Why it’s okay to break down

I suffer from panic attacks.

Do you know what these are? They are different for everyone, but the main thing to keep in mind is that you are, in all manner of the phrase, attacked by panic. Panic is an innate app our animal brain taps when danger is happening to us. This could be physical danger, like your heart rate increasing rapidly when you’re about to get into a fight. The same response may happen when you’re on a roller coaster and reaching the epoch of track before the great drop. Panic can activate when we’re under abuse, too, when we’re talked down to too much, or when we don’t feel important. Why would something like not feeling important instigate panic? It’s not life threatening, is it?

In the old, old times it may have been. Back before smart phones, and even before the plow and the carriage, if you were ridiculed it was probably because you didn’t fit the norm of your tribe. Maybe you were deformed, behaved too differently, or something else that was perceived by the majority as diseased. You weren’t good for hunting, or building shelters, or you were sick and shouldn’t be around in case you infect others. Your tribe would push you away so that you wouldn’t damage the community as a whole, and you, fearing for your life, would have to fix the problems and stay part of the group, or leave it and live alone.

Panic sets our brains into rapid fire thought processing. “What do I do? Where do I go? How do I do it?” Those people that are calm under pressure are good at filtering these rapid thoughts, (or it’s a sign that they’re not too smart and simply don’t realize they’re in jeopardy).  Panic allows us to react quickly.

But panic isn’t supposed to last too long because we act quickly, and hopefully rationally. Panic is supposed to last only as long as it takes to get out of the situation. On the contrary, panic attacks can last hours, days, and even weeks, even long after the initial flip is switched. My panic attacks cause me to lose my breath, lose my ability to speak, to think clearly, and it makes me overly sensitive- usually to words and criticisms, although sometimes to light and other outside stimuli, too.

I usually suffer from panic attacks when I’m low on energy or battling something psychological, like when I’ve been applying for jobs for two months and been shut down by everyone. No money, no prospects. I feel useless, depleted- and, if you think in terms of the old tribal model, this would make sense: no one needs me in society, so it’s very likely I’ll get kicked out completely, be left on my own, and might starve or get mauled. As funny as that sounds in the modern age, it’s actually where much modern stress comes from. When we don’t fight or flight, we get paralyzed in indecision, and that’s where many dangle in a panic attack.

As skills become more focused on technology and small trade, those middlemen lose traction. To put it another way, there’s more competition for jobs, and even things like dating websites exist so people can be more selective about who they date. The modern age is hyper selective. With more people in general, people are forced to work harder to stand out of the crowd and stay individual, and yet if we go too far into the realm of individuality we’re also at risk of being ostracized. In the modern era we have to balance in the middle of anonymity and individuality. That, to say the least, is exhausting, and also, in the middle is where we panic!

That’s one reason we see more stress, anxiety, and depression than we used to.

When we’re at the end of our rope we reach the point of a breakdown. I’ll tell you about a recent event that spurred this topic:

A friend of mine was in a leadership role that she wasn’t sure she wanted. She had worked hard to get there and had spent a few years in the position trying to prove herself worthy. She worked long hours, long weeks, stepped out of her comfort zone, pushed herself, and made no more money because of it. On top of that, she managed to keep the company going, but it’s not like she brought it to new heights. In fact, it wasn’t doing well at all. She was easy to blame for it; she was in charge so shouldn’t she have made everything okay?

But she had tried, and she was out of ideas and low on energy. She felt like a huge failure. Worse yet, she kinda was a huge failure- and I only say this because I think that failure is usually an all right thing. It’s not going to destroy you, oftentimes. Instead, it helps you grow, to do better next time. Yet no one wants to fail, especially people that have worked hard. That’s why people don’t work hard, as there’s less room to fall when you fail.

As you may imagine, sitting in that failure spot caused her to panic. She worked even harder! More rapid thoughts, more rapid decisions. Make moves! Try more!

Why? Because otherwise she would show she wasn’t of use to the tribe and she might get kicked out.

Now, we all know this is preposterous. It’s a new millennium and we’re not kicking people out of our communities too much these days. But our animal brains haven’t caught up with that yet, still living in a base concept of what usefulness is, and the deeper she dove into the pit of hopeless battle for purpose, the harder each blow came.

Sometimes I’d talk to her and her eyes would twitch, like she wanted to start crying, and her voice would waiver, but she held it together, I think because she was the boss and felt that she had to. She refused to break down, and when I discussed the situation with others, our conclusion was that she needed to break, because she was so persistent that she held on and even at the end of her rope she held onto it by her sore, breaking pinky. It seemed she would hold onto that fraying, slick rope until we either pushed her off or cut the rope, and no one wanted to be responsible for either of those moves- thus, there she dangled.

A breakdown is more than okay. It is sometimes exactly what the doctor ordered. A breakdown allows us to enter the grieving process. It allows our minds to slow down. The panic can snap like a brittle twig. Have you ever faced a tough choice and instead of making a decision you waited, paralyzed, and everything got worse until, without any reserves left, you forced yourself to decide something, not knowing if it was the best thing for you?

Didn’t you instantly feel better!?

After we get there, we then need to assess if this was indeed our best move, and if we fully make it we have to understand and accept the consequences, but at least now we’re able to because we’ve broken down. We’re no longer in fight or flight mode. We may have lost the battle- we didn’t flee or put up our fists. We were metaphorically devoured by the metaphorical Lion of Decision. It’s hard for our animal brains to realize that we’re not actually dead! We just got to start over from scratch, which can be very healthy for us.

A breakdown looks like failure. It smells like it, too. It may even be failure, but that’s not a bad thing, not if we accept it as a tool to start over. Let’s say you took two people hanging by their pinkies at the ends of their ropes. One decides to let go, only to find that the ground beneath them was about three feet away. They land on their feet and find the ladder to climb to the top of the rope again. The other person refused to quit, and that poor little pinky causes so much pain and anger.

Who is better off?

This is different than giving up. Giving up is dodging the rope altogether, or not trying to hold on at all, but rather sliding down it. (I’ll argue that giving up has its place, too, but that’s another story.) A breakdown is full of crying, weak muscles, childish whining, eating vats of ice cream and fried food, locking yourself away in your room to curl into a ball and feel sorry for yourself… And that all has the possibility of feeling really, really good.

The evolved human brain will always be at war with its primitive side. The best thing we can do is be mindful of why we’re behaving certain ways. A breakdown doesn’t have to be a total meltdown, but even that’s okay. Most people that have complete breakdowns, as scary and painful as they were to watch, are now rebuilding their lives better than before.

I say: break down! But only after you’ve given it a good go. When you can’t take it anymore, then don’t! Let go. I’ll bet you the ground is closer than you think.


In the documentary “Fresh”, which focuses on the need for sustainable farming, many of the interviewees discuss how our modern farming system has taken chickens, cattle, peppers, and onions, and instead of growing them all on the same farm, we’ve separated them out. This is called “monocropping”.

This replicates our product industry; where we have companies that make vast numbers of microwaves, and another company makes vast numbers of headlights- so then does one farm produce vast numbers of cows, while his neighbor produces vast numbers of chickens- implying that this counteracts Nature’s way. Sustainable farming practices include grazing cattle, chickens, all other animals, and many different fruits and vegetables on one farm, and that because this is natural, it works better. There are fewer illnesses found in the livestock, so they need fewer antibiotics, and so on.

“Let the cow have his cow-ness and the chicken have its chicken-ness,” one farmer suggests.

In the same way that we’ve done this to the crop industry, we’ve done this with the job industry. Have you noticed that all jobs are 40 hours a week? They pay $10-$15 per hour, depending on experience. They have two weeks’ vacation. All work is done in the office. Jobs either have you on your feet all day, or sitting in front of a screen all day. Now imagine shopping at the grocer and finding that there is only one kind of tomato. It’s genetically modified; all tomatoes are the same size, shape, color, and price. This is like the “job”. You shop for a job and find that in your field of expertise- the “tomato field”- there is only one breed of job. They are all more or less the same size, shape, and cost, and therefore, no doubt, have the same flavor.

Imagine that all you need is half a cup of tomato, but there’s only this one kind at the store, so you buy it, bring it home, and cut up half a cup’s worth for your recipe, (which here is “life”), and then you have this other half of a tomato. This is like a person needing only 20 hours of work a week to fulfill the requirements and make enough money. That’s all their recipe can handle. Any more than 20 hours and it throws off the recipe. That person sits at their desk, surfing the web, trying to reach 40 hours. What happens to the tomato left over? It molds. It gets watery and gross. It becomes unusable. You throw it away. That rest of the tomato was a waste, but you didn’t have a choice. You had to buy that singular kind of tomato.

Your neighbor had the same problem with avocado, because their job expertise is avocadoes, but all that the store had was 40 hour a week avocadoes. Instead of being able to share the avocado and tomato to make a healthy, delicious salad, you had two people with two jobs that can’t mingle and yet much goes to waste because the recipe of their lives couldn’t take anymore.

A third neighbor needs two tomatoes because he has a family, but the store has a policy that you can only have one tomato per person. His recipe calls for two tomatoes, and he loves to cook so he’d love two tomatoes, but everyone only gets one tomato, so while yours goes to waste he doesn’t have enough tomato for his family. This is the same as two people needing to work two different hours of work and yet there’s only one kind of tomato to get hired into. Someone needs 20 hours, another 40, but the job is only one kind of tomato.

Getting the metaphor?

The same applies to time off, to working at home, to 9-5.

Really? 9am to 5pm for everybody?

Some people don’t even wake up until 10. They sit at their desk dreaming while their neighbor- a morning person- has already completed half their to-do list. But there’s only one kind of tomato and the store is only open one day a week. One neighbor needs the tomato today, while the other needs it Friday, when the store isn’t open, so they buy a tomato on Monday. The first neighbor uses their whole tomato and it’s delicious. The other has to wait until Friday, and by then the tomato is wilted and molding. It’s not as satisfying and much of it goes to waste.

The issue is that we’re all seeking our callings, right? If you’re like me then you thought that when you grew up you’d choose your job.

Remember, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

You answer, “A tomato.”

Then you go to the grocery store and there’s only one kind of tomato to buy. You are a cherry tomato person but there are only green tomatoes, so you try it out because it’s your best fit.

So I would tell anybody, “Follow your calling.” Some people are called to be doctors and other professions we place in high status. Others are called to be farmers, food servers, cooks, and bike repairmen. And we’re told, “Follow your calling.” I know there’s money in business, but I’m not a business man, so even if I had studied business in school I wouldn’t have had my heart in it, it would have been hard to understand, and I wouldn’t have done well.

My calling is storytelling. Some people are so afraid to write something- an essay, a poem, or a song. For me, it’s my calling, meaning that it calls out to me. Naturally, with a degree under my belt, I went shopping for a writing job.

I saw an article in Time Magazine a few years ago. The focus of the article was jobs that will never exist again and jobs that never have existed that are growing in demand. For instance, Computer Programmer didn’t exist as a profession 100 years ago, but now it’s number one. Likewise, Stablehand used to be a marketable profession, and simply doesn’t exist anymore. If you scour the classifieds you’ll see three categories overtake all others: social work, nursing, and computer programming.

So what’s the young woman born to sing opera supposed to do? She’s an excellent opera singer. She changes lives with her voice. She looks through the classifieds and there are no open positions for Opera Singer. She’s not born to do social work, but that’s all there is to do, and she’s not qualified as a nurse or computer programmer, so she takes a social work job, 9-5 Monday through Friday, 40 hours a week with two weeks off a year.

Her coworker’s calling is social work. She’s wanted to work with at-risk teens her whole life and she’s so happy to have a full-time job with benefits and two weeks off doing her calling. She can’t sing at all. She sounds like a broken car horn when she tries to sing, and admires her coworker’s operatic vocals.

But after 40 hours of work a week, especially in social services, seeking and singing opera is the last thing on the young woman’s mind. She has to suffer through a job that’s not her calling while her coworker thrives.

In some funny alternate world, what if Craigslist overflowed with opera singer positions? The social worker would have to take a job singing opera even though she wasn’t good at it and never would be.

You could argue that the first woman ought to pursue opera with all her heart, to be poor for a while and network. If that’s her calling then she ought to follow it by fighting for it. I agree with you. There’s nothing that would add balance to the world and bring more positive energy than to have a woman born to sing opera singing opera. But there’s food and rent and pride, and sometimes you need to take a job.

However, if there were more options, and if the need of society is social work, let the opera singer work part-time in order to have energy to pursue her calling. Let the woman born to do social work live and breathe it, but for the opera singer, the air is toxic.

However, there’s only one kind of tomato.

If the job market is the grocery market, there are no opera singers on the shelf. If there are any, there are fewer in stock than people called to sing, not enough to go around.

Enough with the grocery metaphor:

We’re told we can be anything we want to be when we grow up. As a friend put it to me the other day, “It’s much more looking at classifieds and seeing what you could do, rather than being able to seek out the job you want.”

Vermont, where I’m from and live, boasts a low unemployment rate, but it has a high underemployment rate. While I’m arguing the possibility of more part-time work, at $12 an hour, this is not livable wage. Companies that offer full benefits to full-time employees often don’t have anything to give someone working 20 hours. What this translates to me is, “the more you sell yourself to us, the more we’ll keep you healthy to work for us.” When I was working a municipal job I had full benefits. I also sat in a chair all day and so needed to see a chiropractor; stared at a screen all day so I had to see a therapist and needed glasses. Because we sit all day we get discounts on gym memberships. The half-time employee gets none of the benefits of working at a place, and they also make less money, so as things stand now, we’re forced to work full-time.

I’ve written about full-time before, but I have to laugh: full time.

That means all the time, and that means all your time.

Forty hours was developed after the industrial revolution when President Eisenhower suggested “Eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, and eight hours at home.” That sounds fair, doesn’t it? However, those were the days when eight hours meant something different. In manufacturing, an eight-hour shift would make sure you made some textiles. We used to have to write letters by hand, deliver them on foot, and rarely called, so we had more appointments to talk things over.

The same duties may still apply to jobs, but an email travels from the U.S. to China in about two seconds (seriously), and we can make phone calls, send emails, and get directions all from our phones these days. If we took a desk job from 1950 and mapped out the outcomes of one day’s work and then applied that to the modern world, I’m betting it could be completed in a fraction of the time. Does this mean we’re getting more work done? No. Studies show we’re doing about the same, an average of four hours of actual work for our eight-hour workdays. The rest of the time is spent looking busy, on blogs, and Googling our names.

The modern age also kills the 8-8-8 equation Eisenhower instated; five o’clock traffic, picking the kids up after sports practice, and getting dinner together leaves us with about two hours, during which time we pack our lunches, pick out tomorrow’s outfit, and by then we have little more energy than is required to watch TV. This schedule can lead to poor sleeping habits, and then our alarms jolt us from REM sleep and so we cannot actually be rested when we get up. We are, after all, getting up to go to work, and not for any other reason. The 8-8-8, therefore, feel more like a 12-4-6, or something off balance like that. If we could still make $30,000 or more working 20-35 hours, though, we’d get home in time to cook healthy foods, exercise, and avoid the nightly TV binge.

Jobs being a homogenous as they are, we’re not meant to do the same thing all day. We as humans are meant to hunt, farm, cook, and maintain our shelters daily. We’re not designed to sit at desks all day. If we had been, cave drawing would depict Thog rocking an Excel file.

Our bodies and psyches take much of the blow of office work- or we can be waiters or grocery clerks and be on our feet an entire shift. There seems to be very little in the ways of mediums. Perhaps I’m cynical, somehow missing myriad jobs that don’t fall more in one direction or the other, but a flip through the classifieds is a wake-up call.

Now what if money were not a factor?

What if we were all given a place to live, food, clothes, and other amenities?

Imagine, beyond that, we’re not all the same.

Many stories about the future show a utopian society where we all wear the same colored and designed costumes, that we file in and out for daily food rations, or something that otherwise makes us believe that to get along as a society we need to be all the same. Or rather, “monocropped”.

No! Here in this imagination we get to imagine unique, old houses with character, whatever style you best wear, and whatever exotic foods you want. You live well. Imagine. What would you do for work, then? Would you work? I’d argue most would.

We want to have purpose, to contribute to society. What if you really could work any job that you wanted, under the rule that you don’t get paid a thing? Would you stay at your current job? How long would you work? As humans, we naturally want to work, and I believe that we’d still have janitors, farmers, doctors, and technicians because some of us shop tomatoes and other potatoes.

Our farm deserves diversity. Until then, we’re doomed to be sold out for corn and soy, and that’s not sustainable.