Tag Archives: breakdown

Healing and breaking

Healing is seldom a linear process. This is as true for bodies as it is for minds, especially when healing requires rebuilding. When we build muscle, part of the process involves our bodies ripping apart the structures we already have in order to respond to the demands we’ve made on ourselves. This tends to hurt. Push too hard and you can end up – in the short term at least – able to do far less than you could. Push far too hard and you can damage yourself. Mind and body alike have limits, and while you can push to try and recover from pretty much anything, sometimes what’s needed most is rest, and time.

When you’re in the middle of it, telling the difference between breakdown and breakthrough is difficult. I’ve been around this one a few times. Dismantling a limiting belief, or an out of date coping mechanism can be messy. Dismantling the consequences of gaslighting is frankly a brutal process. I’ve gone a lot of rounds with that one over the years. It isn’t the sort of thing you can unpick quickly.

There’s been a lot of gaslighting at a national level here in the UK. A lot of saying that things we all saw happen did not happen. A lot of telling us that we are all to blame for the state of the economy, that it’s all down to poor people not trying hard enough. Instead, this is a consequence of deliberate policy. Not internalising the blame is challenging, and I have no doubt that many people will end up feeling that the cold and hunger they experience this winter is their fault. 

At some point there will have to be a collective squaring up to the impact of that gaslighting. There’s going to be a lot of breaking down in order to be able to heal and rebuild. Not just on the individual level, either. If we’re going to make it as a species we’re going to need to break down some aspects of our civilization in order to heal and go forward. We may have to break down all kinds of assumptions, structures and systems because so much of what we have right now just doesn’t work and is making life on this planet ever less viable. Inevitably this is going to be messy, but it is possible.

Breakdown and breakthrough

CW trauma recovery

Healing can be a messy process. When it comes to matters of mental health, there are points in the journey that can only be messy. Most of us do not get into difficulty on our own. There are reasons that we suffer from depression and anxiety, and those reasons tend to involve extreme stress and traumatic experiences. To recover from that, you need to be in a safer place, and you will have to square up to what happened.

The most common environment for wounding to occur is the domestic one. People are most at risk from violence, abuse, sexual assault and rape from people they know, not from strangers. This is more traumatic to begin with because of the layers of betrayal and broken trust when the people you should have been able to most trust are the ones who harm you. Part of the healing process for many people will involve squaring up to what someone they loved did to them. That is a vicious, painful process to be in.

Abusers encourage their victims to feel responsible for what is happening. This protects the abuser and keeps the victim pliable and cooperative. The mental health damage is massive. It’s further complicated when the victim wants to think the best of their abuser and is easily persuaded to feel that they are to blame so that they can keep believing that their partner, or parent or other person they care about, is actually a good person. To heal from that experience requires re-visiting it and re-framing it and that is a hard process.

While you’re in there, the difference between breakdown and breakthrough can be almost impossible to spot. Some healing is impossible without some breaking down of the old self and the old worldview first. Again, this is a desperately hard thing to go through, and while in the thick of it, there may be no sense that this is a breakthrough process moving you towards healing. Not everyone hits this in the context of having professional support to get through it.

Breaking down always creates the possibility for a breakthrough of some sort. But, that’s not an obligation to heal. Without support, resources, time and care, a breakdown can be just another hellish period of misery. Having the space to transform breakdown into breakthrough is a privilege issue. For the person who is still in the harmful situation, healing isn’t an option.

But, it can be some comfort to know that when you hit a period of breakdown, it might lead to breakthrough. There is every chance its happening because you are able to step away from the past and start re-building. It is not an easy choice to go with this process rather than fighting it, but sometimes, surrendering really pays off.

I will likely be coming back to this in the not too dim and distant future to talk in more detail about how recent breakdown has allowed me to make some specific breakthroughs.

The art of breaking

Every time we use our muscles, there’s a complicated process of tearing down and rebuilding going on. I don’t pretend to understand the mechanics, only that our bodies grow and develop through a constant process of destruction. I’ve had conversations on and offline with other people, Druids especially, about the importance of breaking in other ways too. You can’t build a new way of living, seeing and being without breaking the old one.

From a training perspective, the easiest way to get rid of old ingrained habits / conditioning is to simply train yourself into a new set and replace them. Old behaviours disappear, but if the ideas, feelings and beliefs that gave them sense are all still hanging around, it can get messy. New behaviour plus old thoughts equals total chaos.

I’ve learned to see breaking as a helpful thing more than a fearful one, but this has taken practice, and the practice has been messy. I remember the fear I felt knowing that I was not going to be able to hold together, that emotionally and mentally I was falling apart. I also remember the words of the dear friend who gently explained to me that I was going to have to do it, that my whole sense of self and world view were in such a mess that the only way to heal required me to first break down the old. It hurt like hell, but I walked through it, crawled my way back and started the rebuild.

I know there are more coming. We did a little experiment last week. I drew my body shape. Tom drew my body shape. They clearly weren’t the same person. I had a strange experience which triggered it, seeing myself by accident and thinking I was seeing a fairly slim person, realising it was me and watching the reflection become fat. My body image is clearly not the same as how Tom sees me, and I need to deliberately break the beliefs that are making me see myself in certain ways. I’m going into that one voluntarily.

I can see other things ahead that are going to be emotionally intense, and bound to take me down into the darkest places in my own mind. I fear this. I fear the inevitable pain. I also know that trying to protect myself by not facing it will hurt a lot more in the longer term. There are things that have to happen. Only when the egg cracks can the chick emerge. Only when the seed splits open is there a new shoot. Birth is never clean, tidy, or painless. Mending broken things is a bloody, visceral sort of process. Healing hurts. Dead things coming back to life always hurt. (bonus points if you can place the quote). I’ve spent time in the numb, dead place that is depression, and I know that however bad it is feeling pain, not feeling pain is one hell of a lot worse. Where there is pain, there is life. Not feeling, is hideous and whatever else happens, I am determined not to go back there.

So, as my muscle tissues break and reshape, so does my mind, and my whole emotional system, which is also innately biological. I break to rebuild, I look round for examples of how this works other places in nature, and I am hugely grateful to the people who have helped me get through.

Guest Blog: After the Asylum

(At Asylum this weekend, Tom told a story that he had promised to share when the time was right – one about the origins of Salamandra. I’m re-posting it here for the various people who didn’t catch the panel, and because I feel this is a good sort of story and that there is a lot of power in sharing it. The panel was about the relationship between creativity and madness, this was Tom’s bit.)


After The Asylum, by Tom Brown


A while ago, I made a promise on Facebook that if Hopeless Maine were to become successful, I would tell you all a story. Well… I’m here, at this event with all of you present, sharing a stage with Professor Elemental. People from Poland, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada and other exotic, far off places have been kind enough to tell us that they have enjoyed their stay. Finally, we share a publisher with the creations of Jim Henson (A personal hero of mine. A man who embraced his quirks and ran with them) Jeremy Bastion, creator of Cursed Pirate Girl, and Chandra Free of The God Machine. I think we can at least declare a qualified success. So… here we go…

Salamandra, our young Experimental Occultist, the heart and soul of our story, was born in a transitional homeless shelter. At the age of forty, I went mad. I had what is commonly referred to as a nervous breakdown. It’s sadly a very common event (especially amongst creative types) I became unable to work and lost my home and many other things I had taken for granted for my entire life up to that time. I simply had not seen this coming and there was no way I could have been prepared for it or what was to follow.

So, after spending some time in a crisis centre, I was delivered to the shelter. I will always be grateful to the staff there who treated me with care, and, the thing I most desperately needed at that time, respect.

I am… an odd sort of person. Those who know me might well protest that this would be an understatement. Therefore, I became focussed on the question ‘what would be a good thing right now?’ Well, as Neil Gaiman said recently (I paraphrase) No matter what happens, make good art. That’s what I set out to do. I had an old project that I thought had unrealised potential. I was called New England Gothic: A dark story with a Victorian setting, on the island of Hopeless, Maine. I started writing and drawing pages, sat at the common table at the shelter. A wonderful thing happened, actually, several. Salamandra came to me. (At that point, her middle name was Weaselgrease. Remember, please, I had just had a breakdown.) I say she came to me because it did not seem to me that I had invented her at all. She was much too real for that. I was just the lucky creator she chose. The other good thing that happened was that other people in the shelter took interest and sat and talked to me, and watched me work. Their mood visibly brightened. There was not much to be excited about in that place. Sal was already tuning out to be a good thing.

The road back from being broken was long and not without complication. I did travel tht road though, and I brought Sal with me. The most important step in that journey, for me, and for Sal was when I was assigned a cover job for a book by Nimue. I fell in love with the writing (firt) and I knew this was the person I wanted to write a short origin story for Sal. It was clear to me immediately that Nimue understood Salamandra better and more deeply than I did. As you may have gathered she did agree to write Hopeless Maine, and then later, to marry me.

Why a I telling you all this? I think it’s important for people to know that it’s possible to fall and find your way back up again. It’s even possible to find something that shines and has worth, at the darkest times.


(Nimue again… writing about Salamandra always felt like writing about someone I had met. It’s been an epic journey for all three of us. Sal has grown up in the stories, and developed a family tree of considerable complication. I fell in love with the art, and rapidly with the man behind the art. I also got to watch about two thirds of the journey, knowing from early on in our working partnership that Tom had walked through hell and survived. He’s done a lot more than just survive though. Out of a harrowing experience, he’s built something magical and profound, his work, and his attitude to life continue to inspire me. The decision to talk publically about such deeply personal things, was a big one to take, but one of the things we have both found is that sharing makes a difference. So many people go through times of intense pain and crisis. In Tom’s case, it was precipitated by horrendous pressures and a very dodgy prescription for ADHD. No two stories are ever quite the same, but knowing it is possible to come back makes a world of difference. I took a long, dark walk in recent years, and knowledge that it could be endured, that it did not mean the end of my creativity, my usefulness as a human being, helped me enormously. And so we share.

Much love to Professor Elemental, who shared in this public exploration of the relationship between madness and creativity, bringing some much needed lighter notes to a hard topic. Living through madness is hell. Playing with madness is wild, and being creative is always a bit insane. )