Dr. Taco’s notes

My special recipe for a breakdown

I’m a shooting star leaping through the sky like a tiger, defying the laws of gravity, I’m a racing car passing by like Lady Godiva, I’m gonna go, go, go, there’s no stopping me. Queen, 1979

Have you ever wondered what brings a person to the breaking point? I used to believe (because I heard it in the past) that to know the limits of a person you need to test them. Now I believe that’s horseshit, and you can know your limits without bringing you to the extreme of almost dying.

I always had an anxious personality, I’ve been what people know as an overthinker, a person who tends to think everything more than just twice, one who tries to find out why this or that happened, or why some other person said or did something. These characteristics have been with me for as long as I can remember. As a child in school, I was an overachiever who always had plans A, B, C, and escapes. This all was okay, and even a strength I used when going through my studies. However, it got to the point where it became unmanageable and completely broke me when I was 28. And here are some of the reasons why.

A bit of life context: I started to have a formal job (meaning one with defined hours, employer, defined salary, and all that) when I was 15 years old because life is expensive and I didn’t come from a family with financial security. It was a part-time job in a mechanical workshop, where I took care of inventory and warehousing control, and at some point, I was a mechanic apprentice due to my high school studies (I got a double high school degree with a technical career as a mechanic). Since then, I have always had a job, which means that at this point around 60% of my lifetime I have been an employee. I guess, this also comes with the feeling I got from having a job — the freedom and empowerment I got from a young age.

After high school, I jumped directly to a college to get a Bachelor’s degree, then a Master’s degree, then a PhD degree, then just work and more work. This also means, that I always had a side job to pay for my studies or at least to have some additional income to support myself and my family.

To expand on this, let me describe how the Margarita of 13 (given or taken) years ago was regarding her work. I was a fresh graduate Bachelor’s in Engineering, full of ideals, and wanted to be someone in life, I was used to having a full-time job while studying in college and being an A+ student and worker, meaning I was used to working or doing something work-related for about 12 hours per day. I already knew I wanted to keep studying and become a researcher, so making a Master’s was my next immediate step. I didn’t want to lose time between studies, because I was scared that if I didn’t continue one after the other, something would come in the middle and I’ll not be able to do it. My life became, during the Master’s, basically getting up at 5:00 in the morning, going to the University, starting working on my research project, having a short pause for lunch, then working some more, then going and teaching some lessons in the afternoon (yeah, I was also a part-time professor while studying), then coming back to my cubicle and working some more until 7 pm, leaving work, going home, eating dinner, reviewing students’ homework and exams from students until midnight, then sleeping. I repeated this pattern Monday to Friday and half a day on Saturdays; and Sundays I was too tired and destroyed, so I’d have only energy for cleaning my home, doing laundry, groceries, and sleeping some additional hours. There was never time for parties, or holidays, rarely for friends or family, and even during Christmas time, I’d be working on something. Additionally, I had the idea in my mind that if I was not working on something, then I was wasting my time, meaning I didn’t have hobbies or many distractions.

So far, this image of me sounds bad, but not the worst, at least my mother always knew where I was, and in the eyes of people around me, I was successful, I had studied and I was a responsible adult making money. This kind of life went on, and on, even when I completed my degree, I moved to teach at several Universities, and that meant I was driving all over the city all day six days per week, with classes between 7 am and 9 pm. This life rhythm continued in a similar way just with different actors and job titles until the middle of 2015 when I moved to Germany to do a PhD, at this point I was 26 years old.

If you ask my family and friends how they saw me back then, they will say “busy” or “sleepy”, but never happy or even calm. My work was my life, and I was giving all I had to it. I thought I was following my dreams, which in principle was not false and not entirely bad. But over the years, this situation made me very vulnerable, and even damaged the image I had of myself, all of my worth was “Which work was I doing”. I felt guilty about the time I’d spent with my friends or my family, I was in a trap of having an unhealthy (super toxic) love relationship, I never had holidays, and if I would, then half of the time I would be working. I got a severe sleeping disorder, my eating habits were awful, and I was a very unhappy person.

After I moved to Berlin, I continued with a similar lifestyle, where even if I was doing a language course (and I should have taken time to just explore the city, and make friends), I would be working on something part-time related to research. My routine was very similar, I’d be going to University, spending 12 hours there, and coming to my apartment to eat dinner, and continue working or doing something work-related until after midnight.

The trick here is that I think many of us are victims of this: we think “it’s not work” because we’re not doing it during working hours or precisely for something we do at the moment at work. Let me put a fictional example: Let’s say I was working on an algorithm to detect lines on the road, the problem and methods were defined, but when I would be home, I’d be reading about the history of programming languages. This looks unrelated, but what if from reading this I’d get an idea of learning a new programming language that’s better for hardware implementations, and it would help me to improve what I’m doing or probably give me a new idea. Anyway, all of this is work, you don’t allow your brain to wind down, and get enough rest. The consequences of not prioritizing and respecting wind-down time on your health can be very serious (look here and here).

Anyway, back to the story. It was around 2017 when I started to notice the first symptoms of breakage, I was super stressed and nervous all the time, I was sleeping in pauses over the night and very little, I always had stomach events, I had difficulties focusing and remembering things, I felt tired all the time. It also came with hair loss and increased appetite. Contrary to what I’d expected, I didn’t feel more sad or emotional, it was the opposite of that, I was numb to my emotions, and I didn’t even have time to think of my emotional state. I have never been a confrontational person, so I was not arguing or fighting either. Things just went worse for another three years (more or less), and I kept surviving it, mainly because I needed to complete my degree in a defined time (otherwise I’d not have the financial resources to do it), I had the pressure of a visa, the thesis. Even after I completed my degree, I immediately jumped to have a research job at a University, as I said I was used to the workload, and things just grew like a snowball without stopping.

Moved by the constant anxiety attacks, I started therapy somewhere around 2019, it slowly started to make me aware of the totality of my status. It was a long road of trying to put me out of the hole of pain where I was (especially while finishing my degree and keeping a full-time job afterward).

Along with the therapy, I read a lot of research on the effect of stress and anxiety on the brain, I also learned to remove the guilt of asking for help and stopping once in a while.

There are many things I learned from this journey; however, the most important is: to respect my own limits.