When your car breaks down you don't throw it away
Breakdown cover is standard for any road user. We tick the box when our annual insurance offers us a deal on the AA or RAC, the only question being whether Roadside assistance will be enough or should we go the whole hog and have Homestart too. Thankfully, any inclination I have to be stingy is usually overruled by wiser voices from the other side of the kitchen table. We don’t, though, question the wisdom of some kind of breakdown cover because we accept that cars, any car, from time to time, might break and need fixing. Cars breaking down is a fact of life. Inconvenient, sometimes expensive, but no great drama and usually no reason to discard the vehicle entirely. We get it fixed and move on.
That word - breakdown - is far more ominous and loaded when referring to people, however. “He had a breakdown, you know?”, “she wasn’t able to cope and had to take time out - it was a breakdown, really”. When people break down it is spoken of in hushed tones and ominous inflections. Breakdowns are seismic and terminal, life changing events for the worse that are never quite recovered from. A limp forever.
Yet breakdown is commonplace and needed. Nature does it every year in order to come back as strong as ever. Your bones do it all the time. Osteoperosis, the medical condition where bones become brittle and fragile, is enhanced by a lack of impact exercise needed in order to stimulate the production of bone tissue: bones stay strong because they are threatened with breaking as we move about. They need breakdown in order to trigger their growth and strength.
Its hard to see when you’re in the midst of it, but emotional, mental breakdown can be no less valuable and enriching. Often it can represent an unheard voice, deep within, that has desperately been trying to get a message to the front. A part of us that’s been unhappy or carrying a load that we’ve tired from bearing suddenly screams that enough is enough and throws on the anchors in order to get us to stop. There’s a moment towards the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral where Hugh Grant’s character, Will, is about to undertake a disastrous marriage to the unfortunate “Duckface”. Just before he’s about to pronounce the fateful words of assent a loud knocking resonates throughout the church caused by his deaf and dumb brother calling everyone, and especially Will himself, to attention. His brother wants to point out something that Will himself can’t bring himself to accept: he’s having second thoughts. Breakdown can be one such a loud and resonant knocking, an inner voice calling us to give attention to something that, until now, we’ve managed to live with but about which we could do well to change.
So, rather than being a cause for shame, a stain on our record we’ll struggle to explain, breakdown can be the door way to breakthrough, the preparation that turning the soil in spring enables when ground is broken up in order that it can be readied to bear fruit again. And, for “breakdown”, read unmanageable stress and anxiety, too. Quite understandably we seek to avoid strong feelings of anxiety for any length of time and psychotherapy can be extremely effective in alleviating them. Yet part of the resolution of our anxious states might well be an acceptance of what it is that they are trying to tell us. A giant of the therapeutic world, Carl Jung, once wrote that we should “thank heaven” for anxiety, and for the neurosis that accompany it, as part of a “self regulating psychic system to restore balance”. Persistent and overwhelming anxiety may well be another resonant knocking in a silent church, a plea to make changes that lead us to a life better suited to our preferences, aptitudes and inclinations.
Its understandably difficult to see these hard experiences as friends when they’ve got our hands turned hard up our back but recognising that they might have something to give us, as much as take from us, might enable a more creative and positive sense of how we can survive them in the first instance, and then thrive beyond them after that.