I lost 10 years

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10 years.  I lost 10 years.  10 years in which I completely lost the plot.  10 years that I survived, rather than thrived.  I wasn’t depressed or unhappy, but neither was I happy.  But I was stressed.  Constantly.  10 years when I was so strung out on work stress I couldn’t stop to ask myself if, ultimately, it was worth it.

Over the summer I had an health scare and an extended convalescence.  I was immediately confronted with my life choices and my own mortality.  Ironically, for a powerlifter, my condition made me very, very physically weak.  I had “physical” nervous breakdown, rather than a mental one.  The body cannot live in a permanent state of stress and poor sleep.  It will stop functioning correctly – as it did with me.

During my many, many medical visits, my doctor began to question me about lifestyle – how much I worked, what did I do outside of work, how were my family and “romantic” relationships…I should preface this by saying my doctor is an old school medical professional and a Germanic one at that.  He says exactly what he thinks, and nobody will accuse him of being too touchy-feely.  He came to the conclusion that, as he put it, “You don’t have a life.  You work too much and when you’re not working, you stress about it.  Are working to live, or living to work?”.

10 years I assumed, almost overnight, a quantum leap in responsibility at work.  I certainly wasn’t going to say “no”.  I have always worked hard, and to be honest, was chafing at not being recognized.  Well, I got recognition, and with that recognition came a lot more responsibility and visibility.  I managed more people.  I was suddenly thrust into the bigger leagues, with all that implies.  

I had to learn a lot of new skills quickly – with little in the form of mentoring.  It wasn’t easy, and I made mistakes.  I learned to take criticism and feedback with the right mindset – and to never take things personally. I realized that you get the most criticism when you are doing something of real consequence.  Make no mistake about it, I had to work hard…but the challenge was exciting at first.

The stress levels I undertook were exponentially more than I had experienced previously.  The stress caused by looming project deadlines or dealing with a difficult employee were not impossible to deal with.  A solution, I knew, would be found.  What became impossibly to manage as the years progressed, however, was being on the receiving end of a greatly increased workload for which my team and I did not have sufficient resources.  Working week after month after year in those conditions is a losing game.  I worked longer and longer hours…and when I wasn’t working, I literally could not sleep as I’d think about all the deadlines we’d miss.

Without noticing it, I prioritized only work and my children.  I scarcely had time to train powerlifting – and even that suffered for extended periods.  Work did not directly cause any of my romantic relationships to end but it made creating new ones difficult.  I began to stop making middle to long-term plans (like great trips, planning the purchase of a vacation home, making a big sports goal) etc. because I knew with experience that work crises always arose and I’d have to put my plans on hold.  I have, many times, cancelled vacations.  Slowly, I stopped reading, which is a habit I’ve had my entire life.  I was simply too keyed up to concentrate on reading…and by the end of it, I couldn’t follow TV shows either.

I couldn’t have been much fun to be around.  Living in constant crisis mode made it difficult for me to be present in the moment.  I’ve always been prone to “being in my head” and daydreaming only now I was zoning out to imagine crisis situations in a never-ending loop.  More nightmare than daydream.  I had no interests other than powerlifting anymore – so really not much to talk about.  Other than being with my kids, my main pleasure in life was not working.  In just about every picture taken of me the last 10 years, I look like a real miserable bastard.  And I was. As funny as this sounds now, I just didn’t realize to what extent.

Negative thoughts and emotions generate a sort of negative energy that people pick up on and, quite naturally, seek to avoid.  That was me, a veritable positive energy black hole.  Having a Dad who was constantly in stress mode and who couldn’t be present in the moment had to have sucked.  I knew it, of course, but I told myself I was working hard for them and, besides (and this is not untrue) I tried to always be there for them in many other ways.  And I was, but again, I wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs.  My dad  lost the plot after my parents divorced when I was young and receded into the (literal physical) distance as time went on.  I told myself that I wasn’t going to do that- and for the most part I didn’t – but the inability to relax, be present and live in the moment is a form of “distance”.

I have had many issues with alcohol, but this post is not meant to examine that in detail.  During this period, my alcohol use changed in a very interesting way.  I stopped drinking wine and spirits.  I wasn’t seeking to “get trashed”, per se.  Instead, I took an exact dose of beer most evenings (after 7pm).  It was very clinical self-mediation, I drank enough beer to ‘disconnect’ but I wasn’t getting completely blotto nor did I have crashing hangovers the next day.  I just needed to stop the incessant stress monkey in my head.  I was ashamed of this, of course, so I drank in my room.  My kids knew I was drinking, and I knew they knew, but again I told myself I’d get a handle on it shortly.  The shame just added to the anxiety.

Physically, I changed radically.  I gained weight to the extent that people who hadn’t seen me for X numbers of years often did a double-take.  Sometimes, they’d not be hypocritical and say what they were thinking as in “hey dude, what’s up with that?” which I knew was warranted but I didn’t like.  Much of this weight gain, to be fair, was also linked to muscle gain due to powerlifting.  I had added a lot of muscle pretty quickly (to the extent that an ex-girlfriend who manages gyms thought I was on gear at one point).  So I was bulky…but I also gained more fat that I should have and, worse still, often had a bloated appearance.  I was bulky, bloated, red-faced and feeling pretty shitty for the most part.  And it showed.  I’m not vain, but neither do I like being the guy in the picture who looks shit.  It was depressing but, again, I told myself handle it soon.

It’d be easy to say that the extra fat and bloating was all due to the beer.  Certainly it was the major factor, but I think constant sky-high cortisol levels (due to stress) also played a role in the weight and water retention.  Some months ago I did the calculations of my weekly calorie intake.  Other than drinking beer, I tended to eat clean and not too much.  Veggies, fruit and some proteins.  My daily calorie intake was surprisingly just over the what I normally needed to maintain weight, even with the beer.  I knew the beer was adding empty calories and carbs, but I was shocked to learn that it wasn’t as much as I had imagined.  My body, however, due to aging and stress, had become much less efficient at burning calories.

Obviously, this was not a sustainable life style.  The wheels were, inevitably, going to come off.  Some years ago I finally went through a period of mental burnout\exhaustion.  I took 2 weeks off, which really wasn’t nearly enough, and just powered through it afterwards.  For better or worse, I’ve learned how to cope with some pretty extreme periods of depression/anguish.   I don’t think my resilience did me any favors in the long run.  Then, about a year and a half ago, my daughter left for college.  Just like that, gone to college.  It seemed that I remember her being born like it was just a few weeks prior.  I realized that while highly present on a day to day basis, we didn’t really have a bunch of good memories to look back on in the preceding 10 years.  Epic trips, things like that.  You’re busy, and you put things off, but the thing is your children can’t be put “on hold”. They grow, and mature.  Fuck, I thought, how did I let that happen.  I must change.

Finally, a few months ago, change was thrust upon me.  My physical body decided to pull the plug.  It turns out there is a limit to the amount of stress the body can physically endure.  For a relatively brief, but scary , period I was fairly certain I had come to the end of the road.  We will all die, of course, but the only unknown is when.  Well, I thought, it may indeed be now.  And then I immediately thought, “what the fuck have I been doing with my life?”.  I had no answer.  But I knew, very clearly,  that all of work and the stress was not worth it.  I had wasted that time and I was not going to get it back.  10 years of not being the best parent I could be.  10 years of ignoring my own happiness and well-being.  Nothing, really, to show for those 10 years.

I realized that I made my own private hell.  Was my work stressful?  You bet.  Had I, over a number of years, taken pains to communicate the unsustainable level of stress myself and the teams were under?  Absolutely.  Did anything change substantially?  Not really.  However, what I realize now, is that there is always a choice.  The work situation was not going to change.  I work for a really good company, they are not slave drivers.  But certain conditions are endemic in both our industry and the modern workplace.  The change had to some from within.  I have options.  I can quit the job.  It’s not the end of world.  Dying, however, due to work related stress would be the end of my particular world.  Or I can change how I react to the job.  I can revise my expectations.  I realized it’s OK to say I’m going to do the best work I possibly can, but not at the expense of my health or family.  That means less hours and overall putting the work into perspective.  As I said, I work for a great company, and they have really been supportive during my health issues.  I have communicated clearly with them and for now things seem to be trending correctly.  Will that work for my employer and myself in the long-term?  Time will tell.  

A few days ago I was profoundly shocked to learn about the death of a friend that I had grown up with.  We weren’t the best of friends in school and, in fact, got to know each other better during our 20s.   He was a bright, caring and very smart guy. He was the sort of guy that naturally stayed in touch, that constantly sent crap jokes, that sort of thing.  I’ll never see him again, which is something I am still processing  There are no guarantees.  I’m in my 50s, with luck I have maybe another 10 years of good physical shape ahead of me.  I intend to take advantage of them.  

 

Let’s talk about depression in young men

I’ve reached an age when the children of people in my social circle are now young men and women and are taking their first tentative steps in establishing their adult identity – leaving home for university or, in some cases, going directly into the work-force.  2 of them, young men, are displaying signs of depression.  Discussing their issues immediately brought back a flood of memories of my own experiences with what I now recognize as fairly serious depression as a young man.  As I learned more about what these young guys were going through,  two thoughts  echo’ed in my head “Just hang on, it will get better” and “I wish they knew what I know now”.

According to a recent CDC study, “The percentage of adults who experienced any symptoms of depression was highest among those aged 18–29 (21.0%)” **.  (Please note that what follows are my opinions based on my own personal experience.  I am not, in any way, an expert in the field of mental health.)  Given my experience, I was not surprised by this result.  As far as I can tell, there are 2 types depression: situational (caused by stress, events) and innate (genetics, body chemistry, etc so that one may be predisposed to depression even in the best circumstances).  If you’re already predisposed to depression, taking those first steps into adulthood creates a lot of situational stress which, in my opinion, creates a perfect storm for a really bad bout of depression.  This is made worse by one’s relative inexperience with depression – not knowing what is happening to you or if it will ever get better.  This is why colleges famously get their share of freshman freakouts or worse.  I don’t know if it’s an apocryphal story, but we were told the reason that college dorm room windows don’t open completely is because of “jumpers”.

Looking back, I realize that I was predisposed to depression.  I was a fairly depressive kid and this was only exacerbated by factors in my childhood.  I was a sensitive kid with a very active imagination who was constantly daydreaming.  I’I had some good times, but also downright bad times.  I learned at an early age that life was often unfair and unpleasant, and there were times that the best you could do was to slog through, to endure.  It comes as no surprise that when I drank my first beer at the age of 15 there was an instant attraction.  My anxiety (briefly) vanished, and the incessant monkey mind chatter in my head was silenced.  Of course, the following hang over just made my anxiety levels sky-rocket.  Self-medicating with alcohol was, and is,  a viscious circle but I was young and very oriented toward short-term results.

As I’ve related in other posts in this blog, I left home at 18 and moved “back” the States.  In many ways, I was very much on my own.  I had a bit of money and the addresses of some friends I could stay with as I got on my feet.  Lest this sound like I’m playing the world’s smallest violin (woe is me), I did quite a bit to deserve this situation.  I barely, just barely graduated my senior year in high school so obviousy I hadn’t bothered to apply to colleges or even think about them in any material way.  I was, in short, a real handful my last 2 years of high school.  Rebellious, never home and more often than not partying with friends.  So my brilliant plan when I hit the US was to live some sort of bohemian working class existence that was part Jack Kerouac and part Bruce Springsteen.  Embarassing, but true.

Spoiler alert – it was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated and rather less glamorous.  I really scraped, scrounged and couch surfed.  I worked a multitude of shitty jobs, at one point working two full-time jobs simultaneously.  Looking back, I’m sort of impressed by what I achieved and the discipline that I imposed on myself.  The dark side of this achievement is that I had painted myself into a corner.  I really had no other options other than what I was doing – working and trying to get by on my own.  After about a year, I had managed to find a decent bottom rung of the ladder corporate job – working in a mail-room.  The pay was better than retail or restaurant jobs and the job actually had benefits like medical insurance and a 401k.  It seemed like things were looking up, however I soon found myself in what seemed like a black, bottomless pit of despair.  It felt like a dull physical pain and it made everything that much harder.  Getting out of bed, acting normal around people, going to work and not just suddenly walking out because I couldn’t deal with it anymore required gargantuan effort.

Because I was young and had relatively little life experience, I didn’t know what I could do to remedy this situation…so I just continued dragging myself to work and trying to ignore this heavy feeling of suffocation.  Finally, one day at work my body began to seize up.  I literally could not move my neck, it was frozen in place and I began to have a full-blown anxiety attack.  I excused myself from work (they were not at all understanding) and went to straight to my shitty HMO (US Healthcare, I  realize now, is a travesty) where I had to wait 3 hours to see a doctor.  When I did get to see the doctor he said there was nothing wrong with me and accused me of trying score drugs.  No counseling, no advice as to where I could get appropriate care, no concern about mental health at all.  I did the only thing I could think of – I scored some beer and drank.

The beer helped in the short-term, but when I woke up with a hang-over my situation was worse.  My anxiety was off the charts.  I realized my only option was to will myself to relax, one small step at a time.  So that is what I did.  It was horrible, I could only focus on the immediate – on literally hanging on.  I had no immediate safety-net.  I could completely lose my shit, but that would land me in unknown, possibly much worse, territory.  I still had to work, of course, so my major challenge was going to work, toughing it out and trying hide everything I was feeling.  Still, each day I did this was a small victory, and each time I was able to check my anxiety and will myself to do something positive gave me a very small measure of confidence.  After a while, I realized that I was not going to drown in this tsunami of anxiety and depression.  I could keep my head above water, if only barely at first.

I didn’t suddenly wake up one day without depression, happy and refreshed.  This bout slowly lifted in very small increments, two steps forward, one step back.  What did happen is that one day, many months later, I realized that I was making it through the day more or less normally.  I wasn’t particularly happy, per se, but neither was I being crushed the darkness.

Life is not a Hollywood movie.  I would like to say that I never suffered bouts of depression after that, but I did.  None of them were as scary as that first one that hit me at the cusp of adulthood.  Also, with experience I was/am able to handle depression better.

That experience taught me a few things:

  • Just. Hang. On.  You are stronger than you think.  Sometimes the only thing you can do is focus on small victories.  Forward momentum, no matter how slight, is key.
  • You need something that imposes structure in your life.  Staying in bed all day is only good for deepening your depression.  It can be as small as setting a goal such as today I will take a shower, get dressed and take a walk in the neighborhood or, as I did, go to work.  This was exhausting for me, but one positive aspect is that I was forced to focus on something other than myself for part of the day.
  • Substance abuse makes your anxiety/depression exponentially worse.  Avoid it.  I’ve had issues with substance abuse in the past, however during this episode an innate survival instinct made me avoid alcohol for the duration.  I was literally scared of ramping up my anxiety even further.
  • Find a competent mental health professional ASAP.  Keeping trying until you find one.  My experience was inexcusable.  We’re not in the 80s anymore, so I sincerely hope mentalities and overall compentency in dealing with depression have evolved.
  • Physical activity is the most effective way to alter your mood.  This is why it’s the most popular method addicts use to help modify their behaviour.  Walk, run, swim, bike, lift weights…golf, tennis, whatever it is, do it.

Finally, I think that depression hits young men differently than young women because men famously do not talk about their feelings and, if they do, certainly not with friends.  That being said, I think it’s key for young men suffering from depression, as it was for me, to spend time with their friends.  What male friends are good for is talking shit for hours, playing dumb video games, hanging out and doing whatever.  In the case of depression, this might actually be a better approach than endless talks about feelings.

** 2019 CDC Study about rates in the US