Depression, Anxiety, and Anger Are Treatable
When I was a kid, we didn’t have restless leg syndrome, dry-eye syndrome, acid reflux disease, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Autism was not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980. The only people who suffered from depression were overly dramatic artists who wrote tragic autobiographies. People called them cry babies, and those who suffered from anxiety merited an eye roll. They all were “high strung.”
What we did have back then was the cure-all “suck it up.” Sucking it up was the mother of all home remedies, and it was applied liberally everywhere and for everything.
Today, however, there is great interest in the medical community regarding the precise identification and naming of every possible malady. In many cases this seems like little more than a shameless, “big pharma” grab for money. In other cases, it seems to be worthwhile science, intended to relieve genuine suffering.
For me, I have come to recognize that beginning around age eight, I suffered from anxiety. Standardized testing was tough. Dating was hard. The high school senior trip was impossible. The only medicine available was to rub some dirt into it and walk it off.
When I went to college, this all faded away. I am told that this was probably the result of a sort of self-hypnosis, in which I told myself that anxiety simply did not fit with what I wanted to do with my life. I seemingly sucked it up for good.
After a 30-year career in the Navy, the anxiety reappeared and life became challenging. For a while it felt as if there was only a paper-thin line between absolute wellness and a crushing conviction that I could easily get to a place where leaving the house would be impossible.
I am better now, and I have learned some things. For example, in consulting with physicians, I now know that anxiety, depression, and anger are all strands in the same rope, and that sufferers, whatever their chief symptom, often show signs of all three. I also realized that I was not the only person wrestling with these dreadful issues, and that several of my senior officer peers with whom I served also suffered. I learned that some of them may have traded anxiety or depression for anger, which seemed to be a perfectly acceptable thing to do in the Navy. Think back: while you seldom saw evidently anxious or depressed senior officers, you did see many angry ones. There are members of the medical community who would argue that there is a fine line between officer anger and the anxiety or depression that is more common among young sailors.
Even today anger seems acceptable in the military, while it is widely accepted that an admission of anxiety or depression can permanently sideline an officer. Fear to admit that one suffers from anxiety or depression is supported by examples we all know, and it is legitimate.
There is something very wrong with this picture.
Consider Admiral Jeremy M. Boorda, the former Chief of Naval Operations who took his own life in 1996. The standard explanation of his decision to kill himself reads like the valedictory of a Spartan. Faced with the threat of a scandal in which his personal honor would be questioned over the legitimacy of two Vietnam War combat medals that he wore, he viewed suicide as a noble choice in the face of certain humiliation. Depression is seldom mentioned as a contributing factor. According to studies in the Synopsis of Psychiatry, however, 95 percent of suicides are the consequence of depression or other psychiatric illness.
Just last July, Army Major General John Rossi, two days from being promoted to three stars, took his own life. Reports suggest that General Rossi chose to commit suicide because he was averaging five hours of sleep a night and was worried that he would be over his head in his next job.
It seems evident that to this day, depression is still anathema for officers, even if it is increasingly recognized (and worried about) in our enlisted ranks and among our veterans.
We should all be grateful that our Navy has come to recognize depression and to deal with it in a useful way, at least in the case of enlisted sailors. As for more senior officers, we need to begin to care for them better also—and that means keeping a weather eye out not only for depression and anxiety, but also for unusual anger.
Rather than leaving people with the choice of rubbing some dirt into the wound or sacrificing their careers, we should recognize that anger, depression, and anxiety are treatable.
Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).