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. 

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.