Need to describe a breakdown
January 18, 2007 2:08 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to find a description, either fictional or an actual account, of a mental breakdown.

I'm trying to write about what used to be called a nervous collapse or breakdown (not sure what trendy euphemism is current right now). I've had some breakdowns of my own, but I've had trouble describing them, whether in speech or in writing, and I'd like to be able to do so.

So I'm curious about how others have done it. Can you point me to any effective descriptions of nervous or mental breakdowns, whether in novels, memoirs, or something else?
posted by frosty_hut to Writing & Language (44 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A nervous breakdown is the old terminology for depression, as I understand it. The woman in this story has post-partum depression.
posted by acoutu at 2:10 PM on January 18, 2007

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 2:11 PM on January 18, 2007

The Yellow Wallpaper?
posted by hermitosis at 2:11 PM on January 18, 2007

I've always like the way it was done in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar.
posted by roomwithaview at 2:11 PM on January 18, 2007

The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity by Mark Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut's son tells the true story of his descent into insanity.

And it's a pretty good read!
posted by valkane at 2:12 PM on January 18, 2007

I would say that's an over-simplification, acoutu, of both the term "nervous breakdown" as well as of this story.
posted by hermitosis at 2:15 PM on January 18, 2007

Here's a classic. Note the chapter listings down the side. Its actually a pretty short read, and a great story.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:20 PM on January 18, 2007

I'd second The Bell Jar, and also recommend Barbara Gordon's I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:21 PM on January 18, 2007

Nervous breakdown is not a medical term.
posted by acoutu at 2:21 PM on January 18, 2007

Hunger, by Knut Hamson, is about a man on the edge of sanity.
posted by footnote at 2:22 PM on January 18, 2007

From this thread - Hell and Back.
posted by Sassyfras at 2:24 PM on January 18, 2007

This is such a wide term that I'm not sure how hepful suggestions are going to be. For instance, there are texts which can be read as describing mental distress that may not seem that near to what we think of as depression / acute anxiety / "nervous breakdown" today - lots of nineteenth-century lit about religious crises or overwork resulting in brain fever, for instance, or Old English texts like The Seafarer about isolation. Just to throw in a couple of fairly widely-cited ones, there're Hopkins's "terrible sonnets" like "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day" and William Styron's Darkness Visible.
posted by paduasoy at 2:34 PM on January 18, 2007

The only account of a nervous breakdown I ever read that made me feel like it was taking me down with it was Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing. Just typing the title makes me shudder.
posted by jamjam at 2:37 PM on January 18, 2007

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky made me feel (like jamjam said) as though I was going crazy along with the main character. The Bell Jar, Ordinary People, and other similar stories are the same. I've given up reading this kind of stuff - I hate trying to pull myself out of the funk afterward.
posted by vytae at 2:47 PM on January 18, 2007

Prozac Nation
posted by dmt at 2:52 PM on January 18, 2007

Sort of tacking on to Armitage Shanks' response, there is also Lila, the "sequel" to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
posted by jclovebrew at 2:57 PM on January 18, 2007

I'll third The Bell Jar.

There's also pretty much anything Hubert Selby or Philip K Dick wrote, or anything with an unreliable narrator.
posted by rokusan at 2:57 PM on January 18, 2007

Girl Interrupted.
posted by alms at 3:00 PM on January 18, 2007

I've had plenty (in the past 3 years or so)... what would you like to know?..

The recent ones I've had were combinations of "nervous breakdown", "mental breakdown", insanely painful headsplitting migraines and panic attacks. (all at the same time)

The feeling was one of complete helplessness. But with a variety of extremes.

1.) During the times of panic attacks.. all of the various thoughts racing through my head were racing so blindingly fast, it was impossible to even comprehend them, or slow them down. It was like watching a movie play in extreme fast forward and looping over and over. It was a feeling of complete loss of control to the fear of having so much to do, but not enough time or people to help me.

2.) There were other times when my mind was completely blank, OR, the various areas of my brain were not cooperating. It would take me 20 minutes just to lift the bedcovers and move 1 leg out onto the floor. I'd walk into the kitchen to make breakfast and find myself just standing there, in the middle of the kitchen doing nothing.. just staring.

There were wild mood swings... I'd go out with friends and just get up in the middle of the conversation or concert or party or whatever and just walk out (because I simply hit a "wall" and could no longer "deal" with all the sensory input I was getting.

All I really wanted to do was sleep (well, and kill myself)

All of this caused by work overload ( I was the only IT person for an entire school district)... Eventually I was fired for "not doing my job" even though my employer was aware (for atleast 1 year) what the job was doing to me, yet they did nothing..

I'm much better now. Self Employed.. much less stress, and INFINITELY more healthy and happy.
posted by jmnugent at 3:13 PM on January 18, 2007

Silent Snow, Secret Snow.
posted by JanetLand at 3:17 PM on January 18, 2007

My mom had a meltdown while I was in college. It involved unstoppable crying. She just couldn't make it stop and just pull herself together. She was shaking profusely and didn't want to be touched, talked to or 'helped' in any way. My dad had to take her to the hospital and they juiced her up on tranquilizers. It was just like she reached a breaking point and BAM, she went all to pieces.
posted by CwgrlUp at 3:26 PM on January 18, 2007

Fourthing (fifthing) Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted. Also, Joanne Greenberg's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.

These are all from the female perspective.
posted by onlyconnect at 3:41 PM on January 18, 2007

Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:20 PM on January 18, 2007

Fear Strikes Out is the astonishing story of Jimmy Piersall, who had a nervous breakdown while playing for the Red Sox.
posted by escabeche at 4:25 PM on January 18, 2007

Gaslight, with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman.
Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound and Vertigo.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:26 PM on January 18, 2007

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh is partly autobiographical, based on Waugh's own breakdown and his attempt to self-medicate with phenobarbitone and booze. Waugh later said that "Mr Pinfold’s experiences were almost exactly my own".
posted by Hogshead at 5:05 PM on January 18, 2007

It deals with schizophrenia rather than "mental breakdown" (whatever that is), but Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick is one of the scariest books I've ever read: you really feel like you're going nuts along with the protagonist.
posted by languagehat at 5:09 PM on January 18, 2007

Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing; pub. 1971, Knopf: "a harrowing voyage into the rarely glimpsed territory of the inner man".

"Doris Lessing believes that society's treatment of the mentally ill is a great and dangerous blind spot, that through the minds of the "broken-down" appear (crookedly, of course, and with every kind of double-dealing - like the disguised messengers in myths and fairy tales) the truths, important to our civilization, that we deliberately choose to shut out."
posted by anadem at 6:15 PM on January 18, 2007

F. Scott Fitzgerald described his deteriorating mental health in an essay, The Crack-Up

Kurt Vonnegut's son Mark wrote a book about his struggle with mental illness called The Eden Express.
posted by nanojath at 6:16 PM on January 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Falling Down
posted by comatose at 6:27 PM on January 18, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks so much for these great suggestions.

And I appreciate the input of those who described their own experiences or those of someone near to them...This is frightening stuff. Thank you for your honesty.
posted by frosty_hut at 6:33 PM on January 18, 2007

Chapter 31 (pp 273-277) from Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones deals with his nervous breakdown.

"I knew I was in trouble when I went to the piano one day and played a low C and a G, a perfect fifth. My mind perceived it as a minor third, C and E-flat. That's when I knew I was caving in. Music was the only thing I could ever trust, and I was not quite sure what it was telling me"

Later on,

"I was utterly drained, vacant, empty, like my soul had left my body. Even my love of food had gone."

He was lucky enough to be able to go to Tahiti to have his breakdown and find himself.
posted by euphorb at 7:59 PM on January 18, 2007

The River Why, by David James Duncan. Particularly Book 2, The Undoing of a Scientific Angler.
posted by Dr. Lurker at 9:35 PM on January 18, 2007

My college-years website!

Okay, okay, no. It's offline now anyway. But Kay Redfield Jamison's "An Unquiet Mind" is a fantastic read on manic-depressive breakdowns, if that fits your criteria.

I used to be way into breakdown books, but not so much these days. Blame it on youthful angst. Here, have some angst-filled breakdown writing from my younger years (ironically, only 5 years ago [apologies for the lack of capitalization.]):

(June 4, 2001)
JE04.01.:.ginger clams

i'm going crazy. i don't know whether to laugh or cry or scream or sing out loud and nothing i could do would ever be enough to express what i'm feeling. i don't even know what it is, although it feels a lot like a (very) intensified version of longing, combined with the pure desperation of falling.

the more that i deny the hurt, the stronger and more insistent it becomes. it's settled now to this deep, wicked ache in the very back-bottom of my stomach. i can feel the emptiness flowing through my veins - it's like it's growing, so fast it wants to rip this body apart and tear free into the rest of this world. i'm too small, too weak - i can't hold all this emptiness inside me by myself.

help me . . . it hurts.

posted by po at 10:44 PM on January 18, 2007

How 'bout my personal favorite, The Shining? ;)
posted by houseofdanie at 11:12 PM on January 18, 2007

I want to second Girl, Interrupted. It has this incredible passage where Kaysen (the author) explains exactly what insanity is. (This explanation involves a bureau and a tiger).

I also want to point out that the movie allegedly based on the book turns out to be kind of the opposite of it in many ways, so don't judge the one by the other.
posted by Clay201 at 11:36 PM on January 18, 2007

August Strindberg's Inferno; From an Occult Diary is his personal account of sinking deeper into some kind of madness, typified be visions and paranoia. A stunning and vivid portrayl.

My favorite fictional story of the decent into insanity is Gogol's short story The Diary of a Madman, which captures the encroaching irrationality, confusion and absurdity quite exquisitely.
posted by MetaMonkey at 11:37 PM on January 18, 2007

Vladimir Nabokov's The Defence ('spoiler' in link but you can't spoil Nabokov by knowing the plot) is a masterful account of mental breakdown. Well worth the read.
posted by Gratishades at 1:35 AM on January 19, 2007

An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison is a a very readable (and occasionally harrowing) account of her descent into manic depression (bipolar disorder). Well worth reading IMO.
posted by pharm at 3:33 AM on January 19, 2007

William Styron's Darkness Visible. Man.
posted by DenOfSizer at 6:12 AM on January 19, 2007

Big Sur by Jack Kerouac. Strongly recommend the suggestion above of The Hunger by Knut Hamsun - it's a fantastic novel, and just what you're after, from the sound of it.
posted by reynir at 12:15 PM on January 19, 2007

Very good call, Armitage Shanks!
posted by Trismegist at 4:21 PM on January 31, 2007

Also, Notes from the Underground.
posted by Trismegist at 4:22 PM on January 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

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