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.

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Another Interview

This is going to be short, because it touches on a lot of the same subject matter as Identity Crisis II. I did an interview with the excellent team at Pokerlistings. Thanks again to them for giving me a platform for my voice. I hope it helps someone.

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.