At 24, Georgie Dent had the world at her feet – but within a year she was suffering such crippling anxiety that she admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital. Georgie shares what this difficult time was like, and how she relived it when writing her memoir Breaking Badly.
As a journalist, writing is my bread and butter – and, for the most part, it comes easily. Regular deadlines and tight turnarounds mean that doubt is a luxury I rarely have time to indulge. But sitting down to write a memoir was something else entirely. Where to even begin?
Through a heavy fog of doubt, I eventually settled on a starting point: a doctor’s room in Brisbane, November of 2001. It was the first of many pivotal medical appointments I would attend and while at the time I was oblivious, it really did mark the beginning of my path towards breakdown. It took another six years for me to fall apart, spectacularly, but something happened in that office that afternoon.
A combination of fear and shame settled into my psyche upon being told, at age 19, that I had endometriosis and needed surgery. The diagnosis provided tangible proof of something I had long suspected: I was flawed in function. Two months later I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a painful and deeply unpleasant autoimmune condition, which was further confirmation of my failings.
I used to joke that I was faulty goods – that I ought to be sent back to the factory on account of my body’s defects – but it wasn’t funny. It was toxic because I absorbed it as truth.
To compensate I threw myself into ticking as many boxes as I could. Perfectionism was the armour I didn’t know I used to protect myself. I studied hard for six years to complete a double degree in business and law and graduate with honours. I never took a sick day or asked for special consideration. I was offered a coveted spot on the graduate program at a fancy Sydney law firm. Ostensibly, things were good. But on the inside I wasn’t coping. The stress in my life increased as I tried desperately to fit into a high performance environment. My health deteriorated, badly, but I persevered. I pretended I felt fine even as I lost weight and became increasingly frazzled.
In May of 2007, I fell over one night at work, knocked off kilter by a violent vertigo spell – the first of many over the next four months. It became impossible to keep pretending that all was well. I moved back in with my parents and took leave from my job. My internal monologue was a constant barrage of criticism. Why can’t you just suck it up like everybody else? Are you really so hopeless that you can’t handle working? What the hell is WRONG with you?
At the end of August I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and was forced to confront the uncomfortable – but strangely relieving – reality that I had lost my mind. Being diagnosed with anxiety was relieving because it provided an explanation and a solution to my woes. By treating anxiety, gradually, I was able to re-join life. After my two-week stint in rehab, I quit corporate law, spent a few months working at David Jones selling clothes and then set about building a career in journalism.
A decade on, almost to the day I was released from rehab, I signed a contract to write a memoir detailing the experience. It was humbling to consider how far I’d travelled. In the midst of my nervous breakdown I was convinced my entire life would be spent on my parents’ sofa. I really didn’t believe I would ever be able to participate in life ‘normally’.
It’s impossible to downplay how terrifying that felt and the fact I’ve never forgotten that fear is partly why being asked to write a book about my experience was overwhelming. Imagine, I thought, if I had known, in those long dark months, there was reason to hope?
This is why I wanted to tell my story in all its gritty, raw and ghastly glory. To give hope to anyone who has felt close to burn out or has suffered from anxiety or chronic illness, or constantly feels dogged by the feeling that nothing they ever do is good enough.
Laying my soul bare and revealing the truth about the lowest ebbs of that experience was tough. It did force me to relive those feelings; and even in writing the book I had to overcome moments – many moments – of self-doubt and criticism. But writing my story was also cathartic and reminded me of the perspective I wrested back then that I never want to lose. That good is better than perfect, and that after hitting rock bottom, life gets a lot easier and it is worth appreciating.