Breakdown — or Breakout?

In late March, 1998, I endured a severe stress breakdown while on a brief vacation to Banff, Alberta, Canada.

At the lowest point, on March 28, 1998, I was afraid to get on a plane the next day because I was convinced I was going to die in a plane crash.  Yes, I know — not exactly rational thought, and I knew that at the time.  Yet, the fear was very real.

At that point, while kneeling and sobbing next to the motel bed, I felt the souls of two friends who had died at a young age press up against my back. My friend, Nikos, died in a car crash eleven years earlier and was on my right side. My friend Kerin died in December of 1997, just three months earlier, and was on my left. Nick communicated with me (not audibly) with the message, “You can do this, Penni. You can get out of this. But you have to think! THINK! Come on, Penni! You can do this? How can you get out of this?!!”

I felt a synapse fire in my brain as I realized Don’t get on the plane. I stayed in Banff an extra week to get my head together enough to fly back to Seattle. I thought the worst was over. I was wrong.

I have master’s degrees in both statistics and German. Prior to the ’98 breakdown, I had sometimes joked, “If a person goes crazy in a crazy world, are they sane?”  Kind of how -1 times -1 equals +1 or -1 x -1 = +1.  I never thought it would happen to me.

The Lead-up

I had been showing signs of significant stress for over two years prior to the events of 1998.  I had worked with my medical doctor, seen a mental health professional the summer of 1997, taken stress management classes and even switched jobs.  I even planned to take a leave of absence through the summer of 1998.  I didn’t get that far.

While multiple professionals recognized that I was under a lot of stress, no one picked up on my toxic co-dependency related to multiple dysfunctional and even abusive systems I was enmeshed in.  I thought I had been letting the stress roll off my back, but ultimately it was getting stuffed into a glass ball.

And then BAM!  One event or “moral injury” put a ka-chink in that glass ball and that glass ball of stress and past trauma. That ka-chink was all it took to wake me up to just how unhealthy my surroundings had become.  And with that ka-chink, all that stress and energy flooded through my mind and body.  All these years later, I still believe this was my soul’s way of breaking out from those unhealthy dynamics.

That is why some people, including myself, call my type of experience a “spiritual awakening.”

It wasn’t until more than twenty years later that I came across the work or Dr. Stanislav and Christina Grof’s work from the 1980s related to “spiritual emergencies.” That term is also a much better description for the traumatic experiences I dealt with. I knew all along that my experiences were for a much higher purpose. What is truly tragic to me is that Grof’s work was available in 1998 and it would have helped me immensely.  I shouldn’t have had to reinvent the wheel.

The Aftermath

After the initial crisis in Banff, on the next work day, I was cut off twice in the same day by mental health professionals in the US with whom I had previously worked. Neither of them would stay on the phone with me long enough to help me when I desperately needed help.

Upon returning to the US, things got even more surreal.  My condition worsened at the hands of the Employee’s Assistance Program at my former Fortune 100 employer and by falling through the cracks of the mental health industry.  This included having medical leave paperwork not processed, being accused of rejecting treatment (though I had already started working with another professional), getting misinformation about my medical leave options, getting multiple sets of medical leave paperwork filled out incorrectly and then being threatened with termination from a job that contributed significantly to me “going crazy.”

In May, in a “small world” twist, I learned that my dad had worked with the man who was the Vice President in charge of Human Resources at the large, international company I was working for.  I found that unexpected connection interesting. Here was a significant connection to the VP of the department that was traumatizing me so badly.  Even at the time, I thought that connection was “non-random.” My dad and I even met with the VP in an effort to get true assistance. That effort also failed.  There were four termination dates floating around as to when I was finally fired.

Picking Up the Pieces

Throughout those four months of excessive trauma, I thought to myself, Oh, crap. I really have gone ‘crazy’ in this crazy world.

I had worked in quality assurance, focusing primarily on process improvement methods.  It was as through through this experience, God (whatever forces you believe God to be) was holding my head sideways to say, “Hey, Pen, look over here. See the improvements needed?”  And there were plenty of improvements to be found.

But, alas, I was crazy or as one mental health professional put it, I was “seriously mentally ill”, which I rejected.  I wasn’t “ill.”  I was significantly injured and wounded. By late June and July, I realized that if the professionals had just treated me for the trauma of having an exploded, fractured mind, I would probably be healthier. The added stress and trauma heaped on me after the initial breakdown significantly worsened my condition.  Being fired from that mess was truly a blessing in disguise.

A year later, after returning to Montana where I grew up, and still trying to work through the trauma and anger, I found a counselor who listened to me with no threats and no personal agenda of hers.  I finally found someone who listened to me and helped me to embrace my surreal journey. She didn’t like me using the term “breakdown.”  She preferred to call my experiences a “breakout” or “breakthrough” – because I broke out of my chronic co-dependence in the multiple abusive systems to which I had become so enmeshed.  She truly helped me heal and embrace my surreal, even mystical, experiences.

Additional thoughts:

I have said for years that if I could equate my experiences to one things, it would be to John Travolta’s character (George Malley) in the movie Phenomenon. In the movie, George’s brain slips into high gear and generates a number of theories and he feels additional energies around him. Unlike George in the movie, I thankfully don’t have a brain tumor. In another “small world” twist, I learned in 2014 that my nephew’s wife’s step-father, Tony Genaro, starred as the mechanic, Tito, in that movie. As a statistician, the odds of having that kind of connection to something so meaningful to me is astounding.

Ultimately, my experiences were for the better because after returning to Montana. I focused on healing from the trauma and I rebuilt my life.  It certainly wasn’t easy, but it was very worthwhile.  I ended up living a much better life than I ever could have imagined.

Over the years, I meant to get into public speaking about my experiences, but my new life got in the way, including volunteering for Special Olympics and Eagle Mount, which is a locally-founded program that helps people with various disabilities participate in different athletic and educational programs.

Final note: One additional item that I would like to note is that I made it through that journey without the psychiatric drugs.  While I recognize that those can be tools, I knew that there was no way they could “undo” the trauma I had experienced.  There was no going back to the person I was prior to the 1998 experience.  There was only going “through” it to work towards a healthier experience and perspective.

In July of 1998, while still trying to save my job, I had one psychiatrist tell me in our second session that “it was our goal to get you back to work as soon as possible.” It was four days later that I realized what was wrong with that statement.  My goal was to heal, and I would take the appropriate length of time to do that.

I wouldn’t trade those experiences.  Though exceptionally painful, I learned WAY too much from them.  I have joked over the years that it was truly a “crash course.”

Yes, for a woman whose name is Penni, mine is a very rich life.