Steve: Always On Guard
Unrelenting anxiety can suck, but it can also make you excel on the job. For 25 years, Steve Chamberlin’s hypervigilance helped him climb the ranks of the U.S. Coast Guard. But his ability to trade feelings for focus came at a cost, one that affected both his psyche at work and his relationships at home. Steve walks Stephanie through how this high-stress lifestyle promised high rewards but culminated in a painful divorce, and how the distance he’s created from his past has given him the tools he needs to heal.
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Steve, Stephanie Wittels Wachs
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 00:00
104efore we begin, I am here to tell you to get out your phones, your computers, your iPads, your technological device of your choosing, and go vote in the Webby Awards, LAST DAY has been nominated for Best Documentary podcast episode. This would be a huge honor for us to win and the sign of the best listeners in the world, which obviously is a no brainer. We have them. So all you have to do is you go make an account, go to podcasts, individual episodes documentary and click on the big vote button for LAST DAY. Voting is open through April 20. Yes, that is tomorrow. The last day to vote for last day is tomorrow. So get on it. Please, please, please, please. There will be no other last day, tomorrow is the last day. Got it. Great. Okay, we are going to link to the voting page in the show notes. Thank you so much. Now on to the episode. Steven Henry Chamberlain, are you the third? Or what are you?
Fourth, a bunch of Irish Catholics from Southie and Dorchester.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 01:10
Meet Stephen Henry Chamberlain, otherwise known as Steve. Steve is a retired Coast Guard officer who grew up in New England and went on to spend decades of his life in a super intense military job that was quite literally life or death. Every single day.
You know, the command center call and say, Hey, we got a case. You know, Uncle Bob didn’t come home he rented from this place. We went out and checked it. His trailer is still there’s trucks still there. And now we got to figure out and this is what we’re doing. We launched a couple of boats. Here’s the search plan. What do you think we executed and I hope to God, we don’t find a body.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 01:53
I cannot relate to any of that. But I can relate to him in another way. Because Steve is a self-diagnosed workaholic, who put everything he had into his career. I get this. If you haven’t heard it, Dr. Gabor Ma Tei diagnosed me with workaholism back in season one of this show. The episode is called trauma and apt title, check it out. But the point is I get Steve, sometimes I feel like I live to work. And I derive positive benefits from this addiction. It gives me a sense of purpose, gives me a place to channel all of my anxious energy. It helps me make this show. But if I’m being honest, I don’t always get the work life balance thing, right? And neither did Steve.
For an anxious person, you really became hyper vigilant because, you know, my wife and I would go out to dinner and sit near the door, because rarely would I get through a meal without being called outside on the phone. We go to a movie and I’d sit near the door.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 03:00
And ultimately, that cost him the love of his life.
I screwed up the most important the best thing that ever happened to me, which is Andrea, but I don’t know if I had stayed with Andrea, if I would have the you know, I’m like, I don’t know if I would have developed this level of self-awareness, which to me is a requisite for any sort of management or life improvement because life with anxiety really sucks.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 03:29
This is LAST DAY, a show about the moments that change us. I’m your host Stephanie Wittels Wachs. Today the story of someone whose hyper vigilance and laser focus served him well professionally, but wreaked havoc on his personal life. How he finally realized that, yeah, it was him, he was the problem. But that you know what, it’s never too late to make a change. Let’s go back to young Steve. Steven Henry Chamberlain. Before you join the Coast Guard. What were you like growing up?
Actually a lot like I am now I think as you get older, you get a little more rigid, but I was pretty rigid as a kid. So you know, I grew up in Burlington, mass suburb of Boston. So my mom and dad were the first ones to move out of Dorchester and get a place in the suburbs. They still live there. You know, my mom was very much the appeaser and Peacekeeper and everything else and there was me and two younger sisters. I As my mom put up was always a worrier. But now as I’m looking at them and observing, I’m like, my mom is actually just pathologically anxious. Can’t sit down, and my dad is anxious, but he’s the type of guy that you wouldn’t know it because he doesn’t say much. I went to college, UMass Lowell, got through, it wasn’t very focused, which is very counter to who I have become in college. But I passed through UMass Lowell living at home. And then I thought, you know, I’m going to try for this coast guard thing, but I’m going to apply to the officer program. They had like a 17 week officer candidate school down in Virginia. And I kind of shockingly got in and was deciding whether to go or not because I had never lived away from home. And I thought, well, it’s a job. So another guy from Massachusetts, and I drove down there, and it became a job for the next 25 years.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 06:05
Like Steve said, he ends up spending over two decades in the Coast Guard. He fills lots of different positions all over the place, Guam, the Bahamas, Wisconsin, but one of his biggest assignments ends up being in Miami, overseeing search and rescue missions.
People call the Coast Guard and somebody picks up and says, what’s your emergency, kinda like 911. And you’re like, Dad didn’t come home today usually goes fishing, and then comes at seven. And now it’s midnight, and I don’t know where he is. And I would have my command center would figure out if dad didn’t come home, or Uncle Bob didn’t come home, and we would do some detective work, try and figure out where they might be. And then we use some computer software to drift model and then we came up with different resources. Do we want to put a small boat a patrol boat? What do we have available? Do we want to launch a fixed wing and helicopter and then we would execute the case. And I would get, you know, 800 of those go in a year.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 07:05
So I mean, this sounds extremely stressful and pressure filled for a normal human not to call you abnormal. Because like someone who’s anxious, and you’re dealing with all of this stress, and all of this pressure, not only the pressure of like you said, Uncle Bob is gone, right? I mean, there’s lives on the line.
And next to Kin notifications. Yeah, that that was another thing. Yeah, when you stop searching, because you can’t find Uncle Bob. And you have to tell the family that.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 07:36
That was on you? You had to do that?
Yes, and then the Coast Guard, you’re often not doing next to kin. If you find a body, it usually goes to like the local police department, we’ll then go to the family. But if you don’t find a body, at a certain point, you have to make a decision to stop searching that was on me. People in my role. We estimate how long can somebody survive in the waters of this temperature? What did we think they were dressed in, we have to weigh the risk of sending out more helicopters and boats to our crews. And the search areas get bigger and bigger. And at a certain point, you end up calling off the search. Usually my tactic and in the Coast Guard’s approach was you communicate with the family throughout, so you’re kind of preparing them for, hey at some point at some point now. But the hard call is when you say, Hey, we’ve searched for four days for Uncle Bob. For these reasons, it’s time to call it off.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 08:39
This is heavy work. And for lots of reasons. Steve doesn’t really address how it’s affecting him when he’s in the thick of it. I mean, for one, he’s really good at his job. He’s hyper vigilant, high performing and laser focused. In other words, he’s kind of built for this type of work. And two, there just isn’t a lot of room for someone in his position to ask for help, even if they wanted to. At the time, Steve was working in what was called a zero defect environment. That means that if you’re tired and stressed and you mess up on the job, like many of us do, every day, you get passed up for a promotion. And if you get passed up twice, you’re seen as unfit, and you’re removed from your post. And what’s extra shitty is that if you’re like, hey, hi, this job is really taking a toll on my mental health. I need a break. You might just get removed from your post anyway. So it was kind of a lose-lose. So Steve kept his eye on the prize and work always came first.
I look back on that now and I’m like, I can’t believe I was so caught up in that crap. But I was, I was hyper focused on promotion and not making a mistake ever, ever, ever. You cannot make a mistake. You cannot make a personal mistake, same thing zero defect, because I had a team of people work for me.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 10:06
And as you’re in this grind, and you’re, that’s very important. Yeah, it seems like a total grind. Are you aware of the toll it’s taking and on your mental health? Are you aware of mental health? Isn’t anyone talking about mental health?
No, zero defect means me acknowledging that I needed to talk to somebody, there was like an anonymous program for talking to therapists. I tried that once or twice, it didn’t really help me that much. And it stayed out of your record, but they couldn’t prescribe. I mean, there was nothing you could do to go to, like the Coast Guard medical facility and say, This is killing me, I would have been taken out of that job in a heartbeat. There are a lot of people in the Coast Guard with unrecognized PTSD because of that, and we feel kind of like, well, we didn’t get shot at. We didn’t do this, that or the other. I feel like second tier when I’m with people who experienced combat, but there are a lot of Coast Guard people who are in my roles who are impaired because of this, and the expectation that you don’t fail, you’re always professional, you take on the next case, and you’re at work at 7am doing the same thing again and again.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 11:26
This mounting pressure and underlying trauma was particularly characteristic of the latter parts of Steve’s career. By 2010, he had ascended the ranks and was working in positions with an enormous amount of responsibility and stress. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, when Steve started out in the Coast Guard, it was actually kind of easy, breezy, well, as easy breezy as the military can get.
I joined in 1990, I dated I had a good life. And I remember in the early 2000s, cell phones became ubiquitous and the Coast Guard. But funny these great tools for communicating, but no rules were ever applied to them. They just grew and capability and the expectation just grew until it became this 24/7 accountability monster. Before you could go home. And if there’s somebody in that job I was describing that I had, if you just had a wall phone or a landline. It’s like you would let your command center handle stuff and come in the next morning. I mean, if you were out, no one could get in touch with you. And that was the expectation. Not anymore. And if the expectation is you’re around 24/7, then the expectation is also that you don’t make a mistake. 24/7.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 12:47
Yes, the 24/7 accountability monster. I am deeply familiar. There was a whole period of time like yours, maybe when my company was in full blown startup mode that my kid would hide my phone from me for hours, because it was truly the only possible way to keep me off of it. It is really upsetting. And I’m a little bit ashamed to say that out loud, but it’s true. I long for the days before cellphones were a thing before we were glued to and held hostage by these stupid little devices. Steve also has a love hate relationship with cell phones. I think more on the hate side and has pretty fond memories of what life was like before them. Call it the calm before the storm. It was the early aughts. He had been stationed in the Bahamas then got moved to Alabama. He was social he was dating he was just living his life. And that is when he met Andrea.
This guy is like, hey, I got someone I want you to meet. So it was a blind date and told her the same thing. And the three of us went out for dinner. Yeah, my friend Don. Don just wanted to be there and Don was there and that’s if you knew Don, you’d be like he was oblivious to the fact that perhaps you shouldn’t be here, Don, but we appreciate you setting us up.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 14:19
It was a great story. I remember where we went what I ate, being really impressed with her self-confidence, her ability to handle herself from a guy who had been with fixer uppers all his life. I was like, wow, this is different. What really impressed me about her is like I’m like she doesn’t need me at all. She could drop me in a heartbeat and be just fine. And I like that unlike she is not with me because she needs me she is with me because she likes me. And that to me was a revelation. I had not been with somebody, plus it was easy.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 14:59
Andrea was is a badass who could very much take care of herself. I mean, she wasn’t just in the Coast Guard, she was a helicopter pilot, okay, for her job. Andrea was just up there on the daily flying literal machines in the sky. So, Steve, and I don’t need you, Andrea hit it off fast. After Dawn, their chaperone left, they went to another bar. And eventually they went on an actual solo date, then another, and another. And pretty soon, Steve and Andrea were a thing. They understood the ins and outs of each other’s work. And, more importantly, they seemed to understand each other. So after about seven months of dating, Steve proposed. Were you always thinking you would be the marrying type and that everyone’s probably said to you that was fast. Like, did you know you were like, I’m going to propose to this woman. This is what I want.
No, I did not. It shocked me. But it was I was not the marrying type or not marrying type. And no one really said it was fast because I was 37 at the time. I mean, my dad wanted to see Henry Chamberlain the fifth.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 16:21
When did you all actually get married?
We got married right after she got back from the deployment legally married in 2005. So she got back. I must have been September timeframe. And then she grew up in Connecticut. So my family in Massachusetts. We did a small wedding in Warren, Connecticut, with family members and stuff with the plan being we do a larger wedding. She was in love with San Francisco had been stationed in Humboldt Bay, and she said, someday we’re going back to Napa. And we’ll do a second wedding, which was a year after that. Up in Calistoga.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 17:03
I love Calistoga.
It was gorgeous.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 17:06
Have you been in the mud baths?
I haven’t but all our friends were mud baths.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 17:16
Bizarre sensation I’ve ever experienced.
I have not done that. But I am.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 17:28
Yeah, is one of the greatest joys of my life. Okay, so you will go to San Francisco, you’re married? And how are the first few years of the marriage? Can you sort of paint a picture of your relationship and how you guys are interacted and all that?
Yeah, our relationship was good. I was always anxious and kind of not the most outgoing, but I always had a good time when we went out better in small groups and with people. And then we stayed there till 2010 for yourself luxuriously long run. We lived in lower Pacific Heights. We rented a great place when it was actually doable, and made wonderful friends and socialized. And I was very uptight about my job, but not to the point where it was impacting our lives. We were living a good life. And we loved San Francisco, and had a great time there. And the marriage was very easy. And we made good friends who I still keep in touch with coastguard friends. I wasn’t tied to a phone. My role was slightly different. I was happy to go to work each day. And I had a great boss. Everything was good. Did I still have an anxiety disorder that Yeah, I mean, that’s what made me good at work. But it wasn’t. The pressure wasn’t on at work that made me hyper vigilant. I could go home and turn it off and do other things. And we live the good life there. Yeah, I would go back to that time in a heartbeat. This is hindsight of course.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 19:10
Hindsight because this is where things really start to change. Steve gets the opportunity to be stationed in Miami. And if he does, well, it will help him move up the ranks in the Coast Guard. But it’ll also mean being mega stressed out and on call constantly. And the stakes are even higher than before. But Andrea could keep working as a pilot down there and her role would allow some decent work life balance, which wouldn’t be true for Steve who was managing a huge team and overseeing all kinds of search and rescue missions to save people like Uncle Bob.
I remember talking about is we’re out to eat and again rationalizing you know well you make captain from commander which is the rank and the Coast Guard just under Admiral and not a lot of people make all the way to cap Then, but if you don’t screw up there, Steve, you’ll definitely make captain. So I’m like, of course, I’m going to Miami, but I’m going to Miami because they want me for Miami. And I’ll worry about the stuff that goes down to Miami when I get to Miami.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 20:19
So that makes a ton of sense. So Miami had a reputation for being what the best if they want you from Miami, you gotta go.
If you can succeed in Miami, all your colleagues would know you’re the guy.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 20:33
So Steve takes the job and enters into this daunting two year post. And by now he’s doing all the things he talked about earlier, deploying search and rescue teams, letting families know if they found someone dead or alive. In some cases, he was even responsible for sending his own helicopter pilot wife out on missions. And it’s worth mentioning that Miami is a hotspot for everything. Vacations, watersports, fishing, and all the accidents and mishaps that accompany them.
Yeah, well, 365 boating, search and rescue happening, smuggling from the bottom is happening at something happening, it was brutal, because the expectation with smartphones was that one person’s accountable 24/7 for the entire time you’re there. And that was me as the operations manager, people above me didn’t want to be held responsible for something that didn’t go right. And people below me would depend on me to make the right calls. And my job was overseeing search and rescue, law enforcement and pollution cases. And you know, you email me at midnight, I’ll email you back at 1201. You know, I had a boss who was very much like that in Miami, and we’d be, we’d run a case that would start at 11, end at 4 or 5am. And then he called me at 5:30. And then I’d be at work at seven. And that’s how I was and that’s how I am.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 22:04
It’s a busier place. How are you and Andrea relating to one another, when you’re there when you’re in this grind, and is she also in the grind.
She is not in the grind. Because the AV or set fatigue standards, they operated more think of a firefighter where you’re on duty for X number of hours, and then you’re off duty. And when you’re off duty, you’re off duty, you’re not expected carry a phone, you don’t have to, you know you’re not on call. And it’s predictable. And if you fly X number of hours, you’re required to take X number of hours for rest. And your work days were generally pretty calm, air stations were known for having a kind of a more relaxed culture. And you would do training and stuff during the day, but you come home and you had your own life. For me, I already described it very different. And Andrea adapted to that she was very much the one thing she enabled, and just said, I’m just gonna let Steve the seat and she started doing more things socially on her own. And I’m like, go ahead, do it. You know, I gotta I gotta be here. I mean, one time we I took vacation days with her to go down to Key West. I could not put down my phone because I knew my boss sucks. Even though I had people standing by for me. I was still calling it out, we would be at dinner and I’m thinking about this case is gone. As soon as we get home or soon as I can grab my phone I’m going to call so and so and find out how it’s going because my boss is not gonna let me off the hook if they screw it up.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 23:40
And you’re, I’m assuming at this point in this two year period, you’re not really connecting. You’re not really I mean, what does it look like? Like what is your not matching marriage?
Roommates with me coming home and maybe venting about work. Talking about work. All our discussion was about work. We’d occasionally go out and do something together and maybe chill for a little bit. But we, I mean, we were still intimate, but barely. I mean, it was just it but it wasn’t like an estranged. It was like both of us saying this is just the way it is right now. I can’t relax. I have to be hyper vigilant. I have to pay attention to work. She was like, I know what the environment is like it is zero defect. You can’t screw up. I’m good with that. I don’t like living like this. But it’s only temporary. So we weren’t angry at each other. We weren’t fighting. It was just like we both accepted. This is life in the Coast Guard right now. We’re checking the box so we can get something better down the road to pay off.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 25:00
So Steve and Andrea are in Miami. And no, it does not feel like a Will Smith song. It is brutal. But it’s a sacrifice they’ve chosen to make for a better, easier future. If Steve succeeds in Miami, he’ll get promoted. And then their next placement, he wouldn’t have to grind as much he and Andrea will just get to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and everything will be different. And guess what? They make it through Miami. After two years of service, they secure new positions back in Northern California, the glorious utopia where they lived when everything felt nice and easy. This is the payoff, and they’re coming to collect. Well, that was the plan. But a workaholics gotta work. And almost immediately, Steve is in a new role falling right back into old patterns.
And that’s where, you know, Steve, now a commanding officers like I can’t screw up being a commanding officer, I can’t make a mistake here. Not a personnel mistake, not an operational mistake, I can’t make a mistake. It didn’t demand the hyper vigilance I gave it. But I gave it the same level of intensity that I gave Miami, even though I was the boss. And the funny thing was, I was very aware of what my boss did to me. So I ensured I didn’t do it to other people. I even if Andrea and I had a fight, I would like take a few breaths before I walked into the office in the morning. And I would stop in I’ve talked to people and I would sit down with the most junior people and ask them what they were doing. And I’m like, I’m going to be a good leader here. So I was just that was where my intensity was focused on being a good leader, and a good professional. And I was going to have a good tour, and not get fired for making a mistake. My blind spot was my marriage, because I felt so confident that Andrea would always be there. And I kept thinking someday, once I’m out once, I’m out, I’ll chill out. I know, I’m intense right now. But I’ll chill out.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 27:03
Got it. Okay. And so you go there. And then at what point do you decide it’s time to retire? I mean, how did she convince you of this does?
No, she doesn’t. I was I had made captain. And it was all this was truly a money driven thing. Because it’s like, once you put on a new rank, you get promoted. Your pension is based entirely on that rank. If you stay at that rank, for three years, it will be a hybrid of your previous rank if you leave before three. And my tour was three years as the commanding officer. So I’m like, alright, three years as the commanding officer, three years as at as a captain, I’ll get the pension, I’ll be able to do my tour. And I really don’t want to, you know, the job after that is usually you go to Washington, DC and your work and Coast Guard headquarters. And I’m like, I really don’t want to retirement where somebody sees a flyer up over the Men’s Journal, it says come to room 13B for Steve’s retirement, like going out of the command is a better one for my ego. Right. And so that was kind of like, the writing on the wall. We knew that was going to be the case. Okay. I was at 25 years, Andrea younger than me would hit 20 years, which is the minimum you need for the pension. So she had one more year being on active duty. Okay, and the plan was for her obviously to do that year, and then we would both go do fun stuff forever. So that didn’t really work out. But okay, I felt and this was a year ago that I could not take a chill job. I had the lateral into something all my colleagues were all my peers were laterally into, like, six figure jobs. I gotta be honest, Stephanie, I couldn’t believe how much the private sector would pay. I actually start at first I thought, Well, I had the GI-Bill and the GI-Bill would fund massage school. And I’m like, I like getting massages. I’m gonna go to massage school. And I started in San Francisco while she was still working, going to massage school, which I wish I’d finished but I did some interviews on the side. And then a corporation offered me highly paid six figure job and I went home and talked to Andrea about it, and we’re like, I gotta do that. So I dropped out of massage school. And I took this job and I show up and they hand me a phone. Say, you know, there’s an on call component to this and I thought while they’re paying me all this money, I have to be responsive to them. I owe them for paying me all this money and we went right back to the Miami sea.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 29:57
You know what you’re thinking? You’re like no Steve, oh, do it. Don’t go inside the house. Like he’s some character in a horror movie he was about to get absolutely destroyed because of his blatant lack of foresight. But we all know horror movies work. He goes in anyway, he throws himself into work, he neglects his marriage, even though he’s promised Andrea this time would be different. And meanwhile, Andrea is silently suffering. And in 2016, the shit hit the fan.
I can’t tell you the moment it was like Valentine’s Day, and I blew it off completely. And it was maybe a week or two after that. She said, you know, I was kind of waiting to see what would happen. All you do is come home complain about the job. It was kind of the last straw and I’m like, Oh, my God, if I just done something that Valentine’s Day, maybe, maybe, maybe, but she was waiting for me to relax was on board with me taking the job. I think we were both just wild by the amount of money. Which doesn’t drive me at all right now. So many mistakes. But my anxiety may be great at that job. I was in that role, and doing the same thing I would do and the Coast Guard, I’d come home and just launch into whatever was bugging me about the job that day. And a couple weeks after Valentine’s Day, maybe a month after Valentine’s Day, she was planning her own retirement party, because I wasn’t even contributing to that I wasn’t even helping. It didn’t even occur to me to help. That’s how bad I had gotten. All I could do was talk about this job. And it was such a stupid job. Just a job. And I’m venting one afternoon and she says, Can we talk about something else? And I’m like, what do you want to talk about? And she said, I’ve decided to separate. And I remember my stomach just sank. It is like when we anxious people catastrophize yet rarely does the catastrophe happen. But on occasion that catastrophe happens yet. It’s not anything we expect. But it was I just remember the feeling here. And me instantly going into oh my god, this isn’t real. This isn’t happening. But I somehow realize that this is Andrea. She doesn’t say this stuff. If it’s not happening. I’ve got to save this. I’ve got to go into crisis mode I’ve got and that’s where I went to the what and started asking what are you serious? We can fix this. We can fix this, we can fix this. And she’s like I already interviewed for my post coastguard job. I got a job with an air ambulance company up in Santa Rosa. And I’ve already checked out apartments and I know where I’m going to live and I wanted to let you know that. And that’s when my life changed. That was the moment it was amazing, Stephanie, how quickly everything that I thought was important two seconds ago evaporated and never came back in an instant. Everything that was so critically important to me the Coast Guard, transient bosses who I was desperate for their affirmation, my current boss, the work stuff I was just venting about two seconds ago the money, worthless. I’m like this I just, I just pissed away is the most important relationship I will ever have. I don’t remember much in the immediate minutes after that, but I remember that night sleeping in the same bed with her like as far away from me as she could get which we hadn’t been close for a while and me on my side, eyes wide open. Absolutely feeling nauseous, kind of doing that micro sleep. You didn’t think you slept And I had to go to work in the morning and somehow present myself getting up going to work and just being a mess and constantly going out and trying to call her. And she was cool as a cucumber for days after that. But I was an emotional wreck and I’m usually the Mr. Spock robot. And I could barely focus on work and this went on for months until she finally started to give a little bit and agreed that the first victory I won so to speak was her agreeing that we could go look at apartments together. And then I’m like, well, I’m going to quit this job, I’m going to prove to you I’m quitting this job totally. And I went to wineries in Sonoma Napa. And I’m handing out my resume. And it’s funny because this 20 year old guy who had been like a junior enlisted guy in the Navy, got my resume. And he’s like, why is this retired Coast Guard Captain want to work part time in our tasting room, I got to call him. And that’s the only reason I got an interview. And then I got this interview with a bunch of 20 year olds who are like, just joking around and pouring wine for me and talking. But in my mind, I’m like, she’s gonna see she’s gonna see, you know, this is me, this is me. And we live together. And even though she had asked for counseling at points earlier in our marriage, not earlier, but towards the latter half of our marriage. And, of course, me being me. I’m like, and nothing’s wrong with a marriage. Guys do this, too. I don’t. If I go to counseling, something’s wrong. So we’re not gonna I’m not going to counsel. Now, of course, I’m like, I’ll go to counseling. Do you want to go to counseling? And she said, Okay, and I thought maybe I can save this. We had a good first session. And she said, she would go back for the second session. And I thought, that’s a good sign. She’s going back, you know, we’re going together. And it was that following week or whatever, when we’re going back for the second session. And I remember I was talking to her about a new hobby, and I was all excited about it. And then we got in the car, we went to the second session, and the therapist said, okay, it’s been a week, you guys kind of absorbed the first session, before we get going, I’ll give you each of you can each say what, and I said, I think it was great. You know, we had some good chats, we can make a lot of progress and pass it over to Andrea and she said, I want to divorce. Even the therapist was like what, told me after the fact she’s like, I never had that happen before. And that was it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 37:15
We’re back. So Steve and Andrea have gone to couples therapy, but it’s too late. There’s no more room to negotiate. The relationship is really over. He moves out. Andrea finds her own place. And then finally, the divorce. A big fat consequence for decades of putting work first. But Steve, being the fixer that he is, wants to figure out where things went wrong and course correct. And he did have some tools he could use to do that. A short time before Andrea asked to separate the VA had set Steve up with some routine medical appointments, a physical an eye exam, a hearing check a psych eval, the whole shebang.
And I got all these appointments. And I went to them and didn’t think much about it. Until I got the psychologists report.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 38:11
Yeah, so what’s the report say?
Well, the report is that Steve, and they give you a percentage of disability and that percentage figures into how much treatment you get from the VA. And I’m reading it and we’re still married and everything and I’m like, okay, I’m like, Wow, I’m 80% disabled, because I don’t I’m like, what she’s, and I’m reading this and it was like, well, you have hearing loss 10% You have something going on and an ankle 2%, yeah, it’s like, and then it says you have general anxiety disorder, mild depressive disorder, insomnia, which I did have a bad round of insomnia in my last several months. So I told the psychologist that and that just came out. It’s like the bulk of that disability. So the VA treats all that stuff. But that to me, I’m like, what, what? Anxiety? I’m like, yeah, I had insomnia. It was just temporary. And yeah, I’ve been depressed a couple times. I don’t have a disorder. And you know, the I was already out on terminal leave, like I saved up a lot of my PTO. So it there was no risk anymore of me being relieved from my job, because of my mental illness. But all of a sudden, I have this piece of paper saying you’re mentally ill. I’m like, okay, now I have this diagnosis, but I didn’t do much with it. I’m like, okay, great.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 39:40
So Steve, just put it aside. He was doing well at work. He hadn’t messed anything up. So things were fine, right? He was fine. But after the divorce, these words flew right back onto his radar, and he realized that maybe he wasn’t fine and that’s when the googling begins.
And I started reading about it. And what is anxiety? What and I’m like, wow, this is textbook me and throwing a little OCD in there. And this is how I am and I I’ve been this way since I was a kid, but Miami just jacked it up to a level that I couldn’t turn it off and I haven’t been able to turn off yet.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 40:23
Yeah, it turned the volume way, way, way up, right?
Yeah, yeah. It was like, any book I read was, I bought a bunch off Amazon, and I’m reading this stuff. And I’m like, it’s like a description of me. And I really, I think, obtained an understanding of it, but I’m very logical about it. And I’m like, Alright, I went to the VA in Santa Rosa. I’m like, I want cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s evidence based. And I understand the concept between CBT cognitive behavioral therapy, and why that works. And I just couldn’t get it to. I just didn’t do the work or couldn’t do the work. The habits were too ingrained. But I did that two rounds of that at the VA in Santa Rosa. And then finally, I’m like, this isn’t helping me. So I quit.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 41:06
And when you say, you said you tried two rounds, CBT? Maybe try that too. But CBT. You mean, like, two sessions or like two rounds?
It’s like, I don’t know, 9 or 10 sessions. Yeah. And I did it. And I really I’m like, I don’t really understand it beyond conceptually, it’s about breaking old habits that have been forming for 50 years and forming new habits. And I totally buy it. I understand why it should work. But I just I couldn’t break those habits, or I didn’t try hard enough, or I didn’t have the incentive. And it’s scary to break them because it’s my comfort zone
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 41:49
Steve continue to stay in his comfort zone. In the years following the divorce. He did make some changes, like selling all of his belongings, buying an Airstream trailer and traveling across the country, you know, normal stuff. These changes weren’t helping him to move the needle on his own mental health. They were mostly a distraction, a change of scenery, which I also get, we moved across the country during the pandemic in search of greener pastures. Did we find them? Yep? Did my anxiety take a hike? Nope, I am sorry to report that pretty scenery did not change the inner workings of my brain. It did, however, motivate me to spend more time outside to take long walks by the ocean to slow down my pace a little bit. So changes like this can help to improve one’s mental health. But it’s not a silver bullet, you know, there’s still a lot of work to be done. And after finally landing back in Massachusetts, where he grew up, Steve started drawing similar conclusions.
I came here 18 months ago, I’m literally I’m looking at the ocean. I’m in this tiny house. After a year here. I’m like, Why do I feel so unsettled? And I’m like, because my mind wants to plan. And I said, you know, I came up here with a dog too. And this, figures into things here a little fish flip flop I got, and I’ve had him for a year and a half here. But I finally said, You know what, screw it. I’m not even going to try anymore. I’m just going to be aware of it. And I’m just going to find things that aren’t money driven, which is why I went to that. And I’m now on the advisory board of a veteran charity. And I’m like, I’m gonna fill my life with projects, work projects, because that’s what I need, and it’s too late for me to change. That’s how I’m gonna go.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 43:38
So Steve gets a motorcycle, he’s on a charity board and he’s got a dog. Everything is dandy. Until he realizes that ignoring his problems, isn’t actually making them go away. Even with all the newness, Old habits die hard.
I realized that I turned this dog into, it was like dog bootcamp here, a project. He had become a project. He gets amazing amounts of exercise. He gets the best food, he gets the best vet care. He doesn’t get the love and affection he needs to because I am so focused on checking all the boxes. I’m like, he’s a living thing. And while I feel the emotion and I felt it for Andrea, I just have unlike I am back where I was. I cannot show him the emotion. He’s not getting it from me. And I have a friend here who I board him with her and she has two dogs and I rehome them last week. I haven’t told my family I haven’t told anyone because I’m like ring coming dog what kind of monster are you? But the quid pro quo in my head was I gotta do something about this. I cannot live the rest of my life this way. There’s no contentment for me here. Combined with loneliness. The fact is crates not sitting over there anymore.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 45:00
You know that Taylor Swift song that goes, it’s me? Hi, I’m the problem. It’s me. I mean, of course you do. Everyone knows that song. Well, this was Steve’s moment of that. He’s looking all around them. And he’s like, I did this. And I keep doing this. And Andrea is not to blame, and neither is my poor dog. It’s me. I’m the common denominator. And I have really got to commit to change.
You know, I see my ex-brother in law, and my sister divorced recently, and I, both my sisters divorced. So that says something about us. But this guy was on a second marriage, she was on her second marriage. And I look at a lot of guys, like, I’m like, he’s still oblivious. He still thinks it’s all her fault. He hasn’t changed the thing. He went into his second marriage the same way it came out of his first marriage. And I see that with a lot of people. So I’m like, This is a gift that I will I feel like I woke up and I would never do this to another person, I would never do what I did to her. Or for my benefit, and for that person to benefit. Life is too short to do that. And I don’t mean that in that cliched way. I’m 55. I see the horizon now. And it’s very clarifying. So my personal quid pro quo is I’m going back to the VA, I just actually got off their waitlist today. I’m going to try CBT. And actually, I’ve been practicing meditation for the last six weeks or so. Not well, I’ve started yoga. And I’m talking to the VA about that EMDR it’s like a well, you know what it is?
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 46:45
I do. In case you don’t know what it is, though. EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It may sound weird, or woowoo. It did to me at first, but it’s not. It’s a legit method of treatment that was originally designed to make traumatic memories less debilitating. I’ve dabbled a bit myself. And I found it quite soothing. So this is one of several treatments that Steve has been seeking for himself.
If I am giving away my dog, this has to change. Prior to that I could roll with now I’m just going to be aware. And I’m going to just make myself as busy as possible until I die. Yeah. And now I’m like, No, I cannot. I cannot. I have to take steps. And don’t get me wrong. My dog is in a much healthier place right now. He was in great shape. Most athletic dog you ever saw, could run forever. But he’ll do better with less exercise and more affection.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 47:48
Do you feel like you want to show that affection like, are you craving that?
I want that. But the bigger thing I want, it’s bigger than that. The dog made me realize I’m like, I am not content. I had kind of given up and said I’m just gonna screw relationships, I’m just going to work on projects. And if somebody comes around and knocks my socks off, great if they don’t, Oh, well. And that’s still to a degree fine. But I’m like, I’m not content waking up every morning with on a scale of 1 to 10 anxiety of a 12. I am not content, feeling like the sky is going to fall out all the time and distracting myself from it. I don’t look for happiness. And I try not to use that word happiness is fleeting, but I look for kind of a 70-30 mix of contentment to discontent or fulfillment. And it’s like I want fulfillment and contentment. And I’m gonna, I’m going to pull all the stops right now. But up until a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t going to pull all the stops.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 49:06
I think it’s interesting. What I’m getting from you here is that we’re not ever done. You know, it’s not like No, it’s not like the story is Andrea left. And that’s the end like you’re still on the journey. You’re still figuring it out. And I think that the fact that it’s not any more, how do I climb the ranks and get the most and be the best at the job now it’s how do I find contentment and satisfaction and fulfillment? The query is different. And so I mean, you know, you’ll get to a new spot with that. I think it’s amazing that you’re even on the journey because like you said a lot of guys, specifically guys, military guys.
I totally agree. I totally agree. It’s unfortunate, but they’ve got to live their lives and this is where I am and I’m gonna snatch whatever I can. I got my new motorcycle which is, I have this dream of driving across country and stopping it seedy roadside hotels and diners. And I’m going to do it. Because I know that that’s the one good thing is I know I execute on those things. And I am now pursuing all these treatment options because I’m going to do it. And you know, if I don’t do it, I have the self-awareness. And I at least know who I am. And why I’m doing these things. And I’ll take that, Stephanie, I’ll take that.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 50:37
Got a lot out of my conversation with Steve, as a fellow, I think the sky is falling kind of gal. I get that that journey to self-awareness and self-acceptance is a real winding road. Like Steve said, You never really reach a point where you’ve arrived. It’s about finding that 70/30 ratio. I’ve kind of reached the same conclusion recently, in my own life, happiness. It’s hard to come by, feeling a sense of contentment and fulfillment most of the time. That’s where I am. And for now, at least, it’s a pretty good place to be.
There’s even more LAST DAY with Apple premium. Subscribers get exclusive access to content like Jackie from last week talking all about who supported her and what it was like to still have to get up and go to work every day during the hardest moment of her life. Sign up now on Apple podcasts. Hey, Prime members, did you know that you could be listening to this episode of LAST DAY ad free on Amazon music? With Amazon music you get access to the largest catalog of ad free top podcasts. Start listening today with the Amazon music app. LAST DAY is a production of Lemonada Media. The show is produced by Kegan Zema, Aria Bracci, and Tiffany Bui. Our engineer is Brian Castillo. Music is by Hannis Brown. Steve Nelson is our Vice President of weekly content and production and Jackie Danziger is our Vice President of narrative content and production. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and me Stephanie Wittels Wachs. If you’d like what you heard today, we have three other seasons that you can check out. Have a story you’d like to share, head to bit.ly/lastdaystories, or click the link in the show notes to fill out our confidential Google Form. follow and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.