Taken from hope to cope which is located HERE.
If you struggle with depression, and if you’re lucky—how’s that for a paradox?—you’ve fallen to an absolute low point. A bottom you’ve hit and bounced back from. You can measure all other bad times against it.
Mine happened 16 years ago. Even now, thinking about the improbable agony still causes tightness in my chest.
Driving Route 24 to Boston, I considered the massive semi charging up the passing lane behind me. A slight tug on my steering wheel would send my little car under its 18 big wheels. That was one way to get out of the meeting awaiting me.
Was I about to be confronted with evidence of embezzlement? The discovery of pornographic Web sites on my computer? Transcripts of treasonous phone calls?
No, this was a meeting of the hospital’s picnic committee. My coworkers were going to ask how many volunteers I’d signed up for the dunk tank.
I had no progress to report, and my shame was overwhelming. I figured they would talk about how I’d let everyone down. I was a senior member of the hospital’s development staff, but word would get out that I had screwed up a simple assignment.
In cognitive therapy, this falls under the heading of catastrophizing. Catastrophic thinking takes different forms. For me, it’s a chain of events that ends with me being unwanted in the company of people I’ve disappointed.
This chain didn’t start with the picnic committee. I’d been struggling at my job for months. The anxiety-inducing pressure—What have you done lately?—was building.
Now, I couldn’t help run a picnic. For those unfamiliar with it, a dunk tank is a contraption that embarrasses people for fun. A volunteer sits on a fragile perch above a tank of cold water. Passersby are encouraged to throw baseballs at an adjacent target. When one hits, the perch falls away and the volunteer splashes into the tank.
To keep it interesting, you need a lot of good sports. Even better? Authority figures. At the very least, you want someone from accounting. In this sense, a dunk tank is a lot like a public hanging.
My task was to find volunteers. When six or seven people refused, I took the rejections personally. When committee members expressed disappointment that I didn’t get the hospital president to volunteer, I started to skip the meetings. I even avoided the cafeteria for fear of running into any of them.
Three days before the picnic, I had three volunteers: a doctor, a guy who owed me a big favor, and me.
That’s when I crashed. I shut myself in my office and stopped taking calls. I called my wife sobbing and admitting that, maybe, I could use professional help. Years of it, as things turned out—and antidepressants, too. But that was later.
The picnic came and went. Most people had fun, though the dunk tank sucked. The committee shrugged it off and moved on.
In a different frame of mind, I might have declined the dunk tank assignment. I might have realized that the secretary who bit my head off for thinking of asking the president to volunteer was having a bad day.
I even might have recognized that the real problem was my job performance. For that matter, my work anxiety was also a heavy dose of catastrophizing. If I did get fired, would I really never get another job?
But I wasn’t in that frame of mind—and wouldn’t be for nearly a year—so the dunk tank was yet another example of how I was a total failure. I was sure that, by Christmas, I’d be sleeping under bridges and rummaging through trash for food.
Instead, I started therapy. I began taking medication. I discovered I could break the chain of events. Most importantly, from that point on, I had the measure of my absolute bottom.
I’ve had plenty of bad periods since. But whenever I slide into a depression now, I usually realize that it—whatever “it” is—isn’t that important. On those occasions I don’t, my wife administers a dope slap and reminds me, “Hey! It’s just another *#@+-ing dunk tank!”
Michael Rafferty is a consultant for non-profit organizations and has worked in the non-profit sector for 25 years. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and son.