The holidays are usually a very enjoyable part of the year. In my case it was not giving thanks, or celebrating the birth of Christ, but instead it meant it was time to use up all of my deferred vacation time that I was unable to use during the year. You see, as a learning consultant, planning time off was challenging because employees were encouraged to have high utilization rates (classroom days) so that you were viewed as a productive resource by the executive leadership team. Our executive for many years was located in another continent far away, and might as well have been on another planet. He was cold, and totally ill suited for the role of leading people, much less leading a team of motivated trainers whose job it was to secure success through building leaders. He was often accused of managing our unit by spreadsheet. During his tenure we saw layoffs of excellent people, not because of poor performance, but instead because their years of experience and dedication meant they’d also achieved a large number of years of service, and the accompanying salary due a tenured employee. If you looked expensive on the spreadsheet, you were targeted for a cheaper replacement, or pressed harder to earn your high salary.
It was December of 2014, during the holidays that I realized I was not enjoying my time off work. Instead of unplugging from emails, and phone messages, I felt guilty if I left the house to visit with friends, or spent any time away from home. It was as though my peers and clients expected me to return messages, even though my “out-of-office” automated assistant advised that I’d be back to work in January. Same for voicemail, my recorded message asked callers to be aware I was out on vacation, returning to work in the new year.
The feeling that a new work schedule was coming out, and I would have January travel commitments hung over my head like a bucket of cold water, dripping on me every so often, many times when I had turned in to bed for the night. My dreams became filled with ridiculous stressful scenes, all of them with an obvious theme surrounding travel. My most vivid and recurring nightmare was being alone aboard a huge airliner, the only passenger in a darkened cabin. Walking the aisles, in my dream I called out for anyone, but as I approached the exit door, it was swinging and bumping the fuselage, and the darkness of the moonlit clouds were visible through the flight door. Those dreams led to heart pounding adrenaline rushes, night clothes stuck to my torso with the sweat of a too real scenario.
The holidays came to a close, and each night I dreaded going to sleep because I knew that I was going to wake during the night from a terrible stress dream, and then be unable to get back to sleep. But what to do? I’m fully awake. I know I’ve experienced a bad dream, and I even knew why I had these traumatic periods afterwards, talking myself off the ledge, and giving sleep another try.
Back to the bed, sheets still wet from my stress dream, I’d sometimes change the sheets before trying again, others, just pulling up the quilt and sleeping on top of the wet bed clothes.
January finally arrived, it was time to come to grips with the travel plans I needed for my first scheduled class delivery, this one only a short two hours flight to Austin, where I would be welcoming newly hired employees to tell them about the great company history, to answer their questions about the structure, the officers, the company values and then send them on their way after an enthusiastic day spent meeting up to 30 other new hires, and getting excited about seemingly endless opportunities that lay ahead. IBM’s view of innovation (its second value) was that innovation should benefit not only the company, but the world. Every day at IBM, the things being worked on changed the world for the better. That alone should have been enough to excite even the least dedicated of employees, but for me, even the self-talk of “one foot in front of the other,” and my overused personal favorite “you’ve done this so many times before, just do it” was not working. Something was seriously wrong as fear rose inside my brain.
This time, panic ensued. I was ready to go, airline tickets printed, bags packed, and I couldn’t stand up. My heart beat so hard in my chest that the rushing blood hurt my esophagus. I began to hyperventilate, and the room spun. I was nearly going to pass out over the thought of taking this easy trip to Texas, and this was the point where my flight or fight response convinced me it was time to phone my manager and ask for someone to please take the trip to Austin in my place.
After having covered the bases for someone else to travel to Austin, I remember telling my story to my manager, whom I remembered to be a wonderful listener. She said with sincerity that it was time to look after myself, and to get some help. “Are you familiar with the Employee Assistance Program?” She asked me very caringly? I answered yes, that I’d actually been a client for the past 10 years for talk therapy to help me with relationship problems that had sprung up as a result of excessive travel, leaving my partner of 15 years at home to manage pets, and household while I jetted off to exotic places like Austin.
I also made an appointment with my doctor to give him the news that I’d finally bounced my ball too high, and I was going to need some other kind of medical intervention. He was very sympathetic and thorough, offering me my first prescription of Klonazepam, saying the Lorazepam was no longer doing the job. It was also time for me to see a psychiatrist because we had passed the threshold over which my general practice physician needed to call in a specialist. I remember thinking that I was becoming my mother, an addict for tranquilizers and alcohol for my adult life. The fear of drug dependency was going to become reality for me.
Finding a psychiatrist was one of the toughest jobs I’d been given while managing my health. There were 3 pages of names on the mental health management company website, mostly with outdated information, or specialties for drug and alcohol dependency. It took several calls to the office of the psychiatrist I did locate who specialized in my condition, major depressive disorder and anxiety disorder. The next available appointment was in two months. I still remember thinking there was a real marketing opportunity for more psychiatrists, and then a prayer to God to keep me whole until I could get to see my psychotherapist, and now the shrink.
This wasn’t my first time seeing a shrink. In my late 30s I’d needed antidepressants, and I learned the routine. The first visit was to get the medical history, and through trial and error the doctor kept prescribing a different drug that didn’t produce a side effect worse than the malady. Things had changed in very noticeable ways in the field. This new psychiatrist had happy music (show tunes) playing loudly over the waiting room speakers. The latest in psychiatric technologies was called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) which entailed determining precisely the strength of electromagnetic stimulation to be directed through the scalp directly over the part of the brain responsible for mood. Each session was an hour of zapping your head with the same magnetic field used in MRI machines, 40 second bursts of energy that felt like someone snapping your head with a rubber band, then a 10 second rest before the next 40 seconds of zapping.
It reminded me of an old Star Trek episode where an evil scientist on a prison colony had devised a similar process of rehabilitation for the criminally insane of the galaxy. In my treatment room sat a trained technician who made sure I was as comfortable as possible, given the hour of scalp snapping that was about to ensue. “And what can I put on the television for you?” was his next question before flipping the switch on my electric chair. Well at 10:00 in the morning, it was a variety of talk shows, or my tech’s recommendation for cable’s finer genre of programming. “Have you ever watched American Horror Story?”
Struck by the irony of undergoing treatment for major depressive disorder, anxiety and panic, I’ll watch Jessica Lange run a coven in the heart of modern day New Orleans. This practice also employed a DNA test which for $200 compared my genetic makeup to the available drug therapies, rating each as red, yellow, or green, where red was not recommended and green meant the fewest side effects. How comforting to see Wellbutrin, the drug I’d been taking faithfully for years was rated yellow, meaning proceed with caution. My summary report also suggested that my body did not absorb B Vitamins with efficiency, and folic acid, normally broken down into five separate forms, in my body it only made it to three forms. A folic acid supplement Deplin, was recommended for the sum of $120 for the month’s supply. Add that to the $2000 for the TMS therapy sessions, and my nervous breakdown was about to bring on a panic attack for cost!
My caring psychiatrist did his level best to adjust the dosage on the zapper, tried no less than 10 different antidepressant drugs, but alas I was still awake at night, and usually getting small doses of sleep lasting 2-3 hours.
The moral of this long story is that everyone has a breaking point, and you don’t usually hear a loud snap noise when you’ve arrived. Acknowledging that you suffer depression, anxiety, or panic is not a sign of weakness, but rather likely to be the sign that you’ve tried everything in your bag of coping tools, and they’re no longer working. By talking with my manager, asking for help, I got pulled out of the mix before I hurt someone for driving while exhausted, or harming myself because of the embarrassment of being mentally afflicted. My caring manager confided in me that her own husband also suffered depression, and she had great awareness of what happens to people who repress the symptoms and try to power through the work. My experience taught me that things never are as bad as they seem, and raising your hand for help is the first step in feeling better. It felt like the first step of an apocryphal thousand mile journey, but the whole trip meant walking through deep, wet concrete.