The year was 1986. Michael and Julie, then married for six years, had a baby on the way. Michael was a professional fundraiser, a job that required constant energy and enthusiasm and a lot of social interaction. But, he was feeling burned out, always working from deadline to deadline.
If one of his events was a success, it simply meant he’d have to reproduce it next year – only better. The need to constantly ‘one-up’ himself, was exhausting. With fatherhood looming, Michael worried about finances and felt more pressure than ever to succeed. Ultimately, though, it was insomnia that brought Michael to his primary care doctor. ”
When the doctor walked in, I just lost it,” Michael remembers. “I was crying. I was a mess. I was given an immediate referral to a psychiatrist. When he suggested medication, I wanted nothing to do with it. A month later, I got a new job – the ‘geographical cure’ at a bigger organization. That meant more stress, but also more money. Things went well for several years. I thought I’d achieved a nice balance between my work and my family.”
Professionally, Michael was successful. But, he began to think: Would I be able to be that successful next year? What if I couldn’t do it? What if it had all just been luck? Then they’d all know. I wasn’t good enough. His anxiety and depression intensified, spiraling and chaotic.
“In the spring of 1992, we bought our new house, along with a new mortgage. At work, I began procrastinating. I was fearful and became much more introverted. My productivity was down, I couldn’t concentrate. My thinking wasn’t ordered. I was just waiting to be criticized or ‘found out.’ Then, I just crashed. I couldn’t function. My wife called the psychiatrist that I’d seen in December. This time around, I was in the throes of a deep depression so I was very receptive to medication. At that point, I would have been receptive to brain surgery.”
Surprisingly, the antidepressant worked very quickly. The depression subsided within a few days and a better day came. Reluctantly, Michael started therapy. “From the start, I hated everything about it. But I can talk a good game. Mostly, I watched the clock and thought about how badly I wanted out of there. I thought let’s just fix what’s wrong with me so I don’t have to do this anymore.”
After several years and several therapists, Michael’s psychiatrist suggested that he try a different approach, cognitive behavioral therapy. It was a different dynamic with a new therapist, one that allowed Michael to not only recognize his behavior and catastrophic thoughts, but also to learn strategies to cope with them. He learned that the racing heart and the sweaty palms was a predictable physiological reaction to stress called the fight or flight response.
“Therapy was a giant leap forward for me,” Michael says. “I thought if it’s me that’s broken, I can fix it. If it’s something external, I can’t do anything about it. I gained an acceptance of who I am. Now, I can recognize my catastrophic thinking. When my thoughts start to go crazy, I can stop and think, okay, I’ve been through this before. So, what do I do? Go for a run? Breathing exercises? Ask myself questions to figure out what’s going on in my brain? Pick up the phone? I began to feel like I had some control over the situation now.”
Today, Michael is doing well. Over the years, he’s learned how to cope with the symptoms. He can boost his medication to rebalance. Deep breathing exercises ease his anxiety. Reality checks help him maintain perspective. Therapy anchors him to the real world, like a life preserver of sorts. Michael also began running. In 2000, he ran the Boston Marathon.
“Running was definitely good for me,” he says. “It took a lot of time and discipline. I was unprepared for how good it felt to finish the Marathon, and I was strangely selfish about it. I felt like this was mine and I didn’t have to share the credit with anyone.”
When Michael is working, he’s the charming, cheerful, funny guy. In his free time, though, he writes a regular column for Esperanza, a quarterly magazine written by and about people living with anxiety and depression.