I feel the urgent need to be honest.
What I’ve been through between 20 and 25 had nothing to do with what I expected from my early twenties. Almost nothing. I had plans for my after-university years, and life had its own plans on me.
Instead of cool and independent adult life, I got challenges to overcome and lessons to learn from.
Today, looking back at all that happened, I feel nothing but gratitude. No matter how painful, this experience helped me grow and question the system of values most people live by. Now I know it was worth it.
Let me explain what happened.
I got my first job when I was 18. That was my second year at the university. I was young and naive and willing-to-change-the-world. I worked part-time as an office manager in a French school.
My life was like this. Wake up at 6:30, get dressed, and hurry up to be in the office before the first student arrives. Work for a few hours in the morning, enjoy your student life for the rest of the day.
This job was the only way to cover my own lessons of French in that same school (and the only way I could afford those cool pair of jeans from Zara).
I spent a year and a half like this. Most of my university friends lived carelessly and happily. I lived happily, too. But carelessness was always a missing part for me.
I wanted to do my best at work. I wanted a career my family would be proud of. I wanted good grades. I wanted time spent with my friends. And I wanted romantic evenings with that green-eyed guy I had a crush on.
A perfectionist by nature, I never allowed myself to be weak. Neither did I give my body and mind a chance to rest. A girl that’s always on the go. A girl who will most certainly succeed in life. A girl who is always ready to help. A girl who manages to deliver on all fronts. So young and productive and ambitious, and blah blah blah. Did I mention I was an active member of student parliament, too?
After the first job, there were the second and the third one. Higher salary, more responsibilities, less time left for studying (and life). By the end of my third year at the university, I no longer felt like a student. Adulthood — with all its responsibilities and stress — took over. I was still a student. I no longer had a normal student life.
I felt successful but stressed out. Early rises, skipped meals, night shifts, and burning deadlines both at the university and at work. Now add to that some unhealthy perfectionism and exaggerated sense of responsibility, spice it up with a broken heart (first love is not always a happy love) and here it is — a perfect storm for a nervous breakdown.
It all started with a chronic fatigue. Young and somewhat stupid, I did not take it seriously. I aimed for success, I couldn’t slow down.
Then came a common cold I had troubles recovering from. Then was the first panic attack. At that moment, I had no idea they call it a panic attack. It just felt like a paralyzing episode of fear that came out of nowhere, lasted for a few minutes, and left me completely drained. Then there were months of bodily symptoms no doctor could cure.
Nervous breakdown is something nobody is immune from. Especially, in today’s crazy, fast-paced world.
Nervous breakdown is the price we pay for being too ambitious and success-oriented. Nervous breakdown is what happens when you push way too hard for too long not listening to what your body and mind are trying to tell you. Your body screams for some rest only to hear your “I need to succeed, got no time for sleep.” Given such a mindset, there is no wonder one day your body and mind decide to turn on you.
Nervous breakdown has many faces and shapes. For some people, it takes a form of anxiety. For others, it’s all about panic attacks. It may cause physical pain doctors cannot explain (and painkillers can’t kill). Some people say they stop sleeping at night. Others feel like holding Mountain Everest on their shoulders.
Nervous breakdown is no fun. Especially, if you choose to ignore your condition and go on with your life pretending that nothing really happened. Days go by, your body and mind crave a chance to recover, you persist like an idiot (you have plans and deadlines), and things get worse.
You get pills, pay for therapy, change your diet. You even try to go to bed before 11 PM. You change your lifestyle and, if you’re anything like me, you expect immediate relief. Days go by, you get pills, pay for therapy, keep eating healthy, sleep well, but no improvement occurs. You feel disappointed, you feel like a fool.
Eventually, when you are fed up with the way you feel, something insides you starts to change. You understand that life is not about being so damn perfect in everything you do — from sports to cooking to parallel parking. You realize that you’re perfectly fine with not being an entrepreneur in 23. You realize that all you really want is to make peace with yourself. And this is the moment when things start to change.
It takes time to accept you are broken. It takes even more time to take responsibility for everything that happened. These two things — acceptance and responsibility — are recovery essentials.
When you accept where you are, it becomes a lot easier to move forward. When you take responsibility, you stop blaming the world for being so fast, stressful, and success-oriented. You realize it was you who chose to sleep 5 hours instead of 8. It was you who skipped meals for the sake of meeting deadlines. It was you to always choose perfect over realistic.
Acceptance and responsibility are things that lay the foundation for healing.
Recovery takes patience and time. It is a period of life when you learn to live differently. You recognize the importance of work-life balance. You practice self-love. You learn to be kind to yourself. You read books, you draw, you play the piano. You take walks, you cuddle with your cat, you make dinners at home and enjoy it. You learn to do nothing and not feel guilty about that. You learn to ask yourself “What do I really want now?” and listen to what your inner voice says.
And if you manage to live this way long enough, one day you wake up and realize that your storm starts to calm down. You feel the inner peace you have already forgotten existed. You feel thankful and you cry.
My life between 20 and 25 was not what I expected from my early twenties. These five years made me a grownup. I realized that glorification of stress is a global problem we need to address. I understood that values I used to live by were not really mine, so I sat down and made a list of my own. Today, at the age of 25, I am so damn different from a girl I was five years ago. And it’s not about the age or stage of life or whatever. It is all about the lessons learned and life secrets unlocked.
I no longer demand too much from myself. I no longer try to do better, go faster, and be cooler. All I want now is to feel balanced and happy. I still set goals, I still try to do my best at work, and I still care about being a good girlfriend/daughter/colleague/friend. What is different now is that I’m done with super-productivity, perfectionism, and self-torture.
Nobody’s home. I look in the mirror and smile. To my own surprise, I found myself saying words I would never say out loud five years ago: “You are beautiful. And I love you. And I’ll never let you down. Never again.” And saying/hearing these words makes my heart melt.
It took me time and courage to put it all into words. I published it here on Medium for one reason. If you feel running out of energy, if you feel like stress starts to take over, if you feel like you need some rest, please please please don’t be a fool. Don’t be afraid to slow down, rest, and put your super-active life on hold. I know you are smart enough to learn from other people’s mistakes. You are more than welcome to learn from mine.
Originally published at medium.com