From outward success to inner happiness
Jerry Wilterding’s late-onset depression cost him his corporate career, but taught him how to create a ‘really great life.’
Listen to Jerry’s Story
By his late 30s, Jerry Wilterding had built an enviable life.
After high school, he’d followed in his father’s footsteps to become an employee of the Santa Fe Railroad. But it wasn’t long before he realized he wanted more from life and felt he was capable of achieving it. Working by day to support his wife and three young sons, he put himself through night school to earn a business degree, got a toe hold in the corporate world and rose steadily through the ranks to become an international consultant.
When two entrepreneurs invited him to join their new venture – a start-up credit card company called Capital One Financial – he embraced the novel opportunity. Helping build a business from scratch was exciting and creatively fulfilling and he “just loved it.” Even after a divorce that painfully reduced his time with his sons, he still felt he was living “a dream I couldn’t have dreamed could be that good.”
For four years, as Capital One grew in size and success, Wilterding rode the wave, feeling productive, fulfilled, happy. Then, almost at once, he wasn’t.
After developing an incessant ringing in both ears and losing his ability to hear in certain situations, he was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, an inner ear condition which has no known cause or cure. At the same time, as Capital One grew bigger and more bureaucratic, it began to lose its allure. When his partners – now the company’s CEO and president – asked him to take on a tough job overseeing and managing a huge department, he reluctantly agreed because he felt so beholden to them but, in short order, he discovered he “was lousy at it.”
The combination of the decline in his physical health and his sense of failure at work catalyzed a downward spiral of depression. Wilterding found himself driving to work and sitting in his parked car in the garage for an hour, unable to walk the few steps to enter the building. If he did make it inside, he’d close his office door firmly behind him, hoping no one would enter and see the desperation, shame and guilt he felt at his inability to function.
Wilterding remembered – only vaguely – just one other time in his life when he’d felt so bad. That same kind of deep, numbing hopelessness had settled over him once when he was about 12, making him wonder if he might have inherited the family streak of depression he knew had caused a great uncle to take him own life in the 1940s. But at that age, and with neither any knowledge of mental health nor the kind of relationship with his parents that would have allowed him to confide in them, he just “gritted my teeth” until the feeling finally lifted.
That same kind of tough-it-out-alone approach was what Wilterding turned to again. He confided in no one and for far too long fought the idea of consulting a doctor simply because he “didn’t want to have the stigma of a mental health problem or admit that to myself or other people.” He worried about the impact it could have on everything from his insurance to his reputation.
“I thought I was a pretty smart, capable guy and I could figure out how to get through this,” says Wilterding, a “Boomer” with wire-rimmed glasses a humble manner and an easy smile. “I put absolutely everything I had into trying whatever I could do – attitude adjustments, making myself think differently about doing the things I needed to do and didn’t want to do…. I just tried and tried and tried. And I was an utter failure.”
His struggles intensified to the point where Wilterding was so “disabled,” he had to leave Capital One. That caused another tidal wave of grief, guilt, shame and deepening depression.
“I had so much of my self-worth and self-regard tied up in my job and I also had a great sense of connection to the two guys who had helped me so much,” he says. “I’d believed in them and they in me and I felt I’d let them down. I had a tremendous amount of guilt over that and it was hurtful for many years. It took me a long, long time to come to terms with that.”
Though the dark cloud stubbornly refused to lift, there was a light that came into his life during that time – the woman who would become his second wife. The fun they had together, the traveling they enjoyed, the laughter that came easier with her, helped him imagine he could turn things around. He didn’t try to hide his depression from her, but “neither did she see me camped out on the couch in tears,” he admits.
That is, until after they married when, instead of lifting, his depression worsened. On the darkest days, he thought about how the world would be better off without him in it. One day when he was immobilized by frustration, laying on his bed in a pool of tears, she came into the room, gently rubbed his shoulder and said, “Don’t you think if you could have whipped this, you would have done it by now?”
“I absorbed that, and I sort of felt this load come off my shoulders,” Wilterding says. “I thought, I don’t have to keep struggling with this, I don’t have to do this alone. Just her asking me that question, in such a loving, caring way, it was the impetus for me to find a psychiatrist and start getting help. It was the realization I needed to come to.”
Thus began a circuitous journey to find a way out of his dark tunnel through a gamut of doctors, medications, treatments and therapies. It would ultimately take more than 15 years.
His first psychiatrist was a Freudian analyst who wanted him to talk about his childhood for 40 minutes, which Wilterding found utterly unhelpful. The next was a psychopharmacologist, who focused on addressing his brain dysfunction with medication to treat what he diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Wilterding subsequently went through a series of psychologists, each with a different theory about his depression and an alternate treatment approach. Though he remained embarrassed to reveal it for many years, he even tried ECT (electro convulsive therapy) sessions, but they had little discernible effect.
“There are so many different reasons people have issues – biological or psychological –that for a doctor to find the right diagnosis and treatment is no easy task,” Wilterding says. “At the same time, I found that not all doctors are created equal. I had some who just wanted to medicate me, to numb me to the world so I wasn’t happy or sad, I just existed. That’s no way to live. I knew I didn’t want that, even in the condition I was in and even though I wasn’t in such pain anymore.”
A move from Maryland to Florida meant finding a whole new set of physicians and therapies. His wife continued to be his greatest advocate, networking to find the best doctors, providing an objective third party perspective and providing unceasingly loyal support.
“Even when I was not responsive to her or doing normal things or when I was criticizing or being angry with her, she knew not to take that personally, which was a tremendous wisdom she had,” Wilterding says gratefully. “Without that, I don’t think I would ever have reached a point of recovery.”
That elusive recovery didn’t begin in earnest until 2016 when – 16 years after his depression’s onset and with no steady improvement attained – his wife finally said, “I think it’s time for you to go to the hospital. What do you think?”
He voluntarily checked himself into Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s psychiatric unit. The doctor there, acting on a totally different theory of what was causing his depression, changed his medication, taking him off the mood stabilizers previously prescribed for bipolar disorder and trying a new anti-depressant. By the time Wilterding left the hospital, he already sensed a marked improvement. Over the following year, he steadily became more stable, confident and aware of his environment.
“That was my real turning point,” he says. “That’s what led me to recovery.”
The counseling he received every week for the next few years, which reset his negative thought patterns and “helped me see things in a different way,” gave him not only a new outlook but a new perspective on priorities.
“There were things I wanted to create in my life – my own happiness and joy, the happiness and joy of people I loved and those around me,” he says. “I was on a path of learning about compassion and forgiveness and gratitude and I wanted to know how to make that happen.”
Today, Wilterding’s “work” is on a much smaller and more personal scale. As a volunteer for the Sarasota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) he shares his story with local groups, agencies and organizations, including providing a patient’s perspective to pre-med students considering a career in the mental health field.
“It’s very rewarding to be a model of being willing to say, ‘I’ve had mental illness, I’ve had ECT, I’ve been in the hospital’ and let people see you can do that and still be a good person,” he says. “That they don’t have to judge me poorly for having had all those things. I like showing you can recover.”
He also serves as a volunteer at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, doing “the little things that can make such a difference” for patients and their families at a time when they are often under great stress. He says it’s hard to express the contentment he feels by making a patient smile during the few minutes he wheels them to their cars, but it’s every bit as fulfilling as his accomplishments in the corporate world.
“My life now is not how I thought it would be, or even have designed it, but I found out you can have a great life in a lot of different ways,” Wilterding says. “I’ve done a lot of work seeking the wisdom it takes to be a positive influence and to be peaceful and to be able to spread those kind of things. I am so thankful for what I’ve learned…I don’t have to have a yacht or a Lamborghini, I don’t have to delay my happiness until my book is published, I can be happy right now in this moment. And I have such a great life.”
Though he and his second wife have divorced – his closest companion now is his Portuguese water dog, Crosby – he will always remain indebted to the person he names as “the one thing” that saved him.
“Her staying with me through 16 years of a very difficult situation and helping me find better doctors, researching better treatments. Her believing there was a real Jerry down there somewhere that wanted to come out. I didn’t have the level of hope or competence to do that for myself,” he says. “I get tears coming to my eyes thinking about someone who would do that for someone else.”
“So if you don’t think you can make a difference for someone who is suffering, I’d say, ‘Give it a shot.’ Because you can make a difference. A huge difference. And it may be the difference that actually turns things around.”