Sunday, January 13, 2019

Goodbye, Alcohol

tl:dr - I liked to drink. It wasn't doing anything for me, so I decided to quit. It didn't work as expected. This book helped me accomplish what I wasn't capable of doing on my own.

Note- I do not like preachiness, and I know precisely how this post will be perceived by my readers who drink but have no desire to quit or have a sense that they may have a problem. Don't read this unless you've come to the point in your life where you secretly (or not so secretly) have started questioning your drinking habits. If you do not have that concern, you're not ready to hear this message. Skip this post. For the rest of you, this is the post I wish someone else had written years ago.

The night started off like countless others. Shelly and I decided to go out to dinner. Applebee's. Don't judge. We were on Christmas vacation and needed a few hours away from the kids. I was drinking beer, a somewhat rare occurrence these days. Over the last two years, I had noticed beer made my hangovers significantly worse. Must be a function of aging, right? Wine had become my preference.

Shelly was also drinking wine, but her partaking was an experiment. She was in the beginning stages of planning to participate in an online fitness challenge (we like doing shit that pushes us past our comfort zone.) She would need to quit drinking as part of the challenge, and had been recommended a book that could help. This experiment was part of the methodology outlined in the book.

Me? I was just drinking for enjoyment and a mild stress reliever. The fact that I felt I needed a stress reliever while on vacation didn't seem amiss at that time, even though the most stressful thing I did that day was scold the dog for eating poop.

Anyway, after three beers, we headed home. We decided to stop at the liquor store and get a bottle of wine just in case we decided to have more. I ended up buying three.

Later that night as I was lying in bed, I replayed our dinner conversation in my head. Despite the drunken stupor, I resolved to quit drinking. Never again would I feel what I was feeling at that precise moment. I was basically having the same conversation I have had with myself hundreds of times before. This time felt different, though. I was experiencing an emotion I hadn't felt when having these self-talks: Hope.

Alcohol had always been like a friend to me. Not necessarily a good friend all the time, but a friend nonetheless. I could rely on her to make me feel less stressed. I could rely on her to loosen me up in social situations. I could rely on her for a good time. She was a fun friend. She also caused a few problems on occasion. But that's just who she is, right? You gotta take the bad with the good.

At least that's how I had always perceived her.

Historically, I've always had a little concern about my alcohol consumption, but I felt like I could regulate it well. Yes, I probably used it as more of a coping mechanism crutch than I should. It did, after all, seem to genuinely help alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. And it did seem to help deal with life's stressors when they became a little too overwhelming, which allowed me to focus on more important matters. And, of course, alcohol was a necessary antecedent to having fun.

I was never really concerned because I had the ability to quit at will. Which I would do fairly regularly. I'd feel like I was drinking too much, quit cold turkey, endure the two or three days of physiological withdrawal, then go about my business. For about two to four weeks. Invariably, something would pop up that would lead me to the "Man, I could really use a drink right now" point. I'd have a drink or two without giving it much thought. Within a week, that slow trickle of alcohol would increase to the point where I was before deciding to quit.

I never fretted over that "relapse" because I never resolved to permanently quit. We were just on a break.

Over the last few months, the seeds of doubt began to sprout. We had moved from San Diego to Colorado, which was supposed to be the first step in creating the life Shelly and I have talked about for years. I did not expect to need alcohol as a coping mechanism. I had optimistic ideas of quitting once the move was finished and never looking back.

It didn't work out like that.

Instead, I'd try quitting. Just like before, I'd get through the withdrawal symptoms and enjoy a few days of sobriety. Just like before, something would invariably arise that would lead me to making the conscious decision to just have one or two drinks to take the edge off. Or help as a social lubricant at parties. Just like before, I'd be back to drinking nightly during the week and getting pretty drunk at least one night on the weekend.

Seemingly independent of the alcohol struggle, I had noticed a few weird, somewhat disturbing trends. Normally, I'm pretty laid-back and chill. I rarely let shit get to me. But it started to seem like even the tiniest life stressors became disproportionately unmanageable. And my tolerance for social interaction plummeted (I'm an INTP; I love interacting with people but also need solitude to "recharge".) The REALLY disturbing part, though, was an almost imperceptible, slowly-developing ahedonia. Shit I used to enjoy became just kinda "meh." Objectively, my life was finally bearing the fruit of a few years of dedicated goal-setting and hard work. Why the hell didn't I enjoy these things I had thoroughly enjoyed in the past and had put so much time and effort into making a reality?

As I was lying there in bed after the drinks at Applebee's + three bottles of wine, I felt hope because I knew alcohol had become a problem that, until that moment, I didn't think I could overcome without resorting to A.A. or some equivalent. That terrified me. As an atheist (higher power? WTF.) who despises meetings, treats addiction like a disease, self-disclosure to strangers, and being told I'm "powerless" against something as stupid as a cup of colored liquid, that thought had always resulted in feelings of revulsion. From a psychological standpoint, it makes zero logical sense to make yourself hyper-vigilant to something you're trying to avoid. If you're basically relying on willpower to avoid something, you're gonna experience a whole lotta mental anguish if you constantly focus on what you're trying to avoid. It's like telling someone to not think of a white elephant. I fully understand the rationale behind their methodology, and, when it's all said and done, A.A. really does the same thing I'm advocating here only it takes a much longer, stupider route. And their efficacy doesn't help their case. They themselves acknowledge only about 40% of members stick with it for a year. Batting .400 is phenomenal if you're playing right field for the Yankees. Batting .400 for a self-help program is embarrassingly bad.

Fuck that shit. It's great for some. Not me. Sorry, not sorry, A.A.

</anti-A.A. rant>

Anyway, I started reading the book the next morning.

Holy shit.

After the first chapter, I knew I found my solution. More on that later; I want to outline my personal experiences with alcohol. If you want to skip my long-ish alcohol biography, scroll down to the "Back to the Book" heading.

Exposure to Alcohol as a Kid

My early exposure to alcohol was fairly limited. By the time I was old enough to remember, my mom rarely drank and my dad drank in moderation (one or two cans of Natural Light most nights, with the occasional over-indulgence at hunting camp.) Other than that, I just saw the same alcohol messaging we all see as members of society. My maternal grandfather was, from what I've been told, a pretty horrible alcoholic. If we buy into the "addictive personality" and genetic predispositions to alcoholism, that's probably not good.

My first actual taste of alcohol came when my father and I were in the middle of the woods building deer blinds for the upcoming season. I was around ten or eleven at the time. It was hot and I was ridiculously thirsty. I didn't bring anything to drink. All we had was a few cans of beer my dad had brought along. After listening to me bitch an moan about being thirsty for an hour, he finally gave me a drink of his Natural Light.

Jesus was it disgusting.

I probably drank a quarter of an ounce, but it was enough to prevent me from desiring alcohol again for many years.

The Second Drink

When it came to partying (with alcohol), I was a pretty good kid. Despite living in a small, rural town (pop. ~5,000) where it was common for teens to develop full-blown alcoholism by ninth grade, I abstained from alcohol until the summer before my senior year. I was at a bonfire party in the middle of nowhere participating in one last hurrah before football season started. The previous year, two of our starters got busted with an MIP (minor in possession) charge during season, and our coaches ripped them a new asshole... along with the rest of the team. We were really good, and I took our coaches' warnings (and threats) about consuming alcohol in season seriously.

A friend had his older brother buy me a pint of Popov vodka. I had planned on drinking it straight. Once the party got started and I took a few sips, I could barely keep from gagging. So I cut it with the only thing I had - a half-full can of Vernor's ginger ale. It still tasted like gasoline (I siphoned a lot of gas as a kid), but at least now I could choke down enough so the intoxication distracted me from the taste.

Needless to say I got piss-drunk.

I only vaguely remember the party and someone driving me somewhere later. I remember running through trees at some point. I talked to a girl who was flirting with me, but I didn't realize it until much later.

I woke up the next morning in a girl's room. No, there was no girl with me. Sadly. I felt like death. I had no fucking clue where I was; I had never seen this room before. I stumbled out of the room and found one of my recently-graduated former teammates, Tommy T. I'm grateful he took care of me.

I was definitely done with alcohol at that point.

And I was. Until homecoming.

Despite our coaches' warning, a bunch of us threw a house party after the homecoming dance. One of our teammates was responsible for procuring alcohol for the party. He had a lot of "connections" (which was code for the 21 and older male townies who would go to high school parties to fuck drunk high school girls... yay small town!) and was supposed to get beer a few days before.

But he didn't. After the dance, we all showed up for the party. And there was no alcohol. People were pissed. Luckily, the dude had taken his of-age brother's ID... despite a spurious resemblance. So we had to go to the store and buy alcohol right then. For some reason, I was nominated to drive him. We went to a party store on the outskirts of town. The store clerk was, rightfully, very skeptical as to why two very young guys dressed up on the town's homecoming night were buying eight cases of beer. But he sold it to us.

That night went about as well as the first party in the woods. About 30 minutes into the party, another teammate talked me into playing a drinking game. Later, I'd find out he was intentionally getting me drunk because his former girlfriend, who was also at the party, liked me. Eliminating the competition.  Dick move, but smart. So 60 minutes into the party, I was once again piss-drunk. I passed out shortly after.

After football season, there were a few parties here and there until I left for college. I think I got drunk maybe two or three times, but it wasn't a great experience. Still, I was equating alcohol with fun. That association would last right up until about ten days ago.


My college experience was, relatively speaking, somewhat lame. The first university I attended I flunked out of after one semester (due to Madden '94, not partying.) Afterward, I lived at home and attended a community college for the next two years. Aside from occasional road trips to friends' universities, I didn't drink. However, this was the period of time where I witnessed one of the weirdest experiences of my life. I was visiting a friend at Michigan Technological University. We got hammered. I was in a dorm bathroom puking my guts out. Another dude came in, said hi, then ripped a toilet out of the wall in the stall next to me, said goodbye, and left with the toilet.


Anyway, I didn't really start drinking regularly until I was around 21 (I had friends who turned 21 earlier and would buy for me.) After turning 21, there were maybe twenty or so drunken experiences, but I didn't drink regularly. At that point, it was still an prerequisite to fun.

And, subjectively, there was fun. Like jumping in Lake Superior in February when the air temp was -10°F with wind chill of -40°F. Okay, maybe "fun" is the wrong word.

After college, I got married to my first wife for whom I had dated throughout college. If you've read my other posts on this blog, you know I was a "Nice Guy" who did not understand how men and women work. I had inklings that she wasn't the right person for me, but everyone just expected us to get married. I didn't know how to back out. Needless to say, I was a goddamned mess inside. This marked the first time in my life I used alcohol as a coping mechanism. It helped me live with the fact that I had been unconsciously living a lie since puberty, and awareness of that lie was bubbling to the surface.

Coaching Football

I loved football. In high school, it changed the trajectory of my life. for the better I originally became a teacher just so I could coach football. But football also exposed me to football coach culture. At the time (early 2000's), it was common for the football coaches in our area to go out to bars after our Friday night games and get absolutely hammered. During the offseason, we'd attend football clinics around the upper Midwest. Those were basically flimsy excuses to, once again, get piss-drunk. I was 23 at the time and was having a blast with my fellow coaches. Once again, alcohol became a conduit of fun. There was the time I puked up mushrooms in the hotel sink. There was the time another coach and I went to the seedy strip club in South Bend and I got a few lap dances from the stripper who gave birth like three weeks earlier. There was the time we got last stumbling back to our room in Battle Creek. And so on. I loved the camaraderie and brotherhood of coaching, but I used it as an excuse to feed my growing habit.

Note- not all football coaches around me did this; but it was certainly the vast majority. 

Of course, my binge drinking at the time also served as a temporary reprieve from my personal life, which probably seemed just fine on the surface. What can I say, I'm good at compartmentalizing. By the winter of '02-'03, shit came to a head. That was the point where the old me started the process of dying and I started discovering who I really was. Long story short - I got divorced, met Shelly, and would begin the very long process of self-improvement that eventually led to this blog.

The Next Decade or So

Early in our relationship, Shelly and I established a pattern of drinking on a regular basis. We'd have a drink with dinner, maybe a drink or two after. Of course, we'd also do a fair amount of hard partying (we share the same hedonistic streak.) Drinking was back to an antecedent for fun. And man, we had a lot of fun.

We also had a lot of embarrassing moments. There's almost too many to count. There was the time we slept in a bar parking lot in the middle of the afternoon while we sobered up to drive home. There was the over-the-top drunkenness at the Woodstock trail running festival (where we got kicked out of a naked 5k.) There was the drunken fight in front of our good friends while vacationing in Hawaii. There was the time I got black-out hammered after some of our teammates' mma fights. And many other times interspersed between those events.

Drinking was, for better or worse, just part of our lives. I was perfectly fine with that. After all, it did seem to help me cope with shit whenever I needed a brief reprieve from the stressors of life. And it did really seem to make shit more fun. Being the research dork I am, I was confident I wasn't making horrible choices because, as I discussed earlier, I could and did stop for significant periods of time. Addicts can't quit, right? Ergo I can't be an addict.

And yes, it would have been accurate to say we were codependent.

Living in the City

I love visiting cities. The buildings, the cars, the people, the excitement... it's infectious.

Unfortunately, I hate living in cities. I grew up in the sticks of Northern Michigan. I had like three people who lived within a mile. AND I'm an introvert. As much as I love socializing and being around people, I need a regular diet of quiet solitude.

After traveling around the country as barefoot ultrarunning hobos, we settled just east of San Diego. The original plan was to stick around for the winter. But we discovered jiu jitsu. Really, we fell in love with the coaches and teammates at our mma gym. Despite not enjoying living in a densely-populated region, we stuck around for about five or six years. Within about three years of dealing with the complete and total lack of seclusion, I increasingly relied on alcohol as a coping mechanism.

About two years ago in the midst of one of the most serious bouts of seasonal affective disorder I had ever experienced, worry started to creep in. I was becoming increasingly concerned that I was drinking too much. But we had a plan to escape. It would just take time. So I gave myself a pass.

Sidebar: It's worth noting, throughout all of this, I've maintained a very high level of functioning. Had kids, earned degrees, held down a few full time jobs, ran a bunch of stupid-long foot races, did an mma fight, stayed in very good shape, etc. My close friends probably saw I had a problem, but the outside would probably didn't suspect much unless they were attuned to he "tells." That's kind of the nature of the beast.

Anyway, our plan to escape came to fruition. After years together, Shelly and I were finally actualizing the lifestyle goals we set wayyyyy back when we first got together. I should have been on top of the world.

When we arrived in Colorado, I was excited and the novelty was cool, bu it didn't take too long to realize the things I thought I would thoroughly enjoy were just kinda blah. I had a creeping feeling that something was wrong. Very, very wrong. I was constantly tired, which I attributed to aging. Or work. Or a lack of good sleep. My old routine involved getting up, working out, working all day, coming home and spending time with the kids, then training jiu jitsu or whatever my current hobby happened to be. Weekends usually involved doing something fun. Now all I wanted to do was come home and relax. Or sit around the house. Working up the energy and motivation to do anything was a Herculean battle. That sucked, considering I'm now surrounded by almost unlimited awesome outdoor adventures.

I also had a vague feeling like my nervous system was fucked up. I was constantly irritable. I had little tolerance for people. I had zero desire to be social. As I mentioned in the beginning, I was rapidly developing a bad case of ahedonia. Pleasurable things were no longer pleasurable. It was like the volume on life had been turned down. Like most guys, I ignored it and put my nose to the grindstone. "Shit'll get better" I told myself.

It didn't.

But I was surviving. That was good enough, or so I told myself. As you can probably guess, I did not stop drinking. I tried. Twice. For the first time in my life, I couldn't function enough to get through the withdrawal symptoms to the clarity of sobriety.

Not once, despite my grave concern about my inability to quit drinking, did I make the association between the lack of joy I felt and the long-term consumption of alcohol. So there I was, lying in bed after the Applebee's night. The discussions with Shelly about the book she was reading were running through my head. I had a sudden epiphany. What if all these issues weren't seasonal affective disorder? What if I weren't getting old and falling apart? WHAT IF ALCOHOL IS CAUSING THESE PROBLEMS?!? Like most epiphanies, I felt really, really stupid for not making these connections earlier.

Suddenly, alcohol was no longer that friend I had come to rely on so much. Now, alcohol was a motherfucking succubus stealing all that I hold most dear. That shit doesn't fly with me. I was done. I cannot explain how or why, or explain the exact change of reference, but just like that, alcohol was dead to me.

I knew I would be in for a nearly impossible challenge, though. I had no reason to believe a single epiphany would push me over the hump that had caused me to fail so many times before, even if I finally wanted this to be permanent. Shelly, who had just finished that book, seemed to be at peace in a way I had never seen her before. Most of those times I "quit", she quit, too.

The Book

The next morning, I woke up. I would like to say I started reading the book immediately, but I didn't. I spent four hours nursing my hangover. Once I started feeling marginally better, I cracked it open. I read the preface. I had to put the book down.

Every once in awhile, I encounter something that radically alters my world view. True to my INTP personality, I'm annoyingly logical (though I do often trust my instincts and pay close attention to emotion.) Most world view changes come slowly and methodically. Like what happened with the development of this blog... it was a decade in the making. But those five or six pages literally changed everything.

This isn't a book review, so I'm not going into the details, but that preface spoke to me on a level I did not expect. Shelly had told me enough to get me excited. In retrospect, that's probably the reason the epiphany the night before felt so... different. The book helped me reframe alcohol in a way that I had never even considered.

Specifically, it helped me come to the realization that alcohol was not the stress-reliever and coping mechanism I perceived it as. It also wasn't the social lubricant I thought it was. That helped me recalculate the "benefit" side of the cost/benefit analysis. It also helped me realize ALL of the costs of alcohol, which was far more numerous than I had long-believed. That helped with the "costs" calculations.

Over the next few days, I read through the entire book. The preface proved to be just a sampling of the amazing shit contained between the covers. Despite some repetitiveness towards the end and some somewhat clumsy discussions on the science, this book provided the exact framework I needed to say this damn succubus.

The Experiment

For eleven days, I didn't drink a drop. Each day, I felt better and better. It was really bizarre. It was almost like I was awakening from a long slumber and realizing the miracle of life again. I *almost* felt overwhelmed by all the amazing things everywhere. Teaching became awesome. Lifting felt *really* good. So did running. Food tasted better. I literally started noticing the sheer beauty of the mountains around me. Interacting with everyone, including my kids, became a hell of a lot more fun. Sex was better. Risking hyperbole, it was nothing short of amazing.

It was weird, man.

There was one problem, though. I'm curious to a fault. I needed to drink something to see just how accurate these perceptions really were. Was alcohol really responsible for all these problems? Was alcohol really a shitty stress-reliever? Did alcohol actually inhibit my ability to socialize?

Experimentation is my jam, so I went to work yesterday (at the time of writing, it's the morning after. I bought two bottles of chardonnay, eliminated all extraneous variables like TV, food, etc., set up a webcam, and recorded Shelly and I drinking most of those two bottles.

The most part tells you all you have to know. On a Saturday night, we've been known to polish off a three liter box of wine. Sometimes even a bit more. But it was hard to choke down most of those two bottles. The wine, which had long been refreshing, delicious goodness in fermented grape form, now tasted a lot like that Popov from high school. In the cold light of reality, the entire experience sucked. There was no warm feelings. There was no captivating conversation. There was no fun. There was just a vague feeling of fogginess that annoyingly fucked with my ability to compose and verbalize thoughts. I switched to tea about an hour before bed hoping the feeling would pass.

It didn't.

I had the shittiest night of sleep I've had since our kids were babies. I tossed and turned. Every time I'd wake up, I was acutely aware of the utter shittiness I felt everywhere. By five, I couldn't stay in bed. I felt really nauseous. Everything hurt. My head is kinda foggy. I'm slightly dehydrated. My muscles were unusually sore from jiu jitsu the day before. I'm crabby and irritable. I'm not motivated to work out. Even this post has been a chore to write. What I was feeling was several multitudes worse than the hangovers I routinely woke up to over the last two decades. Why? Because I had nothing else to attribute the feelings to other than those bottles of wine.

The facade of alcohol is gone. The desire to drink is gone. The withdrawal symptoms will be here for a day or three, and the physiological urges will persist for a few days beyond that. But the mental urge?

It's dead.

How can I be so sure? Because I now understand I have way more effective stress-relievers that alcohol, and they actually have good long-term benefits (like exercise, reading, etc.) I also understand alcohol has inhibited me socially. Despite being an introvert, I'm not shy. I have good charisma and charm, and I've been inadvertently sabotaging that in social situations by believing I needed alcohol.

Mostly, though, I've come to realize the cost of alcohol has been immense. The downward spiral I was in was starting to get rather perilous, and would have led to some really, really bad places in the not-so-distant future.

Fuck that.

I have an awesome life, and alcohol has already prevented me from enjoying way more than I would ever tolerate with anything else. Will I change my mind down the road? Maybe, but I doubt it. I'm rather ruthless when it comes to dead weight, and alcohol has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be just that - dead weight.

The cool thing - this killed my desire to drink at a very deep, fundamental level. Alcohol no longer feels like something I need to use willpower to avoid, which means being around alcohol is a non-issue.  I don't have to reformat my lifestyle to avoid people drinking, which is good given the pervasiveness of alcohol in our culture. 

So... how do you know if this book I keep referencing is right for you?

First, you'll probably need to be at a point in your life where you've come to your own conclusion that alcohol does or may be having a negative impact on your life. If you genuinely believe alcohol is great, you're probably not ready for this message. For me, this book basically allowed me to honestly (and brutally) assess the REAL costs and benefits of alcohol. I can handle the physiological withdrawal and the temporary physical urges. It was the mental part that caused me problems. That's why you have to be ready to accept that alcohol might not be so good... you're going to have to admit some uncomfortable and possibly painful truths to yourself.

If you think you're there, click on this link below or stop by your favorite bookstore.

"This Naked Mind" by Annie Grace

If you found this post useful, please share. Even if it resonates with one person, my goal will have been accomplished. 


Thursday, January 4, 2018

An Introvert's Plan to Survive in an Extrovert's World

Sometimes being an introvert sucks. Like, seriously sucks. We live in a culture that is built around extroversion, which can present problems for introverts. Non-introverts simply do not understand the nature of our occasional social avoidance, so most of us are written off as weirdo hermits. As a confirmed introvert and type of person who loves lifestyle experimentation, I've spent years tweaking my lifestyle to integrate my introvertedness with our extroverted world, which I'll elaborate on later in the post.

Lately, however, this has become a challenge. I started working two jobs, one of which has a very long daily commute. Between working, spending time with Shelly, spending time with the kids, and working out (mostly doing jiu jitsu), I have very little quiet "down" time. It's a temporary condition in preparation for moving, so I'm not sweating it too much. But it has led me to really explore the idea of introvertedness, how I manifest the personality type, exactly how it affects me, and what I can do to make the next year more tolerable.

Operational Definition

Before we get too far, let's operationally define the terms.

An INTROVERT is someone who is more inwardly-focused, feels tired and drained by social situations, prefers less stimulating, quiet environments, is less attenuated to social cues, and tends to be less impulsive. Introverts would rather be curled up on the couch with a cat and watching Game of Thrones.

An EXTROVERT is someone who is more outwardly-focused, feels energized by social situations, prefers more stimulating environments, is more attenuated to social cues, and tends to be more impulsive. Extroverts would rather be dancing the night away at a crowded club. 

Sums it up nicely...

My simple test - when you get an unexpected call from a friend asking you to go to a party in an hour, are you excited? Then you're probably an extrovert. Do you immediately try to come up with an excuse (or just say "no")? Then you're probably an introvert.

Are you somewhere in between these two paradigms? No worries; most of us fall somewhere in the middle. But we probably lean one way or the other.

If you want to know more about the prevailing definitions and the supporting science, check out this article. If you want to test yourself, try this simple online test. I got something like 78% introvert. If you're really interested in personality assessment, this online test is one of the better tests based off the Myers/Briggs assessment. I'm an INTP... which kinda explains my fascination with this topic, eh?

My Experiences

Before I get to my ideas for experimentation, I'll explain my experiences with introversion and how I've managed to thrive in an extroverted world... especially as a teacher. Fellow introverts will probably nod in agreement; extroverts will find all this shit weird. 

Throughout my childhood, most people assumed I was somewhat shy because I spent a lot of time alone and would avoid many social interactions. I come from a family that loves talking endlessly, which I've always found to be fun for about fifteen minutes, then absolutely exhausting. 

For a long time, I thought "shyness" was more about getting fatigued from being around people instead of experiencing a degree of social anxiety. By the time I reached college, I finally began to understand the nature of introversion. Also by this time, I had noticed that I could be socially awkward if I wasn't being "on", and being "on" for too long was mentally and physically exhausting. 

Unfortunately, it took many years for me to fully understand that I required daily quiet solitude to recharge. As a classic "Nice Guy", the approval of others was important to me, especially those closest to me. I would force myself to engage in social situations even after I had long-exhausted my tolerance for social interaction. The predictable result? I'd get anxious, then depressed, then engage in negative self-talk that deepened the depression. That led to extreme irritability, becoming easily frustrated, angry, and aggressive. But I didn't want to let people down, so I developed a tendency to engage in martyr behaviors. It wasn't pretty.

"Please flog me with social interaction..."

Somewhere around a decade ago, I learned to say "no." That gave me the most powerful tool in the introvert toolbox. For me, that was revolutionary. It allowed me to break the cycle of anxiety and depression, which improved pretty much every aspect of my life. I started to formulate a method to regulate social interactions effectively. I've been using this system for a number of years now, which has become increasingly important since having kids and settling into uber-crowded Southern California. It's almost impossible to get away from crowds of people and heavy traffic, so every trip outside my apartment door is going to require significant social interaction. My system helps me survive the urban sprawl. 

The system goes kinda like this...

I imagine I have a "social interaction gas tank." This represents how much social interaction I can effectively tolerate on a daily basis. Under normal circumstances, the tank starts every morning with 10 units. Every social interaction removes a certain number of units from the tank, and some have a higher cost than others. Some examples:

  • Spending time with my kids = 1 unit
  • Training at my bjj/mma gym, going out on a date in public with Shelly, talking on the phone, or hanging out with very close friends = 2 units
  • Driving more than a few miles in heavy traffic = 3 units
  • Going to a store, running errands, or driving in heavy traffic with kids in the car = 4 units
  • Work (currently school security, formerly teaching), going to any kind of medical appointment = 5 units
  • Going anywhere with a large crowd of people or having a house guest = 6 units
  • Going to a crowded store or the mall or extended family gatherings = 7 units
  • Going to any kind of social gathering with a lot of strangers that requires mingling = 8 units
  • Shopping on Black Friday = 10 units
I can spend up to ten units normally with no negative side effects. Once I drop below ten, I start creating a deficit. The greater the deficit, the greater the anxiety I experience, and the greater the depression and irritability gets, and the longer it takes to subside. Perhaps worse, I lose the ability to be "on" and effectively interact with others. Normally I'm pretty witty, charming, warm, and playful. When the tank begins to run dry, I get irritable, fidgety, and lose the ability to follow conversations. This effect, annoyingly, seems to be completely involuntary and irreversible in the moment. Except...

... some things will actually add units to the tank. If the tank begins to run low and I have unavoidable social interactions I still need to tackle, I can rely on these to give me a little boost. For example:

  • Two hours of complete solitude = +1 unit
  • Alcohol = +1 unit per two drinks... up to about nine drinks
  • An hour of exercise in nature or two hours of solitude surrounded by nature = +2 units
  • A full night of adequate sleep = +3 units
  • Sex = +4 units
If I've had a long day of work and had to run a few errands, a glass or two of wine might be just enough to get me out the door to the gym. Or some morning sex might be enough to get me through shopping and attending a coworker's birthday party. Or those drinks might help get me through an extended social situation with friends if we're out in public.

A few months ago, some of my gym teammates were fighting on a local mma promotion's card. The venue, unbeknownst to me, did not serve alcohol. There were a lot of acquaintances at the fights, many of which came up to me and started chatting. The first hour was fine, but it quickly went downhill with each person that came up to me and engaged in small talk. Shelly (also an introvert) and I ended up leaving early as soon as our teammates were finished in order to "get good seats" at our post-fight destination, one of our favorite bars. I had to bail early; I simply couldn't tolerate the people and noise any longer. 

My day-to-day existence thus becomes an exercise in balancing the equation daily and over the course of several days. Deficits from one day will carry over to the next, so the equation has to eventually balance. I can go into a deficit on any given day, but the further I go into a deficit, the longer it takes to recover. 

I can use this to roughly plan out each day, and also use it to help me decide whether or not to do something that pops up. Right now, my schedule has gotten difficult because I'm working two jobs with a long commute in traffic four days per week followed by a half-day of work. I'm spending 13 units as my default, and even more if I have to run errands, meet up with people, there's an accident on the highway, etc. The average is somewhere around 15 units spent daily. If I'm getting great sleep and have a few drinks every night, I can balance this out fairly easily. But one night of bad sleep or unexpected events requiring social interaction can fuck the whole thing up and require me to basically hibernate when the weekend rolls around.

By the time the weekend rolls around, I'm almost always facing at least a little bit of a deficit that requires balancing, so I tend to become a hermit to some degree. We try to get out of the city as much as possible by either going camping in the mountains or escaping to El Centro, a small, sleepy town in the middle of the desert east of San Diego. For most weeks, I can get back to a zero balance by Sunday evening.

The problem, of course, is that sometimes I can't get back to a zero balance. Well, that and the fact that I'm using alcohol as a coping mechanism. As the weeks pass, I get a little deeper into a deficit each week. Luckily I'm working in schools, so we have fairly regular vacations and can balance that accumulated deficit.

This deficit is where the self-experimentation comes into play. I want to figure out if there's a way to a) reduce the social cost of various activities, b) increase the size of my "fuel tank", and c) figure out if there are other activities that "refill" the tank. So what do I have so far? Some of these are ideas I already use. Some are ideas I want to try.

Ideas for Experimentation

The first batch of ideas involves reducing the "cost" of socialization. For example, driving in heavy traffic normally costs 3 units, but avoiding the traffic by taking longer-but-less-traveled alternate routes might reduce the cost to 2 units. What else can be done to reduce the cost of necessary activities?
  • Have a plan when shopping. I ***hate*** shopping with a passion, but I've found making a specific plan of what I want, where it's located in the store, and what's the most efficient route to get in and get out quickly makes a huge difference. 
  • Avoid people whenever possible. This is especially true if I know I'll have social interactions later in the day. Unnecessary interactions just deplete the tank.
  • Noise-cancelling headphones when I'm home with the kids. Several friends in the man camp recommended this idea. I've used regular headphones before, and they work okay. But they still allow enough noise to get through to make it impossible to block out their presence. 
  • Research participants of social events. If I know I'm going to be interacting with specific people I don't know well, I can do a little research to get an idea of their interests, which will reduce the amount of time spent engaging in small talk, which is usually the bane of introverts. This allows me to plan conversations to a degree, or at least plan questions. The result is a less taxing conversation. 
  • Hack the environment by knowing where shit's located. One of the reasons social events are taxing is because I'm always observing people. That means I usually prefer to be in a position to see everyone, which is probably a reason I like either being in front of a crowd (like giving speeches, teaching, etc.) or being on the periphery where I can observe. I do not like having my back to doors or windows, and I do not like having people behind me. As such, the more familiar I am with an environment, the less the social cost. If I'm going to be in a new place, I try to "scout" it out ahead of time.

The next few strategies involve attempting to increase the size of fuel tank. This usually doesn't work all that well, but it's sometimes enough to help squeeze as much social time out of the day as possible. 
  • Feeling healthy via diet and exercise. Diet and exercise don't directly affect my introverted tendencies, but if I feel good, I seem to have an extra unit or two in the tank that day. To that end, I try to stay relatively fit and eat a fairly clean diet free of excessive processed foods. Admittedly, this is something that's slipped in recent months, and it'll be something I focus on in the coming months... starting with giving up alcohol for thirty days (on day three right now.) 
  • Having a very well-defined daily routine. I'm not an especially routine-oriented person, but adding structure to my day does seem to help eek an extra unit or two out of each day. Turning shit into "rituals" seems to be the key. 

Finally, here are some activities that might refill the tank. These are the activities that go beyond helping me cope and instead make me feel recharged.
  • Escape to the roof. I live on the top floor of a two story building with a flat roof. Getting up there, especially in the evening, should be pretty easy. While it's far from quiet (I'm still surrounded by the noise of urban sprawl), it would provide isolation from people. That's important. 
  • Do art. Back in the day, I used to love drawing. I'd spend hours and hours drawing all kinds of shit. By college, I more or less stopped because I realized being an artist wasn't going to result in the lifestyle I wanted and I developed other hobbies. Again following the advice of friends in Man Camp, I'm going to experiment with drawing some more. Art always brought me to a flow state, and that's a magical place that always seems to refill the tank.
  • Sensory deprivation tank. I first considered this idea based on a Rogan podcast, but didn't take it all that seriously until another friend in Man Camp brought up the idea. It's basically a small light-proof and soundproof tank filled with body-temperature salt water (to aid in floating) meant to eliminate a great deal of sensory input. And it sounds glorious. I'll likely check out a local "float" spa in the area. If I like the experience, I might consider building one at some point.
I'll be working two jobs for the foreseeable future... possibly for the next five months. This timeframe will give me ample opportunities to test most of these ideas. While I love being an introvert, social obligations are a necessity in my life. The better I can get at navigating introvertedness, the more effective I become. We'll see how the experimentation goes.

What do you think? Are you an introvert? If so, does any of this resonate with your experiences? What "coping" mechanisms to you use to survive in our extroverted world? Share by leaving a comment!


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Making Meaning Out of Chaos: Some Thoughts on Trump and Skepticism

If you follow my rants on Facebook, you know I've had a wide range of ever-changing thoughts on the shit-storm that is the Trump candidacy and subsequent presidency. Early in the campaign season, I saw him as a bit of a joke. When he started gaining traction, I took notice. When he won the primary, I was thoroughly impressed. Then he beat Hillary. At that point, I assumed Trump was a masterful political tactician who, as a long-time New York Democrat, managed to expertly troll his way into the White House as a fanatical white nationalist conservative. Or so I thought. The most important part of that post? This line:

"I would be willing to gamble an uncomfortable amount of money that we're going to see a very, very different Trump in office."

Turns out I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Also worth noting - I am not a Trump supporter even though I was impressed with his performance. Some of his policies would balance out our sociopolitical swing to the far left over the last few years, thus he could have been good for political balance. I voted for Johnson. ;-)

Since inauguration, we've seen the exact same Trump we saw on the campaign trail. This deeply saddens me. First, like most people, I don't like being wrong. But I also don't have a problem admitting it. This is how we grow as people... we recognize when we fucked up, understand why, and plot a better course. 

Secondly and more importantly, I genuinely thought Trump could be the president that ends our recent trend of hyper-partisanship that has divided 'Murica for the last decade and a half. I thought Trump could be the leader we needed. Again, I was very, very wrong. 

As it turns out, Trump is basically the person he appears to be on the surface - an unpredictable, egotistical, idiot with no real leadership skills and a really bad tendency to throw his allies under the bus to avoid taking responsibility for his own failures. Pretty much every decision he makes systematically results in him pissing away his own political power. When he took office, both the GOP and Democrats were terrified of the dude. Now? He's a laughing-stock.

Trump rants aside, this post is really about skepticism and how hope can blind our judgment. I wanted Trump to be someone he wasn't, which led me to give him the benefit of the doubt longer than I should have based on clear, objective evidence. I wanted to see something that simply wasn't there. 

Why do we do this?

Early Man

Wayyyyy back in the day, man would look upon naturally-occurring phenomena like the rising and setting of the sun, the movement of the stars, thunder and lightning, disease and death, and so on, and derive explanations. This seems to be where religion came from. We made meaning out of shit we couldn't explain. 

Later, when we developed better observational skills and tools, we develop better, more plausible explanations. Of course, we're still skeptical about these observations as any good student of science should be, but we're pretty damn certain our present observations and explanations are better than our observations and explanations from the past. 

Interestingly, we all seem to have a personal threshold that represents the point where we reject the old explanation and adopt the new. Centuries ago (or earlier if we look beyond Western Civ.), man recognized the world was not flat. It was spherical. At first, those who proposed it were treated as heretics. But the acceptance of the idea grew over time. Eventually, more and more people passed that personal threshold and accepted the new idea. Today, with the exception of a few fanatical laggards, we all accept this "new" explanation.

Enter the Trump Phenomenon

In all likelihood, I was wrong about Trump. I say "in all likelihood" because, being the good scientist I am, I do not like to rule out any possible explanations entirely, even silly stuff like "Trump is an animatronic device controlled by Illuminati." It took me a lot longer to come to the "Trump is a disaster" conclusion because I wanted him to be the great leader who would unite our populace that we haven't had in decades. 

Hope clouded my judgment. 

Lesson learned. 

There's also another factor at play... I do not like to underestimate people who seek power overtly or covertly. Trump's change in behaviors over the last few years seemed suspect. People don't generally take a 180 degree sociopolitical turn that late in life unless they have a very good reason... like winning the most powerful job in the world. To me, there were two possible explanations:

1. Trump was a masterful tactician supported by expert manipulators and big data, and knew exactly what to say at the right time to the right people to usurp not only his own party, but the entire political establishment. Or...

2. Trump was the right guy at the right time in the right place and got really fucking lucky.

On November 10th, I would have been willing to put most of my life savings on the first explanation. Today? I wouldn't waste tree fiddy on that same bet. The lesson I learned - don't let emotion cloud your observational skills. 

Of course, there's still a sizeable percentage of the American public that genuinely believes Trump is a masterful tactician. Odds are good they're more emotionally-invested in Trump than I was, ergo they have more reason to believe he's something he isn't. As time passes, unless something radically changes, the number of people in this camp will continue to decline to the point where the Trump presidency becomes untenable. 

So What's Next for Trump?

Even though I was wrong about Trump's presidency, I'm not going to stop making predictions. Based on the present course, I predict there's a very high probability he gets removed from office via impeachment. I predict the Russian investigation will turn up more sketchy shit, but we'll eventually figure out that Trump and his team were just stupidly incompetent and most of the apparent "collusion" was the Russians masterfully manipulating us. His impeachment will occur due to obstruction of justice, not collusion, probably related to the eventual firing of Meuller.

I predict the GOP will hold the Senate and the House, though they will lose many seats in the junior chamber. More importantly, the election cycle will alienate many representatives who once supported Trump. None of Trump's big four agenda items (repeal and replace ACA, tax reform, infrastructure improvement, and the border wall) will come to fruition, though we may get some minor tweaking of the tax code. 

Right now, our biggest concern is the North Korea situation. I predict this will end in diplomacy and we'll forget about the issue by Thanksgiving. As unhinged as Trump is, his generals won't let him start a war. Unless North Korea changes course on their decades-long pattern of saber-rattling and is foolish enough to attack us or our allies... but that seems completely implausible. Odds are good Trump's rhetoric is a diversion from the domestic shit show. 


As humans, we have an innate drive to make sense of chaos, and we all have personal thresholds when we give plausible explanations of chaos and when we accept chaos for what it is. It took me a long time to reach the conclusion that Trump is a chaotic shit-show, and this delay was due to my desire to want Trump to be a clever tactician. But alas, he is not. 

Lesson learned. 

How about you? Are there times you've stuck to implausible explanations longer than you should have? Leave a comment!


Friday, August 4, 2017

Makin' Shit Happen: The Plans to Move

Back in December of last year, I wrote a post about being bored as Hell and needing to make changes to my life. The gist? We've been in San Diego for almost five years. I've more or less been drifting along, just enjoying our weird lifestyle. But it started to get a little stale. The novelty of being poor hobos wore off and the realities of living in a an expensive, crowded city started setting in. After experiencing the strongest, longest bout of depression I've experienced in years (which I wrote about earlier), I knew I needed to change shit up.

Shelly and I kicked around a lot of ideas. We knew we wanted to move away from the city. The traffic and people and noise were just getting to be too much of a constant stressor. As I had discussed in the "Sell the Kids" post, we had identified a few areas where we would consider moving. We also considered staying in SoCal, but moving to the mountains. We have a lot of good friends in the area, and the weather's usually phenomenal. This indecision caused us to spend a lot of time contemplating options. We were basically stuck in a cycle of indecision. 

Then something unexpected happened.

We had been planning a trip back to Michigan, our home state, to visit friends and family. And reminisce about our past lives. We decided to drive to capture some nostalgia from our RV travel days (we spent two years on the road crisscrossing the US) because our kids were mostly too young to remember much. That trip tuned out to be fabulous because it immediately ignited the passion for adventure that had been missing for years. Specifically, it was the drive through Southern Utah's canyon country and the Colorado Rockies that did it. Even now, weeks later, the thought gives me goosebumps. 

It reminded us that a) we LOVED that part of the country, and b) we had plans to settle somewhere like that before we got sidetracked with the San Diego area (and jiu jitsu.) Other shit added to the reignition of the passion. Seeing our friends reminded us that we don't have to live in proximity to our friends in SoCal. The quiet seclusion of rural Michigan reminded us of how much we crave silence. The wide-open spaces reminded us of how much we love the freedom that comes with a sparse population density. Finally, shooting some handguns with our friend Christian reminded me how much I miss my days as a hunter. There were a thousand more things that stoked that fire, too.

While in Michigan, Shelly and I had a lot of long talks about the goals we had before the RV travel opportunity materialized, and how much we wanted to make that happen. The more we discussed it, the more we realized that dream was simply impossible in SoCal. The cost of living in general, and the cost of real estate in particular, would mean we'd have to work incredibly long hours to afford even a sliver of the life we really wanted.

Fuck that. 

Long ago, we learned the folly of the Faustian bargain of working all the time to afford the stuff you no longer have time to enjoy. And we want to continue giving our kids a steady diet of new experiences. We've lived in an ultra-religious conservative area. We've lived in a predominantly agnostic ultra-liberal area. We've lived in lily-white suburbs. We've lived in a place where they're an ethnic minority. We've experienced a materialistic lifestyle; we've lived in abject poverty. We've lived in places with long, brutal winters and we've lived in places with long, sweltering summers. Now it's time to give them a rural experience. 

By the time we left Michigan, we had a plan in place. The real clincher, though, came as I was driving over the westbound Loveland Pass on I-70 in Colorado. Everyone was sleeping and the traffic was light. Just as I crossed the summit, the light from the sunrise flooded the mountain peaks ahead. I'm not a religious person, or even spiritual for that matter. But that felt like some kind of sign. Just like that, the decision was made. We're moving to Colorado

Of course, there are a ton of logistics involved. Without going into unnecessary details, we set up an eighteen month timeline. There's shit that I need to do before moving, which includes:

  • Pay off all our debt. Before we hit the road in the RV, we were well on our way towards eliminating all our debt via Dave Ramsey's "debt snowball" methodology. We got away from it because a) we don't currently make much money, and b) we kinda got caught up in the California culture of being okay with ridiculous amounts of debt. However, the loss of freedom that comes with debt is simply unacceptable to me. So we're gonna pay that shit off.
  • Learn a trade. I want some new career options, and I miss working with my hands. Most of my jobs since college have been decidedly white collar, so I need a change. Specifically, I need to get away from the pressure of being "always on" as a writer. Or putting up with regulation bullshit as a teacher. Over the next eighteen months, I'm learning some combination of the three - gunsmithing, plumbing, or electrical. When we move, this will offer more opportunities for jobs and/or apprenticeships.
  • Launch a business. Shelly and I have been kicking around a business idea for years, but the logistics and the red tape of SoCal have made it difficult to launch. At heart, we're both decidedly entrepreneurial. We both have great, complimentary business skills and we love working together. Barefoot Running University has been exceptionally successful from a profit margin standpoint, but we want to move beyond the confines of that particular brand. To accomplish this goal, I've gotten a part-time job as a school security officer at a local school district. I'll post more on this in the future.
  • Earn my brown belt in jiu jitsu. This is more of a personal goal than anything else, and a motivation trick to keep training. When I get extremely motivated to plan adventures (like moving), activities tend to fall by the wayside. The belt itself is meaningless, but it gives me a framework to learn specific skills and ideas, which will guide my training. 
  • Re-immerse myself in firearms and hunting. For the first twenty or so years of my life, I was immersed in hunting culture. My father was an avid and skilled outdoorsman, and I love feeling the connection to him whenever I'm in the wilderness or shooting. To accomplish this goal, I plan on applying to local gun store and ranges, which will also lead to the "learn gunsmithing" goal. You know, two birds...
  • Take the Man Camp (officially renamed from "San Diego Man Camp" to the more location-independent "Das Man Camp") outside Facebook. I originally created this group with the intent on doing what amounts to life coaching, then I spent some time interacting with life coaches. <BARF!> I could not do what they do because it violates my personal ethics. So after some aimlessness as a mere Facebook group, I've decided to refocus Das Man Camp as a recreational group centered around developing better skills in general and leadership in particular. I'll be posting more about this in the future, too. 

So these are the things I've been working on since returning from Michigan. It's been a Hell of a rush... it's been a long time since I felt this powerful motivation to make shit happen. I've been incredibly busy with building the foundation for all this shit, but it's the kind of busy that energizes me on a primal level. It's time to make shit happen. 


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Fickle Nature of Motivation: A Brain Chemistry Discussion

Motivation is a fickle mistress. In the last few posts, I wrote about the nature of high-functioning depression. In my experiences, a complete and total lack of motivation to do anything and everything is the predominant symptom I experience. 

Over the last decade or so, I've spent a great deal of time trying to manage this lack of motivation. I started by trying to fight it. You know, learning ways to force myself to do the shit I didn't want to do. I discovered that these forced behaviors, while possible, are absolutely draining. When I'm in a depressed state, I cut back activities to the bare minimum. If it ain't necessary, I ain't doin' it. Eventually I learned it was far better to figure out a) the antecedents to the depressive state and avoid those and b) behaviors that will shorten the depressive state than it was to try to will myself to keep doing "business as usual." 

So what's going on here?

The Biological Basis for Motivation

Based on our best hypotheses to date, motivation is primarily controlled by two neurotransmitters in your brain - dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine seems to serve as the "reward" our brain gives itself when we engage in particular behaviors. In short, it's responsible for the feeling of "enjoyment" we get from doing the shit we enjoy. It should be noted this doesn't always mean we get rewarded for "pleasurable" behaviors like sex, drugs, and blue grass. It's entirely possible to be "rewarded" for experiencing what appears to be "bad" shit. That's the nature of masochism. 

Anyway, serotonin seems to play a role in the cost/benefit analysis we do before engaging in any behavior. The lower the levels of serotonin, the more "cost" we perceive, ergo the less likely we will engage in any given behavior. 

Note the uncertainty in tone of those last two paragraphs. That's intentional. The role of both neurotransmitters isn't fully understood, nor are the mechanisms by which they work. And there may be other neurotransmitters at play we haven't discovered yet. The brain's still kind of a mystery that way. Keep that in mind. 

In theory, "depression" occurs when we have a deficiency in one or both of these neurotransmitters. Different symptoms seem to occur with different variations in each neurotransmitter, including a lack of motivation. This is why it's exceptionally difficult if not impossible to "think" yourself out of depression. The brain chemistry controls cognition (what you think about) much more than cognition affects brain chemistry (but that can and does happen.)

So How Can We Use This Information?

If we frame "motivation" as a function of brain chemistry, all we have to do is learn what affects said chemistry. We could take the drug route and do a few lines of coke (to release dopamine) and pop a few ecstasy pills (to release serotonin), but that process is unpredictable, temporary, prone to habituation (we develop a tolerance), and kinda addictive.

A safer, sustainable solution is to do what I mentioned earlier. If you're feeling unmotivated, you're experiencing low levels of one or both neurotransmitters, so you need to figure out what caused the drop in the first place and what will cause them to return to normal levels (thus regaining motivation.) That usually takes a good deal of experimentation, but you'll gain the ability to control your motivation levels far more than you would without the experimentation. 

For me, the preventative steps I take are regular exercise, a relatively clean diet, lots o' sex, regular exposure to sunshine, and having some goal to work towards. If I can maintain all of these reliably, I never really experience a lack of motivation. Unfortunately, sometimes you get injured. Or you can't afford a clean diet. Or you get an especially cloudy winter. Shit happens. When it does, I have to take curative measures. 

The goal of curative measures is to get out of the funk I'm in. The same basic rules apply. Exercise. Eat clean. Get out in the sun. Have even more sex. 

Of course, the problem with taking curative steps is... you guessed it - a lack of motivation. Because it can be almost impossible to will myself to do any of these enough to actually eliminate the problem, I need a few passive options, too. Since social interactions are especially taxing during the low-motivation depressive states, social isolation works wonders. So does low-level exercise like walking. Same deal with sun exposure. The absolute perfect ideal - going for long walks alone in the sunshine. Unfortunately, I'm currently in a situation where I'm surrounded by people all the time. Getting complete social isolation would require about an hour of driving to get to the desert east of San Diego. For me, this is one of the things that makes this a somewhat difficult place to live. Luckily the ample sunshine works as a powerful preventative measure.

In the next post, I'll talk about the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and the effects each has on motivation. Teaser - this is the reason we get sick of our jobs.

Stay tuned!


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!