Note: Thanks to Kenny Rogers and the First Edition for the title (you have to go way back to know that one!)
Of course I’m depressed. I mean, who wouldn’t be. Ebola, climate change, Supreme Court decisions, police injustice, terrible things going on in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. There are days that I have to avoid the front section of the newspaper altogether. I withdraw to the sports section where I can be comforted by the complete meaninglessness of whether or not the Sixers will win more than one game this year, or court the anxiety of my Chargers trying to stagger, once again, into the playoffs, and ponder if the Padres are about to make yet another horrible trade.
On my worst days, I figure that anyone who is not depressed is just not paying attention.
And this is one aspect of me that drives my wife just a little crazy. After all, I don’t actually have Ebola. Like most Americans, I have little say over the direction of the country, and people much smarter than me have failed miserably to guide events in the Middle East. No one at the Padres or Chargers seems much interested in my advice as sound as it might be.
Instead, right at this very moment, I’m writing as I sit out on my deck, drinking a beer, and enjoying a lovely, San Diego sunset. I am in reasonably good health. I’m retired which means I don’t have to do anything on a given day, although I do enjoy substitute teaching occasionally, attending adult school classes, hiking, taking long walks, reading, writing, doing yoga, swimming, traveling, and gardening.
In other words, from the outside, it would seem that I have no good reason to be depressed. I have no good reason to be anxious.
And yet, I do get anxious. I still slip into depressive periods. I start to see every setback as a personal failure. The car breaks down and in my mind, it spirals into a catastrophe. I make a simple mistake on a project and I curse myself as an “idiot.” I get disoriented in an airport, and I start to panic. How come everyone else knows where they are going? I am a sponge for other people’s sadness and for the troubles I see in the world. I get a headache, I worry about brain tumors.
I’ve been seeing a therapist for depression and anxiety for over ten years now. I was encouraged to seek out help because I kept slipping into depressive episodes as I became overwhelmed with work (an almost constant condition for a teacher), and because I noticed how I increasingly reacted to everything and everyone negatively, sarcastically. I resisted for quite a few years, but now I take medication to even out the highs and the lows. The sessions were frequent at the beginning. Now, I go in every couple of months, just to check in, just to make sure that I’m still moving in a positive direction.
It’s not something that I share lightly, but also something I’m not afraid to share especially with my former students who from time to time have in the past, and still today, seek me out in times of distress.
I came to know early on in my teaching experience, just now little I knew about the lives of my students as I interacted with them for my 54 minutes per day. If I saw a kid obviously in distress, I would take him aside and offer support and give him a chance to talk. Some students welcomed the attention. An equal number resented the intrusion.
Others were in pain so close to the surface, that the slightest interaction was enough to cause them to open up. One girl came in after school, ostensibly to talk about a problem with writing, and promptly dissolved into tears. What she really needed was to talk to someone about her mother who was creating chaos in her life. I once teased a young woman about the baseball cap she was wearing, whereupon she burst into tears. I took her aside and we spent the next two hours (and a good chunk of the following year) talking about the very painful break-up she was experiencing with her first boyfriend.
Just last week, helping a former student finish her college essays, we ended up talking about the pressure she was feeling from her parents, how she often felt isolated, how she felt guilty about moments of enjoyment, about how she felt somehow she didn’t deserve to be happy.
All three of these students were young, vibrant, bright, engaged young women. They were all high achievers who expected much of themselves. All three had a very hard time seeing beyond their present crisis or beyond their present way of thinking about it.
Somewhere in my conversations with all of them, I brought up my experience with therapy, with having to seek out some support, with how I came to realize that I needed professional help. Invariably, my students are surprised by this because the impression I give to my students when I am in front of a classroom, is that I am a positive, happy, high-energy person. They come to assume that I am like that all the time. What they didn’t know was that persona would pretty much collapse after 6th period on any given day.
Like these three young women, before therapy, I didn’t have strategies to cope with outside forces that I couldn’t control. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t quickly bounce back from the debilitating pain of loss. I often felt like a fraud and was incapable of accepting a compliment gracefully.
The most startling part of entering therapy was discovering how normal I was. I still remember in the first few sessions, as I started to describe the thoughts that plagued me, as I unburdened myself of all of the stuff I had been carrying around with me for so long, how utterly unimpressed my therapist was. “Yeah.” he responded. “You have a number of what we call “cognitive distortions” which is just a fancy way of saying that over time, you’ve come to distort the way you look at yourself and the world around you. You’re not an idiot, every setback is not a crisis, lots of people get lost in airports, and you probably don’t have a brain tumor.”
Then he handed me a list of “Common Cognitive Distortions”. There were 15 of them. They had neat little labels. The situations I had described fit nicely into 5 or 6 of the categories and I could see hints of how I perceived the world in 4 or 5 more.
I felt a little deflated. I thought I had really serious issues and here they were all boiled down into nice little boxes, all described on a single sheet of paper. I wasn’t anguished after all; I was mundane.
That last sentence is an example of a cognitive distortion. I just can’t remember which one right now.
Of course, my concerns and the pain I felt were real. The work it took to begin to recognize and respond to years of perceiving myself negatively was hard, and I have had to learn some lessons over and over again. The ruts in my ways of thinking are deep and even now, I fall back into them. That’s why the check-ups continue to this day.
I certainly do not share all of this with my students who are in distress. What I mostly do is listen to their concerns, share similar experiences that I have had, and most especially make sure there is help and support available to them. If I feel they might need the help of a professional, I try to demystify that experience for them. It’s amazing how comforted they seem to feel to know that a trusted adult has also struggled, has sought out professional help, is still working on personal issues that are not always all that different from their own.
If anything, I try to help them to feel normal again, to feel mundane—but in a good way.