midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “depression”

A Love (Turned Divorce) Story

I never saw it coming. Twice.

Maybe I was oblivious or in denial, or both. But when my ex-wife first announced that she wasn’t happy and didn’t know if she wanted to stay married, I was dumbfounded. We had two kids under 5 at the time after less than seven years of marriage, and my world was turned upside down in an instant.

I was among the 50 percent of married people who entered marriage thinking divorceTrainInTunnel was only for other people who marry the wrong person, have poor character or morals, or can’t figure out how to make a marriage work, only to end up immersed in the previously unthinkable, bewildered by how such a good thing could have turned so unpleasant.

I didn’t want a divorce. When my ex-wife first raised the specter, I struggled to hold on, to determine what the problems were and how to fix them, and to convince my ex-wife to stay in the marriage and work things out. My emotions were raw and unstable. I became depressed. I lost my appetite and energy, had difficulty sleeping, and experienced trouble concentrating at work. I went to a therapist, desperate to have someone objective with whom I could unload and discuss my predicament.

At the same time, I visited a divorce lawyer, because I knew my ex-wife already had. I dreaded the meeting. I dreaded the prospect of being a part-time father and exposing my young children to the perils of divorce.

We went to couples counseling. I vacillated between feeling hopeful and frustrated that my ex-wife seemed entrenched in her position that she was uncertain whether she wanted to remain married and non-committal toward working to save the marriage. We co-existed for several months in an awkward netherworld of fragile uncertainty. I slept in the basement. I tried to find religion, going to Jewish services, partly in search of peace and community and partly just to escape the tension of being home.

And then, gradually, things got better. We seemed to turn a corner toward reconciliation. We made efforts to be more thoughtful of each other and communicate better. We seemed to be committed to making the marriage work. But perhaps something had been broken irretrievably – or perhaps something was broken all along.

Less than four years later, after a blowup over a happenstance, comedy-of-errors incident that provoked anger, hurt feelings and resentment, my ex-wife announced she was done. Again, I was staggered. I knew things weren’t great, but I also believed they weren’t bad either, at least not divorce-worthy. We weren’t blissful, but things seemed relatively smooth, two typically busy parents of an 8- and 6-year-old, juggling parenthood, careers, finances and social lives. Two successive job layoffs I had suffered added stress, but I didn’t think they were something the marriage could not handle.

This time, my ex-wife was firm in her resolve. I tried, perhaps foolishly, to hold my ground and influence her to work things out. It didn’t work. There was no more trying — only a long march toward a slow death. During the previous divorce threat, I felt befuddled, depressed and physically sick. This time, I was more prone to outbursts of anger, which I knew were ugly and abhorrent but had trouble controlling. I was so easily set off.

I went through the stages of grief for my marriage – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. We lived together for seven months in a state of confrontation, avoidance, resignation and disdain. It was miserable, living with day-to-day tension and knowing what was coming and the eventuality of involving our kids in a breakup. We went to mediation sessions, which I saw as a last ray of hope, but the well was dry. We worked to figure out how to separate amicably.

Finally, we made the arrangement to separate. I stubbornly, and perhaps ill-advisedly, refused to leave the married home. I just didn’t want to be the one to leave, to raise the white flag, to say goodbye and give the appearance of walking out on the kids. I also worried that leaving would create disadvantages for me in future legal negotiations.

During our seven-month Cold War, my ex-wife frequently recited the times I had disappointed her, made mistakes or bad decisions or seemed uncaring and unsupportive, adding up to being a less-than-stellar husband. Those incidents couldn’t be redeemed; they were etched into the narrative of our marriage. The more I railed against or disputed her accounts, the more despondent I felt and the deeper the hole I dug.

Like most marriages, it wasn’t all bad – far from it. We had had a delightful love story, or so I believed. We were senior year college sweethearts. We camped out for several days in Provincetown, MA before graduation, and I had never felt happier. We survived a year of long-distance romance, Upstate New York to Florida, before drifting apart because of impracticalities. Six years later, we rekindled the romance after I discovered my ex-wife had ended a long-term relationship and was interested in seeing me. We endured another long-distance relationship, this time more manageable, Maryland to New York, before getting engaged and finally settling in the same place, my ex-wife moving to Maryland. We loved each other – at least, I know I loved her.

As our marriage came crashing down, so did my beliefs about what I thought I understood about our relationship. Was it revisionist history, or the truth from one partner’s perspective? My ex-wife said perhaps we should have never married, it was all a mistake, maybe she never really loved me. Perhaps I wasn’t the person she thought I was – didn’t have the character she was seeking, not good husband material. At the time we married, I was a Baltimore Sun reporter, which sounds prestigious. By the time we separated, I had been severed from The Sun during a ruthless round of downsizing, laid off from two other jobs, unemployed, and about to start an uncertain venture as a Baltimore City teacher. Perhaps she grew weary of such instability and lack of focus and contentment. I was searching. Perhaps she gave up too much in leaving her established New York life behind, including a graduate school program, to be with me.

The separation was not without challenges and recurring hurtful feelings, but it was a great relief. However, I felt a sense of failure, shame and embarrassment to be heading toward a divorce. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t make my wife happy and keep a marriage strong? The simplest answer, as I have come to realize and accept over the years, is that love – to whatever degree there was that, and I believe there was – just withered, and without it, there just wasn’t enough worth salvaging to bind two people together for eternity.

The finiteness of love is the train that I never saw coming through the tunnel. And here’s where it seems entirely appropriate to quote Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, his song about an amusement park ride serving as a metaphor for the dark side of a love relationship, my first marriage:

…There’s a room of shadows that gets so dark brother
It’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love

Well, it ought to be easy ought to be simple enough, yeah
Man meets woman and they fall in love
But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above
If you want to ride on down, down in through this tunnel of love

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4K7XZGeHTE

Intersection of Beginning and Ending

For the second straight day, I couldn’t get my mother on the phone and got no reply to my messages. The last time I called from work and left a message, I got a sick feeling. I knew something was wrong.

I called my wife Amy and told her to meet me at my mother’s apartment building, where we had struggled to move her a year earlier during a period of my mother’s physical health decline and struggle with a mental health disorder. At midlife, roles had reversed and we had become my mother’s caretakers and support system.

When we got no response to our knock on the door, dread came over me. We entered and found her dead on the bathroom floor, cause of death unknown. Though she had been experiencing health problems, they were more the nagging kind than life-threatening—until they were even more than that, suddenly.

It was a tragic start to a political campaign. Only five days earlier, I had registered in dontknockfront-cover_6283732Maryland’s capital of Annapolis as a Democratic candidate for state delegate. I had never told my mother I was considering running—our relationship had been strained during her time of unpredictable and volatile mental health, exacerbated by her stubborn nature and rebellious streak. I didn’t want to mention a political run until I was fully committed to entering the race and felt she was on firmer ground. I had planned to let her know I was in the race the next time I saw her. I never got that opportunity. I felt terrible I had never shared the news.

The profile story on my candidacy in the Baltimore Sun with an October 8, 2013 dateline coincidentally hit the newsstands the same day that Amy and I found my mother dead. That day, I was going to proudly present the article to my mother, my biggest supporter, as I broke the news to her about my candidacy.

I wrote about my mother’s political influence on me and the impact of her death on my nascent campaign in Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics:

I credit my mother Sandra Sachs, a diehard liberal Democrat from Boston who had a fascination with the Massachusetts Kennedy clan, a devotion to other charismatic pols and a penchant for volunteering for campaigns, for getting me interested in politics…

The Sun article provided me a nice opening salvo. Now I just had to back it up with real action. That is, as soon as I could plan a memorial service for my mother, meet and make plans with funeral directors, coordinate with out-of-town family, untangle her financial affairs, launch the bureaucratic estate settlement process with the Register of Wills, negotiate with her landlord, make repairs to her apartment, sell her furniture on Craigslist, and move all her other belongings out of her apartment within three weeks. Not the ideal way or frame of mind to launch a campaign.

So the first month of my campaign was put virtually on hold while I dealt with my mother’s affairs and coped with the sudden loss emotionally. In a spiritual way, I felt Sandra Sachs with me during the campaign, watching over me as I traveled door-to-door and marched with people who were struggling day-to-day. It occurred to me that maybe it was fate that I was running at all. It was my mother who loved politics and took pride in identifying herself as a Democrat, the party of inclusion and champion of the vulnerable, with her roots as the daughter of Eastern European immigrants who settled in the gritty outskirts of Boston and who lived a hardscrabble, working-class life. She would have been proud, I thought, looking down. No one from my family had ever run for political office before. The Kennedys we were not.

My mother’s keen interest in politics landed her on Capitol Hill as a staffer for U.S. Senators Bill Bradley (D-NJ), who ran for president in 2000, and Daniel Moynihan (D-NY), no small feat for a woman who spent her initial post-college years in the 1960s into the 1970s raising kids, and then battled back from debilitating depression to gain a foothold in the workforce.

At one candidates’ forum in particular, at a large residential retirement community outside of Baltimore, I felt my mother’s presence with me. I eschewed my usual stump speech in favor of an effort to connect with the seniors on an emotional and personal level, as excerpted from Don’t Knock, He’s Dead:

“I have a good idea of the issues you have faced and your current challenges,” I told the Charlestown [Retirement Community] residents, “but not because I read it or heard a policy wonk or a politician talk about them. I know from personal experience, from trying to help my mother with problems the last couple of years of her life before she died, when her health was going downhill.”

I told them about my mother’s challenges with downsizing and finding appropriate housing; exploring assisted living facilities; searching for viable transportation when she couldn’t drive; navigating a poorly coordinated, frustrating health care system; determining finances; and finding social outlets.

I wasn’t aiming for sympathy, but nevertheless several of the attendees and my fellow candidates offered me condolences and said my speech was heartfelt afterwards. Once again, I didn’t know if my speech had earned me any votes, but I was proud that it was memorable.

Nearly four years later, following a dinner celebrating my daughter Rebecca’s graduation May 20, 2017 from the University of Maryland, Rebecca told me she was sad that Nana – my mother – wasn’t there to celebrate with us. Another prideful campaign sadly missed. Whenever Maryland plays the University of Michigan, often now that Maryland is in Michigan’s athletic conference, Rebecca said she’ll think of her grandmother, who took great pride in transcending her poor, neurotic family in working class Malden, Massachusetts to arrive at a beacon of rah-rah American collegiate life in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and who ingrained the “Go Blue!” Michigan chant in her grandkids.

And I’ll always think of my mother when I recall my run for politics, one of her other great loves.

Midlife Men and Divorce: Risky Business

For the capstone class – the 22nd! – of my 5 ½-year master’s degree program in clinical mental health counseling, I had to choose a narrow “clinical population” for a research project. Somewhat shamelessly, self-servingly and unimaginatively, I essentially chose myself: a midlife man who has experienced divorce.

The findings were not pretty for the divorced midlife’s male’s future, though I acknowledge I intentionally selected research that highlighted why this population would be candidates for mental health treatment.DivorceHeartPhoto

Research has come to varying and sometimes contrasting conclusions on divorce and midlife men (roughly age 35 to 60), and mitigating factors are difficult to account for. However, numerous studies have shown that midlife men who have experienced marital breakdown have had greater propensity to become depressed, anxious or develop other psychiatric disorders; abuse alcohol or drugs; suffer from higher rates of illness, earlier death and suicide; harbor anger; live with loneliness and social phobia; qualify for work disability; and experience lower levels of physical health, mental and emotional well-being, and happiness and self-esteem.

And the majority of time, men aren’t the ones pulling the trigger on divorce, which studies show is one of the most psychologically distressing events in life. Research indicates that wives frustrated by an inability to improve their troubled marriages may be more likely to end them, with one study concluding that husbands initiate only a quarter to a third of marital separations.

These are research-based outcomes of divorce that pose challenges for the midlife man:

  • Recently divorced men were more likely than other groups to receive psychiatric treatment and be prescribed medication for mental health disorders. One study concluded that major depression was nine times higher among men who had been separated or divorced compared to stably married and single men.
  • Remarriage in midlife brings with it a whole new set of complications and negotiations that cause stress, indicating that marriage alone does not prevent mental and physical problems. One study found that remarriage was associated with an increased risk of depression compared with men who remained divorced.
  • Men often rely on their wives for their social lives and support for their health and emotional well-being, as women generally have stronger social support networks. Without their marriage, men can become prone to social isolation and loneliness.
  • A common dynamic of divorce is “non-acceptance” of marital dissolution. The ongoing feelings of attachment are associated with depression. The reality for some divorced fathers is continuing angry disagreements with and hostility toward their former wife a decade or more after breakup.
  • Once divorced, men’s physical health can decline, as wives often assume a role for monitoring and influencing their partner’s health behaviors.
  • While women experiencing divorce were at higher risk for mood and anxiety disorders, men were at higher risk for new substance abuse disorders. One study indicated that divorced 46-year-old men comprised a disproportionately higher share of binge and heavy drinkers compared to other groups of the same age.
  • The mortality risk for inconsistently married men (those who had divorced and remarried) was more than 40 percent greater than for consistently married men, and men who were currently separated or divorced had a mortality risk 2.5 times greater than consistently married men.
  • Men who had been divorced had a higher prevalence of work disability many years after the initial divorce.

As for me, I was the prototype of the midlife divorced male: separated at 42 and divorced at 45 in an action initiated by my ex-wife, with two pre-adolescent kids. I also have remarried, and while my wife Amy has been a wonderful social and emotional support, as the research indicated about wives, the second union has inevitably come with some stress due to new family dynamics and inter-relationships, financial complications and psychological adjustments.

I have avoided many of the pitfalls of the midlife divorced male, such as substance abuse or physical health decline, but did not escape divorce unscathed. When first threatened with divorce and teetering on the brink, I suffered from depression that affected my appetite, sleep, energy level and concentration. I struggled with non-acceptance when the reality of pending divorce flooded me like an unstoppable tidal wave. I lost a big chunk of my social connections and outlets. Worst of all, it was hard not to feel like a failure at something so important, and as a letdown to my kids.

Researchers have come to different conclusions over whether such a thing as a “midlife crisis” really exists, or whether it is a pop culture phenomenon, especially for men. But there’s no doubt that midlife is the time men walk through the landmines of marital upheaval, and when they are most prone to its potentially harmful and long-lasting mental health effects.

 

The Rewarding Work of Helping People Change Their Lives

Until you work in a mental health setting, you never realize the prevalence of depression, anxiety, mood and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, trauma, substance abuse, paranoia, anger issues, family dysfunction and other mental health problems in our society.

In the midst of a career transition from public relations to counseling, I just completed the first year of my internship at an outpatient mental health clinic that served Medicaid recipients for my counseling degree program. I counseled people with all those issues. All took medications as part of their treatment. Therapy was the other half of their recovery and managing their symptoms.

Gaining better awareness of ourselves and understanding our current behaviors and how the past may have affected them can be a lifelong and complex process. At the risk of oversimplification, recovery and a more healthy and satisfying life for people suffering from mental health issues (excluding those without severe mental illness or psychosis) comes down to several key factors:

  • Desire and readiness to change

  • Commitment to take actions

  • Ability to implement new ideas or behaviors

  • Willingness to accept reality

  • Fortitude to replace negative or destructive thoughts with more positive ones

I found clients were able to change their thinking and behaviors, and as a result, their feelings and emotions, to varying degrees and on different timetables. One client reported she had consciously changed a negative pattern of thinking to a more positive one within a few weeks, and as a result had significantly reduced stress and anxiety and slept better. Her entire presentation changed from forlorn and dragging to bright and eager. That told me clients had the ability to make rapid and meaningful changes. When you observe someone change like that, it’s a beautiful thing.

Others struggled with the same issues of anxiety, anger or dependency for months with small improvements and back slides. They had walls that were harder to penetrate, built over lifetimes of learned behaviors, ingrained messages and adaptations to survive circumstances.

Overall, the internship provided a fascinating window into the human experience and human behavior through my adult and child clients and their families. It was a privilege to get to know them, and difficult to tell them I had to leave when my internship ended.

The internship also taught me how little I know about mental health disorders and strategies to help people who suffer from them. There’s so much to learn about the science and art of mental health and therapy. And about how to be comfortable just being with people, showing authentic caring, developing a connection and earning their trust. But I’m learning, and excited about expanding my knowledge, getting better at being helpful and more courageous about challenging people to dive deeper below the surface to confront the roots of their problems. All signs indicate it will be a rewarding new career. I’m glad I took that gamble.

Down and Out

Recovering from surgery for broken tibia, fibula

Recovering from surgery for broken tibia, fibula

Lying on my back, looking up at the stars and stadium lights and the sweaty faces circling me, the terrifying thought flashed through my mind: “I’ll never be the same again.”

Seconds before, a crossing pass came rolling slowly from the sideline toward our goalie box. As a defender, I instinctively broke for the ball. I also broke my self-preservation rule – avoid reckless collisions – but I couldn’t predict it soon enough. As I got to the ball, so did a strapping young opponent, coming full-speed. He swung his leg like a nine-iron, attempting to score. Players arriving for the next game said they heard the “thwwaaackk” a field away. I went down. I thought it might be bad, but didn’t know. Just a bad bruise? I was afraid to look.

Play stopped. Players gathered around me. “Probably a broken shin guard,” I heard. Someone helped take off my shin guard. It was fine. I peered haltingly at my lower right leg and knew I wasn’t. We had a surgeon on the team. All she could offer was, “I’m sorry, Adam.”

Another teammate gripped my hand. Others began asking me questions. “What’s your wife’s number?” “Which car is yours?” “Where’s your bag?” Within minutes, I was being wheeled by paramedics to an ambulance. “What’s your birthday?” they asked, the first of many times I would hear that question that night, to evaluate my alertness, I guess. That and, “What’s your pain level, 1 to 10?”

I stayed conscious and alert through the trip to the ER, surprising myself that I didn’t go into shock or even feel overwhelmed by pain. I had a broken tibia and fibula, two main bones of the leg – a “tib-fib” in orthopedic jargon. The next day I had surgery, a rod and screws inserted, and embarked on the greatest test of adversity in my life.

I had made it to 49 without ever being seriously injured or having surgery. In an instant, to go from sprinting to (pardon the political incorrectness) crippled, is an absolute shock. Prognosis: full recovery, 6 to 9 months. I would learn in the coming months that the injury and surgery didn’t just affect an isolated part of my leg, but distressed my toes, foot, ankle, Achilles, calf muscle, knee – the whole kinetic chain.

I had played in a high-caliber co-ed recreational soccer league for seven years, starting at age 42 – 30 years after last playing. I stuck with it long enough to become a decent defender, and eventually team captain when no one else wanted the job.

More than 120 games, with nothing more than the occasional pulled muscle or bruised rib. It became a point of pride to be perhaps the oldest player in the league, competing against former high school and college players in their 20s and 30s, but it was getting harder.

Maybe ego got in the way, or nostalgia, trying to recapture a vestige of youth. Maybe I should have quit. I almost did several times, but decided “just one more season.” Now, barely able to bend my knee or get off the couch without great pain, I punished myself mercilessly for that decision.

I was angry at the player who hurt me. Problem was, I had no idea who he was. I was told he stood behind me as I lied on the turf that night, looking concerned. But I never heard from him. With no external target, I turned my anger and blame inward.

I blamed myself for decisions I made from two seconds before the accident to months beforehand that could have changed the devastating outcome:

“I shouldn’t have gone for that 50-50 ball.”

“Why did I go back in the game as a sub in the second half?”

“If I had only registered for a Thursday night graduate school course instead of Wednesday, I would have missed the season.”

In the first month after my injury, I continually ruminated about these scenarios, often in the wee hours of the morning between restless bouts of sleep and groggy interludes of cable TV movies and cheesy mystery novels – but of course it changed nothing.

With a walker, just like the near-death seniors at the assisted living facility up our street, I struggled to make it to the end of our 50-yard row of townhouses, and needed my wife to bring a chair so I could rest for the trip back home. Going upstairs on my butt was a chore, so the living room became my bedroom. I didn’t take a real shower for weeks.

I missed three weeks of work, which was just as well because I couldn’t focus, and didn’t drive or wear a shoe for two months. Cooped up and growing depressed, the days became interminable, and I dreaded trying to sleep at night. I had in-home physical therapy – boring and sometimes painful leg exercises, with a lady who scolded me that I would have trouble growing old with my downbeat attitude. But I did the exercises religiously, structured my day around them, multiple sets per day, even strapping a dumbbell or a big flashlight to my heavy, protective knee-high boot to strengthen my leg. But it atrophied anyway.

I was miserable and wallowing in self-pity. If I kept it up, I wouldn’t have blamed my wife if she had walked out, “in sickness” be damned.

I had been athletic all my life — a collegiate tennis player who still played competitively – and now I was struggling to do a lap around our kitchen and living room on crutches without falling. I had the distinct feeling that the world was going on without me.

I started outpatient physical therapy with great trepidation. I imagined the therapists as heartless drill sergeants, pushing me to do masochistic exercises to see how much pain I could endure before collapsing in humiliation. Wrong. I soon embraced my sessions as part of my recovery.

In my early days of rehab, my favorite part of the day was just before bed, after a hot shower, when I lied on the bed and strapped an ultrasound bone-healing unit to my leg for 20 minutes and watched the NBA playoffs, forgetting about everything. I found myself empathizing deeply with players who suffered leg injuries – Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls and Baron Davis of the New York Knicks – now really knowing what an arduous road they faced.

I turned the corner and began rejoining life when I learned to use crutches more confidently. I would break up a work-from-home day with a laborious 1/5-mile walk to the neighborhood park about the speed of a kindergartner on 90-degree June days, sweating through my shirt and exhausting my arms, collapsing on the bench for a Gatorade break before the return trip. At night, I would take one of my kids with me until sunset.

I got stronger. I began going distances, about a mile along a path to the Lakefront in town for summer festivals and concerts, and just to sit on a bench with my son.

In late June, two months in, I mustered the courage to go to the neighborhood pool for laps. For the rest of the summer, I swam like my life depended on it, rarely missing a day, often closing down the pool after work. As the pools closed for the summer and healing progressed, I transitioned to cycling and gradually added tennis to the regimen in late fall, slowly increasing my lateral movement.

My new physical therapist told me recovery would be like a rollercoaster, and it has been. I went from two crutches, to one crutch, to no crutches, then back to one crutch as pain in my knee and swelling in my ankle made my gait uneven, then again to two crutches for a while, before finally weaning my way off. Pain and discomfort has flared and subsided regularly. But like the surgeon said, in my eighth month, I started feeling closer to normal, like this too shall pass.

Throughout my ordeal, I progressed from denial to acceptance to ownership. Ironically, the graduate course I was taking at the time of the injury was Theological Anthropology – an exploration of the influence and meaning of God and spirituality in our lives and the world. I came to view my injury as having deeper meaning – the response to adversity, nobility in suffering, a preparation for things to come. I didn’t even want to trade it away anymore, because then it wouldn’t even be my life, my unique experience, but someone else’s.

It was tremendously humbling. Who are you if you can’t do what you’ve always done? It gave me the perspective of living with a disability. I parked in “handicapped” spaces. Near-strangers asked what happened and offered their sympathy, welcomed or not. With my crutches and boot, I felt like a conversation piece.

It ate away at me that the player who injured me had never contacted me. I guess I just wanted to think it mattered…I mattered. Just after Thanksgiving, seven months after the injury, I e-mailed the player’s captain to say I was recovering and that I forgave his teammate. He responded that his teammate felt really bad about it, and it was his idea to send me the Get Well card with a $50 Amazon gift card way back when.

I still never heard directly from that player, and never will. But I never thought about it again. I guess that’s part of learning how to heal – physically, mentally, and spiritually.

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