Mental illness and the urgency to be okay

I've struggled with depressed moods and anxious temperament for most of my adult life. I'm grateful that in spite of my struggle, I've been able to live a rich life full of great friends, a loving family, good food, a comfortable living space, a dynamic career, and some creative hobbies.

For the past few years, I've tried everything I could think of in order to find ways to cope. Talk therapy, yoga, fitness, self-help books, group therapy, and sobriety were my frequent go-tos. I could never find anything that worked.

One day recently though, I had an epiphany. I realized that the pursuit of getting better was, ironically, the cause of my depression. The idea that I am depressed means I'm not okay the way I am. It means I have to seek to be something different in order to be okay, even if I don't know what the target is. I need "treatment", which in our culture means some therapy and some medication. And if those don't work? Well, you didn't do it right. You need more treatment. Different treatment.

It's enough to drive a depressed person into cascading spirals of horrible depression. The idea that you're not good enough leads to depression. Depression leads to seeking treatment. Treatment leads to a diagnosis. A diagosis reinforces the idea you're not good enough.

I received a casual diagnosis from a therapist that I might have bipolar II disorder. He also told me it was a lifelong affliction. When this happened, I immediately had an identity crisis. Am I bipolar? What does that mean? Will I need to be on medication forever? What started out as me asking how to cope with my depression turned into a whole new identity of confusion, victimhood, and powerlessness.

I ruminated about the diagnosis for weeks. It consumed me, making me wonder whether I would always carry the burden of mental illness. It truly became a part of me. I adopted a victim mentality and became more of a burden to the people around me because I was even more convinced I wasn't okay the way I was than when I started.

But I started to think more critically about such a diagnosis and the ramifications mental health diagnosis has on its patients. Bipolar II is marked by hypomanic episodes involving high-risk activities, the likes of which I've never really experienced. It just didn't make any sense given my lifestyle, and the diagnosis came after only a couple months of therapy.

Then, suddenly, I had a breakthrough. I realized that my identifying with mental illness—my impression that there is such a thing as normalcy and that I don't have it—was the illness. I knew I needed to let go of the idea that I needed to be something else. To cultivate gratitude for what I am, not what I think I need to be. To let go of the idea that someone or something is going to fix me, because I don't need fixing.

I let go. And suddenly, the depression lifted. I felt good again. No therapy. No medication. No self-help. Just some meditation, good food, exercise, and letting go of the idea I need to be different from what I am.

I'm not "disordered". I don't have a "mental illness". I'm eccentric, exceptional, excellent, and unapologetically me. In letting go of what we think we need to be, we emerge recognizing the perfection we already are.

When it looks like everyone else is having more fun

My parents are currently in Miami and my mother sent me this photo of the view from their hotel:

Miami Hotel View

And my partner is currently in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and sent me this one from hers:

Puerto Vallarta Hotel

Meanwhile, I'm back in Portland. The Spring Fakeout has subsided, and it's a very familiar 50 degrees and overcast here. It's supposed to rain today. I have client work to attend to and will likely be inside most of the day.

If I size up my situation compared to theirs, it looks pretty glum. But that's not the whole story.

My mother, immediately before sending her photo, told me she hates Miami and doesn't really want to be there. And my partner had to suffer an erratic sleep schedule to make it on her 6:00am flight to Mexico.

It's easy to compare our circumstance to those of our friends and family and feel left out, isolated, and lesser-than. But the reality is that our suffering follows us wherever we go. It doesn't care if you're on a beautiful beach. It doesn't care how much money you have. No matter where you are, comparing yourself to others will rob you of the magic that manifests in every single moment.

The tourism industry exploits our tendency to compare our present circumstance to that of others. They're aware that we'll glance at a picture of a sunny beach and believe whole-heartedly that if we could only be there, we'd be contented.

The reality though, is more complicated. Some people are content when they're on a sunny beach, but they're probably the same ones who were content in their prior circumstance. Some people take their misery with them wherever they go and wonder why they can't escape it.

You and I have everything we need right here, right now. It's completely normal to become envious—it's in our evolutionary makeup. But by gently reminding ourselves that no one's experience is as ideal as we pretend, we free ourselves from the delusion that things would be better if only we were someplace else.

I don't enjoy travel anymore

I'm sitting in a condo I rented for a week-long personal retreat in Bend, Oregon. My partner is on her way to Mexico for a vacation with her friend, so I figured I'd take this week as an opportunity to get out of Portland for awhile and change my surroundings.

So far, I don't get it.

Bend is fine. I've heard great things about it. It's scenic. There's a bustling downtown full of fun things to do. There's a charm here that's not found anywhere else. Et cetera.

But I didn't sleep well last night. I spent an entire day packing, driving, unpacking, and grocery shopping. I left the home I'd made for myself in Portland—a carefully curated collection of systems for living—and decided it would be a good idea to leave all of that for a slightly different version of the same place.

I can see the allure of wanting to produce landmarks in your memories. Things you've done that you'll remember forever. That makes sense to me, and I'm sure I'll remember the time I spent a week in Bend more than I'll remember the relative monotony of the weeks before and after.

But I'm beginning to realize that I just don't enjoy travel like other people seem to. It's not only that I thrive in routine, even though I do. I think too it's that I thrive in the act of homesteading—in building systems for living that encourage economy and reliability. Travel is completely antithetical to that ethos. It's wasteful, inefficient, and exhausting.

Kudos to you if you enjoy traveling. I used to. I just need to make space for my changing needs and desires. Travel used to be something I loved. Now I'm not so sure.

Summer vacation

This year, the stars have aligned to give me the opportunity of a lifetime: I'm taking a summer vacation.

After five years of persistent saving, planning, building and dreaming, I'm in a position where I'm able to take the months of May through August away from client work to indulge in personal pursuits.

My plan has a few key objectives.

I want to learn to become comfortable with boredom and uncertainty. By making myself unavailable for client work for a period of a few months, I think I'll be able to sink my teeth into some sweet, sweet boredom. I'll wake up and my day will be unstructured. I'll have to define my own objectives. I'll be free to write, to read, to sit and stare out the window.

I'm excited to practice reducing my day-to-day expenses. With the luxury of full, empty days, it's unlikely I'll have the knee-jerk idea to just go out to eat instead. Not constantly serving clients, I'll be armed with the decision-making capacity to become an even more effective home economist.

I want to enjoy Oregon's lush and diverse landscapes. So often during the summers have I wanted to venture out to explore Sauvie Island or take a day trip to the coast, only to be pulled back into client work and unable to enjoy its majesty. This summer, I want to give myself permission to explore unencumbered.

And as well, I'm eager to push the big reset button on my life and business. I've engaged in flurries of writing about and promoting my business, but making it a full-time job for a few months ought to bring about some massive changes and allow me to see things more clearly than when in the day-to-day cycle of client work.

School's almost out. Time to play!

Do it slowly

In the pursuit of having what we want now, we often set ourselves up for never having it at all.

Risking your entire savings to start a company wrecklessly means you've compromised your security in the pursuit of rapid growth, instead of growing slowly while maintaining other sources of income.

Buying a Mercedes on credit (or worse, leasing it) will get you the car you want now, but your future self might not be able to afford the payments. Buying a lightly used Mercedes with cash from the person who bought theirs new on credit, only when you can afford to do so and maintain your financial independence, will mean you can drive a Mercedes forever.

Trying to deadlift 400lbs when you haven't set foot in a gym in a decade means you're likely to wind up doing irreversible damage to your body. If instead you work with a trainer to learn how to deadlift 90lbs safely, and over the course of several months, you'll eventually get the strength you desire.

Marrying the person you just met online six months ago might get you a spouse now, but you're less likely to have built a foundation of trust. You're more likely to divorce, or worse, spend your life with someone whose company you dislike.

The true reward of living is in the process—not the outcome. The gratification from having exerted effort to achieve life's rewards is far greater than the rewards themselves.

A chicken with its head cut off

On my path toward financial independence, I notice my financial awareness comes and goes in waves.

At one extreme, I'm devoted to my frugal lifestyle. I cook at home. I only go to cafes for $4 coffee when I'm meeting friends. I invite friends over for dinner. My partner and I cook. I take inventory of my things and use what I have.

But then, there's the other extreme. I call it the chicken with its head cut off extreme. I mindlessly buy $4 coffee after $4 coffee while I work, distracted by the tiresome surroundings of a crowded cafe. I go out to lunch at restaurants whose food is great, but which has worn on me as I've eaten there so many times. I buy clothes not out of necessity or comfort, but to evoke a sense of fashion. I buy gadgets to fill a void in my heart that could have just as easily been filled by a ten-minute meditation.

In the FIRE community, there's rightful enthusiasm for the position of f*ck you. But at the mindless, consumption-oriented end of the spectrum of financial acumen lies a different position: the position of f*ck it. The proverbial chicken with its head cut off.

In striving for financial independence, we tell ourselves we're on a path toward "freedom." But the very notion of freedom is meaningless if not properly defined. After all, the position of f*ck it, the position of a chicken with its head cut off—that sounds awfully free. It's doing whatever you want whenever you want to. And fundamental financial independence ideal—the idea that you'll be hyper-frugal and save today for a better tomorrow—sounds like the opposite of freedom.

So maybe "freedom" isn't the right word. Maybe what we're striving for is autonomy. The sense that we're in control of our lives, as much as we can be. That we're free to say no. That we control our time, even if that means we relinquish the convenience of meals out and the perceived prestige of fancy cars.

Would you say a chicken with its head cut off is autonomous? I don't think so.

God is everywhere

Atop Spencer Butte

This weekend I took a solo retreat down to Eugene.

I climbed to the top of Spencer Butte and did something I don't do usually do: I sat and looked.

I'm always so distracted taking pictures and texting my friends about the alleged majesty of it all that I don't even stop to look. When I did manage to pry my eyes up into the distance, what I saw was divine. It was God staring me in the face.

Not the Christian God or the Muslim God or the Jewish God or the Hindu God. Just God. The unknown. The mystery. That sense that there's more than we see.

I'm working to see God in more of what I do each day. To pause and notice the little magic working itself in everything.

That awe I feel when I look my partner in the eye.

The warmth of a meal among friends I haven't seen in a long time.

The way I feel when I pick up the phone to call someone I love and tell them that.

That feeling when you shut the laptop and decide life is too short to spend all of it twitching your fingers into a machine.

That. That's God.

I have to get ready

Which are the shoes that are perfect for any and all weather conditions and activities? When I find them, I'll finally go outside.

What is the perfect apartment to rent? That one apartment that balances cost, square footage, location, and amenities in a way that sparks the same romantic euphoria as the gaze of a new lover. It's a place where I'll store my hundred things, curated to spark joy, with not a touch of excess. It might take me decades to curate them, but once I do I'll start living.

Which backpack balances versatility, size, aesthetic, and function such that I can use it for travel, around town, my gym bag, and as a grocery sack? I'm not sure yet, but once I am I'll finally go on that trip.

What is the best way to brew a cup of coffee? What delicate ratio of beans and water and grind setting and water temperature and vessel and roast will achieve the proper setting for the perfect cup? Until I find it, I'm not interested in having you over for coffee. It's not ready yet.

Which car will excel both in the city and on the highway, will be great for going grocery shopping as much as climbing mountains off-road, and will double as a campervan in a pinch? If you have any leads, let me know because I'm not sure I want to go on any trips until I've found it.

How much money do I need before I start doing the things I want? That just-right amount that gives me a perfect annual income at a safe 4% annual withdrawal rate. Once I have it, I'll finally get to do everything I want.

But until then, I have to get ready.

Break things down

In software engineering, it's not technical prowess that most often prevents projects from being completed on time and within budget. It's lack of clarity.

If features and tasks aren't understood by all stakeholders, both in their content (the what) and purpose (the why), there's a risk those invalid assumptions become real code.

One habit I've developed in the course of my career is breaking things down. I'm not afraid to dissect and extract everything from a set of requirements until I'm confident I can execute their implementation with precision.

In practice, that means taking an epic feature specification, i.e. "As a payroll administrator I want to be able to view a payroll summary report" into all of its smallest divisible parts as separate tickets in your project management software:

  • I want to see a list of my employees
  • I want to see all of my employees take-home pay
  • I want to see my total payroll tax for the pay period
  • Et cetera

Managing multiple tickets for one feature might create a bit more project management work, but it enables team members to discuss each component of the feature separately and in-context.

Imagine if you hadn't broken down the original user story, and imagine you wrote the all of its requirements in a single ticket. If there's a question about more than one of the requirements (which, there will be), you're now forced to engage in a disjointed discussion thread about all of the questions all in one place. This is confusing and difficult to parse in the long-term.

By creating multiple tickets, you're able to have more contextual discussions about razor-thin specific topics. I can discuss what exactly it means to see "a list of my employees", and it won't be ambiguous which requirement I'm referencing because the discussion is contained within its own ticket.

This also enables you to track the progress toward completion more granularly. Instead of the "doneness" of the epic feature being represented as a binary state ("done" or "not done"), it can be represented fractionally (four out of nine tasks completed). This is powerful in representing progress to stakeholders because it ensures them you're making progress, even if some aspects of the feature are more effort-intensive than others.

The next time you're writing functional requirements, ask yourself whether there's a way you can break it down further. Your team will be more equipped to ask questions and you'll be more equipped to track progress.

What it's like to have a crippling fear of flying

People who know me closely know I have a crippling fear of flying. I've avoided boarding planes since 2009, and haven't flown since 2016.

In a nutshell, it really sucks. As somebody who is in awe at the engineering marvels of the modern age, the fact I cannot use the safest, fastest form of travel ever devised runs counter to my entire ethos. It feels inconsistent.

I've avoided going to see my family. I make excuses for why I can't come see my friends in other cities. I say I don't see the point in world travel. I do; I'm just terrified of it.

In the weeks preceding a scheduled flight, I'll become agitated and irritable day-to-day for seemingly no reason. I'll spend hours Googling flight fatality statistics. I'll envision the worst possible scenarios: Total engine failure, bird strikes, the wings falling off, whatever. It doesn't matter how far-fetched. It's going to happen to me. I know it.

I've had a full-blown panic attack right after getting on a plane and forcibly left the plane right on the runway. I've schemed how I'm going to secure a rental car to make my return flight.

When you have a phobia, no statistics about the safety of air travel can help. 1 in 7 million? I'm that 1. I could talk to the pilot and they could seem friendly, but that's probably because they're drunk. They're gonna kill us all.

I've tried hypnosis, meditation, therapy, books about air travel, exposure therapy, and positive visualization. I've read books and listened to seminars. Nothing has worked so far.

I'm planning a trip to see my family all the way in Florida. Maybe this time will be different. Maybe this time I'll learn to trust the process. I'll realize death is inevitable, and to live a safe life devoid of meaning is worse than death itself. The humble act of boarding the plane might reverse a decade of irrational behavior.

Just maybe.