Thursday, June 18, 2009

Empathizing with the clinically depressed

Last Friday evening, one of my most exceptional staff members and one of the most exceptional human beings it has been my privilege to work with completed her last day on the job. She is leaving Washington to begin a new life and, hopefully, a new career. We worked together for nearly four years and I came to rely implicitly on her intelligence, creativity, good values, analytical ability, technical skills, exceptional judgement and much more. As we said official ‘farewells’ and she walked out the door (though we were to meet again for dinner), I began to feel a hollowness inside.

With characteristic class, she had informed me of her decision many months before. We had planned the transition, which includes my own stepping down as CTE Director meticulously. Transitions can be difficult, especially in an organization, like CTE, that has experienced rapid growth under a single, cohesive leadership team. Knowing a transition was coming, I reviewed relevant literature and spent many hours with a highly respected consultant. I knew the potential pitfalls of transitions and we seem to have avoided most of them. The timing of my colleague’s departure and my own are part of a carefully crafted and successfully implemented plan.

None of this made any difference last Friday evening, or the next day. I felt heavy; exhausted. The world seemed monochromatic. I could not shake the overwhelming feeling of sadness at my colleague’s departure. I had no energy to begin the projects planned for the weekend though they clamored for attention. The beauty of the rural surroundings where I spend my weekends did nothing improve my spirits. I seemed just to be going through the motions of living, in a bleak dream world. On top of all, I cracked a tooth, which made eating painful. I was, in two words, totally depressed.

Sunday morning, things began to brighten. Perhaps a longer than usual nights sleep helped. Perhaps it was more than an hour of disciplined meditation and study that made a difference. Perhaps the sympathetic companionship of our two cats tipped the balance. The dentist to whom I made an emergency call was helpful. By mid afternoon, I had gone shopping for the medications I needed and for groceries. I was relatively pain free and could return to a more-or-less normal work schedule, which included a deadline-driven review of lengthy PhD fellowship applications.

Monday, I was more-or-less back to my normal routine, apart from an hour long stint in the dentist’s chair. But I have not forgotten the grey shaded dream world through which my leaden limbed persona dragged itself on friday evening and saturday. In the future, when I say to friends that have experienced clinical depression, “I understand.” I will be speaking from at least a modicum of experience.

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