Form and Function: Professional Success During Mental Collapse

Note: This piece was written as an explanatory prequel to the popular two-person post “The Third Wheel”.

As my report was being briefed at the the White House, I was committing myself to the psyche ward at Walter Reed. In that moment, I was both impressively powerful and terrifyingly powerless. It was the ultimate characterization of the polarity of my mental illness.

Five years earlier, at 20 years old and without a traditional college degree, I churned out more than one hundred national intelligence reports used in determining U.S. economic, political, diplomatic, and military policy and strategy. My reports were briefed almost daily at the State Department, the White House, the CIA, and at least a dozen other national and international intelligence organizations.

It wasn’t a total surprise, though, when, a handful of years later, I was given the option of either voluntarily or involuntarily being committed to in-patient psychiatric care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. My problems with mental instability didn’t start at the National Security Agency (NSA), I knew, but they did come to a head while I was there.

I’ve since determined, at least under clinical exploration, that I started having obvious signs of mental distress when I was around 14 years old. Truth be told, I think that there was something “unsettled” in my head since before I can remember.

I attempted to pacify myself with intellectual pursuits. Advanced classes, solitary academic and creative endeavors, a foreign exchange program,… none of it seemed to fill the void. If anything, the hopeless irrelevancy of these activities to my unhappiness only deepened the abyss.

The same mind that was asked to help guide a nation had been deemed incapable of guiding its carrier.

My scholastic accomplishments and awards began mounting. And what started out as a rebellious teenager’s weekend experimentation with alcohol became a class-leading airman ditching class at one of the world’s premier language institutes to sit in the parking lot pounding beers.

At my first “duty station”, my time was almost equally divided between attending ceremonies to recognize my contributions to the national intelligence community and meeting with supervisors, doctors, and counselors to discuss my state of mind, my occasional tardiness, and my steadily intensifying affair with alcohol.

The scene changed some with my arrival at the NSA. The polygraph test for my security clearance came back “inconclusive” several times before I eventually got the results that green-lighted me. I am no expert on the science of the polygraph, but I always wondered if the difficulties weren’t caused by my irregular thought patterns.

Once I was inside the building, though, I blazed. Professionally, I surged forward, while personally, I crumbled. Within my first couple of months there, I was earning first office-wide, then department-wide, then agency-wide praise as a young, new up-and-comer. Before I’d been there a year, I was named the department’s version of the “employee of the month”.

My success was also notable for its unique nature. While civilian and military intelligence professionals do work side by side at NSA, there is often a delineation between those of my rank and the more educated civilians. I, however, was regularly and equally debating ideas with people who had earned doctorates at the most prestigious schools, and I was attending think-tanks and reception dinners for international political figures.

My depression internally tainted and soured my professional success, though. I once received tickets to a Washington Capitols hockey game as a reward for a particular job well done. For weeks, I looked forward to going.

When I got there, though, it was a mental disaster.

From my seat in the stands, I could view thousands of people, and I was suddenly acutely aware that each was an entire person with an entire life about which I was entirely uninformed. Where did each of them live? What did they do when they weren’t at this hockey game? What did they think? Who were all of these people? We weren’t halfway through the first period when I could stand it no longer and had to leave.

Every day during those years, I was spiraling further and further downward. My office was my sanctuary, my salvation, my disease, and my damnation. I’ll never say that work was the primary cause of my ultimate collapse, but it certainly contributed more than it helped me.

I worked long hours, slept dangerously little, drowned myself in difficult research, and took on the ugliest, most demanding tasks I could find. The depression and the work fed each other.

Contrary to popular perception, not everyone struggling with depression always spends days in bed, stops eating entirely, and refuses to bathe. I’ve done those things too at different times, but that’s not always how it manifests. During this period, I appeared super functional, if not entirely content.

Then, one night, I broke.

I jolted back to awareness one evening to find that I was staring out the window above the kitchen sink with a plate and a dish towel in my hand. I had a sense that time had passed, but I didn’t know how long, and I didn’t know what had happened in the meantime. The dishwater in the sink had gone cold, and I believed the sky had darkened considerably. I’d been gone a long time, and it scared me.

For months prior to that, I’d been feeling increasingly hopeless. The idea of suicide was on a constant loop in my mind, and there seemed less and less possibility of finding an alternative. I didn’t even start by talking to a psychologist; I went straight to a chaplain.

The chaplain then sent me to a psychologist. And that psychologist sent me to a psychiatrist. Help for mental health issues is not immediate, though, and I continued to decline even as I was seeking help. This is not to say that those from whom I sought help did not make a noble attempt to aid me, only that their attempts were not at that point effective or efficient enough.

Before we could find a viable answer for stabilizing me, a psychiatrist told me during one visit that he could not allow me to go home from his office. He told me I could call someone to take me to be committed voluntarily, or he would have me committed involuntarily. Aware of nothing abnormal that had transpired during the meeting, I was confused, but also too weary to resist. One of my first professional mentors left work to drive me to the hospital.

Locked inside my desk at work was the most significant presentation I had ever been asked to give. I spent long months researching it, and I was slated to deliver it as the keynote speaker at a major intelligence gathering. I wasn’t able to make the meeting, though.

I wasn’t able to make it because I couldn’t be trusted with shoelaces or a belt. I wasn’t able to make it because I was in a hospital gown and behind doors that locked from the outside. The same mind that was asked to help guide a nation had been deemed incapable of guiding its carrier.

While the schedule for the conference I’d been looking forward to for so long was being rearranged to account for my absence, I was watching a retired Army colonel ceaselessly counting floor tiles, and I was being warned by an orderly not to trust the female patient with the sex addiction.

We sometimes hear of cases in which a troubled veteran doesn’t get the help they need or isn’t identified before the situation becomes catastrophic. That wasn’t the case with me. The wonderful professionals at the hospital helped me, during months of in-patient and out-patient therapy, to develop some strategies for dealing with my mental illness. Together we eventually landed on a chemical combination that quieted everything.

And it did quiet everything.

I returned to work, but my performance, while adequate, was not as brilliant, not as prolific, not as inspired. I floated languidly in the career field for a few more years, living more off of my previous reputation than off of any new accomplishments. Eventually, I lost my taste for the work completely and changed careers.

After years of large daily doses, I scaled back my medications and eventually stopped returning for prescription refills. My “episodes” now are sometimes intense, but comparatively rare. Still, when they do occur, they are troubling to my partner.

As a result, and due to the intensity of my most recent episode, I am beginning the long, arduous journey back into therapy. I don’t know where it will lead, and I don’t have high hopes, but I also don’t want to wind up back with the priest, hashing out the moral implications of taking one’s own life.

As I’m struggling to bring this to conclusion and am discussing it with my partner, I realize that we’re both searching for some satisfying resolution that’s just not coming. Unfortunately, I think the only real conclusion is the one some reach in the worst case scenarios. For those of us fortunate enough to avoid that via medication and/or therapy, the situation drags on mostly unresolved, and we do the best we can to live with the uncertainty that creates.

Freelance Writer/Blogger/Editor, veteran, Top Rated on Upwork, former Medium Top Writer in Humor, Feminism, Culture, Sports, NFL, etc.

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