In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.
Scott Fitzgerald had one. Since then, we’ve been required to call “nervous breakdowns” by more (perhaps misleadingly, I suspect) precise terms. But in these parlous times, some of us cling for reassurance to the old ways, the WSJ reports (“Time for a Good Old-Fashioned Nervous Breakdown?“):
Fifty years ago, Ms. Shapiro’s experience would have been called a “nervous breakdown”—an unscientific term for personal crises ranging from serious mental illness and alcoholism to marital problems and stress.
Today, psychiatry is more precise. A sudden inability to cope with life’s demands could be classified as one of dozens of specific mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder or major depression. There’s no official term for milder forms of “nervous breakdown,” though some patients and clinicians wish there was still a name for a temporary state of being overwhelmed by outside forces without an underlying mental illness.
“I hear the term ‘nervous breakdown’ from a patient at least once a week,” says Katherine Muller, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Integrative Psychotherapy in Allentown, Pa. “The term lives on in our culture, maybe because it seems to capture so well what people feel when they are distressed.”
“Given the economic mess we’re in, a lot of people are coming in saying they think they’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” says David Hellerstein, research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. He says it can be challenging to tell immediately if a patient is having an acute episode of mental illness, or a predictable reaction to extreme stress. Symptoms may be similar—including heart palpitations, chest pains, shortness of breath, uncontrollable crying, dizziness, disorientation, exhaustion and a feeling of “going crazy.”…
I like the return of the folksier, archaic term. More “scientific” terms suggest a precision, a specificity that seems to me impossible in dealing with anything so complex, so messy, so organic, so spiritual as the human mind.
In any case, when mine comes (perhaps I should say, when my NEXT one comes), I hope everyone calls it a “nervous breakdown.” That sounds so much more human — friendlier, somehow — than the more clinical terms.