 2011 [11 favorites]

I would go with bluedaisy's excellent plan, with a super-casual note, postcard or email for friends.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:58 PM on September 25, 2011

I have a friend who went through a similar breakdown. Before he made a public statement of "this is what happened" there was this big hole of "Yeesh, do we talk about it? Do we pretend it didn't happen? What?"

By making that big public acknowledgement (Facebook, his blog, email to the list of hiking buddies, which is the group I know him through) it went from a huge question-mark over every dealing with him to "okay, he's got it sorted, not something we need to deal with."

So I'm with the notes to people who you've interacted with saying "medication interactions happened, I acknowledge that things were weird, I've got it under control now, thank you for your patience and understanding, if you want to know more ask me."

It says "Yes, I know stuff went down, it was weird, and I'm willing to talk about it", and my guess is that most people will say "thanks" and you and they can carry on with your relationships.
posted by straw at 3:05 PM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can we look at this in my own weird way for a moment? (Thanks.)

You said you felt you needed to make amends. Not knowing you at all, but looking at it from the perspective of how people generally feel about mental health vs. physical health, let me ask you: if you'd had a lengthy, violent seizure, maybe even multiple ones, maybe even one where you lost control of your bladder or bowels (or insert whatever powerful physical condition of your preference), would you feel the need to make amends?

Or maybe, would you feel embarrassed only until a friend said: Well, if it had been me, and you saw it, would you think I should feel embarrassed? Would you think I should make amends to you?

I don't think huge apologies or amends are necessary for things you can't/couldn't control. If your nose bled on a friend's dress, you'd pay for the dry cleaning, but you won't beat yourself up over it, right? Unless you intentionally hurt someone, physically or emotionally, I'd stick with thanking people who cared for you and showing your appreciation for their support...and then move on.

As for people outside your circle of beloveds, I like the idea of using a triggering event -- a birthday, anniversary, the first of the month or whatever, to mark time and announce that:

-- you're amazed and relieved at the dramatic improvement of your life

-- you underwent a horrible medical experience as a result of a bad reaction to medication used to treat an underlying insomnia condition

-- the experience was frightening for you (and, you're sure, to those who saw the marked change in you), but repetition of the incident need not be of any concern to anyone.

-- you really appreciate all the people who stuck by you during that awful time.

I'm a terrible model for the concept, but KEEP THINGS BRIEF.

If you're not a social networker, I suppose you could send a letter to individuals, but I think this might get exhausting. My only other advice is that you should check with your former principal regarding the students. If my child were in such a class, I'd be delighted to know that the teacher was OK, and I'd imagine my child would want to know. But school districts have all sorts of rules about contacting parents (and kids).

Finally, please know that the clinical depression that led to your insomnia was every bit as valid a medical condition as diabetes or a seizure disorder or whatever you think 'counts'. Please don't feel you need to be embarrassed about it. But neither do you have to wear your medical chart on your chest. The meds were the major culprit, so focus on that.

Good luck, and I'm glad you're feeling better!
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 5:03 PM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like the version where you were experiencing insomnia, doctors put you on the wrong meds, and you had a severe reaction and experienced unusual side effects which you know effected others - not just you.

I was also prescribed the wrong meds once and had funky (physical) shit happen to me. Everyone knows someone in this boat in this day and age of over-prescribing for simple ailments. Really.

I would not discuss my mental health verbally or in written form AT ALL.

Blame the doctors and the meds. Full stop.

The rest is private. Really.
posted by jbenben at 5:24 PM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

For the record, I had a similar breakdown about 12 years ago, in the midst of 80 hour weeks. I got better. I do not think explaining it to anyone made it better. I'm still fairly persona non grata with a huge set of that community. It was seen as a personal weakness, and me explaining it was seen as justification.

Your mileage may vary.
posted by dejah420 at 5:34 PM on September 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I may not go back to the school even after my leave is up-- so it's possible I won't see them again.

If you can switch schools, do it. You'd have a whole lot less explaining to do if you just never went back, and you'd pretty much eliminate any gossip that might otherwise follow you around. Kids love to brag about the teacher they drove crazy.

And for those you can't escape, tell them in person, not in writing. Email can be passed around and get away from you. Blame the doctors and the wrong prescriptions. Even if it wasn't true, it would sound true -- people are quite ready to believe that too many pill-happy doctors mess with too many people's heads. So the doctors put you on the wrong medications, and then of course it takes some time to get you off them again without endangering your health even more, so you had a very difficult time while the doctors made and then corrected their error, and you hope people will understand.

Explain it as a problem you had, like a broken leg, something that happened to you, not a problem you have, not something you are. It's all better. It's gone. You're fine again.
posted by pracowity at 1:54 AM on September 26, 2011

I'm going to disagree with folks who say to explain to people that you were on meds that went wrong. A lot of people won't really understand why this means or how it could happen. They might think it's a euphemism for drug addiction. Or they might think you are psychotic and get scared. You don't really owe people details, so I'd keep things simple and use "illness" for all but your closest friends and family. Other people might not understand and won't be invested in trying to.

Honestly, if a coworker I didn't know well told me their meds were messed up, I would have no idea what to do with that information except to think it was more than I wanted or needed to know.

Best of luck to you.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:24 AM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

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