Summer Reading List Challenge 2020: The also-rans

(I never did write this, even though I promised it two months ago. Here goes.)

Through the summer, I challenged myself to read three new books, including at least one in a genre I don’t normally read or write. You can see in my earlier posts (part one and part two) that I did complete this challenge. Humble Pi, Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, and even Verity were all interesting works. I learned from all three, whether it was how to avoid common math errors, the history of a very interesting place to which I have a very slight ancestral connection, or just how to be a better author.

These were not, however, the only books I tried to read. As I stated in “Politics and the escape”, I attempted to read two others during the summer. These books I found interesting to start, but I was quickly turned off by the nuisance of politics—particularly politics I strongly oppose—shoved into otherwise decent works of nonfiction.

So here are my thoughts on those abandoned entries in the challenge.

A hopeless history

Title: Humankind: A Hopeful History
Author: Rutger Bregman
Genre: Sociology
Year: 2020

Bregman is, from what I gather, a bit of a media darling. He’s one of those random Euros who doesn’t really do much, but gets invited to TED talks and things like that because he says what some people like to hear. And the description of Humankind does sound inspiring. It’s supposed to be all about how humans have evolved to be fundamentally good and social, which is true.

What isn’t true, however, is the dichotomy the author paints. It’s a rotten foundation for a book that could have otherwise been great for everyone. But Bregman sets up the argument that society must choose between Rousseau’s “return to nature” and Hobbes’ Leviathan. Your choices are green socialism or authoritarian socialism.

This is a common theme in European politics, and it’s one of the fundamental disconnects between that entire continent and the United States. In the European view, individual liberties are always subservient to the nebulous idea of the public good. That’s why they have things like GDPR, burqa bans, and “hate speech” laws, while we in America have barred such measures in one of our founding documents.

But in Bregman’s world, there’s no room for libertarianism, or indeed liberty at all. In his view, people can only progress by working together under the strictures of a state. Because we’re too dumb to care for ourselves. No, really. He spends an entire chapter claiming evidence that humans have evolved to become stupid as well as social. We’ve “domesticated” ourselves, and mentally we’re no better than puppies. This, of course, ignores the individuals who have, because they were individuals, changed the world. Tell Einstein or Newton that they could have done more if they’d only made more friends.

I didn’t finish Humankind, as I was so disgusted with this unending statist screed that I had to put it aside. Supposedly, the last part of the book sketches a new vision for the future, centered around things like basic income and open borders. A restatement of another of the author’s books, and one I obviously can’t endorse. Not because I’m against such notions—I think a universal basic income system could work, for example, but only if done properly—but his version of utopia strikes me as very dystopian. In the great social future, there’s no room for individuality or personal growth or opportunity. It’s the extreme opposite end of Franklin’s famous quote: those who sign on to this vision are giving up all liberty in exchange for the safety of never having to make their own decisions.

Huh. I guess those people are like puppies.

Treason of thought

Title: The Contact Paradox
Author: Keith Cooper
Genre: Science/Astronomy
Year: 2019

This is another one I went in really wanting to like. I’m a space enthusiast, to put it mildly, and SETI has always fascinated me. So when I saw a book that claimed to challenge “our assumptions in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” I had to check it out.

Indeed, there’s a lot of good science in this text. It shows how our current SETI approaches ignore a vast search space. The reasons we do that, of course, are all financial, not from a lack of technology, knowledge, or will. And The Contact Paradox doesn’t really address that.

In fact, one section places the author squarely against increasing SETI spending. And, indeed, spending on any kind of science. A section on environmental matters, beyond preaching the usual global warming dogma, insults those of who choose to look at the evidence themselves, calling skeptics “traitors of humanity” whose opinions aren’t even worth arguing against.

I’ve had emotional reactions to books before. A few novels have made me cry. Some left me feeling a sense of enlightenment and inner peace. Nonfiction doesn’t normally inspire the same emotions, but it can; anybody who saw the 50+ pages of notes I took for my CBT workbook could detect the gamut of emotional responses. Never before, though, have I felt such a visceral anger at an author for the words he wrote. I immediately closed my reader app, and the only reason I didn’t delete the file was because I wanted to remember the name of it, in case I ran into it again and thought about reading it.

We skeptics are not the traitors. Far from it. We are the ones following the scientific method. The alarmists who claim the Earth will become uninhabitable within the decade unless we stop driving, stop using plastic, stop eating red meat, and essentially stop doing anything productive at all, those are the true traitors. They are the ones standing in the way of humanity’s progress. Without them and their cult-like mentality, their constant denigration of those they consider heretics and apostates, we could solve the actual problems facing us today.

It’s the opposite problem to what Bregman runs into, if you think about it. In Humankind, the stated assumption was that humans have become lesser. We’re not as smart, on the whole, as we should be. And his thesis is that this stunting of our mental growth means we need a strong state supporting us, because we’re just too dumb to be left alone.

Cooper, on the other hand, echoes the alarmists’ claims that we need to become lesser. That progress needs to come to a screeching halt, if not a total reversal to the nasty, brutish, and short lives of agrarian societies before the Industrial Revolution.

What both authors share is the anti-individual mentality that has seeped into every part of our modern culture. In this view of humanity, no man is an island, as the saying goes. Instead, we must all be chained to the mainland, never allowed to ask the question, “What’s beyond the horizon?” It’s a limiting view, but I posit that this is by design. By keeping us small and scared, these people believe they can keep us controlled.

No dreams of becoming better than we are. Those can’t be allowed. Creativity and imagination must only follow prescribed lines, as well. It’s cultural thought control on a level even Orwell couldn’t imagine. And authors such as Bregman and Cooper are supporting it. They’re enabling it.

When I write a novel, I do it to escape. I do it to imagine a world that isn’t necessarily better than ours, but one which is different enough to be interesting. Some of them include my vision of utopia, yes. Every author does that. What I don’t do is claim my vision is the only one allowed, that anyone who disagrees is not only wrong but heretical. That’s not the point. I’m not writing a persuasive essay or political tract. I’m telling a story.

And in my stories, the people who try to control others are rightly considered the villains.

The mind and I

As I stated in a previous post, I’ve been undergoing therapy for my depression and anxiety. Of course, being in my financial situation, my options for this would be limited even without the Wuhan coronavirus scare. Thus, I had to turn to internet-based modes of therapy. And, as you know, some of the “cognitive behavioral” set actually did show results for me. It has helped me understand my mental state better, so I can recognize the hallmarks of deepening depression and prepare for them. It’s made me see the triggers for my anxiety, which lets me know how to plan around them.

The next step was to try something called “mindfulness”. I’ve been giving it a shot, and…I have to wonder if I’m wasting my time.

The problems are many. First and foremost, though, is that mindfulness is connected to meditation, and most meditation sources are geared toward India and Zen. No joke. Don’t believe me? Look up the phrase “mindful meditation” and see how many hits you get talking about monks, referencing Buddhism, quoting people most of the West has never heard of, or throwing in random Sanskrit terms.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Obviously, the practices have some benefit for some people, or else they wouldn’t have endured. But I think they’re given way too much credit simply for being exotic.

In roleplaying circles, there are a lot of running jokes, but one of the most familiar involves the katana. Strictly speaking, half the people talking about them don’t know which Japanese sword the word refers to, but they all agree that it absolutely must be the best. Why? Well, because it’s a katana, silly! No other reason than that. It’s from a different country, a different culture, and most Americans don’t have direct experience with that culture. Instead, we hear ninja and samurai legends. We watch anime or read manga. We play JRPGs. And that gives us a stilted, ahistorical view of Japan.

It’s the same way with India, and indeed Buddhism. Look at the popularity of yoga, or curry, or chai. Look at the way Tibetan monks are portrayed in the media. (Except that they’re mostly called “Chinese” to placate the Communist Party nowadays, despite Tibet historically being an independent nation.)

In the West, of course, we have the Abrahamic faiths, which provide a much different sort of mind-body-spirit breakdown, and so many of the culture contrasts flow from that. We think of ourselves differently, and that’s inherited. When we see an entire people—essentially a whole continent—so unlike our own, we might idolize it. That’s normal and natural. After all, ours sucks in a lot of ways. The problem is, theirs does, too. It just sucks in different ways.

But we never see that. We gloss over the downsides and fixate on the upsides. Think about the cuisine, for instance. Sure, a lot of people like Chinese food, but how many Americans would be willing to eat some of the things rural Chinese eat? Andrew Zimmern made an entire series based off this very notion: Bizarre Foods.

Religion and spirituality are no different. What we see as exotic and intriguing is, to the people who were born into it, the normal way of the world. Nothing special about it, not from their perspective, so why do we feel the need to idolize?


Okay, but the whole point of mindfulness is supposed to be that it isn’t Buddhism. It just takes some inspiration from it. But that, I think, has some bearing on why it just doesn’t click for me.

At least in the guides I followed, so much of the instruction revolved around frankly New Age notions. Look at your thoughts gently. The only moment that matters is now. You have to switch from doing to being.

I get that some of it is intended to combat the very natural internal criticism that leads to self-loathing and, ultimately, depression. It’s supposed to distract you from thinking about all that by focusing all your mental power on something else, something…trivial. Like your breathing.

This is where I ran into problems. Believe it or not, I’ve tried some things like this before. Hypnosis, for example. It doesn’t work well for me, and I know why. My mind is very, very analytical. I’ve always been a thinker. It’s only in recent years that thinking has led so often to worrying.

Since I’d give anything to make that stop, I thought I would try a system that promised to quiet the disturbed and disturbing thoughts. But it really doesn’t. Not mine, anyway.

It’s not that I can’t focus. As anyone who knows me will attest, I can get so focused on a task that I forget about everything else around me. However, that task has to have a purpose, or I get nothing out of it. I’ll get distracted, or I’ll think of some other way to spend my time, something more productive.

One of the biggest problems I’ve recognized with my thoughts lately is that I have developed a skewed sense of purpose. The things I should be focusing on fall by the wayside because, well, they’re too hard. Too hard, with too much risk of failure. So I get less done overall, and I end up making next to no progress, but inertia is powerful. And I’m just so tired of being frustrated at every turn. You can only fall so many times before you decide it’s not worth it to get back up.

I’ll admit, the mindfulness guides do directly reference this problem. They call it out, and they promise a way to fix it. I really wish I could make that way work, but I don’t see how I can do it. To do so, as I understand it, would require me to change everything about the way I think, decide, and act. I would have to reinvent myself. On a philosophical level, I have to wonder how much that’s even possible; surely, if I change too much, I’m not me anymore, right?

In the more personal (and familiar) sense, altering my behavior and thought patterns to that extent seems like an awful lot of effort for very little gain. I’d be giving up most of what sets me apart, the analysis, the thoughtfulness, the way I can often anticipate what someone’s going to say. And for what? Maybe relieving my depression and anxiety? (Not even that, really. The stated goals of mindfulness aren’t to “cure” the low moods and persistent worries. Rather, you’re supposed to learn to accept them and move on. Which sounds nice in theory, I guess.)

Again, I’m not saying this is a complete failure, or that nobody should try this sort of therapy. All I want to say is that I find it a poor fit for me. It goes against everything I’ve done for 37 years. It runs counter to the way I know my mind works. I think this “impedance mismatch” is a large part of the problem, but my natural skepticism adds to it.

Something isn’t better just because it comes from the other side of the world. It’s different. Nothing more, nothing less. As always, your mileage may vary. I’m an odd person in many respects, and that cultural skepticism is one of them. I don’t like anime. I’m not big on “ethnic” music.1 You probably won’t catch me at, say, a Thai restaurant. That’s just who I am. Trying new things, exploring, that’s fun. I love it. But they’re not always special simply for being exotic. Remember, the things we see as alien are, to those who live with them every day, normal. And to them, we’re the aliens.


  1. Okay, I will make an exception here, because “Baba Yetu” is an amazing song no matter who’s performing it. 

37

(I’m writing this a day early. I hope nothing bad happens in the intervening time.)

37 is not a very interesting number. It’s prime, and that’s about all it’s got going for it. Oh, and it’s one-third of 111, which is cool, I guess.

Becoming 37 isn’t much more interesting, as far as I’m concerned. And the last 12 months have taken a lot out of me. They’ve worn me down, as anyone who dares to look through the PPC archives will attest. My depression reached new depths at numerous points over the past year. Worse, it stayed there far longer. These weren’t the two or three days of past episodes, but sometimes weeks.

For most of 2020, I felt like I was living through a waking nightmare, and I just wanted it to end. The bad dream, the year, my life…whatever worked. I wasn’t suicidal at any point, mind you. Nor was I a danger to myself or others around me, apart from the negative mentality and lifelessness that I’ve felt so often since March. But there were days as a 36-year-old where I would lie in bed and just not care what happened to me, solely because the effort it took to get up, to live in this fallen world, was too much for me to bear. I became something else, someone else.

I hate that someone.

I’ve been in therapy for about two months, though the primary phase of it ended a couple of weeks ago. It’s helped, as I’ve described in recent posts, but I know there’s a long way left to go. As I attempt to celebrate the 37th anniversary of my birth, I’m hoping for a rebirth, a return to the man I once was. Or a better man, even, one who is wiser with age, but also with the experience of knowing what it’s like to go all the way to that edge and step back.

The world is still broken. My county remains under effective lockdown indefinitely, and there’s the very real chance that, two and a half weeks hence, a man will be elected whose goal is to extend that to the entire country. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people suffer just as I have suffered, some of them pushed as far as taking the ultimate step I have refused. Cities burn in what the media calls “peaceful” protests, while those defending themselves and their liberties are labeled as murderers and extremists. 2020 is Bizarro World writ large, and it seems as though it will never end.

I don’t often talk politics on here. The subject is too demanding, too demoralizing, especially for one such as myself, someone who doesn’t take sides in the grand game of Red vs. Blue. For this birthday reflection, though, I have to look at the state of my life and see how much of it is dominated by politics, by forces beyond my control. That, more than anything, has contributed to my depression, I feel. And it has soured me on entire swaths of the political spectrum. I never fit on that to begin with; now, “a pox on both your houses” is too mild to describe my feelings.

On a more personal level, I feel like I’ve been set up to fail. This time last year, things weren’t great, but they seemed to be improving. I’d finished writing a great novel, I had others on their way, the job search was picking up, I had made friends…I was starting to get a small but perceptible feeling of positivity. Then I began to falter. My relationship with my beloved got rocky, to say the least, and mostly because of my mental health problems. Last December, I endured a sickness that, I now recognize in hindsight, was most likely caused by the Wuhan coronavirus. A month after that, my uncle passed away after a long struggle.

Then came the pandemic, which we now know to be greatly exaggerated. For seven months, a normal life has been denied to all of us outside Sweden and South Dakota. I took that harder than most, I think. At times, I felt as though everything in the world was arrayed against me, all its forces singling me out as their target. I may try to be rational, but in this case, I started wondering if I’d been cursed, if this was my punishment for stepping out of line by trying to reach for the life I wanted, rather than the miserable existence I’d been given.

Today, I still can’t definitively say that’s false. By the law of averages, I should have some positive results, right? As far as I can tell, I have one, and I can’t keep making her wait. She’s not getting any younger, either.

So, while I may have other goals for 37, they all come back to that. Getting my life back on track, taking it where it was supposed to go before the world went mad. Becoming the man I want to be, the man she deserves. Living, rather than simply existing.

“Happy” birthday. Yeah.


Addendum: I wrote this around 2PM on the 15th. A few hours later, I learned that my mother’s best friend passed away. I…think she was 60? I’m not certain, and I can’t find an obituary online yet. Strictly speaking, that doesn’t go down as yet another awful thing to happen on my birthday, but it’s more evidence in favor of an October curse.

I didn’t know her well enough, but my mom and aunt both considered her the next best thing to a sister. Despite her failing health, she stayed with my uncle in some of his final moments back in January; if nothing else, she deserves to be remembered for that.

Although I’m not as affected by her death as someone who was closer to her, hearing about it, especially on the day before my birthday, shocked me more than I expected. One of my first thoughts was relief that she hadn’t waited another day. Then, when I realized what I was saying, I felt incredibly selfish. What right do I have to ask that another human being die a day early to spare me hearing bad news on my birthday?

More than anything, that has left me troubled as I write this at 9:20 PM on the night before it posts. I’m not shedding tears for a woman I usually saw once or twice a month. They’re for me, because what kind of monster have I become?

The storm within

I think it’s pretty well established at this point that I’m an unrepentant metalhead. I grew up on the hair metal of the 80s, and some of my earliest memories are of my mom blasting Bon Jovi, Skid Row, and similar bands. (I was also told not to talk about Warrant around my father. Only later did I learn that was because he’d spent time in prison.)

I loved that kind of music. I loved the amazing guitar solos, the epic vocals, and everything about the sound. I really never stopped loving it, even as 80s metal gave way to 90s grunge and hard rock. “High Enough”, “18 and Life”, and “Silent Lucidity” were anthems for me long after their sell-by date. I tried to get into Metallica, but that fascination was cut short when they decided they’d rather sue their fans than make music. S&M is still a great album, if you ask me.

Of course, once I started looking into the genre, I found so many more artists to love. Nightwish, Blind Guardian, Avantasia, Borealis…the list could go on forever. They all have something in common, though. All of my favorite metal bands share that same feel. When I listen to music, I want to be moved, and this kind of music moves me in a way like no other.

Most of all, I think that comes from the lyrics. Too much modern music ignores them, or makes them incomprehensible. Nobody’s listening to rap for the words. You can’t even make out what somebody like Billie Eilish is saying!

Not so in the kind of metal I prefer. Here, the vocals are clean (if sometimes accented, because so many of the bands are European), and they aren’t drowned out by bass or compressed into a muddy mix fit for Spotify’s lowest quality. And they tell a story. That’s something a great song does. It’s why so many country, folk, and early rock standards became standards in the first place. Oh, I can lose myself in an instrumental track, but give me lyrics that tell a tale, and I’m hooked.


One band has utterly enthralled me for the past year or so: Evergrey. Like so many of the best metal acts, they’re from Sweden, which 2020 has shown to be the smartest country in the world. Their style is considered progressive, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. A lot of progressive metal artists are hard to listen to, but not this one. If anything, they’re one of the most accessible bands in the genre today.

Not only are they accessible, they’re relatable, at least for me. The lyrics move me. They ring so true in my mind that I sometimes feel as though Tom Englund is singing my life. I love that, even when I don’t. (I’ve also used a lyrical phrase as a post title here on PPC. If you’re curious, I’ll tell you which one.)

The topics of their songs are varied. Their The Inner Circle is a concept album about cults and child abuse. Hymns for the Broken strikes me as a rebellion against an authoritarian dictatorship; if the Democrats win next month, I’ll be listening to it a lot more. Last year’s The Atlantic was a little forgettable, in my opinion, but still not bad. Recreation Day left me in shock the first time I listened to it, because it was just the right album at the right time.

And then we have The Storm Within. It’s a few years old now. If anything, though, it’s more relevant to me than ever before. The opening track, “Distance”, sets the tone:

It’s not over
We’ll soon be closer than before
Can’t let this distance
Keep our distant souls apart

Being in a long-distance relationship, those words struck me every time I listened to them. They were a hope and a prayer for a man who doesn’t pray and had lost hope. I even let my partner listen to this song —her tastes are entirely different—and her response was simply, “That sounds a lot like you.” She was right.

“Passing Through” follows that, and it’s a nice, upbeat “live in the moment” song. There are things I’d like to tell the version of myself from ten years ago, so I could be, as it goes, “better, wiser, and not as blind.”

Next is “Someday”, a hard and heavy track that, to me, speaks of depression, failure, and the struggle those of us who suffer from those must endure. “I can’t do this alone,” the lyric says. These past few weeks, the message has been especially important.

“Astray” is one where the words are sometimes hard to understand. It’s about giving up, and these lines are awfully close to some I’ve said in my weaker moments:

I used to be stronger
I used to want this more
Is everything meant to hurt
And leave me alone?

After a few heavy songs comes “The Impossible”, a slower, softer track. The piano is strong here, something that always makes metal better, but the pathos overshadows it by far. Sometimes asking someone to change really is asking the impossible. We don’t mean for it to be that way.

“My Allied Ocean” is complex in multiple senses. It’s drum-centric, with a few good guitar riffs thrown in for good measure. The bridge of the song involves a spoken-word section (another of my guilty pleasures) that briefly became a mantra for me: “You have got to do it for yourself. You have to make the decision whether or not it’s worth it for you to live.”

That’s the halfway point of the album, but it doesn’t go downhill from here at all. One of my favorite things about metal is the sense of community. So many of the artists I love cross over, collaborate, and join supergroups. In the case of “In Orbit”, the seventh track, the guest is Floor Jansen, lead singer of Nightwish and one of my absolute favorite female vocalists. Even without her, though, this would be an amazing listen. It just has a tempo and an energy.

Track 8, “The Lonely Monarch”, is another one that’s hard to describe. It’s mainstream-accessible, not overly epic, with a guitar wail that grabs your attention. The underlying message, of a man who’s trying everything he can to keep his life from falling apart, well, that’s too familiar.

Next up, we have another collaboration, this time with Carina Englund, lead singer Tom’s wife, and a great vocalist in her own right. The song, “The Paradox of the Flame”, is a ballad, and I’m one of those people who believes that an album is no good if it doesn’t have a good ballad. This is of the best. Every line is emotional. The music hurts from its tragic beauty. The interplay between male and female singers tells a story everyone knows in a way you can’t help but feel.

Right after this slow, almost sensual ballad, we jump right back into the heavy end with “Disconnect”. From the opening lines, you know where it’s going:

Gone, she’s gone
How am I supposed to make it alone?

If the album as a whole is telling a story, it’s of a man whose mental problems get in the way and prevent him from having a healthy relationship. “Disconnect” is the point where he realizes the enormity of his mistake, and he’s doing everything in his power to make amends. Or maybe I’m biased because I’ve been at that point. “I never meant to be indifferent. I never wanted you to feel irrelevant. You were never insignificant.” Anyone who’s ever (accidentally or intentionally) treated their partner this way should listen. And so should those partners, because it’s what we all want to say.

The “main” album wraps up with the title track, “The Storm Within”. For some reason, this song is a chameleon in my mind. Every time I listen to it, I hear something different. I pick up parts I swear I’ve never heard before. It has an air of finality to it, a climactic sound that doesn’t really bring restitution. In a way, that’s poignant. We don’t get over these things. We merely learn to live with them. So there’s no real end, just a moment when we say, “This is it. From now on, I’m going to be better.” We can brave the storm within, or we can let it blow us away.

This aural feast closes out with a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”. I’d heard that song for years, but I never really listened to it closely. For one thing, Ozzy’s voice is essentially indecipherable. But the music also didn’t lend itself to any serious lyrical evaluation. With Evergrey’s version, that’s different. I was able to listen and hear, and I found that the song has the wrong title. It’s not about paranoia at all. It’s about depression, and about how it colors our perception even as it causes us to push away the ones we love. There could not be a better cover for this album.


That’s why I’ve listened to The Storm Within a couple dozen times in the past year. It’s good music, first of all. It’s everything I like in metal, and really nothing I don’t. No harsh vocals, no grunts or growls, just good, strong music. Better yet, there’s a story in it, a story I can relate to on the deepest level. Twelve tracks, and I can connect to almost every one of them. I wish I didn’t have to, but such is life.

Solitary shell

I’ve been thinking a lot about mental disorder lately. My own, of course, are at the top of the list.

Seven weeks ago, I embarked on a guided, if self-paced, program of cognitive behavioral therapy. (CBT, but be careful when you’re searching for the acronym!) I’d heard good things about it, that it can, for some people, help treat depression and anxiety about as well as the medication and professional psychiatric help I can’t afford. So I thought I’d give it a shot. I had nothing to lose. If it didn’t work for me, I’d be back where I started, and the only cost would be two months of my life. A fair trade, if I’m honest.

The program is based around a book called Retrain Your Brain. It’s made of seven weekly sessions, each covering one “step” of the therapy. The first step, logically enough, is identification. What’s wrong? Why do you think you need therapy?

For me, that was fairly easy. I suffer from depression and anxiety, and those have only grown stronger as 2020 has progressed. Watching the world burn isn’t as fun as the Joker makes it seem.

The impetus for starting this program came in early August. I’d gone through a few rough weeks. I was sleeping 15 hours a day and still feeling like I couldn’t get enough rest. I was just lifeless, and it affected everyone around me. It strained my relationship with my mom, my brother, the woman I love…everyone most important to me. Worst of all, I felt like giving up. Waking was a chore. Even writing was all but impossible. I hated myself and the world around me, and there were times when I was ready to join people like Kyle Rittenhouse in the fight against tyranny. Sure, it might cost me my life, but maybe I’d be able to make more of a difference in dying than I believed I had in living.

That was when I realized I had to make a change, so I started looking into getting help. Problem is, I’m poor. I’ve been trying to find a steady job for two years without any luck, and a white man isn’t going to get financial help from the state in 2020. Going to a therapist, then, was out of the question. (I’m a little glad. I don’t like the thought of getting on antidepressants.) Fortunately, the internet has resources for the downtrodden.

I took advantage of those resources. I sat down on a Friday evening seven weeks ago and started following directions. Reading, writing, soul-searching. That first week didn’t seem like much, but it was a start. I identified my strengths and weaknesses, I got a diagnosis (moderate depression, but of the atypical sort, as well as generalized anxiety) and a plan of action. In painstaking detail, I explored how my mental problems have affected every part of my life.

A lot of people make light of depression, or simply don’t understand it. “Just be positive,” they’ll say. “Look on the bright side.” It’s not that easy. When you’re depressed, there isn’t a bright side. Everything’s dark and bleak. Combined with my anxiety and a deep, deep fear of failure, that kind of thinking is crippling, because not only were things bad, but I couldn’t even imagine a way to make them better!

The natural progression of the therapy program helped somewhat. After identifying my problems, the next step was to set goals for myself. Nothing much for me; I’m about the humblest man you’ll ever meet. I wanted to lose a few pounds, because who doesn’t? I’m still trying to get a job, still working hard on Rhea, the programming language I’ve been developing for almost a year.

Having the goals in black and white has been beneficial. I’ve made more progress on Rhea in six weeks than I had in the six months before. I started a set of online courses on edX in an attempt at padding my resume, I’m working out (almost) every day, and I even wrote a song. I went looking for a new hobby, something I hadn’t tried before, because you know how much I love learning new things.

Part of this CBT program involved keeping track of my activities. Scheduling them beforehand, then recording on a scale of 1-10 how I felt while I was doing them. I did notice that the early 3s and 4s gave way to 7s and 8s. And that’s honest. I wasn’t padding the numbers like a state health board with coronavirus deaths. I was writing down my true feelings, and they were better.

Retrain Your Brain has a number of case studies, supposedly by the author (he’s a therapist who specializes in this kind of therapy), which it uses as examples of how to do it. So a woman in one study was feeling old and useless because she was out of work and childless at 37. A man had lost his job and was scared he wouldn’t be able to support his family. At times, I felt like I was reading a biography of myself. The similarities were striking, and that got through to me. These are people just like me. They have the same problems I do. And they must have conquered them, or else the author wouldn’t be holding them up as examples. For once in this horrible year, I had a glimmer of hope.

Now, one of the core aspects of CBT is learning to challenge negative thoughts. Depression and anxiety create a lot of those, and I’m no stranger to the dark side of my mind. My “irrational” self, as I’ve come to call it. Training myself to argue against that other self has been hard, but I can say it paid off.

Last Saturday, I was in the middle of a long and winding message to the woman I love (more on that in a moment) when the lights flickered. They then went completely out for a few seconds. “Ugh,” I thought. “I’ll have to turn my computer back on once it’s safe.” I finished the short essay I was writing, which I figured would be enough time for things to settle down, and I booted back up. So far, so good, right?

Lately, I’ve started using the Brave browser for a number of sites that have decided to stop supporting my beloved Waterfox. So Brave came up first, and I loaded up my fediverse refuge, Free Speech Extremist. (See my post from June 7, “Moving On”, for more about that.) As soon as the timeline began to load, the browser froze. No, everything did, except the mouse cursor for some reason kept responding. Even the light on my Caps Lock key didn’t toggle, a sure sign that I was dealing with a hard freeze.

No problem. Handled that before. Let’s reboot and…uh-oh. Now, the freeze came in the middle of booting my KDE desktop. Same symptoms, but now I can’t blame the browser, can I? Well, maybe. Another reboot got me to the desktop, where I started Brave, loaded FSE, and watched my computer grind to a halt yet again. What’s going on here?

“Much wailing and gnashing of teeth,” goes the saying. I didn’t gnash my teeth, but there was literal wailing. Because I was sure that something awful had happened when that power outage occurred. Something got damaged, and now I was dealing with the failure of my one connection to the world at large. I wasn’t scared. I was terrified. This was a full-blown anxiety attack, the likes of which I hadn’t had in almost two years. Everything came together at just the right time to make this perfect storm of fear and stress, and I hated it. I was less than an hour removed from congratulating myself for finishing Week 7 of the therapy, and now this? Where’s the justice?

Okay, Michael. Breathe. Remember the whole point of the therapy. So I challenged the negative thoughts with, as the meme goes, facts and logic. I’m a gifted problem-solver. I can work this out. It’s probably just the video card, because this looks a lot like when I found that shader bug in Star Ruler 2 a few years ago. If I turned off Brave’s hardware acceleration, no freezes. What about Waterfox? No problems there…until I loaded up Shadertoy. A very graphics-intensive site, if you’ve never been there, and it locked my computer up hard. So it has to be the video card.

I resigned myself to finding a new GPU—rather, a slightly older one compatible with my hardware and out-of-date OS. I explained the situation to my mom, since communication is a part of therapy. And then I took a shower. While I was in there, I had an epiphany. What if it wasn’t the card failing? What if it was a bad firmware update instead? When was the last time I did one of those? Back upstairs after the shower, I dug through the system logs and found an update from September 6. That should’ve shown up by now, or so I thought. But Linux, unlike Windows, doesn’t mandate a reboot after system updates, so I never did it. I kept telling myself I’d get around to it.

The power outage did that for me. When I rebooted, it loaded the updated firmware, which was buggy. A downgrade has, as far as I can tell, fixed everything.

The moral of this story isn’t that the latest firmware for an RX 460 on Debian 9 has a serious bug. No, what I’m trying to say is that I was able to work through this problem despite first thinking it was the end of my world. I broke down, but then I followed the steps I’d learned, and the result is that I found a solution. And that really made me feel better. Not that it was possible to feel much worse than I did during the anxiety attack, but I came out of it proud of myself for my diagnostic skills.

One of my goals was to feel more positive about myself and my abilities. I proved that I can do that. If only the rest of them were so easy.

The hardest, even beyond the life-changing goals I’ve set for myself, is also the most important. Depression and anxiety are not my only mental problems. I also have a sleep disorder of some sort, and this has a serious effect on my mental health. Again, the CBT process helped me identify the trouble and work to fix it.

At the beginning of last week, I had shifted into a nighttime schedule. I’d go to bed around 9 in the morning, wake around 6 PM, and stay up through the night. And I felt awful. Back to the lazy, lifeless, irritable thing I’d been. A thing, not a man, because I really did feel less than human. I hid in my room for most of the week, rarely talking to anybody. I also hid from the woman I love; the message I was composing when the power went out was the start of my attempt at…apology? Penance? Contrition? I’m not sure what word works best, but it doesn’t matter yet.

But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that I identified both my self-defeating behavior and the underlying cause of it. When I’m “off track”, as I’ve come to call it, I suck. I spent last week feeling worthless. Today, by contrast, I got up before 6 AM, and I feel like I could run a hundred miles. Two weeks ago, when I was waking around 9 or 10 in the morning, I was fine. Once I got off track, I went downhill. There’s no other satisfactory explanation.

CBT isn’t supposed to help with sleep disorders. Retrain Your Brain flat-out gives up on that one, regurgitating the tired old anti-insomnia spiel. But it did help me find the problem, and now I can work on tackling it. Another goal I’ve set myself.

Therapy: when it works, it works. This kind has, on the whole, worked for me. It hasn’t solved all my problems. It hasn’t even given me the tools to solve them myself. Despite that, I believe it has been a net positive. Thanks to CBT, I’m better than I was seven weeks ago, and I feel that’s only the start. I know it’s not a quick fix. It’s a process, a path I have to keep walking, but now I can at least find the path. Before, I was just lost. Now, I’m found.

I only hope I didn’t find myself too late.