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In My Room

Steve Abramowitz

“SO STEVE, WHAT BRINGS you to therapy?”

“I’ve been moody, sluggish and short-tempered lately. I think I’m depressed.”

“Any guesses what might be going on?”

“I do, but it’s so silly. My wife Alberta needs to make her first required minimum distribution in a few months. You know, when you reach that point in your 70s where they make you withdraw from your retirement accounts. I don’t think it’s about the tax liability. We’ve planned for that.”

“Then?”

“This is going to sound strange. But I manage the money, and I’m afraid I’m going to miss seeing her retirement funds grow.”

“Sounds like investing has been kind of a passion for you.”

“Uh-huh. The stock market is challenging for me in so many ways. I read about mutual funds and exchange-traded funds all the time, and have used my math ability and common sense to build up a nice nest egg for Alberta. I know I’ll still have some tinkering left to do, but the required withdrawal is a shot across the bow.”

“I’m getting the picture. Investing has given you a structure and a different kind of gratification than you get from seeing people in your psychology practice.”

“Yes, helping patients work out their lives is enormously satisfying, but I sit all day. I like a hit every now and then.”

“Is it fair to say you seek a lot of action to keep you from sinking into the blues?”

“Yes, definitely. That’s why the other doctor started me on Prozac a few years ago. He said my personality is keyed for depression and so I compensate with excitement.”

“Steve, from what you’ve told me, I’d agree. And maybe becoming a successful stock investor has been a source of pride and self-esteem. It’s a big thing in our society, especially for men.”

“Investing has been a big part of my identity. In my 40s and 50s, I became depressed and lost my job as a psych professor. Investing became my contribution to my family’s well-being. Friends still ask for advice all the time. Even so, I’m constantly comparing my successes to theirs.”

“Steve, you must have been raised in a very achievement-oriented family, which makes letting go of your money all the more terrifying. What you’re going through now isn’t a garden-variety depression. You’re in mourning.”

“Mourning? But no one close to me has died.”

“Grief doesn’t only happen with the death of a loved one. You’re losing a very good friend, an activity that has been a source of self-worth for many years.”

“I’ve never thought of my investing that way. I do feel a little lost. And truthfully, I’m scared.”

“Sure you are. Passage from a stage of life you’ve mastered to one that’s new—and that you’ve probably resisted planning for—is frightening. Steve, you’re in what we might call retirement affective disorder. You’re having trouble moving from the accumulation phase to the distribution phase, and from retirement planning to enactment.”

“Can you help me through the transition?”

“Steve, your prognosis is good if you’re willing to explore new ways of finding meaning in your life. Your path has been too narrow. Like many people, you’ve concentrated too much on what you do well, and haven’t experienced nearly enough of all life has to offer.”

“I’m open to most anything that might break up this fog I’m in.”

“As the fulfillment you get from investing winds down, you’ll need to replace it with activities that also have meaning for you. You’ve taught and you love investing. Maybe volunteering to coach teenagers in good money habits or assisting seniors in managing their financial affairs would help. And, of course, there are the rewards of travel—relaxation, learning and just plain fun.”

“Whoa, you can stop right there, doc. I hate vacations that involve a lot of travel. First of all, they’re absurdly expensive, not to mention a big hassle. You’ve got all the jostling at the airport and the discomforts of the plane. Alberta coaxed me into a trip to Europe a few years ago. After landing in Madrid, we were told our bags had turned up in Berlin.”

“So, you had an experience that only reinforced your worst-case scenario. But I wonder how it would be if the purpose of the travel held more meaning for you.”

“I’ve been having this recurring dream about a trip I would take. Some people wake up from a dream feeling anxious. But last night, I woke up all teary.”

“Can you remember any part of the dream?”

“Oh sure, the whole thing. I fly to New York—in economy, of course—and drive a rental car to the house I was brought up in on Long Island. I walk up to the front door and knock. When a woman opens it, I tell her my name and that I lived in the house 60 years ago. She smiles and invites me in. Then I point to the stairway and ask if I could see my old room. She says sure and gestures toward the stairs. When I get up to my room, I hear the Beach Boys playing one of my favorite songs. It goes, ‘There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to, in my room, in my room.’ And that’s when I wake up crying, just like I’m doing now.”

“Steve, your dream has to do with your fear of leaving a place that’s safe for one that’s frightening. Your unwinding of a rewarding sideline career is exaggerated by your memory of leaving home. You’re depressed because you feel trapped. But you’re not trapped. You’re just scared about what’s to come.”

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.

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