The Right Amount of Stress

Some stress is good for you, but there's no uniform right amount that works for everyone.

The Stress of Stress

Flunking the Acid Test of Life

Fifteen years ago I was hospitalized for severe depression at UCLA.  I wasn't very happy about it at the time—I didn't like the people, didn't like the program, and especially didn't like the doctor who'd been assigned to me.  "You don't handle stress well," she told me, as if that could somehow sum up everything that was wrong with me, and shock me into new behavior.  It didn't.  I felt aggrieved and insulted, and went into hiding in the open air.  I withdrew from any help she might have given me.  Her statement still rankles, after all these years.

Two days ago I sat in my internist's office, clutching a blue plastic bowl the nurse had given me because I was afraid I was going to throw up.  I'd been throwing up for four months straight, ever since I decided to go off an antidepressant, launching me into a prolonged withdrawal.  "SSRI discontinuation syndrome," my doctor called it.  I called it hell, and wanted to know why it wouldn't stop, and what was going on with me.

"Well, for one thing, you've got an ulcer," my internist said.  "It looks like you don't handle stress very well."

I was catapulted back fifteen years, into the anger and guilt I'd felt at UCLA.  I thought I was an old hand by now at dealing with stigmatic illness.  After all, I'd been diagnosed with bipolar disorder over twenty years ago, and transformed that journey of burning shame into a national bestseller.  As the years passed and the bipolar disorder didn't succeed in killing me, I thought it only made me stronger, better able to handle the vicissitudes of life.  I thought I held my head up just a little higher than most, because I had sunk as low as suicide and yet, somehow, survived.

I'm proud of the work I've done to manage the illness:  the stubborn search for Western wisdom and alternative remedies.  I've been religiously compliant about medication and therapy.  I've taken mindfulness courses and the Artist's Way and Twelve-Step everything.  I belong to a soul-searing writers’ group.  I know Warrior One from Warrior Three.  I've had tiny needles stuck into all of my chakras.  I've prayed to every God I've ever met.  I eat blueberries by the handful.  In short, I belong to L.A., the land of la-la, where Enya is standard elevator fare and Zen an inescapable byproduct of everyday life.

So when my doctor said "ulcer," I visibly cringed.  Ulcers happen to middle-aged advertising execs like those East Coast guys on Mad Men, who drink too much and attack life too vigorously.  Granted, I'm now fifty-four, so I can't dispute the middle-aged part.  But I've been sober for over fourteen years, and I'm not a typical Type-A anymore.  At great financial sacrifice, I consciously chose to leave the practice of entertainment law to pursue a cleaner, quieter existence.  To write, to reflect.  To live a well-examined life.

Apparently, despite all my efforts, I haven't really changed.  Only the outer trappings are different:  I wear looser, lighter bohemian clothes instead of tailored Armani suits.  I drive a sober Toyota Camry instead of a speed demon Porsche.  But inside I'm still a churning, seething mass of acidic reflexes, at constant war with the world.

I don't handle stress well, it seems.  I let stress have its wanton way with me.  I'm a well-examined strumpet.

I'm sure there's a softer ending to this story, with an upbeat message the reader can take away and feel inspired by.  In between my bouts of nausea, I'd very much like to find it. 


The Right Amount of Stress