What It's Like to have a Mental Breakdown

What it's like to have a mental breakdown by Octavia Bromell | Tink Illustration

If you've been following my work as an illustrator for a while, you'll probably know that I deal with the topic of mental health and self esteem on a regular basis. This is due to my personal experiences with depression and anxiety, and I thought it was high time I answered some of your questions about how this impacts my life.

As a lifelong sufferer of clinical depression and anxiety (among other things, which we will get to another time), I had always used creativity to feel better about myself, and my life. I started playing the piano aged 5, and began songwriting at 11. It was such a core part of who I was. About six months after finishing a degree in music, I found myself unable to do either. I discovered various other stop gaps – drinking a main one – but nothing quite matched the cathartic experience I used to have while bashing some Einaudi out on a rainy afternoon. Searching for something to tape up the gaping hole I was left with, I took up another passion at the time, writing, and spent a year trying to make it as a journalist.

I got mid-way through a masters degree in magazine journalism, when everything went tits up. I found myself in a place where I couldn’t overpower my depression any longer, it was overpowering me. I remember the very first therapist I saw saying to me; “have you ever considered taking a break?” and honestly, I don’t think I had. I’d always been pushing on to the next goal, the next big thing I could tell people about that would make me feel valued. After six months of feeling suicidal every damn day, it was like being given permission to do the thing I feared most in the world. To stop! 

I left that session, got an Uber to the train station, and came home to Dorset. I originally planned to stay for three days, but here I still am, three years later. I vividly remember returning to the flat to pick up some clothes (I first went home with nothing but my phone and the clothes I was wearing), and walking into my bedroom, and the enormity of how ill I was hitting me like a tonne of lead bricks. It looked like a bombsite, and was just screaming at me that I wasn't looking after myself, that I couldn’t cope on my own anymore.

I was lucky enough that I have two parents that love me, and for reasons I still don't understand, had the patience to look after me. I mean that in every sense, my mum basically took six months off work because I couldn't be on my own. I didn't feel any improvement for over a year. It was an incredibly tough time, and picking up drawing was a major part of my recovery. It helped me relearn what I want from life.

Fast forward three years, and I can't believe that I get to use this healing tool as my job. I am now a full time illustrator, and give workshops and talks about the positive role creativity can have on our lives, which feels like a real silver lining from such a destructive part of my life. Almost every person I talk to about it instantly responds with a way mental health has impacted them. And being able to use the platform that Adobe has given me to have more conversations like this means everything to me.

I get waves of pain thinking about my ‘old’ life, of all the things I failed to do, all the things I’m missing out on, all the people I’ve lost contact with. But drawing gives me respite from that dark space. More than that, it makes me feel more like a capable person, even if all I’m able to do is a drawing of someone that's actually living their life.

If I had to review the past few years in a few words, painful would pop up fairly soon, exhausting alongside it. But I’d also say grateful. Grateful for lovely tubes of paint, and days spent in art shops. Grateful to my cocker spaniel, Biggles, for sleeping on my bed and curing my regular nightmares. Grateful for sunny days, rainy days, stormy days and calm ones. So unbelievably grateful to everyone at the Creative Residency programme at Adobe, that knows my story, and believes in me because of it, not in spite of it. Most importantly though, grateful to every single person in my life that is trying to understand what’s going on. And to everyone I’ve opened up about the scary stuff to that has stuck around, which is more than can be said for some.

One of my favourite musicians, Nick Mulvey (first recommended to me by the person who also got me into drawing. Boy are they a good egg) has a beautiful lyric that I'll leave you with:

And I looked inside my aching heart

And saw a hive of honey bees

Making honey from my darkness,

from my disease.