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.

—————————————————————————————-

It’s been a busy year.

—————————————————————————————-

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.

—————————————————————————————-

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.

—————————————————————————————-

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.

—————————————————————————————-

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.

—————————————————————————————-

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.

*************************************

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.

*************************************

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.

*************************************

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.

*************************************

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.

*************************************

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.

*************************************

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.

Projecting, Understanding, and Sympathy, not Empathy: Clarifications and Addenda

I was rushing out the door when I finished my last post. I wanted to say something. So I did. But I left out important parts, most notably my conclusion, which is so obvious to me that I don’t even have to write it out to understand that it follows from what I said. Thankfully for almost everyone reading this, you are not inside my brain, so I’m going to go ahead and make a couple of addenda and clarifications.

*******************************************************************

One thing I want to clarify is that I am very grateful for all the people in my life who care enough to try to find ways to help me. Just knowing that you care gets me through some of my hardest times.

*******************************************************************

The conclusion I reached in my head, but not in the post, was not “Don’t bother trying to help me, because you don’t understand what I’m going through and wah wah wah woe is me…” The conclusion was “Trying to solve my problems with things that make you feel good temporarily is a bit like me trying to make you feel good temporarily with prescription anti-depressants.” It’s an attempt to apply pretty decent tools to problems they were not designed for based on evidence that isn’t relevant. It misunderstands my problem as a lack of enjoyable things or things to bring me happiness in my life, which it isn’t. The problem is that I have plenty of those things, and they aren’t working.

I don’t need recreational drugs or sex or literature or art or sociability to take my mind off of how I’m feeling. I need to stop feeling this way. I don’t need something to give me a breath of fresh air. I need the ice to break.

*******************************************************************

Part of the reason these conversations are so frustrating is because they come from such a genuinely compassionate place and are so utterly futile. I want to be patient and I want to listen and I hope someone has some spark or insight for me that helps me approach my issues with a new-found understanding. So I sit and I listen to people talk about great experience they’ve had or things that have made their life more fulfilling or things that they really savor and enjoy, and that they want me to try too, because they really want me to be able to share the feeling that it gives them.

And after I’m done listening, I go back to thinking about how nice it would be to enjoy the taste of food again, or walk my dog through the woods without every single noise in the underbrush making me visualize very clearly him being attacked and dragged away by coyotes, or get out of bed before 6 pm, or have a functional relationship without losing control of my motor functions every time there is or could possibly be a conflict.

Except now I am jealous, because I have just heard someone talk about how much joy and freedom and relaxation they get from something, and the best thing I have these days is looking forward to maybe being able to feel joy and freedom and relaxation again, or distracting myself for a while from noticing that I am not feeling those things by making my brain work hard.

*******************************************************************

Also, I counted the pits, and I in fact had ten olives.

Projecting, Understanding, and Sympathy, not Empathy

I originally tried to write this post, and a couple of others, at the beginning of July. I had had a bad few weeks. I tried a few times to finish those posts, but I inevitably gave up.

I feel like giving up a lot these days.

*****************************************************

The people around me have tried to be supportive during my bad few weeks. They’ve pulled me outside of my wallowing. They’ve made suggestions.

They are good people. They are well-intentioned.

I have not felt better.

*****************************************************

I am going to be reiterating a bunch of ideas that are said clearly and simply here. I am going to add my own voice to them, and my own experience, and my own emotion. If those are things that have value for you, then I am glad I can provide you with them. If you are simply here looking for help understanding, and follow the link and ignore me, you won’t be missing much.

*****************************************************

In my very first blog post, I shared my thoughts on the insensibility of mental illness.

It is a perfectly natural compulsion to try to make sense of things, and to want things to make sense. The world is cleaner and more navigable and less intimidating that way. Unfortunately, it is also less true. Life can be brutal and unfair and unclear, and to ignore the times when it is, or pretend that it isn’t, and to make sensible, ordered, rational, causal links out of smoke is to lie to ourselves about how much we understand and how much we are in control.

I am not sure those lies do more harm than good.

I am sure that they cause people to see the devil’s face in the smoke.

*****************************************************

During the past few weeks, many people have made suggestions to me as to how to improve my mental health. Some of them also suffer their own mental health issues. Some of them have recommended I do the things that work for them. This is done in the earnest hope that what has worked for them will work for me. They are trying to help me.

Some of the recommendations I have received include recreational drugs, being social, jumping headlong into new experiences, music festivals (with recreational drugs), being anti-social, a quiet retreat, music, literature, junk food, healthy food, and doctor-supervised rehabilitation on a farm in Connecticut.

In every case except the farm in Connecticut, these were things that the suggester sought to alter their own mental state when necessary.

My brain is not their brain.

No two people are alike. Even people that suffer from conditions similar to mine can’t predict how my brain will react to stimuli. Medical professionals use mostly an educated guess and check model.

The assumption that the things that you want are the things that I want, or the things that have helped you will help me, does me no favours. The good intentions are very much appreciated, but I am tired of having people tell me what’s wrong with me and what’s good for me. We’re all just shooting in the dark.

*****************************************************

I broke up with my now ex-girlfriend a few weeks ago. I did this because I am not well, and because I did not conceive of a way I could get well while maintaining the relationship. I had the love of a good woman, and I didn’t think I could keep it and my health, and I chose to chase my health.

I haven’t gotten better. I guess I was always going to get worse before it got better. Chalk up another bad few weeks.

Like a prisoner keeping time on his cell wall.

*****************************************************

I’m at my parent’s house while I look for a new place to live. I had been sharing an apartment with my ex. I agreed to be the one to move because I felt like I was the one at fault.

Intellectually, rationally, I think that no one was at fault. I think that the relationship was just one of the things crushed slowly by the weight I’m carrying around. That doesn’t change how I feel, which is like a failure to her and to myself.

*****************************************************

Some days it’s a struggle to get out of bed. Some days I lose. I really thought today was going to be one of those days. It’s a small miracle that I was able to water my dad’s garden and eat seven or eight olives and a handful of almonds.

I’m back in bed now. I still haven’t walked my dog.

I feel like a failure to him, too.

*****************************************************

I’ve had a few honest-to-goodness good days, too. I really have.  The good days, or good hours, feel like a breath of fresh air.

The rest of it, what seems to be my default setting, feels like being trapped under the ice.

*****************************************************

I’m not here to complain, I’m not here for pity, I’m not hear to air my dirty laundry. I wrote a whole paragraph about reactions to my break-up from people in my life, and then cut it, because I didn’t think it would help anyone who read it.  I am trying to provide an honest and unfiltered account of my experiences with mental illness: my feelings, my decisions, my reactions, my hopes, my fears, my troubles. I am trying to do that in the hopes that other people will find it easier to talk about or understand.

I am a child, lost in the wilderness, searching for a way home. I hope that the details of my journey can help some people avoid the pitfalls I fall into or understand the pitfalls someone they care about must tread lightly around. I’m not an expert, I’m not doing everything right, and I’m certainly not special.

*****************************************************

I want to end on a positive note. I tried to two paragraphs ago, but it sort of got away from me, and then I spent the next paragraph apologizing to nobody in particular about my blog, because it is my natural state to feel self-conscious about my actions. So I’m going to let someone else do it.

Several people linked me recently to this speech. I’m not going to parcel out the pieces I agree and disagree with, or try to add my own perspective to it. It is a very good, heartfelt speech that is very clearly difficult for him to give, but he does it anyways, because he recognizes the importance of discussing this openly, and the affect it can have on others struggling with their own mental health. I’ll let it stand on it’s own.

Lesson 1

Hello again. It’s been a while since my last post. I had a couple of false starts in between my last blog and this one. This might still be a false start! I won’t know until I’m finished.

Like my last post, this one was inspired by something someone else wrote on the topic of depression. This time, it was comedian/actor/extremely British person Stephen Fry. I will copy and paste the most important part here, but read the whole thing, because I said so.

“[W]hat the fuck right do I have to be lonely, unhappy or forlorn? I don’t have the right. But there again I don’t have the right not to have those feelings. Feelings are not something to which one does or does not have rights.

In the end loneliness is the most terrible and contradictory of my problems. I hate having only myself to come home to…It’s a lose-lose matter. I don’t want to be alone, but I want to be left alone. Perhaps this is just a form of narcissism, vanity, overdemanding entitlement – give it whatever derogatory term you think it deserves. I don’t know the answer.”

This is how I have been feeling for the past couple of weeks. My girlfriend was away, and I was lonely. My girlfriend came back, and I was pining for solitude. It’s a really delicate balance to strike and when I don’t get the split of time exactly right I feel restless and unnerved and uncomfortable in my own skin and brain. And then I get to feel bad for not striking the right balance for her.

————————————————————————————-

People are complicated. The relationships between them are exponentially complicated. I am trying to strike multiple delicate balances at a time when I am not well-balanced.

I feel like a loser.

There are only so many hours in the day and I have a mind to heal and a body to heal and a dog to walk and a girlfriend to cuddle and poker to play and friends to catch up with and food to cook and other various fires to put out and I can’t sleep.

————————————————————————————-

In short: I have not taken out the recycling for a month.

————————————————————————————-

Life gets very crowded very quickly. Adulthood is a lot of work. I may not be cut out for it.

At times when I’m overwhelmed, I find myself retreating into my comfort zone, the closest thing I have to pieces of my childhood. I retreat to playing games.

It’s the thing that takes the least energy for me to do. I am exhausted with dealing with people and chores and inconveniences and life. I want to hunker down with my internet for a while and play.

————————————————————————————-

Work is hunkering down with my internet for a while and playing, too. It is probably a not-very-good thing that the lines are so easily blurred. The way it stands, I can trick myself into thinking I’m being responsible and hardworking, when what I’m really doing is escaping.

————————————————————————————-

Right now I am escaping to this blog. My girlfriend and brother are in the other room watching a movie. I am not being a good host or brother or boyfriend.

Maybe that is selfish. I have been in a mood the past week where I have had no patience, no tolerance, and no energy for things. I feel like it would be selfish to impose my sour self on any proceedings. I am sure they do not see it like that. I feel like I am miserable to be around. They might not see it like that.

————————————————————————————-

The previous paragraph is not entirely true. Last night, I listened to some nice jazz music live. I smiled without forcing myself. It was a crack. So was the parting of the Red Sea, I guess.

————————————————————————————-

I would have never gone to the concert without my girlfriend nagging about how we never do anything together. I planned a whole Saturday for us while she was gone. I ordered a pie two weeks in advance! (it is her favourite breakfast)

Next week I have to be in Vegas with $10,000 USD to play the World Series of Poker main event. I still haven’t booked my ticket or gotten around to scaring up USD. I do not plan ahead.

————————————————————————————-

Here’s the funny thing about being depressed: your comfort zone isn’t all that comforting. Your brain creates heuristics to minimize the efforts of daily life and decision making, letting you fall into easy patterns. But, as the saying goes: if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.

————————————————————————————-

So there is another balance I have to strike. Getting out of my comfort zone created something for me I couldn’t have gotten inside of it, and I sorely needed that. But it is a tricky thing to have the willpower to be uncomfortable, and even if when do, it probably isn’t enough to just seek discomfort for discomfort’s sake. I have to find things that bring light back into my life, and that will take foresight and energy and willpower and gumption.

It won’t be easy. But I am learning to be happy again.

This was lesson one.

So, What Have I Learned?

I was inspired to post again by this post over at hyperbole and a half. I think a lot of his experiences and emotions mirror mine closely, although I haven’t found my piece of corn yet.

I’m mostly posting because the message seems so overwhelmingly negative, and I relate so much to it, that I want to spill my brain on the page and poke through the leavings to find something positive there. The conclusion he comes to isn’t enough for me.

————————————————————————————————-

I find a lot of similar feelings in this stream-of-consciousness rant from three months ago. I feel like an archaeologist looking back on it. I’ve built my foundation over that rubble, but it’s never gone away. I just sort of buried it.

————————————————————————————————-

I’ve read it over a couple more times, and I have this to say:

He nails the experience of depression on the head. He admits to not being as intimate with the experience of recovery, so maybe he’s got that part wrong.

What he is, though, is getting better. His condition is improving, and even if it’s in seemingly random ways, there is a process out there by which things improve. Even if it’s and ridiculous and convoluted and almost silly, there are things which make this condition better.

————————————————————————————————-

Trying to understand my own depression can be kind of like living in a horror movie. You know the part of the horror movie where the victims go from being tormented by some unfathomable monster to being tormented by a fathomable one? It’s that point when they learn that The Thing can change shape. It’s almost more terrifying than when you didn’t understand it, but it’s also unquestionably better. You can take steps now to protect yourself. You’re more scared, but you’re also more capable.

————————————————————————————————-

I’m seeking understanding right now. I’m spending my time with specialists who are expert in helping people improve from the condition that I am in today. I’m moving towards the point where I can construct a plan for dealing with my issues. I’m not there yet, but I have a plan for getting to the point where I can make a plan.

I guess this is how the learning process starts.

A Different Way of Framing the Problem

I have to learn to be happy.

This is not news to me. It is not news to anyone I know well, I think. It is a different way of framing the problem, though.

——————————————————————————————-

For some people (I am guessing), happiness is a thing you experience regularly. Maybe it falls into your laps, triggered by something small; serendipitous meetings with old friends, sunshine on days it was supposed to rain. Maybe all it takes is a little reminder that life is good, some free time to enjoy the fruits of your labour, and a big smile creeps across your faces. Your cups runneth over.

If that paragraph sounds like it is tinted with a little jealousy, that’s because it is.

Happiness doesn’t come to me easily. There are days when I’m not even sure that I’m using the same definition of it as everyone else. I know that I don’t feel good about myself, or my situation, even though I have many of the good things happen to me that happen to others, and many more than that. But I’m pretty sure I don’t feel happy the same way other people do.

I have to learn to be happy. It’s going to take a lot of work. And that’s ok.

——————————————————————————————-

Does that sound bizarre to people who are happy?

(Are you?)

What are your experiences of happiness like? Are they momentary respites from the shitstorm of life? Are they feelings of well-being? Of wholeness? Of hedonistic pleasure? Of rewarding accomplishment?

This is a part of my learning process. It’s a part of everyone’s learning process. Please chime in. You never know when something you say will click with someone, when they will have that “Eureka!” moment. You might have the power, in just a few words, to help someone else learn to be happy(er)!

Fuck being able to fly. That’s a superpower.

——————————————————————————————-

I had a “Eureka!” moment today in the shower. I am going to stop blogging about being depressed. I am going to stop blogging about being anxious.

I am going to start blogging about learning to be happy. I am going to start blogging about learning to be calm.

It’s a different way of framing the problem.

——————————————————————————————-

I’ve traveled a lot of places. I’ve taken the occasional photo, and I think I have a good eye for them, but I never really make a point of it. After my first few trips to Europe, people asked me why I didn’t take any photos. So I started taking more. It was one of those things people are supposed to do. And I’m people! So I did it.

There is beautiful art in photographs, sometimes. A picture that can tell a story, that can capture layers of emotion in a single moment and stir them in a viewer, is a beautiful and splendid and pretty thing. I tried to find ways to do that. 

But the awful truth of it is: photographs bore me.

A photograph can capture one scene, one action or one moment. It can have many facets and be profound and technically complex and a lot of admirable things.

But have you ever stopped to consider how truly and completely superior a human being is to a photograph?

——————————————————————————————-

We are not static. We are not a state of being. We can’t be because we are constantly changing. We are always different than we have been before now. That is beautiful. That is incredible.

Depression is something that has happened to me. Learning to be happy is something I am doing. Anxiety is something I can’t control. Learning how to be calm is something I can.

It might be harder for me to learn these things than it will be for some people. It might be easier for me than it will be for others. It doesn’t really matter where I, or you, fall on the spectrum. It doesn’t even matter that our ceiling, the pinnacle of how good things can possibly get, might be lower than our neighbours’. 

We are not defined by the challenges we face in life. We are defined by how we face them. Whatever you are facing, whatever name it has and whatever pain it causes you, don’t ever let it make you feel helpless. You aren’t. You might have a hard path, and the learning curve might be steep. But those circumstances are not who you are.

We are not what happens to us. We are what we do to make our lives, and the lives we touch, better.

It’s a different way of framing the problem.