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Depression: One Superintendent's Struggle with the Quest for Perfection

Peter McCormick


Editor's Note: Originally published in TurfNet Monthly, May, 2003, the following was written by a TurfNet member who wanted to share his experience with the group. Since it's a personal story, however, he asked to remain anonymous. We thought it fitting to publish it again to provide context for upcoming conversations about depression with our Me Maintenance initiative. The author is now retired.

depression_TNM.jpgTwo years ago I suffered a depressive episode which many would call a "breakdown". It was not a singular event, but a result of many events and circumstances that had eroded my self-esteem and self-confidence over a period of time. My job as a golf course superintendent was part of the problem.

Influenced by today's cultural and social pressures, and without consciously realizing it, I had begun to correlate my self-worth to my job and to my role as a parent. Judging myself against the increasing perfection demanded of my profession, I chided myself for things that I could not control, always feeling a failure if something went wrong.

As a golf course superintendent with a stable employment history for over twenty years, I was considered in local circles to be talented and successful. Nevertheless, deep down inside, I doubted my ability to reach the high water marks required by the industry or attained by my peers. Forever I would be a failure, as I felt I could not produce perfection like they were able to do.

Deep down inside, I doubted my ability to reach the high water marks required by the industry or attained by my peers..."

Restful sleep eluded me as I tossed and turned each night. Had I sprayed the wrong fungicide? Would the crew show up tomorrow morning? Did the irrigation come on? Would the greens roll fast enough? Did I spend enough time with the kids? Does my wife understand me? I'd ask myself the same questions over and over throughout the night, every night.

I became more irritable, especially towards my family and friends. I also became more isolated, feeling that no one could fully understand my challenges. As time went on, I had greater difficulty making decisions. I found failure in everything. Thoughts and counter-thoughts race through my head like pinballs ricocheting from bumper to bumper. Yet none fell out of play. It went on and on.

Nothing was right. Nothing was good. Nothing was ever going to be right or good enough.

Suddenly, it all caught up to me. I had been trying to make a decision for days regarding my career, tossing and turning the thoughts in my head like making a salad. Shredding and shredding and shredding them, but never letting them rest. I went back and forth, again and again and again. Anxiety and frustration weighed me into a mental funk. Finally, physical and emotional exhaustion knocked me to the floor, where I curled into a ball and cried.

I was depressed, and I needed help.

The Career Factor
Adding to the day-to-day demands of my responsibilities as a golf course superintendent was the fact that my employer had the golf course up for sale. This poured fuel on my emotional fire. Who was going to buy the club? How I would fit into the new regime? If purchased by a management company, would my salary be reduced? One management company rep looking over the property told me that he could easily cut the maintenance budget by one-third. He confided that if they bought the golf course, my compensation would probably be re-arranged with a reduced salary offset with a company bonus plan.

I was concerned about having to look for another job, having to relocate my family, to force my wife to give up her successful job. Would another job offer any more security? I didn't want to uproot my family for another unknown. I realized I had lost confidence in the industry.

To make matters worse, we were suffering from a drought situation that year. I was under pressure to keep the course in top shape so that it could be sold for the highest dollar. I also knew that would give me a better chance of being retained by the new owners. But I worried that if something happened, both my current employer and the new owners would view me as a failure.

I was being sold along with the equipment to a management company that would probably fire or transfer me..."

I felt as if I had no control over my future, which was in the hands of everyone but me. I was being sold along with the equipment to a management company that would probably fire or transfer me. If I left beforehand, with so many superintendents being fired every year, I probably would be too. Every option seemed to be a dead end.

As it turned out, the golf course was sold to a management company, and my fears slowly began coming true. I had to prove my worth every moment to justify my salary. "Paper rules and paper policies" were put in place, mostly to conform and convert employees to be "company sleeves".

I had always been accustomed to doing things the right way. With the former owners, the quality of the work was all that mattered. Now, only the cost mattered. Budget cuts became the norm. It was difficult for me to accept doing things second best. The job was no longer fun. I was unhappy all the time and couldn't sleep. Anxiety overwhelmed me. My concentration became fragmented. I was way too tired emotionally to think rationally. That's when I broke down.

So what are we dealing with?
Depression is a disease, frequently associated with chemical imbalances in the brain. It is not a weakness of character, nor is it a personal flaw or shortcoming. It is not a symptom of being "nuts" or crazy. It is a serious illness, no less significant than cancer or heart disease, and is thought to affect over 11 million people in this country alone. It can be personally devastating, affecting relationships, careers, and the ability to function normally.

There are various types of depression, as well as causes. Depression that lasts for short periods of time is usually triggered by traumatic life events such as a death in the family, a divorce or loss of job. This is the body's healthy way of coping with loss and change, and is completely normal. But if this type of depression becomes extended beyond a few weeks or months, professional help is often required to get back on your feet.

The most serious type of depression is genetic, which causes cyclic, episodic depressions of varying lengths and degrees throughout your lifetime. This type of depression can be triggered by events that are not normally considered traumatic, such as making a small mistake at work, forgetting an appointment, losing a favorite CD or gaining a few pounds. Sometimes it appears for no apparent reason at all.

"Just as heart disease has been passed down through the generations, the gene linked to depression has also tagged along..."

This is the type I suffer. Depression runs in my family. I can document depression on both sides of my family over four generations, including the one following mine. My family has been very successful over the years, including writers, generals, educators and medical doctors. But just as heart disease has been passed down through the generations, the gene linked to depression has also tagged along. Knowing your family medical history can help you determine if you are predisposed to the disease, and to be on the lookout for it in yourself or in your family.

The obstacle for many people experiencing depression is recognizing the symptoms, and then overcoming the social stigma attached to the disease and seeking proper treatment. Unfortunately, too many people suffering depression never get better because they choose to ignore the warning signs, or can't swallow their pride and seek appropriate treatment.

Symptoms of depression are wide ranging. They can include fatigue, sleeping too much or too little, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, guilt or despair, inability to concentrate, loss of interest in favorite activities, irritability, frustration, social withdrawal, a change of eating habits, and drug and/or alcohol abuse. Physical symptoms can include headaches and muscle aches, crying spells, loss of muscle tone, slow speech, and a look of exhaustion. As you can see, depression is much more than simply being "bummed out". You don't need to exhibit every symptom listed to be depressed. Experiencing even a few persistent symptoms for several weeks could mean that you are suffering even mild depression and should seek professional treatment.

People suffering depression often don't seek treatment, for many reasons. Some simply reject the idea of being depressed, and assume that they are in a "funk" that will pass in a few days. Others recognize that it isn't passing, but are concerned of being stigmatized or stereotyped. Sufferers may feel that their friends, peers, or neighbors will think of them as unable to cope, weak, unbalanced, or even crazy. Unfortunately, there are those who subscribe to this disingenuous bias, ignorant of the reality of depression. Still, succumbing to denial and/or a fear of social stigmatism only helps the disease grow. Without proper medical treatment, depression can develop into a debilitating condition.

Getting help
The first step in seeking treatment for depression is to talk to your family doctor. Most are very well qualified to discuss your symptoms and recommend options for treatment. If your doctor diagnoses you with depression, he or she most likely will refer you to either a psychiatrist (a medical doctor with a PhD in psychology) or psychologist (a therapist with a PhD or MS in psychology), and will usually prescribe an antidepressant medication.

The day that I realized that I needed help, I made an appointment with my family doctor for that afternoon. He quickly diagnosed me as having a severe depressive episode, and recommended that I see a psychologist. After asking me what type of person I would be most comfortable talking to (male, female, young, older, local or out of town), we agreed on someone I should try first. He also prescribed an antidepressant medication.

Interestingly enough, he went on to explain to me that on an average day he sees at least five patients diagnosed with depression. Some, like myself, are new patients, while others are seen for follow up care. I was not an uncommon case, and definitely not an exception! Then, as I got up to leave, he gripped my shoulder, smiled and exclaimed, "You are lucky! Depression can be cured!"

Antidepressant medications... are not 'happy pills', nor do they alter a patient's personality."

Contrary to the stereotypes associated with antidepressant medications — including the jokes often made of Prozac — they are not "happy pills", nor do they alter a patient's personality. Rather, antidepressant medications work to restore balance to the brain's chemistry. Today the most popular antidepressant medications act to increase the level of the neurotransmitters serotonin or norepinephrine in the brain by reducing the uptake of these compounds by the nerve endings.

Medications that boost serotonin levels are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. Common names for these medications are Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, and Celexa. A popular medication that blocks the reuptake of norepinephrine is Wellbutrin, which is also prescribed to help smokers kick the habit.

These medications are safe, effective, non-addictive, and produce only a few side effects, but can sometimes require a process of trial and error to find the one that works best for you. These medications typically take from two to six weeks for you to begin feeling better.

I began therapy a few days after the visit to my doctor. The therapist did not look like Freud, and I was not instructed to lie on a couch. Oedipus has still not been mentioned! Rather, I was invited into a large room appointed with deep, comfortable chairs, Audubon prints on the walls, and a bowl of mint candy for the taking. Large windows let sunlight fill the room. My therapist was dressed in casual clothes and seemed just a regular guy, friendly, but unassuming.

We sat facing each other while he explained his practice and then asked me what had brought me to see him. I told him what happened to me recently, and how I believed that it was triggered by frustrations at work. We talked for two hours, feeling each other out. While he was evaluating how to best help me, I was gauging if I could be comfortable enough to trust him. As we talked, it became apparent that we could work together.

In this aspect I was fortunate, as there are times when a comfort level can't be reached between the patient and therapist. If this is the case, it is best to have your doctor make another recommendation.

Cognitive therapy teaches rational rather than catastrophic thinking."

Forms of either cognitive or interpersonal therapy are used for treating depression. Cognitive therapy teaches rational rather than catastrophic thinking. For example, if you have lost your job, you may feel it was your fault and that now your life is ruined. The therapist will challenge these thoughts with positive arguments to help you understand that although losing a job is unfortunate, it is not the end of the world. Interpersonal therapy centers on relationships, and how the patient can resolve those problems. The therapist will decide which treatment is best for you, and will often use them in combination. You are normally seen once a week, with appointments stretched out as you improve until you reach an "as needed" basis. Depending on the severity of the depression, therapy can last six months to many years.

Diet and exercise also influence recovery. This is mostly common sense. Eat healthy, limit caffeine and other stimulants, get plenty of exercise, and just as important, plenty of rest. "Recreational" drugs and alcohol should be avoided completely. In fact, these can cause serious side affects in combination with anti-depressant medications.

The rest of the story
It has been two years since I collapsed on my living room floor. I am not a different person now, but I am a confident person, recognizing that I do have worth. I am not a failure facing nothing but catastrophic tomorrows.

My worst fears regarding my employment ultimately became reality. A year or so after the management company took over, our differences in values, ethics and standards ultimately cost me my job. But that was OK. After almost two years in therapy and getting down to a "visit as needed" schedule, I could deal with it.

Therapy had helped me to understand that there were things — especially my reaction to various events — that I could control. I was able to accept myself as not being perfect, but human, and having worth as a human. I understood that life events were not a result of my failures or mistakes, but life itself. By controlling my reaction and not associating myself negatively with them, I could negotiate them successfully.

So the day I was fired was not an end, but a beginning. I could concentrate on a future, rather than be burdened any longer with a job that had lost all satisfaction. I was no longer scared of the future, because I had learned that I could work to make it better than the past.

I did not waste time pointing fingers, placing blame or figuring out what went wrong. Nothing went wrong..."

I did not waste time pointing fingers, placing blame or figuring out what went wrong. Nothing went wrong. I had not been happy with their business practices or ethics. I had done my best to try to effect change, and was proud of my efforts.

I began a new job search that afternoon, and was rewarded several months later when a good job opened up within a reasonable distance. I was able to start a new phase of my career without having to uproot my family.

During my job search, I spent extra time doing the things I had always thought of doing, but had never felt as if I had the time. I spent much more time with my family. I did the housework, the shopping, attended all the school events. For once, my job did not come first!

I worked on all those projects around the house that "never got done". I did volunteer work to help less fortunate people. Being unemployed is a better life than what many of the people I met were facing daily. I helped with the church. I took a part time job. I read and read and read. I read history, politics, sociology, religious studies, economics, autobiographies and classics.

I woke up every day with something to do that I wanted to do, for myself, as well as for others.

Had I not sought treatment and stayed with therapy and my medication — had I not gotten better — being fired would have been the end of me..."

Had I not had my breakdown, had I not sought treatment and stayed with therapy and my medication — had I not gotten better — being fired would have been the end of me. It would have been my biggest failure rather than my biggest opportunity.

I have had a lot of help along my road to recovery, especially from my wife, who every day continues to give me unconditional love and support. My family doctor monitors my progress and medications, and my therapist challenges me to think my way out of depression. There are many others who helped just with their friendship, completely unaware of my battle — not the least of which was a newfound faith in God.

If you even suspect that stress has overtaken your ability to enjoy your family, friends, work, and interests, talk to your doctor. Like any disease, depression only gets worse if left unchecked.

It was very important for me write this article because I believe that there are people who may benefit from my experience with depression and treatment. It is also a very personal story. I hope that you will understand why I have written it anonymously.

* * * * *

From the Editor's Notepad, TurfNet Monthly, May 2003

Even if you have the world by the ...

depression_mac_TNM.jpgHe approached me at one of the trade shows last winter and asked if we could talk for a few minutes. Sure, what's up? "Did you ever think about writing an article about depression?" he inquired. My ears immediately perked up. We talked for quite a while, and his eyes widened a bit as I told him I was taking Wellbutrin at the time myself. Yup. Really. Depression can sink its teeth into even those who by all outward appearances have the world by the shorthairs, and can manifest itself in many ways and to varying degrees. It got me, and I know I'm not alone. "Why don't you write the article?" I suggested, which he did well for this issue. I'll throw in my $.02, too.

My personal struggle didn't involve any self-worth or self-deprecation issues at all. I suffered — and continue to at times — from fatigue, loss of interest in favorite activities, difficulty concentrating, interrupted sleep patterns, irritability and altered eating habits. I gained fifteen pounds over the course of a year, and felt lousy most of the time. Something had to give, so I saw my doctor.

The medication he prescribed helped drive away the night-time demons so I could get a decent night's sleep. I took that for two months and felt somewhat better. Since the human body wants and tries to heal itself, I embarked on a moderate exercise program and adjusted the way I cook and eat. I've dropped most of that fifteen pounds and intend to lose fifteen more.

It started two years ago when I sold my business, which was akin to selling my first-born..."

I have not, to this point, gone the therapy route — although the fellow who wrote the lead article strongly suggests it. Maybe it's that macho thing, but I also know very well what was bothering me. It started two years ago when I sold my business (TurfNet), which was akin to selling my first-born. While OK financially, I didn't anticipate how difficult it would be emotionally. Six months later, 9/11 hit. Like many others, I obsessed and overdosed on the ensuing news coverage — all while watching my investments and retirement funds tank in the stock market.

These are stresses that grate away at you under the surface, chip away at your armor, weaken your defenses, and often manifest themselves only in your subconscious.

Early the next year, my father passed away after a brief bout with cancer. Three weeks after his funeral, an ill-conceived "compensation restructuring" plan was dropped on me by a short-lived regime at the helm of the Mother Ship, with all the finesse of a bunker-buster bomb.

While my father's death was a stinging uppercut that staggered me a bit, the pay cut was the knockout punch, absolutely kicking the feet out from under me emotionally. (That has been resolved recently, but long after the damage was done.)

I'm not sure how the brain chemistry thing figures into the equation. I suspect it's triggered by those subtle stresses and not-so-subtle life events, and then just doesn't subside automatically. For sure, it makes shaking it off very tough to do. Try as you might, it's very difficult to just snap out of it. Believe me.

I started by taking back some of each day for myself..."

So where does one go from here? I started by taking back some of each day for myself. Rather than ramping up here in the office the minute my wife and Daughter B leave for school at 7:15 AM, I take the dogs for a two mile loop (they're a bit chubby, too), have a cup of coffee and bowl of cereal with some fruit, and scan the newspaper. Shower and change and I'm ready for action, refreshed.

I try to limit the amount of television news I watch, particularly during the recent Iraq conflict. Rarely does the media present any good news.

I have also curtailed my alcohol consumption, having noticed a direct correlation between the number of beers or glasses of wine I drink and how I feel emotionally the next day — or even two days later. I'm learning how to enjoy only one glass of wine once in a while, rather than most of the bottle a couple times a week.

Dealing with clinical depression isn't like taking an aspirin for a headache. I've found it's more like managing a disease like diabetes, which requires lifestyle changes along with medication in many instances.

Why do I drop my drawers here and tell all? Hey, I'm OK. I can take it. Maybe this is my therapy. And if it helps someone else in a small way, I'm all for it.

Like I said, I know I'm not alone...


Peter L. McCormick

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