Figuring it out on his own

Accountant Stephen Cuddy used his analytical mind and rigorous self-discipline to treat his own depression. Now he's sharing his discoveries to help others do the same.

Stephen Cuddy was in his early 20s, working at his first professional job with Liberty Mutual Insurance in Boston, when he started experiencing common symptoms of depression. Though by nature  “a numbers guy” with a high degree of intellectual acuity – he likes to do calculations in his head just for fun, like figuring out when his mortgage will be paid off -- he found himself struggling to focus, multi-task or handle stressful situations. He had periods of apathy and others of ungrounded fear, and didn’t know from day to day what or how intense his challenges would be.

“My quality of life was sporadic,” says Cuddy, 60, now a senior manager in the finance department of Raytheon Technologies at Pratt Whitney in Connecticut.  “Low at times, good at times. But I could not get any real traction toward living a fulfilling life. I couldn’t get any positive momentum.”

This was in the early ‘80s, when the Internet didn’t yet exist, medical information was harder to come by and the taboo against discussing mental health was even greater than it is today. Aware that he’d been fortunate to get a job at all during a period of national recession, Cuddy was determined never to miss a day of work or reveal his struggles, much less see a doctor for a diagnosis.

“What I did was just move forward and lived life undiagnosed, with no real hope of getting diagnosed,” he recalls. “I didn’t tell anyone and I just figured this would be part of what I had to deal with and I’d have to deal with it on my own.”

Trying to live “as normally as I could,” he put in a full work week, then bar hopped with friends on weekends. Ice cream, sugar sodas and simple carbohydrates were staples of his diet, likely exacerbating his symptoms. At 23, he met a young woman who was ready for a serious relationship, but his immature social skills, combined with his anxiety and depression, made it impossible for him to make a commitment.  

At 32, he began dating another woman six years younger. Three years later they married and soon thereafter had two children, two years apart. But they divorced when the children were both under the age of 10; depression, Cuddy says, was “the major contributor,” though his workaholic tendencies may also have contributed.

“I was not whole and when someone is not whole themselves, they can’t enter into a healthy relationship of any kind,” he says. “I was still in denial about my condition, so I was still doing things to hurt myself.”

At 45 – more than two decades after his symptoms had surfaced– Cuddy began experiencing shortness of breath and tightness in his chest at night. The woman he was dating at the time suggested he get a glucose tolerance test, which revealed he was borderline diabetic. The shock sent him to see his first-ever psychiatrist as well, who finally diagnosed him with generalized anxiety disorder and depression.

The diabetes diagnosis was “traumatic,” but, to Cuddy, also undeniable because it was based on the results of a quantifiable medical test. It was easier for him to dismiss the mental health diagnosis as subjective; it didn’t carry the same weight of scientific irrefutability.

Aware that his diabetes, which was not yet advanced, could be treated through dietary changes and hopeful that healthier eating might also subdue his depression, Cuddy decided he would treat both conditions organically and avoid the pharmaceutical medications he disdained and mistrusted. He modified his eating – cutting out sugars, simple carbohydrates and soda – and returned to the running he had done as a high school track athlete. His blood sugar levels stabilized almost immediately, but his steadily increasing running schedule started having the opposite effect on his mental health.

“I was putting all my eggs in one basket and it forced me to exercise all the time,” he recalls. “I was literally trying to stay one step ahead of the depression, but I exercised so much it made me fatigued and the fatigue led to depression. So I was in a circle.”

It also didn’t help his relationship with children and his ex-wife, with whom he shared custody. Though he and his ex-wife had agreed on a co-parenting schedule, unavoidable last minute changes often interfered with Cuddy’s rigidly regulated running schedule. That in turn made him angry and upset, damaging his relationships with his family and adding to his depression. Nevertheless, he stubbornly stuck to the exercise regime for several years, until he finally had to admit to himself that “exercise couldn’t lift the weight alone.”

“I finally acknowledged to myself that I needed to add more tools to my tool belt in order to treat my now glaring depression,” he says. “I needed to figure out how not to be overwhelmed by an unknown future, or scared by a past that was filled with lost opportunities. So I needed to do something that’s very difficult — live in the present moment, which is only a single second.”

That concept will ring familiar with anyone who has studied Buddhist practices or mindfulness techniques, but Cuddy had never been introduced to either. Nor did he immediately go in pursuit of books, classes or training to teach him the concept.

“Without researching anything online or any other way, I decided to figure this out on my own,” says Cuddy. “I tend to do that. So I started therapy and I learned the skills to help me to be mindful, before I learned that it was called mindfulness.”

While he continued his running regime, eventually competing in endurance races and triathlons, he now balanced his physical efforts with a focus on studying humans’ competing “virtues and vices”-- gratitude and greed, forgiveness and blaming, selflessness and selfishness. By mindfully choosing behaviors that were virtuous rather than destructive (he came to call them his “health rocks”) he noticed his relationships began to improve. He became less apt to do things that only benefited himself and realized putting other people first often turned out to be a gift to himself.

By the time he turned 50, a greater serenity and stability led to his engagement to his present wife. But not long before they were to be married in May of 2012, he decided to see a holistic psychologist because, even with his new practices, “I wasn’t where I needed to be to get remarried.” Much to his surprise, the doctor diagnosed him with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, the result of developmental traumas he’d suffered in his younger years.

Cuddy, who for 30 years had assumed his mental illness had first appeared in his 20s, suddenly realized it probably dated back to his very early childhood, and was deepened through 16 years of Catholic schooling.

“I was raised in the last generation in this country where parents and in your school you could be physically, emotionally and mentally abused by today’s standards for not complying with societal, family or school rules,” he says. “So that created developmental trauma that would stay with me the rest of my life.”

Shaken by the diagnosis, he called off the wedding. Cuddy, who had purchased wedding insurance, vividly remembers having to hand over the gown his wife had purchased to the insurance adjuster. At the time, he was deeply unsure if they would still marry, or even stay together.  He felt paralyzed by this new, more refined diagnosis and confused about how to heal the reignited pains of his past.

Ultimately, he agreed to begin a prescription anti-depressant (which he is still on today) and entered both individual and couples therapy. Three years later, the long-postponed wedding took place; his wife bought what might well have been her original gown in a local consignment shop. They recently celebrated their sixth anniversary, and though it did cross Cuddy’s mind that -- had he been mentally well in his 20s, he might have been celebrating his 35th surrounded by grandchildren -- he is at peace.

The culmination of his learning journey is a recently-published book, “Learn to Manage Depression with Health Rocks,” that took him a decade to complete. The “rocks,” in this case, are daily practices he has embraced to manage his depression, from practicing gratitude to spending time in nature. With his inherent love of numbers, it’s not surprising that the book is structured like an equation, with “50 health rocks in 10 categories to manage 13 challenges of depression.” Its three sections address what health rocks are, how to implement them and how the concepts Cuddy learned from his own lived experience have been reinforced by “experts,” from historical figures to present-day authorities.

In addition to his accounting job at Raytheon, Cuddy also serves as an advisor to the board of Empower Ability, an employee resource group for people with physical, emotional or mental disabilities, or who serve as caregivers. The group works to create the best possible work experience for its members. Cuddy also provides peer support services to others with lived experience who are in earlier stages of recovery.

The best advice he can offer others, Cuddy says, can be narrowed down to just two guiding principles: Do your best, but don’t be a perfectionist. (“Do not try to do that task or chore the best that anybody on the planet ever could, just do the best you are capable of.”) And: Do not quit without a good reason. (“If you quit, you’re showing a lack of commitment to each thing you’ll do in the future. And that’s an unfulfilling life.”)

Recently, Cuddy had his blood work done and realized his “bad” cholesterol had begun creeping up. Since he still prefers to avoid maintenance medications, he again focused again on his diet to quickly bring it down and was surprised by an unexpected consequence – his remaining symptoms of depression seemed to dissipate as well.  Using all the tools he’s accumulated together, he at last has begun feeling “truly like a whole person.”

 “I recognize that from my early 20s to my mid-40s, when I was undiagnosed, the quality of my life was low and I achieved less, did less, contributed less to society,” he admits. “I look at those wasted opportunities with a concrete sense of loss, as life that was taken from me.

“But the fact that I went through all my life’s experiences has allowed me to get to the point where I am now. To publish this book, to help people, to champion this cause and, quite possibly, when I pass from this earth, to leave something behind that others might learn from…Taking all of that together, I’m grateful that all of these things happened and that I am where I’m at today.”

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