#13: When therapy fails

This week felt like one of the longest years of my life. I discuss layoffs, coping, and therapy failures.

These weekly updates share life with OCD as part of my Mental Work Health project to reduce stigma around mental health, especially at work.

The events of last week set me up for this week in some unusual ways. This was my conclusion:

In some ways, I feel like things can only go up from here. Of course, that is not completely accurate.

At least I had the insight to know that my optimism was not guaranteed. And as it turns out, it was not even realistic. This was a brutal week.

Something hard

The challenge in writing this update was deciding what to choose for this section. Since this blog is focused on work and mental health, I decided to start with the work news.

As I have mentioned before, I am the manager of our mobile team. Over the past couple weeks, my product manager and apprentice both moved on to different companies, which were difficult for me. The future for our team and my work life was uncertain.

Then on Tuesday morning, I got a call that two of my four engineers were being laid off as part of a major restructuring in which nearly twenty positions were eliminated. I was driving my daughter and her friends home from a seminary class1, and apologized to them for exclaiming “Holy shit!” as I got the news. My daughter and I had a tender moment together as she comforted me for a few minutes, and I went home and told the rest of the family, and we cried together.

There were a number of difficult moments throughout the rest of the week. My heart was broken for my two team members and their families. In typical fashion for our company, they were well cared for, but this kind of life disruption is still extremely difficult. I had to tell the rest of my team and explain the best I could why half our team was gone. Part of the challenge for me in leading through this was not understanding or feeling good about things myself at first. It took a couple days for me, and a number of frank conversations, but I felt lucky that I found some peace and resolution before having 1:1 meetings with my remaining team members to help them settle in and move forward.

I have gone through a number of layoffs in my career, and they are never easy. This was probably one of the best that I have seen, particularly in how the outgoing people were treated. But there is no way to make such a hard thing feel good. There is obviously a significant impact on those directly affected as they have to figure out their career path moving forward. For those who remain, there is a definite psychological blow, and a need to recover in order to continue on. It will not be easy, but I am confident that we will all be able to come out of this successfully.

Something good

Percentage-wise, our team was the most affected as we lost half, which prompted many people to reach out to me throughout the week to see how I was doing. I kept telling people that I was surprised at how well I was doing. Naturally, things were rough, and I was dealing with intense negative emotions, but I was also able to keep going.

After I had answered a couple people, I paused to think through my reaction more. I realized that I was devastated and heartbroken, and at the same time, I felt a sense of calm and peace. It struck me that the skills I had learned during my OCD treatment were enabling me to handle this well. I was able to sit with conflicting emotions and hold space for all of them without invalidating any of them. As I told one of my friends, I feel as if I have become an expert in dealing with distress and uncertainty.

As I met with different leaders after the changes were announced, I was reminded of how much progress I have made. My boss commented that if this situation had happened a couple years ago, it would have destroyed me. His boss told me that he has never seen someone grow so much as a leader in so short a time as I have over the past year and a half. While it has certainly been a long and painful road, I am grateful for all the positive change I have been able to make.

Something else

In addition to the difficulty at work this week, I also struggled at home with my mental health. Following the slight breakdown of last week, I had to deal with the fallout with my family. One of the effects of my symptoms is an increase in anxiety for those closest to me. My wife mentioned that she never really knows which Ben she will get, which makes life unpredictable and stressful.

I messaged my therapist in the middle of the week and asked for some extra time, and my wife was able to join my double session. As we talked through the issues that have been coming up, my therapist commented that she had not realized that things were as bad as they are. She thought that my symptoms were doing quite a bit better. And to be honest, so did I.

After we talked through things with my wife, I took a few minutes alone with my therapist. Her first question was how much shame I was feeling—she said that I sounded good, but wondered about my body language that she could not see over the phone. I admitted that there was plenty of head hanging, and I was not doing well. She stressed to me that this was not a failure on my part, but rather a treatment failure. We just need to tighten things up and make sure that I am consistently working on an exposure hierarchy so that I can continue to make progress.

Thinking of the situation as treatment failing me instead of me failing was not easy to do, but was certainly helpful. It is always more natural to me to extend grace to someone else. My therapist said that if anyone was at fault, it was her, and she did not feel bad at all. This is just part of the process. Now that we know more, we can adjust and do better.

When I paused to reflect, I told my therapist that a part of me knew that I had been bullshitting her a bit about how things were going. My wife has commented to me before that she gets concerned sometimes that no one else sees the whole situation like she does, and so no one knows how bad things are. Much of the problem is that I am a master of rationalization, particularly to myself. The result is that I am not even aware of the times when I am not being honest. My first step in improvement is often simply recognition or awareness, and then I can begin working on making a change.

Wrap up

I am looking forward to some time off in the coming week as we celebrate Thanksgiving with an extra focus on gratitude. As happy as I am to realize how far I have come, and how much I am able to sit with, taking a break will feel so good.

  1. This is a religious study class for high schoolers that my fifteen-year-old attends two mornings a week. Learn more here

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