The last in a series of five essays about Mental Health to celebrate the dog days of August.
Mental Health I: Why Do I Write?
Mental Health II: Suicide is Painless
Mental Health III: You Were Never Sick; Get Yourself Better
Mental Health IV: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
The United States is the most individualist society on earth. Our relentless quest for autonomy causes us to suffer high rates of consumption, isolation, and loneliness. The internet and social media laid the foundation for online society and planted the confusion that virtual friends were equivalent to physical ones. When COVID-19 made virtual encounters the default choice, our atomization accelerated.
Weathering the shut-down was easier for me than many. I was already retired, so didn’t need to go anywhere; I enjoyed the company of a pleasant housemate; I live in a walkable city. Still, the pandemic left me, like so many, more isolated than ever. It also shut down my particular magic pill for mental health: without my gym, I atrophied. The careful balance I’d crafted through applying Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) slipped away.
An ugly exchange with a cherished friend spiraled me down. I spent a week in a swamp of despair, maybe longer. Time is an unreliable construct when I’m depressed. When the curtain of solace slowly ascended, and I was able to see how irrational I’d been, I realized it was necessary—once again—to reach out for help. I was more amenable to therapy this round, as my experience with CBT had been positive. I needed a CBT booster.
Instead, I enudred a series of interactions with health care providers so pathetic (yet common) I need not elaborate here. I finally found a large therapy group that advertised accepting new patients, persevered through applications and interviews, only to be told their practice was full. I suppose these frustrations provided therapy in themselves, as my exasperation with our miserable healthcare system eclipsed the emotional space occupied by depression.
At peak anger, three months after my initial quest for therapy, with nothing even potential, I posted a scathing Google review of the practice who advertised taking new patients, and then reneged. Guess what? Within an hour, I received a personal call from the head of the practice, with effusive apology. Would I rescind the review? Absolutely not! What can I do to make this right? Set up an appointment with a CBT therapist. Doctor Apology did not do that. However, a few days later, I received in the mail, The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression, by William J. Knaus, EdD.
It is a sad world, when a person only gets heard when he goes postal. I can understand people who say, “What’s he got to be depressed about?” I can understand that there are others with greater mental instability. I’m not trying to trump anyone else’s problems. My problems are not relevant to the cosmos, but they are real to me. They hold me back, and they make me miserable. Here I am, trying to steady myself before I slip into the trauma that once led me to suicide, yet no attention gets paid until I do something extreme.
The idea did not fill me with dread.
Actually, it was satisfying.
I appreciated the gesture of the workbook. And I used it. Twice a week, for over six months. I read, I notated, I wrote responses to the guided questions; an entire folder of essays that I’ll spare those of you who’ve read this far. I worked, I learned, I felt better, and I became more self-aware. I likely got more out of the workbook than I would have from another round of talk.
Then, something both strange and amazing happened to me.
One morning last year, at age 66, I woke up and my initial thought was, “Hmmm, I could live to be ninety.” And the idea did not fill me with dread. Actually, it was satisfying.
Waking to the pleasant prospect of life may not seem amazing to many. But this was the first time—the very first time in my entire life—that I woke in the morning and greeted the day, the week, the year, however long the gods choose to keep me around, with equanimity. For a guy who’s suffered morning dread for…ever, this was a superb beginning to the day.
This new mindset of awakening occurred, again. Then, with increased frequently. These days, waking to calm is my usual mode. And on mornings clouded with angst, I am quick to soothe myself. When stuck, I go back to the book, review how to direct my thoughts, and thereby modulate my feelings.
I know I’ll weather more episodes of mental anguish; my pot-stirring brain demands constant diligence. However, the stasis I’ve enjoyed over the past year is a revelation that will not easily dim. I have the tools and the confidence to vanquish the forces that made my days so grueling for so long. Confident enough to write publicly about my journey.
As I neurologically whither and physically deteriorate, new challenges will arise. I may yet choose to end my life someday: I am a strong believer in the right of a person to orchestrate their finale. But end it in depression? I don’t think so.
We have created a world fueled by competition and aggression, fixated on physical enticements, bereft of mental stability. Mental illness will surely escalate as the human psyche is further starved of calm, repose, reflection. I feel blessed to have found a path to peace of mind. I hope that others can find their own.