On Breaking Down

Picasso abstract nude. Image for On Being Broken - Malin James

Reclining Nude and Woman Washing Her Feet by Picasso (1944)

“We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.” – Ernest Hemingway

I’ve never liked that Hemingway quote. I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t like the idea of everyone being broken, or if it’s just a touch too pithy to give me a real sense of perspective. Whatever the reason, I’ve always felt a resistance to it. And yet, when it popped up as the Wicked Wednesday prompt this week, I couldn’t stop pulling it apart. Why don’t I like it? What was he saying? How are people broken and why would it be such a universal thing?

I don’t have answers to those questions. Maybe being broken is universal because we are transient, flawed creatures that are formed (and informed) by our environments.  What I mean is that we are affected. People are easily affected. And when you’re easily affected, it means you get touched, nudged, toppled, broken and rebuilt. It’s part of life.

I’ve been broken. I’ve been plenty broken. I was ragged with fault lines, all of which stemmed from a big one that I acquired early in life. The fault lines got bigger as I got older, widened by pressure I put on myself and the pressure of growing up. By the time I was in my early twenties, I was smoking too much, drinking too much and having a lot of casual sex with partners I don’t remember. Everything was a struggle, and the harder I struggled, the harder it got.

The strange thing is that I knew I was writing checks I couldn’t cash. I remember knowing that, sooner or later, the bill would come due and that when it did I was going to be screwed. I also remember, very distinctly, the grimy, helpless feeling of not being able to stop. I could feel myself breaking down, but rather than caution me, it made me go at it harder. I was inviting it. I wanted the thing that would run me off the rails. It came, but not in the form I expected.

When I was 24, I met J, the man I would eventually marry. I was already in a casual relationship, but J was different. He was very serious and he took me very seriously. Not far into dating him, I had a miscarriage. I didn’t know I was pregnant, nor did it occur to me that I might be because I was on the pill and I always used condoms. The timing of the miscarriage put the conception a month before I met J, which meant that the baby would have been my other partner’s. Without getting into details, it’s safe to say that, had I not miscarried, the situation would have been a nightmare. My other partner was lovely in many ways, but he was also a drug addict with bi-polar disorder and he wanted to have kids. Having a child with him was not an option, but he would have made terminating the pregnancy, (or giving the baby up), as difficult as humanly possible.

Given all of that, I should have been relieved when the doctor told me that I had been roughly 3 months pregnant but was not any more. I should have been relieved. But that was the thing that finally broke me. All of the fault lines caved at once and I had a proper breakdown. The depression and panic disorder that I’d been struggling with swamped me and I didn’t know what to do. I was in pieces, struggling with the compulsion to glue myself back together, but I couldn’t. The bits of a broken cup can’t sweep themselves up.

So, I went into therapy and J stayed with me. I’m not overstating it when I say that it was heroic of him. My structural integrity (emotionally speaking) had never been strong, but the breakdown dismantled it completely. As my recovery progressed, reasons that all of those cracks had developed became clear. It also became obvious that the abuse I put my body through was more than a way to escape. It was a way to punish myself.

I began to meditate, I started running, I stopped smoking, I controlled my drinking. I dusted off each piece and decided whether or not to keep it as part of my new whole. I laid aside a lot of old pieces in that process, which made room for new ones to grow in their place. In the end, if I hadn’t broken down so thoroughly, I never would have had a reason to help myself. And if I hadn’t had so much unwavering support, I don’t think I could have done it, even if I’d tried.

I had a very close call. I could easily have ended up in a dark place with a dramatically shortened life span. When I broke, it was the start of my becoming who I am and I’m grateful for it. What’s more, I know that I’m not alone in this sort of experience. You can’t get through life untouched. Some people just crack harder than others. Some people recover and some don’t.

Which is why I suspect I don’t like the Hemingway quote. It implies that everything will be all right for everyone. I applaud the idea that there is hope in being broken. I am an example for the fact that there is. But I got close enough to the edge to know that mending yourself isn’t a given. That being scarred but full of light is not a guarantee. It takes so much work, and support and LUCK, and some people never make it. Some people stay in pieces, lost the dark.

That feels important to acknowledge. That feels critical. Because you aren’t guaranteed a recovery, regardless of how  much you deserve it. People slip through the cracks. People, good people, are lost all the time. For those of us who came close to not coming out whole, the light Hemingway talks about is not a given, but a gift. It’s a gift, and I wish that everyone could feel it. Because too many people don’t.

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  1. I want to applaud this so much. It isn’t a given. I still deeply miss my friend who broke in her teens and despite all of the support and help, didn’t make it. There isn’t a magic equation that makes recovery guaranteed. I love the Japanese way of repairing bowls with gold – making the cracks/scars a celebrated beauty. I do remind myself though, that there are a lot of bowls that aren’t chosen to be repaired with gold.

    I am so very glad that you did make it and I am so very, very glad that J was there with you.


    1. Thank you, Honey. Vida brought up the Japanese practice of repairing cracks with gold too – it’s a wonderful metaphor, and I love what it implies. That the cracks are special and *valuable* – not something to hide or take for granted. I was very lucky to have J’s support, at the start and all the way through. He would cringe to hear me say it, but in many ways meeting him saved my life, or, if not my life, it helped me become the person I am. Xxxx

  2. Well said, Malin. An important topic, and one that gets lost or diluted too often in our hero worshipping culture, the part that glorifies victory! I have spoken many times to friends that America loves the image of the person laid low, who then rises, bursting through the finish line tape, arms held high, victory, victory, victory!
    Except, of course as you say, that depends on so much, so much that is often out of our control. And folks get lost, and never make it out, again as you eloquently write. I’m a big fan of C.G. Jung’s work on all kinds of falling, brokenness, and defeat, and credit my analyst with helping me in ways I can never repay (save to pay forward the love). But I lucked out in so many ways… thanks again for the words.
    As I like to say to my kids, it’s an interesting proposition, life.

    1. Thank you, Michael. You brought up a really good point regarding our very American obsession with victory. While that kind of tenacious optimism has its virtues, I think that a certain amount of pragmatic, un-romantic realism needs to leaven it, especially as regards something like emotional or psychiatric recovery. It’s a tenuous, fragile thing and it feels only right to respect for what is…as you said, life is an interesting proposition.

  3. Very well put. I did go through a very similar destructive phase and managed to get myself out the other side. It breaks my heart to see those who seem set on self-destruct knowing that some of them won’t come through it, that some of them will ‘…slip through the cracks.’

  4. Malin – you continue to surprise and inspire me with your ability to reach within. Thank you for the honesty of your writing.

    If we do make it through the pain, the shatter lines remain; the pieces never fit exactly as they did before.

    One of my favourite films is ‘The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, exploring as it does the lure of erasing the pain and starting anew. Except that, of course, without learning from our pain, we are only too likely to fall back into old patterns of harm.

    Glad that you made it through and are here enjoying the gift of today.

    1. It makes me think of Kintsugi too. There’s so much grace in repairing something in that way. It’s a lovely metaphor for the process of recovering yourself, especially if you’re able to come out whole. And yes to Leonard Cohen – always yes to him.

  5. I love this so much. Goddamn. The sharing, the truth, the analysis—all of it is so thoughtful and good. And you’re exactly write—it’s a gift, not a given. I’m glad you made it through. Wonderfully done, my friend. XX

  6. This is so true… there are no guarantees. Some people are broken and never find the strength or the help they need to heal again. This just had to be said and I thank you for saying it.

    Rebel xox

  7. I am not keen on the Hemingway quote either. I think to some extent we are all broken, that part is absolutely true but as you so rightly point out that does not mean that we all cope well with our ‘breakages’.


    1. Exactly. It’s the underlying implication that we are somehow *owed* a happy ending that I think is a bit dangerous. How you cope, the support you have (or don’t have), luck, circumstance..everything plays a part in how a person puts themselves back together. I just think it’s important to acknowledge that while many, many people break, what happens after is pretty different for everyone. Some get light and others don’t (though I really do wish that weren’t the case). xxx

  8. This really speaks to me, Malin. It reminds me of Artaud’s theory of rebirth, which seems to be what you and many of us have experienced at some point whether or not we’re aware of it–you reach a place of utter chaos, pain, sometimes incoherence only to be thrust onto a newer, higher level of yourself, and the cycle continues for life.

    1. Yes – that’s a wonderful point. Thank you. I very much agree with Artaud’s theory of rebirth. It’s always made me think of a crucible – a necessary burning away of the things that no longer work…it’s shocking and beautiful how many iterations a person can move through as they engage the act of living.

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