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February 20, 2023
Min read

“My mum had a nervous breakdown, but I had to be at work”

Written By
Simon Dumont
With thanks To
Steve Howe (Editing) & Alison Dumont

It all started after work on a Friday.

I was travelling from London to visit my parents in my hometown. Standing on the platform waiting for my train, I felt apprehensive. 

Mum was going through one of her depressed phases. Growing up, I got used to her crying for a few months every few years. It was a shit thing to go through—especially for her. But she always got her mojo back eventually. 

I knew Mum wouldn’t be in a good place when I got home. I hoped that joining her and Dad for an above-average Essex curry would lift her spirits—for a while, at least.

Things didn’t go according to plan.

As my train arrived, I got a phone call from Dad. “Mum’s not good,” he said. I already knew that much. “No, she’s really not good. I want you to be prepared.” 

It was a nice idea. But there was no preparing for what followed.

From the curry house to the crisis unit

The day before my visit, Mum had a massive panic attack. A new thing for her—and for Dad, who’d rushed her to hospital assuming it was a heart problem. On arrival, I immediately opened up about my own experiences with panic attacks to make her feel less alone facing them.

In the future, this solidarity would help Mum a lot. But somewhere between the poppadoms and the naans arriving, it became clear that nothing we could say would reach her at the moment.

Mum was, as Dad put it, “a right state.” For people not familiar with UK vernacular, that’s not a good thing. 

While Mum knew depression well, she’d never experienced anxiety before. The combination totally overwhelmed her. She spent the next few days lurching between panic attacks, uncontrollable sobbing, and screamed regrets about every decision she’d ever made. 

There was no letup. She couldn’t eat or sleep. She was completely gripped by despair and terror. She said she didn’t want to live any more.

"The lack of company policy or support for this kind of situation pressured me into working, when I should’ve been at home focused on my family."

<quote-author>Simon Dumont<quote-author><quote-company>Editor at Oliva<quote-company>

Dad and I haplessly tried to help her. We took her to the doctor, the emergency room, the park—anything that might distract her for just one moment. We got emotional. We got exasperated. We cried. We shouted. Nothing worked. We didn’t sleep, worried about what she might do if we did.

Eventually, after exhausting every mental health helpline the National Health Service (NHS) has to offer—which is not many, to be fair—we were told the safest place for Mum to stay was the crisis unit at the local hospital. 

One traumatic car journey later, we were waving tearful goodbyes as nurses tried to calm her down. It was one of the worst days of my life.

“Really chaotic & really boring”

The market research company I worked for at the time was a strange place. 

The office had a grim early ‘00s vibe. There were landline phones and no Wi-Fi. The 80-something CEO was building a cinema in the basement, and often performed bizarre speeches to groups of employees summoned at random. We all got to leave early once because the entire building suddenly smelled like a chemical toilet.

A Glassdoor review summed it up perfectly: “somehow really chaotic & really boring at the same time.”

When my mum checked into the crisis unit on Tuesday evening, I’d already missed two days of work. On Sunday night, I texted my manager something vague about a family emergency. On Tuesday, I came clean and told her my mum was having a breakdown. By that point, it was clear this wouldn’t be resolved quickly.

"Mental breakdowns are complicated—giving people time off isn’t. Some reassurance I could take the time I needed without fear would’ve been enough."

<quote-author>Simon Dumont<quote-author><quote-company>Editor at Oliva<quote-company>

I’d only had this manager for a few weeks. In fact, she’d only just become a manager. While she had no idea how to respond—no-one did, myself included—she was very kind and sympathetic.

The company’s HR policies, on the other hand, weren’t sympathetic. It felt like they’d been lifted straight out of the ‘70s. 

We had to punch in and out whenever we entered or exited the building, so they could monitor our hours. New employees started with just two paid sick days. I’d already used both when my nan died during my first week at the company. What a year. At least I never got sick.

And since it was my first desk job, I had no reference point for what to do or who to talk to. I was scared about what would happen if I kept missing work.

So, like a true ‘70s office worker, I kept quiet. And did hardly any work.

Living a double life

A solemn routine developed over the next few weeks. I’d visit Mum in hospital twice a week after work, then again at the weekend. The meds made her calmer, but apart from that she was much the same. When I arrived, her face would stay blank.

Work provided some relief from the chaos happening at home. I was good friends with some of my coworkers. We’d go for pints at lunch and complain about how boring the job was. It was like living a double life.

They knew I was having some family trouble, but I didn’t elaborate much. It felt too hard to explain. I didn’t want them to act differently towards me.

Every week, I had to miss some work. A day to support Dad, or half a day to attend an important meeting with a doctor. Most of the time, it was too short notice to book a holiday.

I could tell my manager was conflicted. She was a caring, empathetic person and we got along well. She knew I was struggling, and why. She didn’t want to tell HR, who might punish me by taking the days I missed out of my wages.

But as a brand-new manager, the pressure she felt to follow proper procedures showed. My abrupt absences stressed her out. I’d receive texts asking if I could at least let her know in advance when I’d be off.

I tried my best to keep her informed, but the situation was unpredictable. So unpredictable that one day, out of nowhere, Dad called and said: “they’re sending Mum home tomorrow.”

An unexpected turn

The first time she came home it did not go well. Keen to free up space in the cramped crisis unit, a doctor took a gamble that Mum was ready—despite her saying she felt as low as the day she arrived.

Mum refused to answer the door to the NHS crisis team when they checked on her the next morning. Nor did she answer anyone’s calls. As a result, we were told she had to go back to hospital for her own safety. After hours of agonising deliberation, she agreed to go.

I spent that morning doing laps outside my office building, speaking on the phone to Dad, nurses, ambulance workers, Mum’s friends—desperately avoiding eye contact with colleagues. The drab nature of the office—and the job in general—was such a weird contrast with the intensity of what I was dealing with personally. I felt totally isolated.

Then, things took a really unexpected turn: Mum started getting better. 

"The drab nature of the office—and the job in general—was such a weird contrast with the intensity of what I was dealing with personally."

<quote-author>Simon Dumont<quote-author><quote-company>Editor at Oliva<quote-company>

During her second stint in hospital, the cocktail of anxiety and depression meds really started to kick in. Mum began to talk about her problems in a more coherent, rational way. We discussed my experience with panic attacks and how I learned to live with them. Things suddenly seemed less apocalyptic—both for Mum and for us.

When she came home the second time, we knew it was for good. I missed more work to help her through the transition. Together, we started to separate her problems into different buckets and work on solutions. There was light at the end of the tunnel.

What happened in the ‘70s should stay in the ‘70s

It sounds strange, but the impact of Mum’s breakdown on our family has been really positive. 

The whole ordeal brought us much closer together. We can speak about mental health more openly, and we’re quicker to react to problems with decisive changes or actions. In the years since, Mum’s been better than ever.

Me and Mum a few years after this ordeal.
Things are a lot better now.

When I received my payslips for the months I’d missed work, I was surprised to see my salary was unaffected. My best guess is that my manager never told HR what was going on—and they never noticed. The ominous email I’d been expecting didn’t arrive. That’s the upside of careless HR policies: the implementation is often also careless. No communication, no problem.

I really appreciate my manager for not saying anything. But the lack of company policy or support for this kind of situation pressured me into working, when I should’ve been at home focused on my family. Mental breakdowns are complicated—giving people time off isn’t. Some reassurance I could take the time off I needed without fear would’ve been enough.

Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to work for companies that would’ve given this to me in a heartbeat. I’ve also been lucky enough not to have experienced another family emergency since. That’s the upside of emergencies: they (hopefully) don’t happen often. 

But when they do, you want to know your company has your back. I’d never work somewhere that doesn’t have mine again. At some point, no one will. 

Then even companies stuck in the ‘70s will have to catch up.

If you're in the UK and facing a similar situation, Simon and his family found Mind and Samaritans to be useful resources. Give them a call.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call 111 (urgent but not life-threatening situations) or 999 (if you or anyone else is in immediate danger).

For a list of crisis lines for different countries, click here.

Oliva therapist photograph

5 tips for dealing with a family crisis

by Oliva therapist

Maria Barquin

Maintain a healthy boundary

A family member in crisis will affect you, but it’s not yours. Try not to embed yourself in their crisis. Instead, ask them how you can help, or offer practical support by helping them access professional mental health services or going with them to appointments. Sometimes, they might refuse your help. All you can do is wait a while.

Get support for yourself

When a loved one is in crisis, one of the main difficulties is the sense of uncertainty and loss of control. It’s easy to end up always feeling like you should ‘do’ something to help. But it’s vital to get support for yourself, too. You might be feeling all sorts of emotions at once, without the time to process them. A professional can help with this.

Practice splitting your focus

Compartmentalisation is your secret weapon. Dividing your focus into separate mental boxes can help you concentrate at work for a few hours, or pay full attention to a conversation with your loved one without anxious thoughts of unfinished tasks creeping in. You can train yourself to compartmentalise better—but don’t beat yourself up if you’re at work and your mind is elsewhere.

Employers: Don’t wait for a crisis to happen

Companies shouldn’t have to adopt a fire-fighting approach. By promoting wellbeing and normalising conversations around mental health, you’ll let employees know they’ll be listened to and supported in times of crisis. Stay silent on these topics, and employees are unlikely to say when they’re struggling—so you won’t be able to help them.

Employers: Be flexible and listen to suggestions

The need for employees to live a double life in times of crisis comes from rigid boundaries that force them to jump between home and work. Instead, be flexible, open, and let them know they’re supported. Ask for their suggestions on what would help, and collaboratively agree on a temporary way of working—with the understanding that if the situation suddenly gets worse, they can concentrate on the emergency.