Artist Therapy: Breakdown

Artist Therapy Posts: Where we face the feels all artists struggle with.

We are taught to never give up. Keep pushing. Work through blocks. Strive. Fight. And that is noble. But sometimes the pushing is not working, and no matter how hard we’re struggling to make something work, we keep sinking into the quicksand. As we fight harder and harder consciously, our subconscious knows something is wrong — and what we’ve been trying to do isn’t working. And those times when our unconscious mind knows something that our conscious won’t slow down enough to accept is when we sometimes end up in a breakdown.

It’s hard to define what a breakdown really is, because it looks differently for each of us. Some of us can’t leave our home, or can’t force ourselves out of bed. Some of us just can’t force ourselves to create. Some of us become completely absorbed in video games or Netflix or books and don’t want to face the real world. Some of us are great at looking like we’re fine, when we’re crumbling inside. Something is wrong, and we can’t figure out what. We keep struggling and struggling, but we’re barely keeping our heads above water. We’re sinking, and we fight to stay afloat. We feel horribly guilty — to ourselves, and to others. But finally we hit bottom.

Many people in my circle of wonderful, creative, sensitive folks have been confiding that they’ve been going though a breakdown recently. They wanted to shake 2017 off and start 2018 with a fresh start — but so many (myself included) have felt like they crashed instead. I was sent this article by the School of Life and it really helped me reframe what a breakdown is. It’s not being weak. It’s not being needy. It’s not being lazy.

“Breakdowns are hugely inconvenient for everyone and so, unsurprisingly, there is an immediate rush to medicalise the problem and attempt to excise it from the scene, so that business as usual can restart.

But this is to misunderstand what is going on when we break down. A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction, it is a very real – albeit very inarticulate – bid for health. It is an attempt by one part of our minds to force the other into a process of growth, self-understanding and self-development which it has hitherto refused to undertake. If we can put it paradoxically, it is an attempt to jumpstart a process of getting well, properly well, through a stage of falling very ill.

The danger, therefore, if we merely medicalise a breakdown and attempt to shift it away at once is that we will miss the lesson embedded within our sickness. A breakdown isn’t just a pain, though it is that too of course; it is an extraordinary opportunity to learn.”

A breakdown is a red flag when we’ve ignored the yellows for too long. This past year I have started learning more about the symbolic meanings of Tarot cards, because I think they are a great visual encoding of emotional and subconscious archetypes that occur in all of us. The card for a breakdown is absolutely The Tower. The Tower is a scary card. It’s all about destruction. But what it really symbolizes is a tearing down to foundations, so we can start fresh and build better. Here’s a Tower card from some decks I am familiar with: The traditional Rider-Waite Tarot illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith, The Aquarian Tarot by David Palladini, the Wild Unknown Tarot by Kim Krans, and the Shadowscapes Tarot by Stephanie Law.


These are all scenes we don’t want to experience — much like no one wants to experience a breakdown — but there is truth to the cliché — you have to clear the dead wood to let the tree grow. It’s not comfortable, but it’s necessary.

Breakdown is even an official stage of the Hero’s Journey. “The Descent” — also known as “The Ordeal” — can be easily read as a metaphor for a mental breakdown.

If you find yourself in a breakdown period right now, or ever, know that you are not alone. Many of our most revered creative geniuses have gone through a “hitting rock bottom” period and emerged stronger than ever. First of all, don’t feel guilty. Do as much as you are able to express to your loved ones that you need a little extra support right now, but it is a rest period and you will come out of it. Reach out to professional help if you need it, whether it comes in the form of therapists, or support groups. Physical movement can help. Most importantly, give yourself permission to have this breakdown and don’t try to rush it. Reflect, meditate, journal. Do whatever feels right to you in the moment. Know that it is a hard time, and it’s not fun, but you’ll emerge on a better path on the other side. And don’t let the fear that your creativity is broken haunt you (something I very much struggle with in these periods) — your inspiration and art will be waiting for you to pick up pen or brush or mouse again.











9 thoughts on “Artist Therapy: Breakdown”

  1. I love this post!

    Can you help me with the “money issue”?

    That’s the worst bit about the breakdown – knowing you aren’t paying the bills while you are being “lazy”.

    But I do believe that self care and time is SO important to passing through the breakdown

    How do you navigate it?

    Thank you!

    • Well, that’s not an easy answer without knowing more about your situation. Even during a breakdown period, you need to do enough to survive in relation to bills, self-care, childcare, etc. I would say reach out to your family and friends to help you work through the rough patch. It’s during these periods that we feel the most ashamed and guilty, and tend to not ask for help, exactly when we need it most. That help doesn’t need to be financial – it can be planning help, company, someone to talk to, a few hot meals, some babysitting sessions. And remember to keep an eye on your friends in return – they might not be good at asking for help when they need it, either. Support each other.

      • Thanks so much!

        I am sooo bad at asking for help. I’m currently doing fine but was in a rough spot a few years back.

        However, I had my day job then so no biggie, I just sort of “existed” there and paid the bills until I got better.

        Now that I’m 100% freelance, I want my toolbox full of good stuff to help me succeed and outlast the rough patches.

  2. Thanks for this post, Lauren. As someone who has been through this sort of thing before, the hardest part was not feeling like anyone in my professional circles would or could understand, because the only narrative that got talked about was the “pushing through” one. Sometimes that works. And sometimes the only thing that works to let yourself go down, out and through to whatever is waiting on the other side.

    • Trust me, we ALL understand. The reason I wrote this post is because so many people are going thru this right at this very moment. We all feel it.

  3. Thank you for this great post.

    I went through a multi-year breakdown a while back where it seemed I was never going to create again. The hardest part was simply trusting that the magic had not abandoned me. When my health and peace of mind returned it was all there waiting with wagging tail as if to say, “I waited here while you took care of things. Now let’s have some fun!”

    • That’s the scariest part, right? You feel like you’ve lost a part of your identity. But you can’t lose it. It might take time, but creativity is not something you can “lose”, it’s wired into the deepest parts of us. I’m so glad you found it again.

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