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!


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.


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.


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!


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. 


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.