Seven year itch

Today is January 6, 2021. That means a few things. First, I somehow survived 2020. Despite all odds, despite the world throwing everything in my way, I’m still breathing. Whether I want to be, well, that’s the question, isn’t it? And 9 months into the two weeks to “flatten the curve” has me wondering what the answer really is.

Second, it’s the day the electoral votes are supposed to be counted. (I’m actually writing this post the night of the 4th, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.) That’s a whole other story, one for a different post. Suffice to say, this is one of the last chances to stop the coup against our great nation, to stand up for liberty and against oppression.

But today also marks an anniversary, of sorts. More of a commemoration, actually. Seven years ago, my cousin passed away. And that changed my life for the worse, in ways that still reverberate to this day.


It was a Monday. As is often the case after Christmas, my sleeping schedule was horribly out of balance. I can’t remember the exact times, but I had stayed up through the night before, and I was ready to fall asleep around 4 PM. I’d just climbed into bed, in fact, when my grandmother called. She was talking to my mom, and my brother suddenly ran into my bedroom.

As a quick digression, my aunt is a mother of one and a huge animal lover. Her only son was named Joey. Her dog was named Zoë. (Yes, the dots are necessary. She insisted.) The rhyming was intentional, and it stemmed from an incident whose details I can’t quite recall. Whatever it was, it happened as she was bringing the dog home, all the way back in 2005.

Anyway, back to the story. As I was getting comfortable, my brother burst into my room and said, “Zoë’s dead!”

I was shocked for a moment, because it’s always sad to hear about a family pet dying. But it’s only a dog, not a human being. So I made a little joke, we laughed, and I shrugged it off. A few seconds later, I hear a bloodcurdling scream from my mom downstairs. “No!” she wailed. And I do mean wailed. I had never heard a sound like that out of my own mother. I didn’t know she was capable of it.

Well, I had to find out what was up. Surely she wouldn’t be doing that over a dog. As I’m coming down the stairs, I hear her crying and saying, “He can’t be!”

Zoë was female, so there went that theory. What really happened was that my grandmother (ten days shy of her 91st birthday) had misheard “Joey” as “Zoë” at precisely the wrong time. The one who had died was not, in fact, the dog, but the man.

That Monday was awful already. It was the coldest day of the year, with a temperature that never got out of the 20s and ended up somewhere around 0° Fahrenheit. Bitterly cold for Tennessee, and actually the coldest January day for my small town since the 1980s. The doors of my mom’s car were frozen shut. The pipes running to my upstairs bathroom burst in the night. And we would have to brave this frigid evening, because my cousin really did die.

We met at my grandmother’s house. Trailer, rather, the same one where she passed away a little over a year later, and the same where my uncle did the same in 2020. My brother and I rode with my mom and stepdad. Another of my aunts, who lived next door, had come down, along with her youngest daughter. Everyone was on the verge of tears, if not openly weeping. We hugged, shared words of consolation, and generally settled into a kind of vigil, waiting for more news.

That came soon enough. Joey had been sick. I recall that very well. He’d had the flu at Christmas Eve; I caught it from him. Influenza rarely kills someone 35 years old, but it can happen, and it’s even more likely than a person the same age dying to the Wuhan virus. Especially if that person is, to put it bluntly, morbidly obese. He wasn’t one of those people you see on TLC, eating everything in sight and never moving from their beds. No, he was a very active, very energetic man who just happened to have some kind of medical problem that left him almost totally unable to lose weight. So he was probably north of 400 pounds at the time of his death. (A lot of it was muscle, to be fair. And he was tall: 6’5″, the tallest in our family by a good 5 inches over second place, which happened to be me.)

In his later years, he’d had problems with his heart, stemming from his weight. He also had some kind of spider bite (I think?) on his leg that never properly healed—his treatment was on hold until he recovered from the flu. So he was by no means in perfect or even good health, but death always comes as a shock in someone so young.


I didn’t see him until the funeral. I couldn’t. While everyone else went to my aunt’s house, about a quarter of a mile up the road, I stayed with my grandmother. Except I didn’t so much stay with her as lock myself in her room where she couldn’t see me cry.

And cry I did. Pretty much constantly.

I’ve often mentioned my emotional attachment to music. On this occasion, I listened to Black Eye Galaxy, an album by blues rock musician Anders Osborne. I’d never played the whole album in one sitting before then, and I haven’t since. It’s just too powerful, too poignant. No set of songs has ever, in my opinion, encapsulated such pure, undiluted anguish. That was exactly what I needed at the time. I needed someone to tell me that they had felt something like what I was feeling.

Because Joey might have been my cousin, but he was more than that to me. He was closer to a big brother. I looked up to him. After my father left, I did so even more, using him as inspiration for my own big-brother nature. He was a friend to everyone, a big, cuddly teddy bear of a man who could still get angry if you crossed him or his family.

Most of all, he respected me like no one else in my life. When I spoke, he listened. If he needed advice on anything from computers to music to stereo modding to growing peppers, he turned to me, and he wasn’t afraid to tell anyone why. That’s what I lost. Seven years ago today, I lost not only my cousin, but my best friend, my mentor, my biggest fan.

I haven’t been the same since.

Two days after he died, I dreamed of him. We were out shopping with our respective mothers, and I followed him to the games aisle. Our family has a tradition of game night, and the two of us often talked about new games to get. (Settlers of Catan was the one I wish we’d had a chance to play.) In the dream, we were browsing the shelves when I suddenly looked over at him and said, “I guess we don’t get to play games anymore, do we?” If anyone ever tells you that your heart can’t break in a dream, they’re lying.


I was a pallbearer for the first time in my life, as I had been the odd man out for my grandfather’s funeral in 2012. I was also the music director for the service, and I still have the list of tracks I used:

  • Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Simple Man”
  • Randy Travis, “He Walked On Water”
  • Brad Paisley, “When I Get Where I’m Going”
  • Vince Gill, “Go Rest High On That Mountain”

Not all my kind of music, I’ll admit, but it served its purpose well. And I only cried for one of the songs, but I dare anybody to listen to Vince Gill without getting at least a little misty. It’s just impossible.

The days that followed were the hardest for everyone. My aunt refused to take down her Christmas decorations, because he was the one who put them up. She still takes weekly visits to the cemetery where he was buried, and she was very upset a couple of weeks ago, when the road was blocked due to a suspicious vehicle scare. (This was right after the Christmas bombing a hundred miles away in Nashville.)

We all had to adapt to life without one of us, without the natural leader and protector we had lost. Our family parties are a lot…less now. Smaller, less raucous, and I’m the one leading all the games. Before, that was an honor: Joey, first of anyone else, declared me the permanent game master. If we were playing any kind of trivia game, he said, I had to be the one asking the questions. Otherwise, nobody else could win! Since he left this world, that position became a necessity, as we just don’t have enough people to balance out my, ah, wide body of trivia knowledge.

Most of all, I lost one of the very few people I felt I could trust to stand beside me through thick and thin. My uncle’s health was growing worse, my mom was spending more and more time taking care of him and my grandmother, and I just didn’t have anyone older to talk to. Not in the same way I could talk to him. Just as when my father left, I became the older one, the man in charge. I wasn’t ready for that when I was 12, and being 30 didn’t make it any easier.

The loss, and the responsibility that came in its wake, sent my depression to a level where I could no longer ignore that it existed. For seven years I’ve lived with it, dealt with it in whatever way I could. Two years ago, I realized I would be older than Joey had been at the time of his death. Something about that resonated in me. Call it survivor’s guilt, because I honestly felt like I didn’t deserve to outlive him. I didn’t actively consider ending my own life, but I did passively accept that, if it did happen, it wouldn’t be unjust. After all, I wasn’t half the man he was.

I still feel that way. He never married, never had children. Given the state of the world and my life, I doubt I’ll have the chance to outdo him in either respect. But he had a decent job, a number of loyal friends, and a generally positive attitude that, in my seemingly eternal depths of despair, I outright envy.

Seven years have gone by. In one sense, that’s nothing. In another, it’s forever. So much has changed that he’d probably find the world almost unrecognizable. He’d be asking me for help to navigate some of the strangeness we have to face today that just wasn’t there even as late as 2014. Or we might have found ourselves on different sides of this great divide that is taking over every aspect of life. I can’t say for certain. I do know that there are times I miss him more than ever, and times when I would gladly give my own life if it would bring him back.

“Family comes first” is a motto I use in all my books. The first novel I released, Before I Wake, was my way of illustrating that. It was in a lot of ways, for him. The protagonist, Jay, is so named because those were my cousin’s initials. And I’ve added small nods to him in other works, as well. The Soulstone Sorcerer has as Ian’s boss a very…large man named Joseph, who recently had gastric bypass surgery; my cousin had been considering that for some time. The Endless Forms series has a number of references. As his mother was the one who pitched it, I felt it would be a good place to toss in as many as I could fit.

But those are only small reminders, my way of coping with a tragedy. After seven years, the memory remains. So does the wound. Oh, it’s no longer fresh, but it left a scar on my very soul, one that will never truly heal.

The end

We’ve finally reached the end of this miserable year. It seems like just yesterday we had things like hope, friendship, and society, but it’s really been nine months since such concepts were outlawed, ostensibly to protect us all from a ravaging virus that, as it turns out, is about as deadly as the flu we deal with every year. Add in a real-life coup d’etat right here in the good old USA, and it seems as if the world is in the throes of a nightmare the likes of which we haven’t seen since the days of Nagasaki.

My own nightmare reached new depths, too.

2020 was supposed to be the year I turned it around. In January and February, before the world went (rather, was driven) totally insane, I had plans. I was going to get a full-time job. I’d move out on my own, maybe to somewhere around Nashville, like the uncle I had just bid goodbye. This Christmas, if everything went just right, would have been the first I’d celebrate as a husband, and maybe even an expectant father.

Well, none of that happened. Instead, I’m stuck in my bedroom, the place I’ve spent most of the year. The last time I was inside a place of business was getting my glasses in June; I walked right back out the door when they demanded a temperature screening. Since then, I don’t go in anywhere but the homes of family members, with the lone exception of Election Day.

I’m a loner by nature, but I’ve never felt more alone than this. And that, I think, encapsulates 2020 for me. It’s the one lesson I’ll take from this year. I’m alone but for my family. There’s no one looking out for me. No guardian angels, whether in the literal or metaphorical sense. If I’m going to succeed at anything, it’ll be by my own merits, my own luck…neither of which I have in any great quantity.

The current political situation has forced me to ally with all manner of people I used to consider undesirable. Fundamentalist Christians, conspiracy theorists, and people who really do deserve to be called racists. I don’t love them. I really don’t even like them. But they at least share some of the ideals I hold most dear. They have hope, and I envy them for it.

They have faith, as well, and that is something else I’ve lost. I can’t look at this mess of a world and see any grand plan. Nor can I forsake it entirely, in the belief that suffering through this life is necessary before getting the “true” reward that awaits beyond. When I read right-wing posts going on about Biblical prophecy or equating a vital medical procedure to murder, I have to shake my head. They would call me a heretic or heathen. The only reason I still associate with them is because the other side would call me worse.

I know I don’t fit in with them, and I never will. Honestly, that doesn’t bother me much. I’ve lived 37 years without fitting in. Given the choice between gritting my teeth through sermons or walking on eggshells each day to avoid being canceled, I’ll go with the ones who aren’t starting riots and destroying the lives of those they disagree with.


But where do I go? That’s the real question for 2021, and it’s one I’ve been thinking quite a lot about.

I can’t keep pretending things are going to just get better on their own. I also can’t believe anyone is going give me a real chance to better myself. They haven’t yet, so why would next year be any different?

One of the great things about the internet is the vast wealth of knowledge available. That knowledge is an endless source of fascination. If that weren’t enough, it has also taught me much about myself, showing me that the things I considered personal were, in fact, already in existence. Indeed, they’re often named and studied, but I never knew until I thought to look it up.

In this case, I’m referring to a personal philosophy. “Bionatalism” is the word I didn’t know I’d been looking for, and I found it last week. Put simply, it’s the belief that reproduction is a moral imperative.

That belief is one of my most fundamental. I recently found out that my cousin has been cheating on her husband. Obviously, that’s horrible, but there are extenuating circumstances that make it not all her fault. You see, he had a vasectomy a few years ago. Without telling her beforehand. Something about that really did repulse me more than the thought of her cheating. A part of me felt that he deserved it.

I’d never do such a thing. I made that vow to myself when 37 was closer to my mom’s age than my own. Since summer of last year, when the prospect of a serious relationship became a tantalizing possibility, I’ve been thinking of that vow, along with others that follow the same line of thinking.

Unlike many people my age, I want children. I want the chance to be a father, to teach a son and a daughter all that I know. I yearn for the chance to hold that bundle of joy. I’d take the 3 AM feeding and the endless crying and the diapers and all of it, if only I could hear the “I love you, Daddy” when I get home from work. As long as I can watch their eyes light up on Christmas morning, or see their expectant, hopeful faces as I unwrap my own Father’s Day gifts.

You won’t hear most men say it, but I’ll shout from the rooftops that I want to raise babies as much as I want to make them. To me, that is the ultimate goal of life. I’m without even one child, when I’m almost at the age at which my father was working on his fourth (whom I’ve never even met!), and I consider that my biggest failure by far. Everything else I’ve screwed up pales in comparison to the thought that I can’t accomplish the one thing life does. My one inherent purpose.

With each passing year, I get that much closer to the end of my time as a man physically capable of reproduction. If I reach that point with nothing to show for it…well, I try not to think about that. Doesn’t mean I’m successful.

So much of my depression and anxiety come back to that, especially this year. I’ve put enormous effort into getting my life on track, setting goals and whatnot, only to be beaten back at every turn by a world that has gone beyond uncaring and become actively antagonistic. I constantly feel like a failure, and that robs me of what little joy I have left, sending me further into the depths of despair.

I know I’m running out of chances, but what chance is there? I couldn’t support a family on minimum wage, I’m apparently unemployable for anything else, and starting my own business just isn’t possible until we push out the pandemic scaremongers.

My options are limited. My dreams are hanging on by the slimmest of threads. I’ve pushed away my truest friends, given up on those whose friendship was contingent, and isolated myself. Why? I think it’s because, deep down, I feel like….maybe it’ll hurt them less that way. Like a dog that runs away from its owner when it knows it’s going to die, I’m hiding to keep from hurting those I love.

Rationally, I know I’m often making it worse, but I’m reaching the point where I just can’t bring myself to care anymore. Are we really better off living in the fantasy of “things will get better” forever? I don’t think so. Things only get better if we make them, and I’ve tried that. I’ve given all I have, and I’ve got nothing to show for it but the pain of failure. Over and over again.

2021 may be my last chance in so many ways. I’m willing to become a revolutionary, if that’s what it takes. I will suffer so that others might be free. I love liberty more than myself. Depression has only changed the magnitude of that difference.

I’ll continue to write. If I can’t have children in the real world, I’ll create my own. The pride of seeing my name in print is still enough to bring a tear to my eye, and the steadily growing collection of paperbacks I’ve written is…something like a family, I guess.

As for the rest, I can’t say. Whatever happens, though, I know only I can fix me. And I’ll have to do it alone. Just like always.

On luck

Luck is a funny thing. Some people say it doesn’t exist. Others swear it does. Me? I’m conflicted on the subject, and here’s why.

I’ve stated my humanist leanings numerous times on here. I won’t say I deny the existence of deities or other supernatural or metaphysical elements. I simply believe that, if they do exist, they play little to no role in our daily lives. One look at the state of the world today is enough to support that notion, if you ask me.

But luck is different. While it might be considered metaphysical, it’s also quantifiable, in a sense. Take random chance, say the rolling of dice or drawing of cards. We can measure the positive and negative outcomes and, using statistical methods, determine the likelihood of each. Given enough samples, patterns might emerge. Anyone can have a run of good outcomes, a hot streak. Likewise, we’ve all experienced extended periods of bad outcomes. For most people, they tend to average out.

I’ve had my share of ridiculously bad luck. When I played online poker (before it was made illegal in the US in 2008), I got a royal flush once. That’s a rare outcome, around 1 in 31,000 hands for Texas Hold ’em. I also had a run of over 160 hands without being dealt a pocket pair: about 1 in 640,000 odds of that happening. You play enough, you tend to see some odd things, so no big deal. And we all knew that PokerStars was rigged to generate action, making that whole “3% chance to win on the river” more like a n 80% chance. (Fans of tactical strategy games and RPGs like XCOM and Fire Emblem understand my pain here.)

Running statistical tests on the hands I played and their outcomes showed that I did, in fact, lose more than I should have. Consistently. Not all of that can be chalked up to janky algorithms. Over the 4 years I was on PokerStars, I was about 1.5 standard deviations below the mean, so in the lowest 15% in terms of how likely I was to win based on the percentages.


Speaking of standard deviations, let me digress to a case where you might say I had extraordinarily good luck.

IQ tests are notoriously unreliable as indicators of absolute intelligence, as everyone knows, but they can be useful for comparison. If two people the same age, from roughly the same background, take the same test around the same time, then yes, you can compare their IQ. Get enough people like that, and you can start drawing a few conclusions. Not quite as many as proponents claim, but a few.

Now, IQ is traditionally defined as a normal distribution with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15. Thus, a person of “average” intelligence (for their age—this part is important!) has an IQ of 100. By the rules of math, about 68% of people have an IQ within one standard deviation of the mean, or in the range 85-115. Two standard deviations (70-130 IQ) covers around 95% of the population.

I’ve only taken one proper IQ test in my life, when I was 5 years old. (The one I took at age 9 was flawed for numerous reasons.) A funny thing I learned only recently is that those tests max out at 175. That makes sense. An IQ of 175 is five standard deviations above the mean, so 99.99994% of people are going to be just fine. But if you’re in that 0.00006%, what then?

Well, you get told that the people administering the test were “afraid to keep going.” In 1989, I didn’t know what that meant. In 2020, I understand that it was my mom’s way of saying that I hit the grading cap.


Yeah, I’m smart. So you could say I hit the lottery at birth, but everything since then? Not so much. Oh, I can hit those 1-in-10 and even 1-in-100 chances, but the bad ones certainly seem to outweigh the good. Parents divorcing during childhood? That was something like a 25% probability at the time. Major depression? Affects around 10-15% of Americans, myself included. The list goes on, and it has led, especially this year, to a lot of personal pessimism. I tend to expect the worse when I’m involved, for no other reason than I’m used to it.

Of course, some things I can control, to some extent. And those generally turn out decent, though rarely great. I take pride in my books, for instance; the only luck involved there is getting noticed, which I’ve yet to accomplish. It’s a similar story for the software I write. As long as I have a high degree of control over an outcome, I can make something out of it.

That’s not luck. That’s skill, determination, grit…whatever you want to call it, I’ve got it. If I’m working on my own, with my own deadlines and objectives, I’m good.

Only when other factors get involved does everything fall apart. Social situations, relationships, and my eternally unsuccessful job hunt are all good examples. Those aren’t situations where I can just try a little harder to push through to the end. It doesn’t work that way.

And that, I think, is what constitutes bad luck. It’s the state where, if you’re relying on someone or something beyond your control, you’re going to be let down more often than not. That does exist, whether you want to attribute it to probability (for every me, there’s surely someone with incredibly good luck; they tend to be CEOs, athletes, and politicians) or supernatural factors like curses. Honestly, I’d accept that I’m cursed—it would make a lot of things make more sense.

Until I see some evidence for that, however, I’ll continue to believe luck exists, and that I used all mine up for a brain that’s one in a million.

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.