THE writer David Sedaris tells a story about a woman called Pat. Pat is doing pretty well for herself – three houses, two cars and is ready to retire in her mid-fifties. She tells him a story from a management seminar, and asks him to imagine his life as a stove with four burners. One for family, one for friends, one for work and one for health. If you want to be successful, you have to turn off one, and if you want to really get ahead, extinguish two.

He and his partner identified their snuffed-out burners quickly, as I imagine most people could. When confronted plainly by these four areas, it’s not hard to spot the ones you’ve neglected. I’ve known for a long time that friends and health are the rings I’ve sacrificed for the sake of the other two. But Pat’s management seminar got it wrong, at least in my case. The two-burner life isn’t one that brings success. When you keep turning up the gas, burnout awaits.

This year has been tough. It’s been weird and dissonant for everyone, even the most tenacious cynics and mentally robust people I know. There’s been little refuge in the big bad world. Every day feels like we’re lurching closer to Armageddon. Despite it, I was feeling pretty proud of myself for ploughing through, approaching what promised to be my third Christmas free from unwelcome guests: anxiety and depression. I was actually beginning to feel a little smug, thinking I’d outmanoeuvred them. I believed I was robust enough to endure this trash fire for a year without succumbing. Then November came round, work needed even more of me, and the final mental buttress holding the rest of me up buckled. Let’s just say, being escorted from the building by HR – with unwashed hair, a week after I’d technically been signed off – isn’t a career highlight I’ll be dropping into my CV.

How did it get to the point that I was forgetting to eat, skipping breaks, hiding in a toilet cubicle crying into a fistful of toilet roll? Why was I constantly battling to get my breathing under control?

None of this is new to me. I’m not a first-timer in mires of mental ill-health. I know what it looks like, thought I had a good handle on my early warning signs. Somehow D&A still managed to get in the back door and dance around me for months before I noticed. It took someone else – three someone elses, in fact – to tell me in loving, congenial euphemism that I looked like shit. How could they see what I’d so egregiously missed? I’d turned my burners up so high, was so focused on their intensity, that I didn’t believe they were running out of gas.

The year started positively enough. I exercised, was eating well, sleeping, doing things I enjoyed. As the year wore on and the work burner hungered for fuel, I did less of those things. I tried to stave off my wobble with the Coué method, meditation, good books. Whenever I wobbled, I’d recite Invictus: “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul”. It’s mawkish, I know, but when I feel panic bubbling in my chest it helps me to focus. Deep, slow breaths, deep, slow words.

I desperately need to believe that final stanza. I figured if I were to repeat it enough, I could convince myself I was seaworthy, and not taking on more water than I could decant.

I gave up the daily affirmations, the Henley verse. Eventually, I found myself leaning on just one avowal. The one most of us reach for when we need to just keep going. The one we reach for when we need to pull the shutters down on the everyday horrors. “This is fine.”

It started off with “fine” meaning “fine”, and then “fine” meaning “tired”. Then, “I’m not sleeping so good”. Then “fine” meant forgetting breakfast, but not being hungry anyway so it didn’t matter. Then “fine” meant skipping an evening meal because there was no point eating close to bedtime. It meant not bothering to wear the eyeliner because I’d cry it off, scraping my hair into a bun because I didn’t have the energy to wash it or brush it. “Fine” meant the laundry piling up, my neat house and neat desk yielding to chaos. “Fine” meant eating at my desk because I had too many emails to write. “Fine” meant urgent jobs when I was supposed to be on holiday. “Fine” meant doing it myself because it would take too long to teach someone else. “Fine” meant sneaking off to my car to sleep at lunchtime because I couldn’t keep my eyes open. “Fine” meant panic attacks each week, then every few days, and finally each day before I realised what I’d been doing with that word.

There’s a KC Green comic you might be familiar with featuring those words. The reaction meme is currency online because it speaks to that stubborn optimism/wilful denial we all indulge in at some point. In the cartoon strip, the words are spoken by a smiling dog, nursing a mug of coffee as the room is engulfed in flames. “I’m okay with the events that are currently unfolding”, he says, as he sips and his little hat catches fire. “That’s okay, things are going to be okay,” as his face melts off. This has been my year. Hiding behind a stock phrase, from others and myself. Redefining fine until it became meaningless. It took others to remind me what my “fine” looked like, and this wasn’t it.

So, I have to say thanks to the colleague who left me Malteasers because he knew I needed to eat. To the tactful ones who came for a quiet word at my desk and the others in the kitchen. To another who came to my house to check in. You saw past the buffer words and persisted. Asking created the space for “actually...” And with that admission, I can start to rebuild myself and get well.