WPTs, Richard Ivey, and What We “Must” Do

There is more to life than increasing its speed.

-Mahatma Ghandi

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For the first time since August, I’ve traveled to play a poker tournament. I’m writing from Montreal, where the first WPT event in Canada drew 451 players on a Friday(!) and should get well over 1000 by the time Day 1(B) closes tomorrow. I think the tournament will be really good and it’s been a while since I’ve played live, so it’s good to be back on the circuit and see friends.

The last time I played a WPT (which I *ahem* final tabled) I wasn’t in such good spirits and definitely wasn’t capable of bringing my A-game. I had just started treatment for my anxiety and depression and was coming off the most anxious few months of my life. I had also just finished an emotional roller-coaster, qualifying for the biggest tournament of my life (the $125,000 buy-in Premier League, which, thanks to a string of qualifiers, I was playing for the paltry cost of $500) and then losing in spectacular and brutal fashion. To top off that cocktail of stress, I had taken physically ill, running a low-grade fever and sleeping poorly. I was guzzling 8 glasses of juice a day at the breakfast bar just to try and keep some semblance of hydration but was, by and large, a wreck.

Looking back on these two tournaments, I’m not happy with my play (which was not bad, but not my A-game, and certainly not good enough for the field a $125,000 tournament attracts), but the biggest mistake I made wasn’t one I made playing cards. The biggest mistake I made was my decision to go.

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The last time I had felt as bad as I did in Vienna (where the Premier League and WPT took place) was the first week of school in 2008. My classmates will recognize the date as Orientation Week at Ivey, the highly ranked and highly competitive undergraduate business school I attended. O-week was supposed to be a fun week of bonding exercises and an introduction to what was expected of us over the next two years (spoiler alert: it was lots). It wasn’t any of those things for me.

For me, it was the week my grandfather died.

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My grandfather was something of a hero to me. He survived two wars where he was surrounded on all sides by people who wanted to obliterate his race from the earth. He started over with nothing in a new country after both of them, taking his family first to Israel, and then to Canada, where he raised my mother and her brother. He was a fighter in the truest sense of the word. He taught me to play chess, which he played (against anyone who wasn’t his grandson) with the same intensity he fought wars with. I never saw him lose.

The week before O-week, I watched him fight one last time. He lost.

He was fighting cancer.

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He was emaciated that week, unshaven and unkempt. He could barely speak or walk. He needed the help of several of us to get him to and from his bed to the bathroom.

I remember, clear as crystal, him pushing two of us away only steps from his bed so he could get there on his own. He barely made it. He had been a strong man all his life. He didn’t just lose his life to the fight, he lost his dignity and his pride to it.

I lost something, too, watching one of my heroes suffer the indignity and helplessness of his last days of fighting.

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The school spent O-week hammering into us that we were about to have our mettle tested. We were expected to treat our academics like a work environment, and the workload was going to be more than we had ever experienced or anticipated. We were not to leave the classroom during classtime (I remember this being mentioned several times). We were given business cases to prepare for in between the weeks’ activities.

On our first full day of classes, Friday morning, I received a call from my dad in the middle of class. I hung up. He called back. I hung up and texted him asking if it was important. My phone vibrated in my pocket a third time.

I think I had known as soon as I got the first call that my grandfather was gone.

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I had never lost a loved one before my grandfather died. I didn’t really know how to deal with it. At the funeral, I tried to be stoic, tried not to shed any tears. I thought it was a time for me to support my mother and my three little cousins (you’ll always be my little cousins even though you’re all at university and beyond now, J. N. and D.). I didn’t think I had time or energy for my own emotions, didn’t think that was how men behaved at these things. I had a little scotch with my uncle at the wake.

For the next month, I was non-functional.

I would open my casebooks at night and read the same paragraph over for an hour and a half. Then I would close my book and forget what I read. I would eat and go to the gym, but it was more habitual than willful. I was anti-social. I skipped mandatory study sessions. I got to know few of my classmates, got close with none of them.

By the time I picked myself up off the mat, I was so far behind in my classes and had so little willpower left, I all but gave up on catching up.

I didn’t want to be where I was. And I was stuck there.

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That feeling, that “stuck”ness, is something I’ve encountered in basically everyone I know who I’ve talked to about their depression. They all feel that they are not in control of their own lives, that they are beaten about like a sheet in the wind. So they dig in their heels, like they’ve been taught all strong people do during tough times. They keep trudging along, shouldering their burden, because perseverance and hard work are the values we’re taught to cherish in ourselves. They do what they are supposed to do, like I did. Also like me, they don’t end up where they want to be.

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So what’s the takeaway in all of this? What do poker tournaments in Vienna have to do with business schools in London, Ontario, or abusive relationships have to do with the loss of an idolized grandfather?

There’s a lot of common threads to tie together here. The first, and most obvious to me, is this: because I wasn’t at my best, I wasn’t able to give my best, and because I wasn’t able to give my best, I wasn’t able to get back the best I could have gotten. I feel cheated, at times, from my experience at Ivey. Although I connected to some of my classmates in later years, I don’t think I made many truly close friends in my first year. I don’t think I could have, either, the way I was. And although I got my degree, I feel like I only developed a fraction of the skills I could have in a fully invested two years.

Was some of that my fault? Definitely. Especially in second year, after I started playing poker, I could have put more energy into my school. That, as they say, is a story for another day.

The other thing that jumps out at me is that if I had spent my time and energy healing first, I would’ve gotten more out of both pursuits later. We’re so well-trained to throw hard work at all our problems that, when a problem comes up that can’t be solved by working harder, we work hard through it anyway. I could have taken a year off when it became clear I wasn’t going to be able to engage myself in my studies. I graduated at 20 instead of 21. Was I any better off at 21 because of it? What about at 24?

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If you need help, get it. If you need time, take it. Take care of yourself. It is only the phenomenally stupid and the phenomenally arrogant that believe they have no limits. It takes no strength and less cunning to keep doing the same things regardless of your condition.

The peaks will be there for you to summit when you get back. Forcing yourself to push forward regardless of the weather is how people die on the side of Mt. Everest.

As always, you can donate to my Movember page here. Moustache pictures are coming soon, I promise.

I Have Laughed At Ghosts

For Saba

I have laughed at ghosts who shake their chains
in the dark-lit places of my brain,
and rolled my eyes at the shrill screams,
of the phantoms that haunt my dreams.

I have spurned the ghosts who said to me,
“One day, you, too, shall not be free,”
and chuckled to myself, without a care,
at cries of, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

I have ignored the desperate wails
of those who would warn me with their tales
of how they once stood in my shoes,
and how, I, too, shall come to lose

strength, and looks, and charmed tongue,
and wit, and hope, and the passion of the young,
till all that’s left of my human form,
is a plot of earth, with stones adorned.

But the ghost who begged me with his eyes
(for he had no strength left in his tongue)
to take his hand and lift him up,
and walk with him once more in the sun,

to live with him for just one day,
and share with him a wisp of youth,
that ghost from whom I turned away,
knowing there was nothing that I could do,

that ghost who tried to hide his pain,
and to be flesh and blood for my sake,
I cannot laugh that ghost away;
that ghost I will never shake.

Good Times, Bad Times: How To Support a Loved One Through Mental Illness

I’m changing my medication. Last week I got extremely anxious to the point that I couldn’t function. I wasn’t able to see friends, family, or my girlfriend. Twice I stopped in the middle of a group of poker tournaments because I couldn’t handle it.

This week, I am on something new. I’m not anxious, or excited, or feeling anything really. I’m just…here.

Is this what my life is now? Tinkering with my brain chemistry?

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Should it be something else?

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I did an excellent job of mastering my anxiety once in the past few days. My girlfriend said something to me that would have normally sent me into a downward spiral of anxiety and self-loathing. Instead, I understood how it made me feel and why, accepted those feelings. Then, I moved my attention to why she said what she said, how she was feeling, and how we could both feel better moving forward.

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Last Tuesday, it took every ounce of willpower I possessed to make it around the block with my dog. I told myself life would never get better. I told myself I didn’t want to live anymore.

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On Wednesday, I took a nice walk with my dog and my mom. We had lunch together. The sun was shining.

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For those of you who are trying to support a loved one who is dealing with mental illness, this sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde act can be incomprehensible. Until you experience it, it’s incredibly hard to understand what it means to be crippled by anxiety. I know, because I’ve been on both sides of the equation. I admit that when my ex was suffering from anxiety attacks, before I had experienced one, I wasn’t understanding.

Is that my fault? That’s a tough question. I don’t know whether I could have reasonably been expected to have had understanding at that time.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter what the answer is.

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A close friend of mine had a confrontation with a family member this weekend. He was overwhelmed with anxiety and had some time-sensitive documents that needed to be faxed. The fax machine was in another room, but he wasn’t able to leave his own. He texted the family member to ask for some help. His family member didn’t understand why he couldn’t do it himself. They got into a fight over it.

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I understand why someone who has never felt the weight of mental illness on their shoulders can’t understand that walking to another room to use the fax could be terrifying and next to impossible. I hope with all my heart that my loved ones never understand as well as I do what it feels like to battle your own brain for control of things like eating, sleeping, and leaving the house.

Here’s the thing: if you are supporting a loved one, you don’t have to understand what they’re going through. What was missing from the exchange above wasn’t understanding; it was trust. As long as you trust the person you’re supporting, they can ask you for something they need from you, and you can say “ok.”

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The silliest part in all of this is that the easier the task is, the harder it is to wrap your head around how your loved one might need help with it. It’s easy to understand how an anxious person might need love and support through, say, a big move, and to come up strong for them then. It’s the simple things, like a fax, or walking the dog around the block, that we resist doing the most. It feels wrong somehow, like our good nature is being taken advantage of.

There is a fine line to walk here, but it isn’t you who has to walk it. We are in danger of allowing our willpower to atrophy, of slipping into an unchallenging pattern and letting life float away from us. But we’ll know the difference between the times when we can’t leave the house and the times when we don’t want to. Trust us to ask for help when we need it and do our best when we don’t. If you can’t do that, then maybe take a step back and re-evaluate your relationship, whether it’s family, friend, or lover. There’s a building block missing here.

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As always, you can donate to my Movember page here. I’m going to match every dollar donated and, for the person who donates the most, I will be donating my time and doing a free poker lesson. Thanks for reading.