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Stress Cracks in the American Dream (by Paul W. Smith)

PaulWSmithLogoAuthor Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENTtPM LLc, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development. 

Prior to founding INVENTtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, Dr. Smith was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. While at Seagate, he was a proud member of the team that brought the world’s first notebook disk drive with perpendicular recording technology to the market. 

Dr. Smith holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, a Master of Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.     


That sucking sound you’ve been hearing is the collective soul of millions of people being forced out of their tired, angst-ridden bodies. The American Dream is circling the drain; no one can seem to find the stopper. We are shuffling into the waiting room of one of the few growth industries left; the mental health profession.

We are bonded by a single truth that shows no prejudice for race, religion, gender, age or employment status. Our houses are worth less than we owe on them, our retirement portfolios are a complete train wreck, and every sideways glance from our boss (if we have one) brings back that awful squeezing sensation in the gut. Any attempt to escape (movies, dinner out, a weekend getaway) causes us to be swept up in a wave of guilt and slammed onto the rocky shores of despair.

There are new rules of social engagement. If you are employed and dining out with someone who isn’t, do you pick up the check? Doing so may send the message that you are OK, and they are not. Even if you are not directly affected by the Great Recession, proper manners dictate that you pretend to be.

After a battery of tests and a thorough professional evaluation, the diagnosis is finally rendered. It appears that we are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; PTSD as it is known in the lexicon of the times.

The American Psychiatric Association connects PTSD with a catastrophic event involving actual or perceived death or injury, accompanied by intense fear. Warning signs include occupational and/or social distress, problems with personal relationships, and hyper-sensitivity to events which may cause one to re-live the trauma.

The success of films such as Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Born on the Fourth of July, testify to our curiosity about these experiences. As more of our troops return from overseas conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD is becoming an unavoidable part of daily life. I can only imagine the horrors that many of them have witnessed, and it does not surprise me that the slam of a door or the back-fire of a car engine can trigger an adrenaline-fueled blast-off into a shaky, surreal world of fear and helplessness.

While PTSD is generally associated with soldiers, it can begin with exposure to any extremely stressful event that is outside the range of normal human experience. Since cavemen ran for their lives from wooly mammoths, there has probably been some form of PTSD. After the Civil War, it was called “soldiers heart.” World War I begat the term “shell shock” and combatants returning from World War II were said to suffer from “battle fatigue.”

In 1980 the American Psychiatric Association made PTSD an official entry into the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders. It was thus elevated from a sign of cowardice or weakness to the status of a true disorder. In today’s world, it is just as likely to strike those who remain employed as those who have been RIF’ed.

Mental health centers report an increase in patients of up to 40% since early 2009. Those who sought treatment were once predominantly poor, elderly and homeless. The list now includes middle-class folk whose support system has collapsed. Unemployed Americans are four times more likely than those with jobs to report severe symptoms like depression.

This journey into serious health issues usually begins with a loss of medical insurance coverage. People stay with an employer not so much for money and prestige as for social connections, personal relationships, and meaningful involvement. Imagine the words “the company no longer has need of your services” replaced by “the people who work here no longer wish to spend time with you.”

The work environment is rapidly eroding. Like students who freeze up and perform poorly on an exam, employees are becoming more withdrawn and less productive. Mental health professionals have coined another new term. Although not yet officially entered into the DSM-IV, “Layoff Survivor Syndrome” has begun to enter the language. It is induced by increased workloads, a sense of loss over laid off friends and colleagues, and the sobering thought that you could be next. Any resulting problems with drugs, alcohol, personal relationships or general mental health issues are brought to the job, causing even more damage.

The American Dream is changing. No longer a society that seeks to “Biggie Size” everything, we have seized the idea of corporate “downsizing” and extended it to our personal lives. Those of us who can are moving into smaller homes, driving smaller cars, and replacing a trip to the IMAX with a visit to Redbox. Individually, it is a survival move that reinforces our sense of control. Economically, it prolongs the Great Recession.

I am finally beginning to grasp the importance of networking– it is not just to uncover those “hidden” jobs that everyone whispers about. Its true value lies in re-establishing the personal relationships that were lost the day I was kicked off the island. Part time work not only keeps the lights on and the fridge full, it also rebuilds the sense of satisfaction and self-worth I get from doing something well.

I stopped going to the gym at 6 am, because by 10 the working crowd has left, and I am more comfortable trading spots with people like me who are “seeking a new career opportunity.” Although my “To Do” list has changed from meetings and reports to laundry and yard chores, there is still a sense of satisfaction in prioritizing and then checking things off. The Big Goal – find a job in six months – has been modified to something like “live a meaningful, productive life each and every day.”

That sound you’ve been hearing may just be the winds of change, lifting your soul to a new and better Dream.


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