Stress getting to you? Humor is a powerful coping mechanism. Sometimes a dip into the outrageous is a great respite from the grind of everyday, or from an overwhelming burden we don’t know what to do with. Right now, with hundred degree heat and no solution in sight to the oil disaster in the Gulf, a nervous breakdown is starting to sound pretty good, particularly if the treatment involves placement in a quiet mountaintop reatreat, soft music, a massage, and iced coffee.
Nervous breakdowns have not always been suitable material for irony, or even polite conversation. Not long ago, if a relative had overwhelming stress, depression, anxiety, fear of domestic violence, or any mental health problem that required treatment or time off, it was a whispered, shameful confession: auntie had to be put away, she had a nervous breakdown, you know. The truth is that there is no such clinical diagnosis as a nervous breakdown, and there never has been.
Desperate to avoid appearing weak or wacko, people preferred to see emotional suffering as a problem with nerves that break down, because a disorder of a body part is more respectable than anxiety. “Bad nerves” are nobody’s fault. Shame still keeps some people from acknowledging emotional pain, or openly accepting help. Even in this age of abundant self care, supported by millions of websites and vast bookstore departments, we still have public images to maintain, and we still have demeaning terms for acute stress reactions, and symptoms of mental illness. People say they are “cracking up” when they are stressed or symptomatic and can no longer maintain their confident public façade. They make it sound as if they are helplessly watching while their capacity to live a human life disintegrates, like a seismic event. Somebody with physical pain is called a patient; somebody with emotional pain that can no longer be denied, is called a “basket case”.
This imagery of cracking up has some potential, in our ironic moments. It calls to mind the hatching of a bird. Perhaps there are times when we are so stressed, that our public facade is a too-tight shell. Sometimes the world as we know it is inhospitable or overwhelming, and we need time out, to regroup and find a new source of hope and humor. For extremely responsible people, this time out might seem hard to justify, but important in the prevention of burnout. The cracking of the old familiar façade, the way we usually think and feel, can be an opening for inspiration. The spiritual dimension sometimes surfaces. Acknowledging that the status quo is not working, and we are angry, anxious, and depressed, may actually be our salvation in hard times. This might be an excellent time for a nervous breakdown.