Counseling for loss of job, wealth may yield silver lining

Life was rolling right along with a good job, possibilities for advancement, a nice house, spiffy car, a new boat and a growing investment portfolio. Then BAM! Everything vaporized. No more job. No more advancement. The investment portfolio or retirement plan became less than half of what it was. Not much is left except for that suddenly not-so-nice mortgage and not-so-spiffy car and boat loans.

For many Michiganders, the above scenario rings all too true, especially within the past four months when the markets came crashing down (then went up again, then down and up and down).

Strange things start to happen to those caught in the vice of economic recession. Appetite disappears. Sleep is fitful, if not impossible. Concentration during phone conversations or meetings is spotty at best. An overwhelming feeling of restlessness takes over. Headaches, sweating and nausea replace feelings of good health. Overnight, the family breadwinner is relegated to an incompetent emotional cripple. Also caught in the vice are those who thought retirement was a year or two away. Suddenly they are faced with another decade or more of work.

Dr. Charles Bethea, PhD., is on the front lines working with clients here in Traverse City who are experiencing career collapse and loss of wealth. What started as a trickle of clients last summer has become a torrent, said Bethea. It doesn't seem like it should be that big of a deal – it's just jobs and money, right? So why are some people exhibiting symptoms similar to survivors of cataclysmic natural disaster or war?

The answer is anxiety. According to Bethea, what starts out as worry slips into fear, which escalates into full-blown anxiety. Once a patient is at anxiety level, physical and mental capacity becomes severely impaired. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, fear is a feeling of unease caused by the presence or nearness of danger, evil, pain, etc. Anxiety is a state of being uneasy, apprehensive, or uncertain about what may happen. It is uncontrolled concern about a realistic or fantasized threatening event or situation. Bethea says that anxiety is catastrophising in our own minds, exaggerating the threat. In some cases he likens the symptoms to "battle fatigue."

Bethea's first clinical goal is to bring clients down a few notches from high anxiety to fear.

"I listen and observe, first where they are at in terms of anxiety. Then I work on putting all of that turmoil into words," Bethea said. "Then we work together to develop an action plan because action changes moods. Once specific objectives are established, then hope begins to return."

A two-pronged approach seems to work best for Bethea, who has a long, distinguished history in the Traverse City mental health community. While working on a game plan for employment, he also gets his patients thinking about their spiritual and emotional health.

"There are four cornerstones to happiness. These include having a vibrant spirituality, participating in a reciprocal primary relationship, like that of a husband, wife or significant other, nurturing an interactive friendship with two or more close friends, and employment or a primary activity with a mission involved," Bethea said.

One of the most difficult things for some of his clients to accept is that wealth and finances are not necessarily related to happiness.

"As long as our basic needs are met, we can sometimes be happier without all of the excess wealth."

Bethea also knows from experience that the supposed "dead end" most of his clients feel they are at, almost always leads to opportunity, they just cannot see it. He tries to get clients to the point where they once again begin to see opportunity and feel as if they have choices. It is also his experience that human beings seldom make major choices without a great deal of pain.

Typically that pain results from stepping outside of comfort zones. In fact, usually the first steps his clients take involve things they are not comfortable doing, but they are minimally necessary to create an action. This might involve going to the Michigan Works office or re-negotiating payments with your banker who also goes to the same church as you.

For those patients who were soon-to-be retirees, Bethea works on defining what retirement really means. He tries to get them to describe exactly what they were thinking would happen upon "retirement."

According to Bethea, retirement is a most arbitrary thing started by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany, back in 1881. The government simply had too many elderly workers and wanted to keep the economy at maximum efficiency, so they randomly picked the age of 65 and announced that anyone over this age could stop working and receive a small pension.

Bethea stresses that retirement simply cannot be a state of doing nothing. Referring back to those four cornerstones, happiness is too closely related to work or activity with some sort of mission or goal. Perhaps even a second career may be in order; one that would provide deep personal satisfaction.

Clients also need to grieve for what has been lost. Among the most difficult things for the human psyche to accept are those that come completely out of left field, like an unexpected death. In many ways, the current economic crisis is like that. It is the sudden death of a way of life or the death of a dream of what was supposed to be. Those caught in the grip of this crisis need to have proper grieving time to help process what has happened.

"One of the scariest things in life is the realization that it isn't under our control," Bethea said. "We may fool ourselves into thinking we are in complete control, but we aren't."

This type of therapy can be slow going and usually involves hard work, great emotional pain and humility. Those who come out the other side, however, have the promise of a better life; perhaps even better than the one they were living before.

"I tell my patients this is more of a progress, not perfection," said Bethea.

Dr. Charles Bethea, LMSW, PhD, has spent 20 years in private and group practice, specializing in disruptions of life. He started the Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center, as well as the medical social work program at Munson Medical Center. Currently he practices with Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Traverse City. BN