Thursday, January 26, 2017

High Functioning Depression, Part Five: The Silver Lining


Parts one, two, three, and four

Depression is a pretty shitty thing. There's no part of the experience that's enjoyable or desirable. I've known many people who experience depression. If there was a magical drug without side effects that would make depression magically vanish, I don't know anyone who wouldn't jump at the chance to make it disappear... myself included.

But it doesn't work like that.

The treatments we have, ranging from drug therapies like SSRI's, to talk therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy, to "naturalistic" solutions like fish oil or St. John's wort, are either marginally effective, have decidedly negative side effects, or both. They work great for some, kinda work for most, and don't work at all for the rest. The take-away? We still haven't figured out how to "cure" depression. Because of this, I like to look at it as just another obstacle life throws at you. We all have shit we need to overcome, and some of us are dealt the "depression" card. Like all obstacles I have to overcome, I like to look for potential silver linings. This post will outline the silver linings I derive from my experiences with depression. That starts with how I frame the "disorder"... which starts by not considering it a disorder at all.

Before I begin, however, understand this post is based on my personal experiences. If you or someone you know is experiencing depression, seek out help. Depression is not something we should tackle ourselves. Even though the following methodology was effective for me, it was a long, slow process done in an environment that provided a great deal of support. Okay, on to the good stuff!

We're All Puzzle Pieces That Create a Tribe


For the vast majority of human history, we were tribal hunter-gatherers. Specifically, our tribes were made up of 10 to maybe 150 people or so, each one fulfilling a specific role within the tribe. Some people hunted. Some guarded the tribe. Others foraged for food. Some tribe members prepared the food. Others cared for the children. And so on. In short, we evolved to be specialists, and many of the things that made us specialists are passed down from one generation to the next. All of us have characteristics, preferences, and behaviors that, when placed on top of a tribal blueprint, reveal what role our ancestors may have played within their tribe. This is the basis of our "personalities", which explains the incredible diversity we see among humanity. 

Unfortunately, we really don't live in a tribal society anymore. While we live in an insanely interconnected and interdependent world, we're mostly isolated from tribes. In some regards, we've become hyper-specialized (like "my career involves placing the pin through the hinge of a specific model of refrigerator.") In other regards, we're painfully isolated to the point where we have no personal connection to the people we're otherwise dependent on. 

As such, many of the things we frame as "disorders" could actually be evolutionary remnants from our tribal days. Because our tribal roles no longer exist, we have a lot of primal drives that have no outlet. Unfulfilled drives lead to problems, which might manifest as negative thoughts, emotions, behaviors, etc. Conversely, when we're engaged in activities that closely replicate our evolved tribal roles, we're perfectly content. I have a hypothesis that this is where "flow states", or intense periods of focused energy, derive from. We enter flow states when we're doing what we evolved to do... which could be very different from one person to the next. Again, we all evolved to play different tribal roles, ergo we have a lot of differences between individuals.

This is the way I like to frame psychological disorders. There are obvious issues with this, starting with the fact that some disorders are flat-out destructive and would be extremely unlikely to have survival value even within a tribe. Also, this model would suggest we could all just "get over" disorders by engaging in the right well-matched set of behaviors. That's obviously not the case, especially with severe disorders. As such, I don't like to generalize this model beyond my own personal experiences. Even then, I only use it to frame my own experiences in a potentially positive way. It's a lot easier to find the silver lining in high functioning depression when you frame it as "this is what I evolved to do" versus "my brain is broken."

Okay, now that we have the big picture, how do I perceive depression on a personal level? For this, I'll borrow another anthropological idea - the development of fire.

Civilization is the Story of Man Harnessing Fire


Fire is a ridiculously destructive force. Uncontrolled, it can level houses, buildings, millions of acres of woodland, or even entire cities. Once controlled, however, fire becomes one of the most important aspects of human civilization. Darwin himself supposedly said human civilization would not be possible without language and fire. The history of humans embracing fire is what ultimately separated us from the rest of the animal kingdom. 

Fire provided heat and cooked food, both of which allowed us to populate the globe and eat a diet that allowed our giant energy-hungry brains to evolve. Fire also allowed us to fire clay to make durable building blocks, which allowed us to make blast furnaces to melt metal and heat substances to release chemicals. Those chemicals were used to create concrete, preserve foods, making medicines, and eventually making explosives. The metals were used to make weapons and tools which were used to make more sophisticated furnaces to create stronger, more heat-resistant alloys for better tools and weapons. We also made more efficient agricultural tools and fertilizers to increase our crop yields. . The explosives were used to clear land and literally move mountains, and were eventually used to make gunpowder and bombs. The metals allowed us to make machines which created the Industrial Revolution. That brings us to where we are today.

I like to frame my personal experiences with depression in the same way. Most people frame depression as a horribly destructive force that has the power to topple even the most resilient of people, therefore it's something to be feared, vilified, and extinguished as soon as possible. I don't like to think of depression like that because a) there could be a chance "depression" is just an evolved adaptation for tribal life like I discussed above, and b) eradicating depression isn't something we're especially good at just yet. So depression to me is a lot like fire to human civilization. If I can learn to harness its power, I can do some pretty cool, useful shit. 

So that's what I've been doing over the last 14 years or so. 

Learning the triggers for depression is roughly analogous to learning how to start (or how not to) start fires. The triggers also teach me how to "stoke" the fire by making the depressive episode stronger (which almost never happens.) The coping mechanisms teach me how to reduce or extinguish the "fire." The self-experimentation, constant introspection and meta-cognition, and endless research on the science of the brain and behavior are all analogous to studying fire science... I'm learning how my experience with depression works in order to improve my mastery of the experience. That's how I was able to start framing depression as an undesirable-but-useful state. 

Before I get to the benefits, I should mention that I would get rid of the depression without hesitation if a side effect-free methodology were developed. No matter how much I frame it as something positive, the experience royally sucks. I think the depression experience makes me a more effective human being, but I would gladly become significantly less effective if I could ditch the issue. So... what exact benefits do I get from depression?

The Benefits


  • Clarification and focus - Depression has a weird perceptual effect of making everything seem more clear, almost like all the extraneous, useless shit is stripped away. It also increases my ability to focus. I tend to be a little scatter-brained and distractable when in a normal state. Depression reverses that and allows me to focus on the shit that matters in any given situation.
  • Better at reading people, especially deception - I'm usually pretty good at reading people, especially understanding what makes people tick. It's a skill I used all the time as a teacher, and I frequently use it in social situations. Depression, though, gives me a whole different level of awareness where I can pick up on very subtle incongruencies in people's behaviors. I frequently use this to vet new people in my life to determine how much I can trust them. 
  • Better at risk assessment, cost/benefit analysis, and predicting the future - Depression causes something researchers dub "depressive realism" where we lose the rose-colored glasses of optimism we normally wear as we navigate life. Normally, we're stupidly optimistic. We predict shit will turn out far better than it probably will, we can't accurately determine how risky something is, and we believe we're above average in almost all measures. Depression removes those rose-colored glasses and we can suddenly predict shit accurately. We'll know that investment will tank, the cute waitress is flirting for a better tip, and we're really not as smart as we think we are. The net effect of this is far better predictive capabilities. Whenever I get an idea or formulate a plan, I never act until I've assessed it while in a depressive state. I'll still gladly take risks, but not before I am confident I really understand the costs and benefits. 
  • Disaster preparedness - Humans have a weird quirk. We like to ignore potential disasters, even if they're extremely probable. I'm no exception. Here in San Diego, we have a few potential disasters that could decimate the area. Earthquakes, droughts, tsunamis, nuclear waste buried next to the Pacific Ocean, wildfires, water, gas, electricity, and communication lines that cross major fault lines, the Padres... all of which could prove to be horrific disasters. Yet the population blissfully goes about their business with the vast majority doing absolutely nothing to prepare. A few days ago, we got about two inches of rain. You'd think the world was ending. People absolutely lost their minds. Depression doesn't let that happen. Whenever I'm in a depressive state, the precarious nature of our environment becomes painfully obvious, which compels me to take steps to prepare for aforementioned disasters. 
  • Emotional dissociation - In my posts about my personal experiences with depression, I mentioned the phenomenon of emotional emptiness. I basically stop caring about shit. I lose the emotional connection to almost everything. It used to freak me out because I thought I was a sociopath, but I've come to understand, like all the depression symptoms, it's merely one of the symptoms. Like all the other symptoms, it'll pass. Until it does, though, the lack of emotion is incredibly useful. One practical use of this is...
  • Extremely analytical, allows me to see other side easily - Most of the ideas, beliefs, and values we hold have a strong emotional component. That emotional component causes us to react negatively any time we encounter information that runs counter to ideas, beliefs, and values, and triggers all sorts of cognitive biases. While I'm still prone to these biases, it's easy to recognize them without the fog of emotion obscuring them. I've been able to use this to great effect to see multiple sides of various issues ranging from parenting to politics. It's a "just the facts, ma'am" Joe Friday mindset.
  • Allows me to disengage from impossible goals... or see sinking ships - You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run. Depression gives me the ability to understand when shit's about to go south, which has saved my ass on several occasions. Or it alerts me when I'm working towards a goal I will never reach. When optimism disappears, it gets really easy to make the decision to quit whatever I'm doing and move on to something with a brighter future. Or, if it's something I value, at least I can start preparing for the end. 
  • No problems making painful decisions - I like to lead people, which sometimes requires me to make difficult decisions. Depression helps with this in two ways - it removes emotion from the equation so I can make a rational decision based on the facts, and it allows me to make decisions that can harm, disappoint, or annoy some people for the greater good of the group. 

These are eight of the most common benefits I derive from depression. There are a few other items, like it's given me a really dark sense of humor and it's nearly impossible to offend me, but these are the important skills that allow me to lead a more effective life. This is an ongoing process, though. Every time a depressive episode strikes, I get another opportunity to experiment, observe, and learn. Over the last year or three, 

I've also worked on being able to channel these benefits at times when I'm not experiencing depression. That endeavor's a mixed bag, however. Successes are spotty. I continue to work on it mostly because the above list only occurs when I'm in a depressive state, which also carries all the negative shit I talked about in this post and in this post. In other words, the crippling apathy, lethargy, anhedonia, and irritability limit how much I can use these benefits during the depressive episode. 

Regardless, framing the disorder as a quirk from our evolutionary past and framing my personal experiences as a way to harness the power of depression has made a world of difference in my quality of life. I rarely if ever talk about this shit because I see it as just another minor obstacle I need to overcome. If I can manage the triggers and utilize the coping mechanisms at the right times, I can do some cool shit with it.

In the next post, I'll bring the discussion full-circle and talk about depression in the context of one of our favorite topics - alphas, betas, and masculinity. Continuing with the tribal puzzle piece idea from above, I'll talk about my experiences with being a "Nice Guy" beta male with depression and how things have changed rather dramatically since embracing my alpha tendencies.

Stay tuned!


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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

High Functioning Depression, Part Four: The Plight of Apathy and Lethargy

Originally, this post was supposed to discuss the silver linings of depression, but I received a few questions about the exact nature of the symptoms I experience when compared to "normal." There are four major symptoms I experience, including:

  • Apathy, which is manifested as "I don't CARE about anything"
  • Lethargy, which is manifested as "I do not want to DO anything."
  • Anhedonia, which is manifested as "I do not get ENJOYMENT from doing anything."
  • Irritability, which is manifested as "Everything ANNOYS me."

Let's use an example to explain the difference between normal behavior and "depressed" behavior. I'll use a trip to Walmart to buy a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter as an example. I never look forward to a trip to Walmart, but if I'm not in a depressed state, I'll be motivated to go as soon as I possibly can to get the chore out of the way. I'll go to the car, drive the half mile to the store, make a rough mental plan to take the most efficient path to get the three items, actually get the items, check out, and go home. During the trip, I'll often observe others out of curiosity. I'll note unique behaviors and maybe pay special attention to behaviors that might be incongruent with the situation (keeping a vigilant eye on potential dangers.) If the store is busy and the lines are long, I might entertain myself by checking Facebook on my phone or perusing a magazine. Sometimes I might strike up a conversation with someone else in line, the cashier, or even random people around the store. When driving, I'll be patient and considerate. I'll slow down to allow others to merge into my lane, wait patiently if someone doesn't hit the gas as soon as the light turns green, and ignore instances of bad driving. When I get home, I'll go back to doing whatever I was doing before.

Now the exact same trip in a depressive state. 

The very thought of going to the store makes me feel slightly annoyed, and the thought of the trip feels too overwhelming to do. But we need that loaf of bread, container of milk, and stick of butter, so skipping out isn't even an option. I'll spend ten minutes mentally overcoming the myriad of justifications I'll come up with to skip it. When I finally silence the objections, I have to force myself to stop thinking about the whole trip because it's too overwhelming. Every single one of the minute details of the trip feels like a million individual insurmountable walls. I know each one will take a shit-ton of mental energy to overcome, which starts producing low-level anxiety. I have to force myself to break the trip down into tiny, discrete steps. First things first - I need to put on some pants.

I'll sit on the couch for ten minutes mentally rehearsing the process - get up, walk to the bedroom, take off the pajama pants, put on a pair of jeans. It is so simple, but I can't will myself to do it. The worst part - I'm 100% aware of the sheer stupidity of this scenario... I literally cannot get off the couch. Every thought process and mental strategy I normally use to do anything simply doesn't work, which leads me to ponder if other people have this experience. Do other people ever analyze what they do to motivate themselves to put on god damned pants? Probably not. I might spend a minute or two ruminating about how much this situation sucks, then even more time ruminating about how utterly stupid it is. I used to get really pissed at myself at this point, but I've since learned I have to break the task down ever more.

Okay.

All I have to do is stand up. Go from sitting to standing. That's it. I don't think about what comes next... I just have to get past this one little task. I channel my ultrarunning experience. Late in long races, every fiber of your being wants to stop. The trick to keep going is to continually take one more step without thinking of the step after that. It's gotten me through many races. And I'll get my ass off the couch. "Don't think. Just do it." I'll repeat that three or four times, then finally just fucking do it. 

Yay! I'm standing! I'm already mentally fatigued, but I can't just sit back down even though I would love nothing more. Through sheer will, I resist the urge to abort the trip. Now I have to walk to the bedroom. Since I've initiated, the next step doesn't take as long, but the same basic process happens with every god damned step in this trip to Walmart. Remember, I'm fully aware at the absurdity of this. I can take the meta-cognitive viewpoint, dissociate a bit, and objectively look at the situation as if I'm viewing myself in the third person. None of this makes sense. It doesn't even seem possible that the brain can make such simple tasks so fucking impossible. But... here we are. 

Getting dressed and outside is the easy part. Once I go out in public, then I have to deal with the other drivers, pedestrians, greeters, other shoppers, the cashier, dumbasses in the parking lot, and so on. Anything that could be even remotely annoying, which I would normally either ignore or not even notice, becomes a giant neon flashing sign. The transient who wanders across the street into traffic without looking, the driver who doesn't signal when changing lanes, the person with a "Hillary" bumper sticker, the little screaming kid in the parking lot, the obese woman blocking the bread aisle, the cashier who bags the bread like an idiot, the dude soliciting petition signatures for the latest California hippie cause outside the door... all of it becomes as irritatingly grating as being trapped in an airplane with ten screaming babies on an international flight to Minsk. And I don't care about any of these people. The worst part - each one of those annoyances sticks. Can't ignore them, can't forget them. All of it making me just a little more angry.

Not even this helps.


By the time I get home, I'm mentally and sometimes physically exhausted, incredibly irritable, and angry. If this happens early in the day, I would have exhausted my "motivation" reserves for that day. Any task I have to do becomes even more difficult and taxing than the trip to the store. If I HAVE to do more shit, anxiety will start to creep in. If I have to do a lot of shit, that anxiety builds up until it's basically a panic attack, which is mentally and physically crippling. The depression itself is bad, but tolerable. The anxiety? That's pure Hell. And I'm acutely aware of how fucking ridiculous that is. But no amount of self-talk makes it go away... I've spent decades trying to find that magical solution to no avail. 

If I'm alone, I can just chill. The feelings will pass in an hour or three, but whatever. I can deal with that. If I'm not alone, though, I have to put on my husband or parent hat, attempt to bury the negativity, and go on with my life. If the kids are being irritating, it makes for a really, really rough night. To make matters worse, that normal loving feeling we feel towards our kids is seriously muted and replaced with, well, nothing. I'll still have the intellectually-understood parent/ child bond, but there's little or no feeling behind it. For a long time, I felt incredibly guilty about my inability to let that shit go and for the lack of loving regard, but I found that just makes the depressive episode stronger and makes it last longer. 

It's kind of like being lost in a forest of depression. The trip to Walmart took me deeper into the forest. If I feel guilt about that, that's just taking me deeper, which means it'll be harder to get out. If I just accept it for what it is, I stay where I'm at, which makes it easier to get out. 

Up to about 27-28 or so, this was what I experienced about half of the time. I did not understand why it happened. Since I didn't have the sadness aspect of depression, it never occurred to me that it was depression I was experiencing. I assumed I was normal and everyone experienced this to some degree. I chalked it up to procrastination or just the fact that I was a lazy fuck. That view was reinforced by most of the people in my life who often branded me as lazy, selfish, unloving, etc. In short - I believed I had a serious character flaw, and that belief was continually reinforced by the people in my life. 

The crazy part - when I'm not going through a depressive episode, I tend to be all-or-nothing when it comes to doing anything... so there are times when I'm not depressed and I experience procrastination and laziness. The difference? Those behaviors are simple to overcome. If I HAVE to do something, I just do it. There is no mental anguish. There's no need for elaborate self-talk to do the most simple of tasks. Anything and everything takes very little mental energy, I'm extremely calm and laid-back, and I rarely if ever get angry. I also have little problem accomplishing pretty big shit, whether it be taking a shit-load of college credits, organizing food drives, running 100 milers, writing books, or prepping to fight an mma fight. 

Today, it's extremely rare to have a depressive episode as strong or as frequent as described in the Walmart scenario, but it does occasionally happen. I have way more tools at my disposal to help navigate the experience, and I'm surrounded by people who are far more supportive and don't use guilt as a manipulation tactic. The depressive episodes today are mild, don't last long, and (as I'll discuss in the next post) have a benefit I could not utilize before. That's the main reason I don't perceive myself has having "depression." 

Without a doubt, the worst part of the entire experience is the awareness. It's not like depression causes you to break from reality. In fact, you become even MORE aware of reality (via something we call "depressive realism", which I'll discuss in the next post.) I know the inability to do simple tasks is illogical. I know those tiny things shouldn't annoy the fuck out of me. I know I shouldn't get that angry over irrelevant shit. I know I should just be able to let it go. 

But I can't. 

As it turns out, our brain does what our brain does, cognition be damned! This used to trouble me quite a bit despite the fact that I've studied and taught psychology for decades. Understanding that we're not in the driver's seat as much as we like to believe is kind of unsettling at first. But then you kind of accept it, which is where I was when I started to identify triggers and coping mechanisms. It also helps that we're slowly beginning to discover that there is a strong biological basis for our behaviors, like this interesting study that investigated the biological basis of this very topic - apathy. While it's a lone study, it does offer tantalizing explanations for that inability to think your way out of apathy, and helps explain why doing even simple tasks while depressed is so damn exhausting. 

Hopefully this explanation will clear up the vague descriptions I gave in the first post, which should help non-depressed readers understand that this isn't something we have voluntary control over. This is what people mean when they say they can't "just get over it" or "just cheer up." At best, we can sometimes prevent the episodes by avoiding the triggers we've identified, or we can sometimes influence if we're doing deeper or coming out of the depressive state. 

In the next post, I'll talk about the ways I use depressive episodes to my advantage. As it turns out, depression does some interesting things to our perception, which I hinted at above. I may not be able to directly control the depression through cognitive thought, but, given I'm fully aware when it occurs, I can put myself in a position to take advantage of it. It's sort of a "Fuck you, brain, I'm gonna get something positive out of this!" attitude. It goes a looooong way towards not only accepting it, but really embracing it. 

Stay tuned!

Also, if you have any questions about the experience, leave a comment. I'll answer the questions asap.



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Monday, January 23, 2017

High Functioning Depression, Part Three: Navigating Depressive Episodes With Coping Mechanisms

In the first post in the series, I talked about my experiences with high functioning depression. In the second post, I talked about the process I use to identify the triggers for depressive episodes. In this post, I'll talk about the steps I take when a depressive episode sets in. When this happens, my goal is to make the episode as short as possible and as mild as possible. Before I get into those specifics, I'll talk about why the episodes occur in the first place.

When Avoiding Triggers Fails


This whole depression thing is tricky because, despite our advances in understanding the human brain, we're still not entirely sure why we develop depression. There are a lot of hypotheses, and we have some decent hints that suggest it's a neurotransmitter imbalance issue. But we don't fully understand the connection between environment, behaviors, emotional states, and brain functioning. The best we can do is make educated guesses. 

Specific to the trigger discussion from the last post, I can make a reasonable assumption that all of those triggers somehow influence brain chemistry in general and serotonin and dopamine in particular. Simply avoiding the triggers doesn't always work because there may be unknown triggers that also influence brain chemistry. Or sometimes the triggers are unavoidable. For example, we've had an unusually rainy winter so far in San Diego, which means we've had excessive cloudiness. Not surprisingly, I've had one of the more persistent depressive episodes I've had in years. 

Since avoiding the triggers isn't 100% reliable, I also developed coping mechanisms. As I mentioned, the goals of the coping mechanisms is to make the depressive episodes shorter, less intense, and hopefully less frequent.

Why Coping Mechanisms?


I like to use a mental image to help process how the depressive episodes affect me. My preferred visual are buckets filled with "motivation." Here's normal:



The bucket is full. Anything and everything I do takes a few teaspoons from the bucket, so the level of motivation drops throughout the day. The less "motivation" there is in the bucket, the harder it gets to get it out and the more I have to take out for everything I do. This is never an issue, though, as the bucket's full. Even on the busiest, most stressful days, I will never run out. The next day, the bucket refills. Lather, rinse, repeat. 

A relatively minor depressive episode, like the kind I usually experience these days, might look something like this:

There's less "motivation" in the bucket. When I have to do something, it's more difficult to get that motivation out of the bucket. Instead of needing a few teaspoons, everything I do might require several tablespoons... maybe even a cup. In this scenario, I have plenty of motivation for the shit I need to do, like take care of my personal hygiene, take care of the kids, be a good husband, and fulfill my work obligations. But there's not a lot left over for anything else. Because of this, I get selective about what commitments I make to others, projects I initiate, or other obligations I might otherwise take on. In short, I'm actively conserving my motivation.

In the off chance I do exhaust the motivation in the bucket, I go into a "motivation deficit" state and start experiencing anxiety coupled with irritability, which also causes reduced cognitive ability and, strangely, a decrease in fine motor skills. The greater the deficit, the greater the anxiety,  irritability, and cognitive function. And I get clumsier. While it's unlikely in these minor depressive states, I will get to the point where I simply cannot function in a meaningful way. Generally speaking, the greater the deficit on any given day, the less "motivation" will get refilled for the next day. 

A severe depressive episode looks more like this:

In this state, there's not enough "motivation" to do all the shit I need to do on a daily basis. That requires me to get militant about obligations. I simply can't afford to waste what little motivation I can muster on shit that isn't critically-important. Everything else gets put off until the episode ends. When I'm going through this, I get extremely reclusive and I'm incredibly irritable. I'm not pleasant to be around. 

In the unlikely event something comes up where I absolutely have to do shit beyond the bare minimum for survival, I'll go into the same aforementioned anxious state and keep going for hours or even days. But it comes at a very heavy price.

The best example of this is when my father died unexpectedly about a decade ago. The grief was crushing and immediately plunged me into one of the deepest, darkest depressive episodes of my life. Unfortunately, many people looked to me to be their rock. Not only did I start every day with an empty bucket, but I had to hide the crushing anxiety and irritability. I did... kinda... for about three days. The shit all collapsed one morning when I woke up to an excruciating pain in my abdomen, followed closely by a panic attack. It was the first time that had ever happened. I needed to retreat to solitude immediately, and it took days for the panic attacks to subside.

At the time, I didn't have well-developed coping mechanisms. That experience gave me all the motivation I needed because dealing with the depression and anxiety made a shitty situation infinitely worse. And it taught me to avoid others who are grieving. More significantly, it led me to systematically developing the coping mechanisms that would help me survive the depressive episodes, allow me to do the shit I need to do with minimal negative effects, and, in some cases, shorten the depressive episode.

The Coping Mechanisms


These coping mechanisms were developed using the same process I used to identify the triggers. I would try something, note the results, adjust, then note the results again. I'll evaluate the effectiveness based on what I'm trying to accomplish with the particular coping mechanism. Here are some of my common coping mechanisms and the purpose they serve:


  • Sunlight or artificial sunlight (tanning beds) - This is the single most reliable method to get out of the depressive states. Several hours of exposure to sunlight for a few days in a row is usually all it takes. Unfortunately, it's dependent on the weather and we don't have many tanning beds here in San Diego. 
  • Solitude - Getting away from people serves two purposes. First, it recharges me. Second, it eliminates interactions with annoying people, which is one of my triggers. It can be difficult to find solitude here in SoCal because there are people everywhere, hence one of the reasons I'd like to move from the area.
  • Nature - This goes hand-in-hand with solitude. Nature of any kind, as long as it's away from humanity, works. Mountains and desert seem to work especially well, followed by forests, beaches, rivers, and fields. 
  • Exercise - Jiu jitsu, running, weightlifting, swimming, playing sports... all of it works. When I was younger, I used to spend countless hours alone throwing baseballs or wiffleballs and kicking or punting footballs. To the outside observer, it probably seemed borderline obsessive-compulsive. But I really did it because it helped ward off the depression symptoms faster.
  • Fighting - This deserves a special class because it's like exercise on steroids. Or something like that. Jiu jitsu sort of counts, but that's more of a chess match. Boxing, kickboxing, or mma are far more effective. 
  • Animals - I don't talk about it often, but I'm a huge animal lover. I currently own three cats and have owned many dogs and fish. Even mice. I've found animals serve a useful therapeutic effect... as long as they're not overly annoying. The last dog Shelly and I owned was really, really stupid and was extremely difficult to train (dog training was a hobby years ago.) Otherwise, being around animals helps shorten and ease the depression symptoms. 
  • Sex - Duh. 
  • Chemicals - It's controversial, but I've found various substances help in some regards. A little alcohol can help lower the "motivation" needed from the bucket (see the analogy above), thus allowing me to do some stuff I would normally avoid. THC does the same. This is obviously tricky because of the dependency dangers, but also not appropriate for all activities. Moderation is the key. Excessive alcohol tends to exasperate the depression symptoms. 
  • "Baby steps" - This is a method I use to do shit I can't work up the motivation to do, yet I HAVE to get done. It's a technique I used in the later stages of 100 mile races when every fiber of my being wanted to stop running. I'd literally focus on taking the next step and nothing else. By breaking a Herculean task (running 100 miles) down to the absolute smallest part (one lone step), I found I could muster the needed motivation for each individual step if I blocked out everything else. This same deal works during a depressive episode. If there's something I HAVE to do, I can manage by breaking it down into many very small steps, then tackling each step as a discrete endeavor. 
  • Spicy foods - I assume this works because the capsaicin releases endorphines, which boost mood and positively affect dopamine and maybe serotonin. Regardless of the mechanism, it works. Interestingly, I accidentally discovered this way back in my teen years. 
  • Manly shit - Fighting and sex aside, I've found any masculine endeavor, which we discuss frequently in the SDMC Facebook group, helps the depressive episodes. This includes leading, exploring, building, destroying, and a host of other stereotypical "man" shit. 
  • Dark humor - Sometimes I have a decidedly dark sense of humor. Death, genocide, nuclear holocaust, abortion, rape, pedophilia, the Holocaust, domestic violence... I joke about all of it. For whatever reason, it's the kind of humor that actually seems to help with the depressive episodes. Of course, it's not in any way politically-correct and tends to offed 90% of the population... but damn. It works. 



These are among the most common coping mechanisms I use once depressive episodes take root. None are magical cure-alls, but they do help me manage the episodes and shorten the duration. It changes the scenario from "Shit, I can't do anything to fix this" to "okay, I can handle this." That shift in the locus of control goes a long way towards making this a minor annoyance versus a major life-disruption. As I've said in a previous post, coupling this methodology with identifying and avoiding triggers has resulted in a reduction of depressive episodes from about 50% of the time to about 10-20% of the time. 

In the next post, I'll discuss the unlikely benefits of high functioning depression. I like to think we're all deal a hand in life, and we can't change the cards. Some people have better hands than others. If we're dealt a less-than-perfect hand, we could bitch and complain about our bad luck... maybe play the victim role. God knows we have a lot of that bullshit in our modern world.

Me? I'd much rather learn to play the hand I'm dealt in the best way possible. I want to learn the rules of the game, learn how others play the game, then use my hand to play the best damn game I can. I didn't always embrace this idea, and the difference between that period and today are night and day.

Stay tuned!


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Sunday, January 22, 2017

High Functioning Depression, Part Two: Identifying Triggers

In my last post, I discussed my personal experiences with high functioning depression. In this post, I'll talk about how I used self-experimentation to identify the triggers than cause depressive episodes. This process is important because it lays the groundwork to being able to prevent depressive episodes. As I mentioned in the last post, The frequency, intensity, and duration of depressive episodes have decreased significantly over time as a result of this learning process.

Back in the day, from as far back into childhood as I can remember, I'd be in a "depressive" state roughly half of the time. Today, I experience the symptoms about 10-20% of the time. More significantly, the episodes are far less disruptive to my day-to-day life because they're less intense and last for significantly shorter periods of time. So much so, I don't even really perceive it as a "disability"; rather I perceive it as an occasional obstacle that  pops up, makes shit a little more of a challenge, and requires a little extra work to overcome. I don't believe this would have been possible without the process I'll describe here. But first...

Why Not Antidepressants?


Quite simply, the cost/benefit analysis doesn't make sense. The symptoms today are not severe, the efficacy of the drugs (mainly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) isn't great, and the side effects are kinda harsh. They may have made sense in the fairly distant past, but since I didn't have accompanying sadness, I never made the connection I was experiencing depression. I just assumed what I was experiencing was normal, especially since I could still function outwardly.

There's one more significant issue I need to address...

Why Don't You Just Get Over It? 


For people who do not experience shit like this, the involuntary nature of it can be difficult to explain. That's understandable. As I explained in the last post, "normal" me has a tough time empathizing with "depressed state" me. The main symptoms I have include:


  • Severe apathy (I don't care about anything)
  • Lethargy (I do not want to exercise, go anywhere, or even move around the house)
  • Anhedonia (things I normally enjoy are no longer enjoyable)
  • Irritability (small shit gets blown up to big shit)
When I'm not experiencing the depression symptoms, none of these are an issue globally. If any DO become an issue, it's really simple to "get over it." Let's say I'm planning on training jiu jitsu, but don't feel like going. I can just grab my gi (the uniform we wear), jump in the car, and drive to the gym. The moment I get there, I'm excited to train and the hesitancy becomes a non-issue. When I'm in a depressed state, it's impossible to "get over it." If I force myself to go, every second of the experience produces anxiety that gets more intense as time passes, to the point where getting through class is difficult. Worse, that anxiety will last for hours or even days afterward. 

Another stupid-but-common example - I get a lot of emails and Facebook messages. Normally I try to answer them as soon as possible when they arrive. If I'm super-busy, I will put it off but still get to it as soon as possible because I care that someone has something to say. When I'm in a depressive episode, I cannot will myself to check them. I simply do not care. It's a really, really fucking weird feeling.

In the event I HAVE to do something, I have developed some strategies. They come at a huge cost, though, which I'll talk about in a future post. So let's get to those triggers!

Identifying the Triggers


To identify the triggers that lead to depressive episodes, I start by being self-aware of what's happening within me and around me. Sometimes we call this vigilance "situational awareness." As soon as I notice a depressive episode coming on, I note as many details of the circumstances as I can. I note stuff like...

  • What was I doing?
  • What was the weather like?
  • What did I eat and drink?
  • Were I talking any medications?
  • Who was I interacting with?
  • What has been my emotional state over the last 48 hours?
  • What did I watch on TV?
  • What have I been thinking about?
  • What have I done for exercise?
  • ... and so on.
What I'm basically doing is searching for correlations, or the antecedents that precede the depressive episodes. After a period of time, say maybe six months, a year, or several years, obvious patterns start to emerge. Sometimes those patterns don't require further exploration. For example, the connection between a lack of direct sunlight and the onset of the depression symptoms is valid (the connection happens no matter what other variables are present) and reliable (it happens every time.) I can then apply this information directly to my life by exposing myself to an adequate amount of sunlight on a regular basis.



Other issues, like what I eat, are far trickier because the correlations seem pretty weak. Sometimes certain foods seem to play a role, and sometimes those same foods seemingly play no role. If that happens, I set up simple experiments using the scientific method. I'll wait until I'm in a "normal" mood, then eat only one particular food I suspect might play a role. After two or three days, I'll note the results. To make the experiment results more valid, I'll often repeat the test a few times and change up other variables (like sun exposure, exercise, etc.) 

This is not a quick process; results can't be expected overnight. I started doing this about 14 years ago and still have not identified all of the triggers. However, I have identified a lot of them, which is the reason I've been able to cut the incidence of depressive episodes down from around 50% of the time to about 10-20% of the time. To date, here are my most significant triggers, along with a brief explanation:

  • Sunlight - This is likely a seasonal affective disorder affect. I rarely if ever have depressive episodes between the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Escaping the high latitude and constant cloud cover of West Michigan in favor of the near-constant sun east of San Diego proved to be huge. When I did live in Michigan, tanning helped mitigate this effect.
  • Guilt - Guilt was a surprising trigger. Basically, if someone makes me feel guilty about something AND that person is important to me, it launches me into a depressive episode. The solution was to keep them at a distance and greatly limit my interactions with them. For people who don't matter to me, I simply avoid them altogether.
  • Lack of exercise - I generally can't go much more than a week without exercise before depression symptoms start creeping in. It's good, because it gives me a great reason to stay fit. Unfortunately, motivation to exercise is one of the first casualties of my apathy and lethargy when the depression hits. Regardless, I can usually force myself to do at least a little exercise. It causes a lot of anxiety (the side effect of forcing myself to do anything while in a depressive episode), but the exercise itself helps mitigate the anxiety. 
  • Needy people - I HATE needy people. Like, really hate needy people. That includes people who can't or won't do shit for themselves, people who need frequent affirmations, people who want to hang around all the time, etc. Needy people themselves rarely cause depressive episodes, but they can make it far worse. If I'm already in a depressive episode, I simply cannot meet their needs. If I have to force myself to do shit for others, Shelly, the kids, and my jobs come first. The problem is most needy people will use guilt when you can't meet their excessive needs, and THAT will cause the depression to worsen, which then makes it more difficult to meet the needs of my family and work obligations. So... I keep needy people at a safe distance.
  • Repeated, forced social interactions with annoying people - This includes driving. I have no idea how we managed to travel the country with an RV for two years. Generally, this isn't a major issue other than I tend to avoid large parties. Really, this only becomes an issue during the kids' vacations from school. Yeah... sometimes they get annoying. 
  • Physical injuries - Injuries prevent exercise, no exercise triggers depression. Needless to say, I'm cautious with injuries. Barefoot running and the "listen to your body" pays dividends here.
  • Loss and grief - That one's a no-brainer.

These are the major triggers I've managed to identify using the process outlined earlier. There are likely others, especially given depressive episodes occasionally appear without any of these triggers. As such, this is an ongoing process. This has been a 14 year process. It's not always easy, but the dividends have been worth the effort.

The last, and arguably the most important aspect of identifying triggers, is to be a ruthless advocate for yourself. I learned early in this process that other people didn't know me a millionth as well as I know me, ergo I could not allow other people to exercise control over me. Or, more significantly, all people always place their own self-interest above the self-interest of others (except those suffering from the martyr complex... which is a whole different brand of shittiness.) If other people were leading me into one of the triggers, I needed the confidence and assertiveness to put a stop to it. Outwardly, this means I appear to be fiercely independent (I hate relying on others), occasionally stubborn (I do not do things I do not want to do), and sometimes anti-social in the "avoid social interactions" sense. I tend to surround myself with people who are either like-minded or are okay with these traits. 

In the next post of the series, I'll talk about the interventions I use if I miss a trigger or a depressive episode randomly sets in. Interestingly, the sport of ultrarunning played a critically-important role in teaching me how to cope with the depressive episodes. 



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Friday, January 20, 2017

High Functioning Depression, Part One: What Is It Like?

High functioning depression: A form of depression that is hidden from others, thus allowing a person to function in a seemingly normal manner.

I've contemplated writing this post for quite some time, but some recent events compelled me to talk about this largely unknown problem afflicting many of us. Most people are familiar with depression, especially given that it's exceedingly common. So much so, it's sometimes referred to as the "common cold" of psychological disorders. One type of depression is especially worrisome - high functioning depression.

Typically, this version of the disorder is experienced by relatively high-achieving people who seem to really have their shit together. They usually have an education, a steady job, can maintain relationships, have a circle of friends, and usually seem to lead happy, fulfilling lives. 

And it's often a facade. 

In reality, these folks often go through significant periods of time where they can barely hold it together. When they're experiencing a strong depressive episode, the smallest, most mundane daily tasks become Herculean efforts. But they can still sorta get through life because the depression symptoms aren't severe, they have developed phenomenal coping mechanisms, or some combination of the two. 

I rarely if ever talk about it, but this is an issue I've struggled with mightily in the past and is still with me today. Most of the time I'm completely normal. Sometimes, though, I fall into a chasm of depression. It's kind of hard to explain the experience to someone who has never experienced it, to the point where "non-depressed" me has a hard time empathizing with "depressed" me. The experience goes something like this.

I don't experience some of the more common, stereotypical symptoms of depression. I don't feel sad. I don't cry uncontrollably. I don't feel overly emotional. My eating isn't significantly disrupted, nor is my sleep cycles. Instead, I experience severe apathy (I don't care about anything), lethargy (I do not want to exercise), anhedonia (things I normally enjoy are no longer enjoyable), and irritability (small shit gets blown up to big shit.)

When I feel normal, I'm... well, normal. I worry about the welfare of those I care about. I have concern for the world around me. If there are tasks I need to do, I have no problem doing them. I thoroughly enjoy exercise, socializing, and experiencing new things. I'm laid back, calm, and even-tempered. I'm usually warm, marginally funny, playfully antagonistic, and charming. I have tons of energy, I'm creative, I welcome challenges, and I'm excited to learn new things. Today, this describes me about 80-90% of the time. In the past, this described me about half of the time. I consider myself lucky because my experiences with this ebb and flow. Most of the time I really am happy and fulfilled. Others aren't so lucky. Their experiences with depression are persistent.

My typical day goes something like this: I wake up without an alarm somewhere between four and six in the morning... maybe put the moves on Shelly. I have no problem getting out of bed. I make coffee, start breakfast, and check email and social media. I get the kids ready for school. If I'm subbing, I get ready for work. If I'm not subbing, I usually do a little writing, hit the gym to lift, then head to my real estate office. If I'm subbing, I joke around with the students. If I'm going into the office, I joke around with my coworkers, talk shit, talk about jiu jitsu, and sometimes actually do real estate stuff. I look forward to going to lunch and love trying new restaurants. After work, I pick up the kids, chat with them for a bit, then cook something for dinner. If there are chores that have to be done, I'll do them now. After Shelly gets home, we often train jiu jitsu at night. I look forward to seeing my training partners and thoroughly enjoy honing my skillz on the mat. We go home, have a glass or two of wine, watch some TV, then go to bed. It's a lifestyle I love.

When I'm in a depressive state, my behaviors change radically depending on the severity. Most of the shit I normally care about falls into the "I don't give a fuck" bin. Any task, no matter how menial or important, becomes almost impossible to do. I want to avoid people, especially if it involves driving or shopping. The smallest, most insignificant annoyance becomes exceedingly irritating and I have great difficulty letting minor shit go. 

My typical day goes like this. My alarm goes off at 5:15. I hit snooze three or four times, then reluctantly roll out of bed. Sometimes I make coffee, but most of the time I either go without or drink whatever's left over in the pot. Instead of cooking something, I eat leftovers or some kind of pre-packaged food. Sometimes even opening a banana is too much. I drop the kids off at school, get annoyed at other idiot parents dropping their kids off, then either go to school or go back home. If I'm subbing, I go through the motions. Luckily, I'm good at teaching and "autopilot" still better than the vast majority of my substitute teacher cohorts. I'll usually talk myself out of lifting by convincing myself I have more important matters to attend to. If I'm going to the office, I kill time mindlessly surfing the Internet. When I get to the office, I do whatever needs to be done, then mindlessly surf the Internet or play games at my desk. I usually avoid going to lunch because I do not want to socialize, even if it's just the waitstaff. I'll usually go home for an hour or so before picking up the kids. I'll avoid doing chores, but may do something trivial like fold a towel just so I don't feel like a complete lazy ass. I don't care if the house is a disaster. I'll then pick up the kids and give them a task to do so they won't bug me. If they're hyper, I usually yell at them, then feel guilty. After Shelly gets home, I'll often come up with a reason to skip jiu jitsu. Sometimes we go out for a drink or two, but most times we just veg on the couch until bedtime. 

The real key to this - I simply do not care about almost everything, and I cannot will myself to care. I have zero motivation to do anything. I can force myself to do the necessary shit like grooming, eating, taking care of the kids, and work responsibilities, but it comes at a steep cost. Whenever I'm in a depressive state, doing anything produces a degree of anxiety. The more I have to do, the more anxiety I develop. Irritation and anger also increase with anxiety. Eventually I'll reach a breaking point where the anxiety is physically and mentally crippling and I simply cannot continue doing what I have to do. I can't focus, I can't think, and my coordination goes to shit. The slightest things will annoy the hell out of me, and I'll dwell on them forever. This becomes even more difficult if people expect me to do stuff for them and insist on it being done immediately. It's kind of weird.

An example - a few weeks ago, I was having a pretty severe depressive episode (which is rare these days.) I had a ton of forced socialization throughout the day, which included having to run a bunch of errands during the holiday shopping rush. At my last stop, I was in a self-checkout lane at Walmart. The dude in front of me couldn't figure out how to insert a dollar bill into the machine. I already felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack. It was EXTREMELY irritating, which turned to anger. WHAT KIND OF FUCKING MORON DOESN'T KNOW HOW THESE WORK?!? It was like the dude was clubbing one of my cats. It took a good three hours for the anger to pass. 

Had I not been in a depressive state, that dollar incident wouldn't have even registered as something that would irritate me. I would have just perused the candy or picked up a copy of Cosmo and read about the latest orgasm techniques. 

The difference between the two conditions is dramatic. In the past, the outside observer, even those closest to me, probably would never see the difference between the two conditions. When I was in a depressive episode, I went to great lengths to hide it. I'll explain that rationale in a future post. Over the last 12 to 14 years, though, I've made a conscious effort to live as authentically as possible and no longer go to great lengths to hide the depressive episodes. Of course, I also don't talk about them, but they would be obvious to anyone who has even the faintest ability to read people. 

Part of the reason I don't talk about it is because I really hate the inevitable reactions, which are either a) pity, b) people treat you like you should be involuntarily committed, c) they say something dumb like "just get over it", or d) they don't believe you and assume you're making excuses for being lazy and/or grouchy. 

My answers to those: Fuck pity; this issue does not make me a not a danger to myself or to others; if there was a way I could "get over it", I would have done it already; I hate being lazy, which should be evident by the shit I do when I'm not in a depressive episode (travel extensively, write books and a million blog posts, run ultras, train bjj and mma, etc.)

The other reason I don't talk about this is because it often invites others to ask for advice, guidance, or to treat me like an emotional tampon. I am not a therapist. While I have a psych degree, it's experimental, not clinical. I was trained to fuck with people, not help them... which is pretty much what anyone should expect if they're coming to me in place of a qualified therapist. 

Anyway, this is a brief explanation of what it's like to have high functioning depression. In future posts, I'll talk about how this has changed over time (spoiler - I've gotten far better at handling it to the point where it's now a slightly-annoying-but-now-useful state.) I'll also talk about the specifics on how I learned to deal with this by identifying the triggers and developing effective coping mechanisms. 

In the interim, I'd be happy to answer any questions about what the experience is like. For people who do not experience this, it's hard to empathize. Hell, "normal" me has a hard time understanding "depressed" me. So if you have a question, leave a comment. 

PLEASE do not leave a comment seeking help from me if you or a loved one is suffering from depression. As I said before, I am not a therapist and am not qualified to help people. More importantly, I do not want to help individuals with depression. I have enough shit on my plate and I do not have a compassionate personality. However, I don't mind if you share experiences in the comments. 




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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Let's Sell the Kids and Move to Tahiti: Restlessness and the Need for Change

Most of us say they hate being in a rut, yet we do the exact same thing day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. We wake up in the same house, drink the same coffee, take a shit at the same time, drive the same route to work, have the same conversation with colleagues, go home and watch the same TV shows, then go to bed at the same time. 

We love our ruts.

Occasionally we throw in sex or a vacation to keep things interesting. It reminds us there's more to life outside our normal routines. The predictability of our ruts give us a sense of security and stability. These ruts allow us to engage in higher order thinking in order to compile those reports for accounting, daydream about that new restaurant on the other side of town, or contemplate the pointlessness of our existence. 

But we're quirky animals. No matter how safe and secure we get, no matter how much comfort we surround ourselves with, we're powerless against one of the most powerful of human motivators:

Boredom.

Eventually we get tired of our ruts. We want change. We crave something new. We crave something different. We crave something that makes us feel alive. We feel an urge to blow the whole damn thing up and start over... so we can build a new rut to comfortably fall into. 

These feelings are nothing new. Since childhood, I've had what could best be described as a serial hobbyist approach to life. Like anyone else, I love ruts. I just don't like spending all that much time in said ruts, and I don't mind making the tough decisions needed to change ruts. 

My Life in a Nutshell



Every few years, I'll drastically change major elements of my life. This is what has motivated my career changes and geographic moves. The cycle is predictable. I'll have an idea fueled by curiosity, that will cause me to find something that interests me, and I'll throw myself into it with reckless abandon. This period is a time of great excitement and energy where I learn, explore, and grow. Eventually I reach a degree of competence in whatever it is I'm doing, then settle into a comfortable rut. There's still a lot of energy surrounding the endeavor as I work towards mastery. Once I feel I have a good handle on whatever I'm doing, the desire for novel experiences creeps in. If I ignore it, symptoms of burn-out creep in, the most significant being apathy and depression. 

The most notable of these was the decision to leave the steadiness and security of full-time teaching to travel the country in an RV with Shelly and the kids. But there have been countless examples of this that have occurred on a smaller scale. All of my hobbies, like kicking footballs, woodworking, magic, ultrarunning, photography, Brazilian jiu jitsu and mma, writing, have followed this pattern. Same deal with other jobs, like working at a bike rental shop, in a grocery store, working at a concession stand at a baseball stadium, delivering for UPS, and working at lumber yards. That RV adventure with the kids, though, was the most significant.

Since that two year adventure, we've settled in San Diego. I eventually landed an entry-level job at a lumber yard and had the opportunity to make it a career. Well, kinda. Around the time I published Never Wipe Your Ass With a Squirrel, I had been promoted and had the opportunity to move into a full-time position. Unfortunately, it would have only paid $10/ hour and it would be years before I could realistically expect a raise. Since Squirrel Wipe was selling far better than expected and was producing a lot more income than I could earn at the lumber yard, it made sense to quit the job to promote the book full-time. 

Since then, I've been working on developing a career loosely based on building an online audience, then leveraging that audience in various ways to develop income. The most obvious application has been selling books like Squirrel Wipe, but also includes things like online advertising, affiliate marketing, product reviewing, and real estate lead generation. All of these endeavors involve a whole lotta social media engagement, which requires sitting in front of a computer anywhere between six to sixteen hours per day. It's basically a process of attracting and maintaining attention. I'm pretty good at it, mostly because I've systematically studied the best practices of attention-whoring for the better part of the last decade. I'm really good at getting people to waste embarrassing amounts of time online.

The Problem



The problem? This rut is getting exhausting. And boring. It's getting more and more difficult to work up the motivation to engage people online. There's a constant pressure to always be engaging because engagement is directly linked to income. If I'm not engaging, I'm not making money. The tighter the finances become, the greater the pressure to be working 24/7, to the point where it's difficult to disengage and spend time with Shelly, the kids, or even pursuing hobbies like jiu jitsu. 

To complicate matters, my creative well has been running dry for an unusually long period of time. When I DO manage to garner attention, I don't have a good product or service to direct people to in order to capitalize on the effort. Squirrel Wipe is four years old, which is ancient in today's marketplace. The two books I've written since, Must Have Been Another Earthquake and No Bone Zone, were targeted to tiny niche markets that are not commercially viable. Trying to generate income based on these past works requires exponentially more work as time passes. I've been supplementing that income with substitute teaching and dabbling in real estate, but finances are still a struggle. 

My other projects, like San Diego Man Camp, require significant development in order to produce enough income to support my family. I have a vision for this project, but it will take time to develop. I simply do not have the creative energy at the present time to do what needs to be done to make that happen. Normally I rely on months-long phases of manic creative energy to get projects like this off the ground, but that energy isn't there right now. And I can't force it. The more I try, the more pronounced the burn-out becomes. I could take a shortcut and use this information and these ideas do some version of "life coaching", but that world consistently gives me the "icky" feelings associated with fraudulent scammers who prey on the weak or gullible. As morally vacuous as I can be, I cannot bring myself to stoop to that level.

For a while, I thought real estate might be the answer. The income potential is greater than writing books, and we live in a ridiculously expensive housing market. Commissions are superb. Initially I assumed I was burned out from writing, ergo real estate would be the change I needed. While I thoroughly enjoy some aspects of real estate, I found I hated the actual selling part. It took a fair amount of introspection to realize why. As it turns out, real estate requires the exact same "always on 24/7" approach as my creative endeavors. We get a lead at 9:00 on a Friday night? We have to follow up immediately or lose the sale. This is no different than than the pressure of always having to engage an audience. The burn-out I've been experiencing generalizes. Who knew?

This issue of restlessness really came to a head over the last few months. It started with the desire to move to a bigger apartment or even a house. We've been living in a shitty two bedroom apartment (with three kids and three cats) in a somewhat shitty area for a few years now. It was cool for a long time because it exposed our kids to hardship and diversity, but we're kinda over that now. An external event completely unrelated to our personal lives really stoked the fire and led Shelly and I to start having conversations about possibly moving from San Diego eventually. We came to the conclusion the things that kept us here initially aren't nearly as significant as they were two years ago. Or even last year. The real telling moment came when we both started training for our upcoming mma fights. It has been FAR more difficult to rustle up the motivation to get through training camp than it was the last time I fought two years ago. The apathy is very similar to the feelings that started creeping in about six months before I ran my last ultramarathon, the Grindstone 100 in Virginia. I dismissed those feelings then, which led to completely abandoning running. I don't want to make the same mistake this time around. 

Our current life here in San Diego has reached the end of the cycle. Shelly's reached a plateau at her job and I'm experiencing this burnout issue... the time is ripe to consider something different. It's time to either make changes here or move on to somewhere else. When we traveled, there were several other areas we loved, so we have a few possible destinations in mind. 

The Solution


So how do I manage this situation? How do I solve this burnout problem? How do I get out of this rut and find my new rut? The logical solution is to make a plan:


  • Step one: Find a day job. Hugh MacLeod, in his excellent book Ignore Everybody, advises creative types to never quit their day job. His rationale was simple - the moment you put pressure on yourself to NEED your creative endeavor to survive, you cut off the freedom that's needed for creativity to thrive. That's exactly what happened to me over the last few years. To right the ship, I need a day job. I need a job I can go to regularly, earn some cash, then go home and spend time with my family without the pressure of having to work all the time. I have a few possible jobs I would like to explore, most of which involve working for school systems outside the classroom. My experiences as a substitute teacher have allowed me to really assess how and why I was burned out from teaching and allowed me to focus in on what I would really enjoy. If I find a job here in San Diego, I'll likely work it for a few years then assess the next step. I'll keep doing the real estate and writing gigs, but they'll be moved to the "side gig" category instead of "primary source of income" category. If I don't find a job locally, I'll likely expand the search and look for jobs outside of San Diego and even California. 
  • Step two: Apply Pareto's principle to eliminate shit that doesn't matter. I got the idea of Pareto's Principle from Tim Ferriss' The 4 Hour Work Week and even wrote about it over at Barefoot Running University. Many of the things I do on a daily basis that once produced tangible gains no longer produce said gains, ergo I spend a fair amount of time doing what amounts to creative masturbation. So I'll take a systematic look at my daily life, identify the 20% of things that are producing 80% of the positive shit, then eliminate as much of the wasteful 80% as I can. The two most obvious examples that need to be radically cut are social media engagement and researching social media engagement best practices. Without a tangible product or service to sell, both of these provide a really shitty return on investment. 
  • Step three: Figure out what's next. This is also known as "goal setting." On a personal level, I want to spend more distraction-free time with Shelly and the kids. I also want to move somewhere more tranquil, whether it be here in the San Diego area or elsewhere. On a professional level, I want to build off the potential job I'm searching for in schools to launch an entirely new business venture Shelly and I have discussed. On the recreational level, I want to get back to lifting weights and training jiu jitsu on a more regular basis. Finally, I want to build this group into what I envision it to be. 
  • Step four: Make all the shit in step three happen. When it's time for change, it's time for change. I'm normally a huge procrastinator... until it comes to issues such as this. After our fights this upcoming Sunday, I'll fully put this plan in motion. I've already started by applying to a handful of jobs, cutting back on social media time, and researching our other possible destinations. The initial excitement I feel over these preliminary steps provides a powerful confirmation that I am indeed burned out and desperately need to change shit up. 

Conclusion



Being in a rut isn't a bad thing. Being in a rut and feeling restless? That's a different story. The older I get, the better I get at detecting when I need to change things up. More importantly, I get better at figuring out what I need to change, why I need to change it, and how to go about making those changes. It's definitely time to make these changes. We'll see how it goes. I've spent the last four years hustling to make my "creative" career work as a primary means of making a living, but it's run its course. It's time to move the creativity back to "hobby" status and chase some new goals. 



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Monday, November 14, 2016

One Liberal's Analysis of Why the Democrats Will Lose in 2018 and 2020

It's been five days since the election that utterly shocked most of our society. Wile I was hoping Trump would win the election, I was dismayed to see the Democrats lose the House. I've found my stance on this confuses a lot of people. I am not a Trump supporter (though, as I discussed in my last thread, I'm thoroughly impressed with his trolling ability.) However, a Trump win was necessary because our federal government was moving uncomfortably far to the left as evident by the complete disconnect from working class Americans. The manipulated defeat of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary perfectly illustrated the DNC cared only about pushing their golden child political elitist, and smugly assumed the party's historical base would enthusiastically support her.

They didn't.

By ignoring the will of the people, the party not only lost the election (and the Supreme Court seat and potential future seats), but lost the House, too. The result? We now have a president with no political experience, a shaky knowledge of most pertinent issues, and a questionable temperament. AND his party has control of both chambers of Congress, many of which owe him their seats.

That's not cool.

I'm a liberal-leaning independent who prefers my government to be neutered by political balance. I voted for Johnson for strategic reasons related to the future, which I discussed in my last post. Most of my own political views are supported and advanced when the Democrats control the presidency and have the numbers to push policy through Congress. HOWEVER, I fully realize that situation heavily favors a relatively small segment of our population (city-dwelling college-educated white liberals and the dirt-poor) and is not supported by the religious right, rural America, or the working class. The farther policy veers to the left, the more those other groups are alienated.

Obama's last term worried me a bit. I saw more and more liberals in the news, online and among my real-life friends, pushing more and more extreme liberal ideals. While this delighted me on a personal level, it troubled me.

Our political climate in the U.S., at least in my lifetime and presumably throughout history, cycles between periods of conservatism and liberalism. The farther we venture in one direction, the more pronounced the swing in the other direction. That's not a bad thing. We're a representative republic, and this cycling assures we remain stable. Sure, it sucks when your team is losing, but we just need to ride out the storm and power is returned to our team.

Well, the problem is we ventured really far to the left. The farther we went, the worse the rebound would be. When this election cycle started, Trump was a complete joke. However, it was readily apparent both he and Bernie Sanders were tapping into some extreme repressed anger that had been ignored by both the Democratic and Republican leadership. As the primaries wore on, it became apparent this was going to be a... different... election. The people who had long been ignored were making some noise. Serious noise.

My Voting Rationale


As an independent, I don't feel a particular allegiance to any given party. I tend to vote for my own self-interest, then the interest of the entirety of the masses (and not just for those who support my own world view.) Given campaign rhetoric ventures into hyperbole, I usually read between the lines to determine just how any given candidate will personally affect me. It didn't take long to conclude none of the candidates would affect my personal life in a significant way, so I considered which candidate would provide the most societal stability with the least damage. I concluded either Bernie with a GOP-controlled Senate or Trump with a Democratic-controlled House would be the best bet, mostly because both spoke to the disenfranchised segments of our population the political elite had ignored for decades.

Bernie's socialism ideas were stupid, but his charisma could unite people. And I liked most of his platform that didn't involve economic policy. He was my #1 pick, but the rigged Democratic primary killed his run. Sidebar - shame on you, Democrats. Where was the outrage when your party leadership scammed you? Anyway, that left Trump. I didn't buy into some of his batshit crazy rhetoric, which I immediately recognized as trolling to further create a divide between the pretentious liberal elite (who Hillary perfectly represents) and the working class Reagan Democrats. I wasn't going to overtly support Trump, but he was most likely going to get my vote because a) he would give a voice to the working class and rural America, and b) any of his batshit crazy ideas would be killed by a Democrat-controlled House.

Then we hit summer. And liberals started ramping up the stereotyping all Trump supporters as racist, sexist, homophobic "deplorables."

Uh oh. 

I grew up in rural Northern Michigan in a mostly-white blue-collar town that had been ravaged by the closing of the town's largest employer - a paper mill. A few years later, that same economic downturn would hit the whole state when the auto industry tanked. I know how these people think. I know how these people feel. Most importantly, I know how these people vote.

Since I left my small town, went to college, and got a white collar job, I was exposed to (and adopted) a lot of liberal ideals. I went through a period in my early 20's where I was about as obnoxious of a social justice warrior as one could imagine.

Real life has a way of tempering that, however. First, being a public high school teacher exposed me to a representative sample of the population, including the dirt-poor, the working class, farmers, while collar professionals, and the rich. I came to realize my internalized liberal ideals would never be adopted by the majority of Americans because it simply violated too many of their fundamental beliefs. Eventually I started taking a more moderate approach and became more concerned about developing compromise between the left and the right. It turned out to be relatively easy to sell my liberal ideas to conservative friends, and my conservative ideas like gun rights to my liberal friends if I took the time to understand them.

Based on how I was seeing people frame Trump supporters, I started to get worried. There was no attempt at understanding. There was no attempt at compromise. Instead, there was mainstream media-fueled outrage. The left started vilifying Trump supporters in earnest be continually referring to them as horrible people.

That perspective led me to post this in July:



I spent the rest of the election cycle imploring my liberal friends to take the time to actually befriend some Trump supporters in the hopes they'd stop the stereotyping.

It didn't happen.

Most ignored the pleas. Some debated based on the rationale that they "knew what Trump supporters were really like, so don't try to convince them otherwise." A few even defriended me.

And now we have Trump as president and the GOP controls Congress.

Worse, I see my liberal friends continuing to frame Trump supporters as horrible people instead of pausing, reflecting, assessing what went wrong, and reformulating a new strategy. This video sums up the sentiment nicely:


So where do we go from here? Liberals in general and Democrats in particular need to take steps to change course. This is what I would recommend:

Solutions


  1. Support the working class, especially in suburban and rural America. The Democratic party I remember from my youth supported working Americans. They've lost that entire demographic as evident by their support for Trump. They will never win another election by only pandering to rich white college-educated women while tossing minorities a few crumbs. 
  2. Stop cozying up to Wall Street. This one should be obvious, but Hillary's camp didn't quite get why Americans would have a problem with this. 
  3. Stop vilifying white males. As I mentioned in my last post, liberals have been way too comfortable vilifying white males under the guise of "white privilege" and/or "the patriarchy." That bullshit has to stop. We're people. Until you start treating us as such and recognizing we actually have a lot of ideas on how to fix this shit, you will never win another election.
  4. Stop accepting policies that undermine families. Support stay-at-home moms. Stop glorifying single motherhood. Stop treating fathers like buffoons. 
  5. Address globalization and the need for vocational education. The rust belt voted for Trump for a simple reason... the Democratic party has largely ignored the working class since early in Bill's first term. NAFTA and other free trade agreements killed our middle class, then we made the problem worse by cutting vocational education in schools. End free trade agreements and fully fund secondary vocational programs like wood, metal, and auto shop, the construction trades, and even expand to include electrician and plumbing classes. 
  6. Abandon political correctness and identity politics. The dumbfuck idea of "political correctness" and "safe spaces" has killed our ability to engage in honest discourse because people are too fucking paranoid about being labeled a sexist, racist, homophobic... whatever. It's not a surprise the polling was so very wrong in this last election. Why would anyone publicly support Trump when they'd face the illogical, overly-emotional wrath of the Pantsuits? If you can't engage in discussion without getting offended by ideas that run counter to your delicate sensibilities, you have no right to engage in discussion. A major part of Trump's appeal is he says it like it is without dumbass coded language. Understand people hate political correctness because it's a form of intellectual control.
  7. Stop going after guns. Middle America actually uses guns to protect their families and put food on the table. City-dwellers who live a half mile from a police station simply can't relate, so shut the fuck up about banning guns. 
  8. Protect religious liberty while insisting on a separation of church and state. This is a relatively small but important point. Not all Democrats are atheists. Stop treating them as such.
  9. Abandon feminism in favor of real equality. Eighty percent of the population has a negative view of feminism. When "manspreading" is one of your biggest complaints about gender inequality, you're grasping for straws. It's time to put that horse out of its misery. Instead, as I discussed in this post, fight for REAL equality by promoting the idea of equal opportunity and equal responsibility for all regardless of sex, gender, sexual orintation, age, race... whatever. Start treating all of us equally, not just a select few.
  10. Stop being fucking pussies. The Democrats just got their asses spanked in the biggest political upset in history. Their reaction? Wear safety pins on your shirt so you'll know who's safe to talk to. Are you fucking kidding me?!? The Democrats need strong leaders with progressive values who aren't afraid to throw a few punches if needed. 


Will any of this happen? I seriously doubt it. I have a few friends (who unsurprisingly supported Bernie) who are actually getting to work on changing their local political party activity to better reach the working class, but the vast majority just keep their heads up their asses. I cannot count the number of times I've heard liberal friends continuing to vilify those who voted for Trump. They seemingly have no idea that most Americans think differently than them. They smugly believe they have all the answers, presumably because they live in a completely isolated bubble. If that doesn't change, we're in for a very, very long GOP rein. 

Liberal friends, instead of expressing fear or outrage, instead of signing Internet petitions to scrap the electoral college, instead of holding silly protests, take some time to reflect on how YOUR actions may have contributed to ordinary Americans making the decision to vote for Donald Trump. If you support any of the ideas I listed above, strongly consider if that's really a logical stance to take. When considering the folks who may have voted for Trump, use a little empathy and some of that "open-mindedness" liberals are always claiming to possess. Think about how you'd feel if the roles were reversed. Think about what message would sell liberal Democratic ideas to a person who may have supported Trump. 

Once you do that, identify five Trump supporters in your life. Go charm them. Sell your ideas to them. Don't call them stupid, racist, sexist, homophobic, Nazis, or any of the other bullshit we've all seen. Be a nice, decent human being. 

THIS is how we can right this ship. 

Now go do it. 

Otherwise, we're in for a very long, painful eight years. 


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