Unveiling

Today is a grieving day.

I’ve never been very good at grieving. It’s one of those things that you can’t really practice until you need it, and when you need it, boy you better get it right.

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The first time I grieved was for my grandfather. I was with him the week before I started at business school. He was hollowed out. Cancer had emptied his strength, his voice, his pride. I helped carry him to the bathroom. I remember vividly, on the way back one trip, he pushed us away from him so he could take the last three or four steps to his bed. He didn’t make it. Two of us had to help him off the floor and into bed.

I got the call on the first day of classes. I told myself to be stoic, to support my mother and my cousins. I blocked out, remained neutral.

For a month after, I, too, was hollowed out. I would open a textbook to do readings, spend two and a half hours reading the same paragraph over and over. Close the book. I skipped mandatory study sessions. I was one missed class away from failing out. I was a zombie, present but not processing.

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The last time I grieved was for Pittsburgh. It was a different kind of grief, boiling hot and bitter, like oversteeped tea. I wanted to fight somebody. Grief is easier with an enemy to blame, so much so that people will make enemies out of bystanders to comfort themselves. They will lash out at family or friends or caregivers for ginned up failings so that they don’t have to face the truth: the world will bring you grief by the truckload, it will take away and take away and take away and unlike a person it is impossible to fight. It’s preposterous, to try to fight back at the grief the world visits upon you. It would be like karate kicking a tsunami.

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The deepest time I grieved was a year ago today. In the Jewish tradition, you do not unveil the tombstone until one year from the day of the death. I wish I had some words of wisdom to say about that tradition, but I have a sneaking suspicion it exists because bodies must be disposed of immediately and masonry takes a little longer.

I am practicing traditions today. I lit a Yahrtzeit candle. Why? I don’t know. Mostly I’m throwing shit at a wall to see what sticks.

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There is an image I get in my head of that day. I know the technical term for this: obsession. A persistent, unwanted thought. I get them when I am anxious, of something terrible happening, and when my grief is pressed upon, I get the image of the veterinarian poking a finger into my dog’s eye to check that he was non-responsive, that the drugs that rendered him inert had taken hold. And I hate him for it.

I hate the clinical, dry, businesslike nature of that gesture. It feels like an imposition into my family’s grief. I hate that this memory, above all other memories, is the one that comes back to me.

Is this what the traditions are for? To fend off the dryness, the clinical nature of disposing of the dead?

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My grief has been pressed upon a lot recently. I have dipped my first timid toes in the water again, fostering a dog that needs a temporary home. She is sweet and loving and gentle. Like he was. And that part of my heart that he occupied is being intruded upon, and I love her, and I hate it. I am not ready to till the soil where he is buried.

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To love is to become a part of an “us,” to be greater than yourself. Grief, then, is phantom-limb syndrome. The pieces of us that go missing can never be replaced. Everything thereafter is just prostheses. And, yes, we can love again, and we can grow another “us.” But the things we lose stay lost.

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There is no literal soil on which to put a gravestone. So I have put a marker as close to where he lies as I can. It is my effort to keep a little piece of him with me, to override this obsession of the moment of loss with a remembrance of joy and love.

Kaz

RIP Kazak, the Hound of Space.

Identity Crisis II

I’ve tried to write this post a few times now. It has been brewing for seven or eight months, ever since I decided to quit poker.

I have decided to quit poker.

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In my first blog on identity crisis, I wrote about my experience losing the pieces of myself that framed my decision-making and helped me make sense of the world. It left me unable to choose a direction, rudderless and adrift in a sea of possibilities.

This is something worse than that.

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I literally grew up in poker. I started playing seriously before I finished university, before I lost my virginity, before my first girlfriend, before my first break-up. Before my first utility bill, before my first real move, before the first pair of shoes I ever bought for myself, there was poker.

I learned the ups and downs of life as a poker player. I learned my coping mechanisms as a poker player. I learned real love, I learned fake love, I learned struggle, I learned triumph, as a poker player.

What are those lessons worth now?

More than nothing, probably. But it’s hard to shake this feeling that everything I learned in that context could be wrong out of it.

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Mid-writing this, I got linked to the perfect thing. Read it and then come back

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I am Mickey Mouse, with less stability and fewer options. I don’t get to springboard poker into something else. This is it. I’m starting over, just as lost as he is.

I’ve always been a straight-ahead kind of guy. I found something that got my juices flowing and leaned into it with all my might and got better at it. That was it, that was my process. It worked ok when I played hockey as a kid, it worked great when I played poker as an adult.

Nothing gets my juices flowing anymore. Poker hasn’t for a long time. So I need to go out and find something to tear into again.

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It’s befuddling to not have a thing, but it’s downright scary to lose one. It’s like being a boxer with a glass chin. You realize you can just get it knocked out of you at any time, and that will be it, you’ll have to give up everything you’ve worked for and move on. If this is the second time it’s happened to me, how many more bullets do I have in the chamber? I’m almost 28 and poker was 7 or 8 years of my life. What if I spend the next 7 or 8 years on something and I lose that fire again? Can I pick up the pieces and move on again at 36? Can I live without it?

And what if I never find it in the first place?

I am anxious about never finding it, about feeling set adrift and rudderless until one day I wash up on the shore, an old man with failing capacities, and announce “Hear I am, by accident. I hope it turns out OK.”

But I’m still quitting.

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I’m quitting because, ultimately, poker is a dumb card game. It’s rules are limited to passing money back and forth between participants. There’s no chance to make something more for people than what you started with.

I’m quitting because poker isn’t checking all of the boxes I need for a happy life, and as scary as it is to be without it, I have to try to find something that does. I have to strike out into the unknown, because I know what’s here, and it’s not enough.

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I’m not feeling very confidant right now. I’m feeling like the kid I was before poker, the self-loathing, socially anxious virgin with nothing to like about himself, nothing to be proud of, to hang his hat on and say “this is what makes me, me.”

But this is the highest percentage bet I get. This is the best shot I have at a fulfilling, happy life. Poker has given me what it’s given me, and it’s not getting any better, and I’m not getting any younger.

However many more bullets I get, I’m going down firing.

An Interview

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything. I had a very emotionally tough experience with some guided meditation, and I wanted to share parts of that, but I still haven’t settled with that experience in my own mind. I am going to try again on Monday, maybe more data points will help me find some insight to share. For now, I just wanted to share this interview with you:

http://www.pokernews.com/video/ben-wilinofsky-opens-up-about-living-with-clinical-depressio-9744.htm

Many thanks to the Pokernews team and Sarah Herring in particular for giving me a platform for my voice.

Guest post

Today is a guest post from my very favourite person on earth.

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Two of the dearest people in my life suffer from depression. I don’t. Quite the contrary, I’ve been blessed with an absurd mental resilience to shit. I can’t comprehend the mental state that makes a person want to take their own life. But when you care about someone immensely, you work to understand their heart and mind, perhaps more so than your own. So I’ve learned a lot about depression. Today, I wanted to share what I know. I hope this can help you understand and support your loved ones at their darkest.

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Some of Lucy’s mental issues manifest in crippling social anxiety. But when we invite her to go out, instead of deciding whether she feels well enough to do so, she always tries to figure out what’s best for other people. That’s because depressed people are notoriously bad at looking out for themselves.

“Shouldn’t I stay at home and hang out with Jenny so that she is not alone?”

“I should probably go, because if I don’t the evening will be awkward for Alex who doesn’t know the rest of you well.”

“I probably shouldn’t go because it’s a long car ride and I’ll make it really tight.”

Part of the reason this is a common behavior for depressed people is that not a lot feels very good to them, so it makes sense to try and make decisions based on other factors. But that’s an unhealthy habit and a self-fulfilling prophecy. They end up not doing things that make them happier, thus they don’t get happier. So every time, I try to break down to Lucy that she should do what feels good for her, and that that’s what would make everyone happy. I do it by helping her discard the reasons that don’t have to do with her and focusing on whether she feels she would enjoy herself. If you realize your depressed friend is doing this, you will want to look out for her instead. It can be tricky not to come off condescending. Focus on minimizing the pressure to make a decision and on not expressing your disappointment if it wasn’t your first choice.

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Speaking of choices, people going through a depression episode often don’t know what they want. As I see it, that’s one of the major differences between depression and being really really upset. When I’m really really upset, I still know what would make me feel better. Sometimes it’s impossible, but I can picture it. Comfort of my husband, night in bed with popcorn and my favorite show, company of people I like are some of the more common remedies. Other times, I may feel down on myself but I can picture a long-turn solution in mind. It could be getting a rewarding job, becoming good at a game… or losing weight, or making a lot of money. They are not all admirable, but they are tangible.

The terrifying thing about depression is that there isn’t anything a depressed person can picture that will make him feel better. That’s what brings about the utter hopelessness that can be fatal. As a result, when you ask them what they want, they usually won’t know. And proposing various activities won’t help, and will often just leave both you and the depressed friend frustrated.

So about the best you can do is three things:

– Help the depressed person into her comfort zone. It can be a location or a show or a food that always makes her happy.

– When you can’t know how to make it better, just focus on not making it worse. Make sure you eliminate all unnecessary sources of stress, from unfinished chores to loud noises.

– Just be there with him, and wait for it to go way. It means more than you think.

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It’s easy to give hugs. Giving support and comfort is far from a selfless act, because it feels good. It’s a deeply rewarding experience: you get to bond with another person, you get to feel important. It’s a lot harder when your depressed friend/spouse/child/sibling needs something completely different. When seeing you is actually detrimental. When they don’t want to be touched at all. When they don’t want to talk, or when they want to talk to someone else entirely, perhaps a friend who understands how they feel.

That’s when you exhibit the true strength. That’s when it’s crucial that you remind yourself to not make it about you. Remember that this is a person you treasure going through something really bad and just be glad that something is helping, even when it has nothing to do with you. And let me tell you, it can be insanely hard not to take things personally. You can feel scared, or sad, or even hurt. And of course your emotions matter, so it’s okay to feel those things. Further, it’s okay to share it with your depressed friend or sister or SO. In fact, sometimes when Ben is depressed and it brings me down, comforting me helps him feel better, too. But over time, you can and should learn to reason with yourself that their desires and needs when they are depressed are due to their illness, and getting hurt by them is like getting hurt by someone with a broken leg needing to skip your ice skating party.

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Speaking of parties, depressed people will need to cancel plans, and they will feel guilty about it, and you must help them not to.

It’s not only the people unfamiliar with depression that don’t understand that it’s a serious mental disorder. Countless people who suffer from depression struggle to really think of it as a disease rather than something they are responsible for. So use my ice skating analogy if you must. Repeat that it’s not their fault they feel that way. Make the necessary calls. Place the sushi order for delivery. Download a movie. Snuggle in.

Take care of each other.

Everything else can take a raincheck.

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Thank you for reading.

Fuck It. Bad Day.

Hello again. It’s been a while. Can’t remember the last time I wrote here. Part of the reason is that I haven’t had much to write about. Honestly, more of it is that I haven’t needed to write. Despite wanting to help other people, I’ve learned to be selfish about how I use my time when I feel good. Conditioning, I guess. It’s been a scarce resource over the years.

Recently I’d been feeling like I had turned a corner. Episodes were few and far apart. I guess there is a natural correction that occurs when things are too good for too long. The easier life is, the harder it becomes to work on myself. I let things slip a little, and everything’s still ok, so I let things slip a little more. I have a drink now and then.

God I want a drink right now.

It’s hard to keep working on improving when things are going right. In school we were taught about lowering the water level to find the rocks. I see the same thing in poker. It’s hard to keep working on things when things are going right.

So is this an opportunity? How do I learn from times like this? What things do I look for when the shit hits the fan so I can dodge the rock next time?

I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like an opportunity. It feels like the same shit on a different pile. It feels like I’m just as lost in the woods as I ever was, but for a few months there I thought the trees were getting thinner. Maybe it was just variance.

If I look back, do I see the signs? Or am I trying to sort noise into a pattern based on the information I have now?

Is writing this helping me? Is it helping anybody?

I don’t know.

Fuck it. Bad day.

Identity Crisis

I was reading over old blog posts looking for a reference I thought I made and I re-read my favourite one that I have ever written. It’s so positive and hopeful. I feel like somebody else wrote it.

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It’s been a rough couple of months. I’ve been trying to write, but I feel like I have nothing to say that I haven’t said before. It’s like driving down a long stretch of highway where the scenery all looks the same. I start to feel like I’m not getting anywhere and it’s never going to change.

I’m not convinced otherwise.

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I’ve been sick a lot recently. My latest battle is with arthritis, cause unknown. People tell me I’m too young to have arthritis.

People used to tell me I was too young to have hip problems.

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Before I identified as anything else, I identified as a hockey player. My hip problems, which are ongoing, stemmed from the unnatural way a hockey goalie bends their legs to form a solid wall, pushes up and down and side to side with awkwardly angled knees.

It used to be hard to imagine going a week without playing hockey. When injuries finally forced me to quit, I would dream about playing. I would wake up with bruises on my right foot from making kick-saves against the wall in my sleep.

I am no longer a hockey player. I haven’t touched a puck for five years.

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It’s a hard thing, losing a piece of your identity like that. You have certain things that drive you, that frame your choices and put your life in context. I was in great shape and I didn’t drink, for the purposes of being a better hockey player. Were those things better than the alternative? I didn’t really know. They were for the purposes of being good at hockey, but once I had lost my frame of reference, my actions ceased to be purposeful.

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After I was a hockey player, my search for a new identity lead me to body build. It allowed me to get the endorphin release of exercise in a more controlled manner, and channel my competitive spirit and drive into something that made me feel better about myself.

But the injuries kept piling up, and I convinced myself eventually that I needed to stop, try to heal my body and balance it better, and rebuild from scratch.

It was around this time that I went vegan.

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Some people might recall that during the summer, I tried to eat a little fish for health reasons. It didn’t go down right, but my health has gotten worse, so I’m trying again.

I had been a vegan for two years, but my ailing health and medical professionals have suggested to me again that I may need to consume animal products in order to improve my health to a livable baseline.

I think there are a lot of good ethical and environmental reasons not to eat animal products, especially those raised on factory farms. Before this, my food choices had been purposeful.

Now I’m just a guy who eats.

 

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I’m spending some time in the states with my girlfriend, who is about the only thing that makes me happy. Being here means I can’t play online poker.

So who am I, exactly? All of these things that I’ve self-identified as, that I’ve used to frame my decisions, are no longer a part of my life.

I had planned to use my time here to reclaim parts of my identity. I wanted to work on my physical health (which has a fairly big impact on my mental health) and to work on my writing. Instead, my arthritic joints have prevented me from putting in work physically, and sapped me of my motivation. I feel hopeless and purposeless.

They were all right. I’m too young to be dealing with this shit.

My Experience With my Body Image

This blog was written for, and posted by, a friend of mine who writes about body image issues, both in her blog and in her PhD work. You can, and should, check out her blog here: http://femmered.blogspot.nl/

 

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I have been sick recently. I had a high fever and no appetite for a couple of weeks. I lost a lot of weight. Pants I had bought in the spring of 2011 (when I was very sick in a different way) started to fit too loosely around my waist. I could see my ab muscles. I could see my ribs.

 

After my fever subsided, I started, predictably, to put that weight back on.

 

I felt bad about it.

 

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I suffer from depression, anxiety, have low self esteem, and yes, body image issues. These are not things that fit nicely within clearly defined lines. They blend together, feed off of each other, and become parts of a whole person.

 

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When I was 18, I decided I wanted to bodybuild. I created a matrix to measure the nutritional values of some staple foods and measured my diet down to the gram. My mother was worried I had an eating disorder. I worked out obsessively, to the point of taking a cab to a 24 hour gym when a group project meeting broke at 2 am and the school gym was closed. At my physically strongest, I was 5’9”, 175 lbs, with roughly 10% bodyfat. I was deadlifting nearly 400 lbs.

 

I didn’t like myself then any more than I do now.

 

I still catch myself wishing I was that strong again.

 

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I am a victim of self-improvement. I am in a constant state of feeling like I am not good enough for myself. This feeling has motivated a lot of my projects. It also feeds my self-esteem issues. I tried to satisfy both by making a project out of changing my body.

 

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The insidious thing about changing your body is, paradoxically, that it is obvious.

 

If you change yourself emotionally, or mentally, only the few people close enough to you to know your heart and mind are going to notice, and those people are going to see you often enough that the change will be gradual. But if your body changes, anyone can notice. The reinforcement, positive or negative, can come from all the people who see you, from family through complete strangers. The feedback that you get on physical traits far outstrips the feedback you get on metaphysical ones on sheer volume, even if you value your metaphysical traits much more highly. For someone constantly seeking to feel good enough, it can become addicting and entrapping.

 

You get stuck in this feedback loop where you get the positive reinforcement, the attention or praise or body language you crave, so you make more changes, which results in more positive reinforcement. You get stuck on the treadmill and the speed keeps increasing, and the faster it goes, the harder it is to get off.

 

And then all of a sudden your legs quit.

 

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As an eighteen-year-old with low self esteem, I worried that I wasn’t good enough to find love or sex (even with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t know which worried me more). I have both now. I have a richer, more rewarding life than I did at 18.

 

But the old feedback left desire lines in my brain, and nowadays, I feel weak. I feel powerless. My mood suffers. I don’t get the endorphin high I used to get from the gym. I have a partner who gives me plenty of positive reinforcement, but I’ve never handled praise very well.

 

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Since chronic ailments prevent me from working out (or at the very least make it a risky and harmful idea), I spend a lot of money on clothes to try to look good nowadays. I feel good every time I do, and then I feel bad about feeling good about something so superficial. I wish I drew more of my self-esteem from my inner qualities, some of which I think are pretty good.

 

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I think, if I had to guess, the solution lies along a path involving a lot of brainwork: meditation, yoga, mindfulness. I don’t think I can change how I feel about myself by changing who I am. I don’t think there is a “better” me out there that I will be able to love on his merits. So maybe changing how I perceive the world around me and my place in it will work. I don’t really know, but it’s worth a try. I’ve been good, maybe great, in a lot of other ways, and it hasn’t helped.

One Year Blogoversary: Return of the Mo

Has it really been two months since my last post? Jeez.

I’ve been busy. I’ve been tired. I’ve been sick. I’ve been in love.

It’s been a busy two months.

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It’s been a busy year.

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I started this blog a year ago today because I felt compelled to say something about myself. Part of it was cathartic. I’ve always used writing as an outlet for the worst feelings that well up inside me, spilling them out onto a page to empty them from where they can cause the most hurt.

After I wrote my first post, something strange happened to it. People shared it with each other. They shared their stories with me. They asked me questions about how they could help themselves. They asked me questions about how they could help their loved ones.

They asked me questions about how they could help me.

Some of these people were friends. Some were acquaintances. Some were strangers.

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The strange thing that happened to this blog was this: it ceased to be about me.

The stories still were stories of my experiences, but I was no longer venting to the faceless void of the internet. I wasn’t trying to push the unhealthy things away from me any more. I started to hold them up, to scrutinize them more closely, because they were going on display. The void had faces now, and they were people I could help by showing what I had done right and what I had done wrong.

This blog became about those people.

It became about being honest with them (sometimes brutally) so they could be honest with themselves.

It became about being hopeful with them so they could be hopeful with themselves.

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I noticed something else, too. The more I tried to sort my experiences into things other people could understand, things they could take and use in their lives to help themselves and help others, the deeper I understood them. I got better at identifying the things that caused me anxiety or triggered my depression. I got better at understanding the things that kept those feelings at bay. Trying to be completely open and honest with others was forcing me to fully grasp the nature of my issues. It was helping me get better.

People started messaging me saying things were getting better for them, too.

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I got this message from my mom on Facebook yesterday:

“I wanted to let you know that I heard about someone who read your blog, and decided to get help for their depression. So, there are definitely people who have been helped by your efforts. xo”

I’ve had a smattering of first-person comments on various posts in a similar vein, but this was the first time I had heard a third-person account of someone who was helped by something I wrote. Hearing these stories is always the best part of my day, but it was a little strange hearing about it with a degree of separation in between. Whoever you are, I’m glad things are getting better.

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Last year, when Movember added men’s mental health to the causes it was raising money for, I pledged to grow a terrible mustache in order to raise money for research and, more importantly, as a conversation piece. I wanted to talk openly and without shame about my illness and the things I was doing to get well. Together, my followers raised over $7,500, which I matched, bringing our total to over $15,000. I was very proud of what we accomplished.

This year I’m going to grow once again. I’m also going to do something I wasn’t able to do last year: take an extended break from poker to focus on getting better. It’s been a month since I played last and I am happier than I have been since I was a child.

Without playing, I can’t really guarantee a dollar-for-dollar match. However, I do want to do something more than simply look gross for charity. So: I will be keeping this blog, and my twitter feed, updated with ways you can engage with me and “encourage” me to contribute.

The first one is this: I currently have $400 worth of donations. There is a $2500 tournament not far from me that starts on Friday. If I have $1000 of donations by Thursday night, I will take a break from my retirement to go play. (Editor’s note: I realize this is short notice. I have been working on this blog for a few nights now.)

This is where it gets complicated. The US government withholds 30% of my winnings until tax time. That’s basically found money! By the time it rolls around I will have forgotten all about it and it will practically be a windfall when I get it back. So I’ll donate it all. First place should hopefully be around $100,000, so I could be donating up to $30,000 if I play my cards right.

So make me go. Donate here.

Coping, Healing, and the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Something very powerful happened to me on Thursday. It was not causally related to the post I made on Wednesday. I received a diagnosis. This is an important step in my healing for two reasons: it gives me hope, and it gives me direction.

It is awfully hard to move forward without either of those.

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For the past few months, I have not been moving forward. I didn’t even know what direction forward was. I had simply been finding things that caused me anxiety, and then placing them as far away from me as I could. I considered myself fortunate to have no bosses or clients. I considered myself prudent to take time away from friends and family. I wore headphones to walk my dog, often without music playing, so I wouldn’t have to talk to strangers.

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My coping methods are fairly simple. I give my brain something simple to spin its wheels on, like poker or chess or Magic or any number of other games with several decisions per minute that I am good at figuring out. Hopefully by the time I am out of decisions to focus my brain on, it is time to sleep.

Force-feeding my brain “problems” keeps it from focusing on problems. It’s a survival mechanism I developed because sometimes things are complicated and overwhelming and digging deeper gives me more pain and no more clarity.

On Thursday, I got more clarity.

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The diagnosis I received was that I suffer from Panic Disorder. I’m going to stay away from specific details of what I have and have not experienced from the list in that article, in part because I am still sorting through all of it myself.

The doctor I am seeing is a province-wide expert on CBT, which, according to both her and the article, is very effective at treating this kind of disorder. The treatment is, as far as I understand it and as non-technically as possible, exposure. I am supposed to stimulate feelings of anxiety, in small doses, and gradually build up my tolerance to them while reducing my fear of them. It is something like an inoculation for my brain: giving it small doses of something harmful so it learns how to process it properly, and builds up immunity.

It is also, you may have noticed, the exact opposite of what I’ve been doing.

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My coping behaviors made sense to me. They made me feel safe and secure and comfortable at a time when I was feeling the opposite of all of those with alarming regularity. I didn’t know what to do to stop feeling anxious in response to things, so I did the next-best thing: I stopped giving myself anxious stimuli.

The problem with that is that it is self-reinforcing. If I avoid the things that cause me anxiety, I am training my brain to believe that those are important things to avoid, that they are dangerous and harmful. I am forcefully constricting my life in order to avoid stress, instead of managing my disorder in order to control my life.

And I had no hope for things to ever get better. I spent a lot of my time without hope, just going through the motions, waiting for something to change but with no expectation that it ever would. I was fully prepared to construct my life to be as low-stimulus as possible. I was ready to retire from live poker. I looked into hermitages I could occupy with good internet, so that I could feed myself and my dog, buried, hiding from the world.

I was actively engaging in self-destructive behaviours, and fully prepared to continue doing so for the rest of my life, because I didn’t know they were self-destructive, and I didn’t know how to identify beneficial ones.

Then I consulted a doctor.

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Doctors are experts of the body and mind. They are technicians. They understand the process of healing better than we do, even if we understand our struggles better than they do. That is why they (should) listen carefully before making a diagnosis. It took me at least eight sessions, spread over two and a half months, to get to this point. But I have hope, now. I have a direction. I have something to work on that gives my life and my decisions purpose again.

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Everyone takes their computer problems and their car problems and their legal problems to someone who is better versed in the nature of computers, and cars, and the law. They explain what symptoms there are, and let someone who spends all their time with the malfunctioning apparatus try to spot patterns that point to a cause, one which probably has a solution that they have worked through before. Psychologists are that, but for your brain. You might know your mind best, but you are very likely not the person best suited to understand how to correct its malfunctions.

Consult your doctor.