PUBLIC SPEAKING WAS my nemesis throughout my academic career. Though I found it frightening, I’d always been able to tough my way through the lectures and avoid a full-blown anxiety attack. Then, during a theories of psychotherapy seminar for psychiatry residents, the panic broke through.
Though only my first diagnosable episode, it portended an affliction far more sinister. It was a premorbid symptom of an underlying depression that would topple my career, derail my investment ambitions, and plunge me into an early and unplanned retirement.
As 1984 unfolded, I was at the top of my game. I had just married Alberta, the woman I still love. I was granted tenure as a psychologist at a leading medical school at age 39. As director of psychiatric research, I had published more than 100 scientific articles and served as an associate editor of a prestigious psychology journal. An abundant personal and professional future seemed assured.
But I was too young and immature to imagine how a cacophony of unlikely events could unravel a person’s life. In the spring, Alberta’s mother committed suicide. Then, in September, my sister was murdered by a serial killer, her decomposed body discovered in a dumpster. Years later, as a patient, I would make the connection between my sister’s suffocation and my gasp for air while teaching.
My world became even more menacing a few months later. After learning of deadly assaults on a third-year-medical student and a pulmonologist in hospital bathrooms, I became afraid to enter public restrooms. By then, I realized that something ominous and powerful had taken hold. The depression exposed by that first seminar anxiety attack lasted for two decades, the heart of my adult life. I never returned to work. I crumpled as if shot from behind.
Recovery was agonizingly slow. I was hospitalized with suicidal thoughts. Alberta was told my symptoms were resistant to treatment. Psychoanalytic therapy promoted my self-awareness, while cognitive therapy gave me tools to combat my negativity. But they were not cures. I was prescribed countless antidepressants and endured harrowing side effects until, miraculously, one hit.
Reentry into the fabric of everyday life went surprisingly well, except for my social reengagement. I felt shame about my long battle with depression and experienced the stigma surrounding mental illness that’s still pervasive, even among health professionals.
Far wiser and more empathetic, thanks to my own experience, I opened a psychology practice rather than return to research. Some years later, I realized a lifelong dream of becoming an independent investment advisor affiliated with a large discount broker. More important, I’ve been enjoying a meaningful retirement that includes contributing to HumbleDollar.
Here are six strategies that helped me stagger through the darkness and emerge a healthier person. Perhaps they offer a roadmap for you or for a loved one blindsided by mental illness or other health catastrophe. But first and foremost, get professional help in the form of psychotherapy or medication, and preferably both.
1. Accept reality. Unfairly or not, you’ve been targeted. As my son Ryan likes to say, “It is what it is.” You will have a career, friends and retirement, though it may not be how you envisioned it. Some bitterness and denial are understandable, but you need to get beyond them to restore good mental health.
2. Have a purpose. Everyone needs to find meaning, all the more so if you wake up with the world looking bleak. It doesn’t have to be something heavy like deepening your spirituality. It could be volunteering for a charity or supporting a political candidate. For me, it meant preparing Alberta to manage our investments in the event I did not regain full functioning. I tried my best under the circumstances to do the financial coaching and make the necessary arrangements.
3. Mine your favorite activities. By now, hobbies have likely become your loyal allies, and you can turn to them for sustenance and replenishment. Like to read, go to the theater, exercise at the gym, putter in the garden? Do it.
Once a sideline, the stock market became the lifeboat that transported me across all those failed treatments and dwindling hopes. With hours to spare, I became a voracious reader of investment classics like Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor and Peter Lynch’s One Up on Wall Street. Saturday mornings were a special treat. I would bound out of bed and ride my bike to Tower Books to pick up the new edition of Barron’s. I often walked to the library to devour the latest update to the daunting Value Line Mutual Fund Survey like it was a John Grisham thriller. I had my analyst, I had my Prozac—and I had stock therapy.
4. Fight off the doldrums. Emphasize more complex activities that get your mind off all that pessimism. Routine tasks like household chores are useful in keeping busy, but they’re so automatic that they aren’t as effective in replacing the disturbing thoughts. Like to walk but can’t shake the blues? Don’t forget your headset. In my case, there’s nothing like classic rock and roll while I’m rummaging through the mail.
5. Dump the downers. You’re a skilled handyman and notice a tile has fallen from the roof, a sure sign of trouble brewing. You’ve repaired the roof before but dread the thought of another go-round. Ditch the problem for now. The fact is, you’re compromised and the roof probably has three more years of wear on it anyway.
I felt I needed rental properties to diversify from the stock market, but I loathed the responsibilities and nuisances. In my condition, I couldn’t muster the energy or will to perform critical tasks like renting a vacant unit and, besides, I was hapless as a do-it-yourself handyman. Overcoming longstanding anxieties about delegating authority and piling on additional expenses, I hired a property manager. It was a home run and a lesson in trust. Debbi has been a godsend for almost 40 years.
6. Seek out emotional support. In this respect, I was blessed. I have a devoted family that accepted I had a severe depression, as well as several close friends who witnessed my fall. This last strategy is crucial. Whether family member or friend, find at least one intimate relationship with someone you can be totally yourself with, a person you can count on to “be there” for you. If you feel the need to be “on” or would be afraid to go down into your emotional abyss with the person, he or she isn’t the right one.
That’s the gist of how I groped from personal tragedy to renewal. It’s hardly a precise formula, but perhaps it’s a rough roadmap for people struck by a random catastrophe in financial matters, health or otherwise. I’m thankful for another go at life, but under no illusion that a single bout guarantees a future free pass. I stand vigilant yet humble, ever aware of how fleeting the good times can be.
Steve Abramowitz is a psychologist in Sacramento, California. Earlier in his career, Steve was a university professor, including serving as research director for the psychiatry department at the University of California, Davis. He also ran his own investment advisory firm. Check out Steve’s earlier articles.