The Stress Doc, continuing his post-Big 5-OH reflections, muses on how chronic stress and unexpected loss can drain one's energy and vitality. When you are a stress consultant at the USPS there may be a natural progression - from going Postal to taking Prozac.
In a recent column, I reflected on turning fifty and being energized by the ebb and flow between professional maturity and playing in the fountain of absurdity. However, a challenging life can be double-edged: the youthful spirit burns bright and it can, with shooting star alacrity, burn itself out. Regaining luster and vitality may take more than psychotherapy, especially if the stress has been chronic and there's genetic vulnerability.
"In the Belly of the Beast"
Let me trace my mind-body descent and deliver us to the point of no return (to the outmoded denial of the past). Almost five years ago, a year's stint as a 2-3 day/week stress and violence prevention consultant for the US Postal Service was taking a toll. At a 6,000 person, 24 hour a day, three tour Processing & Distribution Plant, management and labor had devised a unique concept: I would be the friendly stress expert/social worker walking the beat - three workfloors each probably three times the size of a football field. Mine was to be a visible presence; didn't have an office. The hope was that employees and supervisors would talk to me informally if they were feeling stressed or if there was decided tension between a supervisor and an employee or friction within a work team or section. Prevention and, when necessary, intervention was the modus operandi.
Believe me, trust did not come easily. Initially, most folks thought I was a postal inspector or a narcotics agent gathering data on the postal peons. I'll never forget the powerful turning point encounter. It occurred while addressing about seventy-five folks working the LSM (Letter Sorting Machines). Basically, I was trying to convey my background and why I was walking about.
Now I need to provide some context to this scene. This plant was in the Baltimore inner city. Probably 3/4s of the employees were African-American. There definitely was racial division captured in the terminology and demographics between the workspaces: "The Tower" housed a disproportionate number of white (and not just collar) execs, while "The Workfloor" was predominantly blue collar and people of color. The place wasn't called "The Postal Plantation" for nothing. In reality, it was a tremendous pressure cooker for all parties. The damn mail never stops coming. And you think you have a problem with junk mail!
The Colorful Confrontation
Anyway...as I'm addressing the LSM staff, a tall, hard-edged African-American guy suddenly blurts out with attitude, "What makes you think you can relate to all these people of color?" Whew! He got my attention and my adrenalin going. I remember clenching my fists reflexively. But it wasn't till after the confrontation did I realize how hard; the muscles in my arms were actually strained.
While these encounters are stressful, fortunately, they tend to focus and energize my thinking and communication. I pushed back my jacket sleeve, pointed to my arm and said, "You see this skin, it's not black, it's not brown, it's not red or yellow...it's white. And you're right...there's no way I'm going to be able to fully relate to most of you. But I'll say this. I'm a damn good listener. I'm not afraid of dealing with tough feelings, or with anger. And I've worked with all kinds of folks before. Recently, welfare mothers, the majority African-American, in a job prepatory program. The program had trainers of all color. But if you asked most of those women which trainer they worked best with, they would have said me." (I was tempted to add that I'm not into bs; I'm a straight shooter...but I didn't think that analogy was the best one for the postal service.)
Anyway, the electric atmosphere - "High Noon at the OK Postal Corral - was defused. I would be allowed to pursue my mission. And soon enough, just about anywhere on the workfloors, you could hear, "Hey Doc. You got a minute. I'm having problems with my kid." Or, "Hey Doc. Man, we are being squashed by our supervisor. What can we do about it?"
Downsized and Out
It was an amazing year. More wonderful, dedicated folks than jerks. I definitely made a contribution. The pay was good. I was ready to reup despite the mental and physical toll. However, as my year's contract was expiring, there was a shakeup of plant management. And when the acting plant manager was permanently in place, there was no place for the Stress Doc, despite the pleas of the unions and the supervisory association.
On a logical level, being displaced was a blessing. No more weekly 10pm -5am and back at noon tour of duty. My biological clock and body never did adjust to the rigors of the night shift. On a psychological level, however, being let go was a real emotional blow. It still felt like rejection after all the sweat and tears I had shed and shared. (I'm happy to report we had no bloodshed on my tour of duty. Of course, this plant and its satellite facilities were hardly postal paradise regained. For example, I had to counsel: a) a woman raped in the parking lot and also debrief her female colleagues, b) a carrier held up at knife point on a route, c) an employee receiving telephone death threats from a (suspected) jealous employee, d) and lead a group grief session for thirty folks after a popular employee died suddenly of a heart attack on the workfloor. Tour of duty is the right expression.)
And just as I was starting to grieve the loss of my wandering with the working wounded Stress Doc role, I was blind-sided by another blow. An uncle with whom I was close, especially as a child, died suddenly of a heart attack in his early 60s on a racquetball court. (I have previously written a poignant piece about Uncle Dave. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for the essay.) Now it was crisis time. Money was running down. Being self-employed, I would have to jump start a big new marketing campaign. And where in hell would I find the energy, confidence and willpower?
I would do it somehow. I'd done it before. Absolutely grit my soul, steel and push my mind and body to near desperation and exhaustion and, eventually, blood would trickle, if not flow, from the proverbial stone. Or, at least, a new client or two would emerge on the marketing horizon.
But playing this process in my mind's eye was only blackening my hole darker and deeper. So when my psychiatrist gently asked for the umpteenth time about starting a trial on Prozac...I no longer had the fortitude to fight her. And thus, at the bottom of my black pit, feeling most alone, ashamed and vanquished, I was finally ready to confront some resistances: to gut finally the realities of my family's history of mental illness, my own long-standing depression and fear of exploring medication. I was about to receive techno-spiritual revelation and rejuvenation. And next time, I'll document my Prozac trial - from blunders to wonders, including the rebirth of hope, energy and youthful spirit. Until then, of course...Practice Safe Stress!
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