Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On Curing Cabin Fever

OK, OK, it's been a lot of Dear Abby lately...but her column seems to be the one that's raising the most questions in my mind these days. Today, I'd like to know what you think. (Well, I always want to know what you think, and usually intend to close with a question--but then start ranting and forget. This time I intend to stick to my plan!)

DEAR ABBY: Since my daughter left home several years ago, I have become extremely anxious on Sundays. In the afternoons it feels like the walls are closing in on me. I feel so depressed I have to leave the house.
If I go someplace that is open and unconfined, with lots of people around, I feel fine. When I return to my house in the early evening and dote on my pets, I get back to feeling normal.
Abby, some people have said I suffer from "empty nest syndrome." Others say it's "cabin fever." Any thoughts on what I can do about this? -- PHIL IN PHOENIX

DEAR PHIL: If your daughter left on a Sunday, that may be the reason you become depressed and anxious on that particular day of the week. Or because you are less busy and distracted on Sundays, you become more aware of the fact you are alone. Whether you're experiencing "empty nest syndrome" or "cabin fever" is irrelevant. Discuss your feelings of depression and claustrophobia with a licensed mental health professional so you can be properly diagnosed and receive help for your problem.

Since the writer specifically mentioned the words "anxious" and "depression," I see why Abby probably felt compelled to recommend seeking a doctor's intervention. But I can't help but wonder if she's not jumping the gun a little bit.

This man's description of Sunday evenings is actually remarkably similar to how I feel at the same time of the week. I hate Sundays. For me, I think it has to do with the end of the weekend, and the feeling, held over from my recent student days, that I'm forgetting to do some pile of work that's due tomorrow. Lately it's also often meant that I have a long, boring, drive ahead of me. I tend to feel restless, irritable, and yes, a bit trapped. But the feeling passes, and Monday morning all is back to normal.

If once a week his body and mind are craving something that's easy to provide, and not damaging (in this case, an open, crowded, public place), and he can do that thing, and feel better afterwards, I guess I don't see what's wrong with that. Sometimes we have to feel bad so that we know we're supposed to do something different.

If we're hungry, we eat. If we're sleepy, we sleep. If we're jumpy and antsy, we go for a walk. If we're sad or angry, we seek comfort in whatever way we can (and of course some ways are better than others). To me, it follows that if you feel trapped, and going out for a few hours makes you feel better--you should just do that! "I feel so depressed I have to leave the house" doesn't sound that unreasonable to me. What's wrong with leaving the house? This, to me, suggests he hasn't left the house all weekend, that he considers being in the house "the norm," and leaving, an aberration. If this is the case, that might explain precisely why he's feeling so trapped by his own four walls. His body and mind are craving to get out--so he should get out!

Do you think I'm being too glib about this? Was Abby right to recommend a mental health diagnosis? Or do you think that in today's society we're sometimes too eager to perceive any uncomfortable feeling as a symptom of mental illness, rather than a signal that, if followed intuitively, will lead us to a healthy change?


Rachel M. Slough said...

I think she did the safe thing. It's so hard to tell from some of these letters if there is something more serious going on. At least if he goes to a mental health specialist, there is some closure: hey I'm ok! or appropriate assistance.

Becky said...

I think you're right about doing the safe thing. That's one of the interesting challenges and problems with these columns...for so many of the issues raised, the only way to "do no harm" is to point them to a local professional who can address the problem at a personal level.

I guess what I would have liked to see is maybe some assurance that it's OK to feel this way. Not only that he shouldn't be afraid to seek diagnosis and treatment for depression and anxiety, if warranted, but that it's in fact OK to feel cooped up and sad in a very specific situation.

He seemed to worry that getting out of the house for a few hours meant he was running away from the problem--that if he were healthy, he'd be able to stay at home all the time and feel at peace (I don't know anyone for whom that's true!). But doing something constructive that makes you feel better doesn't mean you're ignoring your feelings--on the contrary, you're addressing them!

Suggesting counseling is absolutely the safe answer...but then, why have a column? Sometimes I wish they'd (Abby, in particular) would just try to give a little more.

Kelsey said...

I think the weird part of her advice was the whole "did your daughter leave on a sunday" thing... The daughter didn't die. If he is depressed on Sundays because his daughter left on a Sunday then he should def see a doctor, because that is like some sort of intense attatchment disorder.