How My New Shrink Brought Me Back from the Brink

–Sometimes it feels like there’s no other way out

My downward spiral started late last year, with a dark and hopeless mood that awaited my awakening each morning and was accompanied by a feeling of anxiety that followed me around throughout the day. For me, anxiety is more than a general sense of unease or nervousness; it feels like I’m being pulled by an electrified wire – sometimes low-voltage and other times high – moving toward a source in the distance that I can’t define but am fearful is a waking nightmare from which there is no escape.

It had been 20 years since the last time I’d felt it this badly. A major move from the city to the suburbs, coupled with a new role with increased responsibility at work, triggered a reaction that seemed to switch off whatever regulates the sense of well-being in my mind.

I contemplated closing the garage door of my suburban home and locking myself in my car with the engine running. Even though the prospect of falling into an oblivion whose unknown endpoint terrified me, it seemed worth the risk to escape the torture.

My wife grew weary of watching me disintegrate and insisted I return to my therapist’s office. When I did, he pleaded with me to start drug therapy – something I’d long resisted. I finally relented, and after about eight weeks at increasing doses, the medicine kicked in. I felt immense relief the first morning I awoke without those terrible knots in my stomach. I began to breathe free again. I recovered and felt reborn as a more patient, resilient and hopeful person. I never expected to face the demons again.

I guess I should have considered 20 years a pretty good run – especially for someone with suicide in his family and a track record of repeated mood deterioration. But I felt ambushed when those horrible feelings returned.

In retrospect, it doesn’t seem all that surprising. I had recently come to the end of a 35-year professional career that had culminated in 16 years as an ex-pat in Europe. After that idyllic period of steady work, a regular schedule and abundant world travel, my wife and I returned to a vastly different America, and I felt adrift with no more work routine to anchor me. The feeling of being on vacation in my beloved New York morphed into a sense of being stranded on an island of ambiguity that I had to scramble to find my place in, just as I had when I began my professional life, back in the same city, decades earlier.

I wanted to continue working but made rookie mistakes, saying yes to everything, taking on projects whether they suited me or not, and subjecting myself to ridiculous deadlines. Having completed a stressful and demanding professional career without ever coming close to burning out, here I was, perilously close to the brink, when there was absolutely no reason – economic or otherwise – to be putting myself through this ordeal.

But this time, returning to my longtime shrink was not an option. He had died of multiple myeloma, likely related to his proximity to Ground Zero, just south of the Tribeca loft where he lived and saw patients.

A friend thought her therapist might be a good fit and referred me. After an exploratory phone conversation and about 15 or 20 minutes of listening to my story in his office, my new shrink delivered his diagnosis and recovery plan with heartening assurance.

The term he used for my condition – both to help me understand it and for the formality of filling out my health insurance claim form – was “adjustment disorder.” The 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as DSM-5, defines it as a cluster of emotional and behavioral symptoms, such as anxiety and suicidal ideation, brought on by identifiable stressors. In my case, the desire to bury myself in sleep and complete loss of appetite when I was awake were also prominent. Pounds evaporated in just a few weeks in both of my episodes.

His first piece of advice was to read a book called “Adaptation to Life,” by George E. Vaillant, a psychoanalyst and research psychiatrist at Harvard. The book, covering his study of how a selection of 268 men coped with challenges throughout their life cycles, is considered a classic. I hope to get to it someday, but at that point in my tailspin, I was not up to tackling its nearly 400 pages of tiny print and dry academic tone. Luckily, his other recommendations were more digestible. In summary, here’s what I’ve learned and applied.

  1. Remix Your “Happiness Cocktail”

“Your core needs in life are out of balance and in conflict,” my new shrink told me straight away. Everyone has a happiness cocktail that requires a combination of specific ingredients mixed in specific amounts. Mine was complex and out of whack. I began working on this immediately, in conjunction with taking a low dose of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). I started saying no to any projects or clients that weren’t in sync with the type and amount of work I wanted to be doing. It meant adding much, much more breathing space to my lifetime for thinking, reading, and recreation.

The “No Initiative” quickly made me feel more in control on the outside, and the drug soon began to work its magic on the inside. Before long – I’d say a couple of months — I felt the first inklings of looking forward to things, which, in itself, seemed like a blessing.


Martin D. Hirsch
Martin D. Hirsch
Martin Hirsch started building his own communications consulting practice in 2017 after a career spanning almost 35 years with one of the world’s leading international healthcare groups. He’s led internal and external corporate communications, brand and reputation management, and crisis and issue management. Working in both the United States and Europe, he has advised multiple CEOs and collaborated with colleagues all over the world. Martin’s strengths include executive consulting, strategic message development, content marketing, storytelling, communications training, public speaking, mentoring talent, and inspiring organizations to advance beyond their limitations.Lately he’s been helping clients by writing keynote speeches for top executives, developing strategies for pitching new business and explaining complex issues, ranging from how to apply new digital health tools in the pharmaceuticals industry to making sense of the rapid and complex changes challenging employees to maintain their equilibrium at major corporations. Martin also works as a faculty adviser at the New York University School of Professional Studies, helping graduate students with their Capstone Papers. His speaking engagements have included presentations at the IABC World Conference, the European Association of Communications Directors Summit, the Corporate Communications International Leaders Forum, the European Commission Communications Directorate and the Rotterdam School of Business Reputation Forum Netherlands. More recently, he was a panelist at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association conference on expat issues held at Pfizer headquarters in New York. Martin’s writing, including essays, letters and poems, has appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Europe. You can read his blog on MUSE-WORTHY, here on BIZCATALYST 360°. He received the American Association of Journalists and Authors 2018 Writing Award for Best Personal Story Blog.

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    • Thanks, Larry. I’m trying to stay on the path of the true human being, and the lock-down is giving me lots of time to contemplate my compass. Best, Martin

  1. Martin, thank you for sharing your innermost feelings. Feeling like you are on the brink is normal these days. From January through most of February I was a raging lunatic. Each day brought a new problem and another. My psychiatrist rather than adding medications told me nothing out of the ordinary is going on. Staying up late to work and listening to music helped. Stay safe and well.

    • Thanks for your comment, Joel. You stay safe, too. The management of my building has just sent an alert to residents saying that one tenant has COVID19. No further details. Kind of nerve-wracking, not knowing even what floor the person lives on. But I guess I’d keep on staying the current course, even if I knew. Gonna take your advice and put on some music.

    • Martin, it must be quite an unsettling feeling knowing a fellow tenant in your building has COVID19 and not being given any further details. I am by no means an expert on what the protocol is for a situation like yours but I think the management company could get into a lot of trouble should somebody want to report them. I have had a cold for close to three weeks and as such, I have avoided the outside world except for putting out the garbage. My doctor has vanished which means I won’t be getting my “get out jail free card.” Listen to whatever kind of music best soothes you. I listen mainly to folk music but I have also been listening to rock, punk, and country as well. YouTube is great. Just about every song you want to listen to is on there. There are scattered signs the virus is slowing which it was bound to do anyway. To lessen your anxiety you may wish to avoid the news. The politicians and the media are spoon feeding s daily doses of bad news. I am one of those who are of the opinion the numbers are adding upright. Many more may have the virus but they have been tested. However, you are not supposed to get tested unless you have symptoms but if you have symptoms you should not go to get tested. The $1,200 check (in some form or another we will have to pay it back) will be nice but if there is no place other than a supermarket or one of those dreaded chain pharmacies there is no place to spend it. Ordering from Uber adds up plus pizza never travels well. Please forgive my venting. Take care.

  2. Thank you for this Martin! I appreciate your openness. As a therapist who sees many people as well as having sat on the other side for many years, I am pleased to see that you have found one who sounds wonderful, and, most importantly, validating. I hope this rung of the journey is smoothing out.💖

    • Thanks for your note, Darlene. This rung of the journey is definitely smoothing out, coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding. I so admire people like you who’ve devoted their lives to the talking cure. All the best!