Depression and Finance, a Primer

Money. No two syllables have a more immediate, profound, and unique effect on my state of mind. The feeling is this uncomfortable, almost primal, feeling of simultaneous scarcity and dirtiness. Logically I know I’m comfortable. All my needs, and the vast majority of my wants, are regularly satisfied and I have been able to accumulate a nice nest egg for retirement and a secondary egg for a rainy day. And yet I still feel constantly stressed about money, which feeds my Depression Vampire who encourages me to do insane things like skip meals or hoard envelopes from junk mail to use as scratch paper. No matter how much I’m taking in, it isn’t enough, no matter how little I spend it is too much.

Turns out I’m not alone. According to this Forbes article from a couple years ago, 75% of millennials admit to feeling stress about money. Money stress is also killing marriages, as nearly 1 in 5 divorcees surveyed in Great Britain said money was the top contributing factor to their partnerships splitting up.

Of course there is no question that money stress in the West, and the USA especially, far more impacts the poor than the wealthy, and as resource inequality grows the effects on the poor grow twice as fast as those on the wealthy (the poor experiencing similar stresses around money and working too many unfulfilling hours but with the added punch of having far fewer resources available to them to deal with the effects of stress). But poor and wealthy are relative terms depending on where you live. My salary in NYC is not even considered middle class (and I am eligible for housing assistance here because of it) yet my sister who lives in a far less wealthy city will holler about how well off I am based on the fact that I could afford to buy a house near her neighborhood.

Fortunately, the great unifying force for poor and wealthy alike is understanding the often counter-intuitive world of personal finance is difficult. Money is stressful, and so avoidance and focusing on the immediate are the preferred avenues for dealing with it. Depression and anxiety love using avoidance and immediacy to further their goals. They go hand in hand.

I love personal finance. Math was my favorite subject in school, and I enjoy the difficult puzzles of resource management and coming up creative solutions to problems like feeding myself. This mini-series within my blog will focus on how I deal with my own finances, where Depression and Anxiety cause me pitfalls, and tricks I use to keep myself secure and (reasonably) worry free. I’m not perfect at it by any stretch, and still experience some money stress daily, but I’m a lot less stressed about money now than in the past.

Let me know in the comments below some personal finance topics you’d like me to cover in this series.

Book Review – Gmorning Gnight by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel is the one bright spot on my Twitter which, sadly by my own design, is a combination of Russia conspiracy theories and the New York Mets. Sad. LMM’s relentless positivity in the face of what has been a difficult few years for all of us. Every day he floods my feed with uplifting tweets, fan retweets, and prose.

That miserable SOB.

This book is short, each page has no more than a couple dozen words. This is purposeful, as Miranda tweets out these daily affirmations, and a tweet is no more than 240 characters. Each page is also loaded with simple, black and white drawings that remind me of Shel Silverstein books that I used to love as a kid. As for the affirmations, which are more poem than prose, some are cute, some are catchy, some gave me pause, but every damn one could belong in a gallery exhibition of Millennial well-being blurbs. My depression vampire hates this kind of thing, which is likely why I was able to tear through this book in the 30 minutes I had to wait after getting my allergy shots. I’ll probably re-read them when I’m less unhappy.

The penultimate poem, though, gave me pause, because it spoke in a way that my depression vampire was forced to understand:

Gmornig.

Tired, but grateful.

Sick, but grateful.

It’s grey out, but I’m grateful.

So much easier to start with grateful.

I noticed I delayed for a second before closing the back cover. It was a good final set of morning and evening tweets. Even through my vampiric haze, LMM spoke to me through poetry. Probably a breakthrough, because I hate poetry, it’s more often than not lost on me. So thanks, in the off chance you ever read this. Oh and thanks for Hamilton, too.

Much easier to connect, when grateful.

Depression Cooking – Smoothies

Food is one of the most difficult things about living with depression. Cooking, and even worse, cleaning up after, is impossible on even the moderate low days, and I usually end up skipping meals, which in the past has led to dramatic weight loss, self-loathing about how thin I was, and a hospital trip. On the other end of the spectrum reliance of ready-made food and takeout can destroy budgets and lord knows there’s enough written about weight gain and body dysmorphia.

Cooking, for me, is one of the few consistent joys in my life. I love the sense of accomplishment I get from creating something delicious and healthy. I love the control I have over ingredients, methods and portions. And I love the sense of ownership I have in my kitchen equipment. My cast iron pan is one of the first things I’d grab in case of fire.

I spend an absurd amount of time thinking of ways to make cooking easier to start up for me on the bad days, and also how to reduce food waste that occurs when I do my shopping and meal planning on an up day, then letting the fresh ingredients go to rot in the fridge when I can’t bring myself to cook on the low days.

One of my go-tos is smoothies, which only require a few ingredients, and about two minutes of work to completion. Drop the ingredients into a blender and process for 2-3 minutes or until all the lumps are gone. Smoothies are also a great way to cram in 3 servings of fruit and veggies, which if nothing else, gives you some amazing skin and regular poops.

I use the same base smoothie recipe and just swap the fruits for different flavors. This recipe can be vegan friendly, and is always vegetarian friendly. Each serving is around 350 calories, which makes it an excellent snack or meal supplement, but not really a meal replacement (though a handful of almonds will add the extra 200 calories or so!).

Base Recipe – this stuff goes in every shake (modified base recipe from a friend!):

1 cup plant milk (hemp and soy are my favorites, seek the unsweetened varieties)
2 Tbsp ground flax seed (buy a big bag for like $5 and keep it in the freezer as it will go bad before you use it all up)
1 generous handful of spinach (or 3 spinach ice cubes – made by pureeing a bunch of spinach and freezing in an icecube tray). Baby kale is OK, too, avoid lettuce as it’s usually too strong a flavor.
Several Tbsp vanilla skyr (yogurt) or vegan protein powder.

Flavors (where the fun happens!):

Strawberry?! More like RAWBERRY!

10 fresh strawberries, tops cut off

Bubble Tea:

1 kiwi fruit, peeled
1 banana

Chocolate pudding:

½ avocado
1 banana (or the other half of the avocado)
1 Tbsp raw cocoa powder

I Didn’t Get Off The Couch Saturday

So far, 2019 has been a pretty good year for my depression. The blues, self-loathing, and lethargy have largely stayed away. I’ve had a grand total of 3 drinks this year whereas for parts of 2018 I was having 3 a night. I’m spending more time with my friends, I’m more engaged at work, and my sleep schedule is not awful.

But I did not leave the couch on Saturday, and I didn’t do a damn thing. Dishes were still piled up where I left them Friday. I was still in Friday’s clothes, and couldn’t even bring myself to take a hot shower. The blinds remained closed all day, despite it being a brilliantly sunny (if cold) day. Instead I sat here staring at YouTube Let’s Plays

I only had two cups of tea and a glass of water on Saturday, to minimize the number of times I had to stand up to pee. At one point I wanted to play Super Smash Bros but I couldn’t bring myself to stand up and get the controller for my Switch so I didn’t. I watched people on Twitch do it instead.

Even when my Depression isn’t hanging around, it can still take a smack at me. Saturday I had just gotten back from a brutally long week of in-person meetings away from home. I had to deal with some car insurance crap in my exhausted state Friday evening and it just sank me. I was in bed by 10 and work up well after 9am Saturday morning.

The road to healing isn’t easy. Hell most of the time it isn’t paved. I still have days where I can’t bring myself to move, the trick is learning to accept it and move on. Sunday, I felt much the same way as I did Saturday. Instead, I forced myself to go grab a bagel for breakfast. Getting outside in the cool air shook me up a bit, and I seized on the moment, got in my car, and headed upstate for a hike. It was a short hike, I still didn’t have much energy, but it was a hike nonetheless.

Next time you have a Couch Day, do a little something. Go stand in your front door for a minute. Maybe text a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Even the smallest action can do a world of good. And if your small action is all you do that day, that’s OK, too, because you did something for yourself, and that’s really what healing is about.

Book Review – Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

I’ve stated it before, but Bourdain’s death hit me harder than any other celebrity death save possibly Robin Williams. Here was a man living my dream: widely respected in his industry, paid to travel the world meeting interesting people and breaking bread with them, all while married to a gorgeous, independent woman in Asia Argento.

Of course Bourdain’s suicide didn’t exactly come as a shock. In either of his shows he’d make constant references to death, dying, and suicide – telltale warning signs of critical terminal depression, and language that peppers my own thoughts and speech. Of course this edge is what I liked so damn much about his show, it spoke in a language that I could understand – that of a man who’d be just as miserable jet-setting and stuffing his face full of delicious food and drink as he would in a concentration camp.

It is going to be impossible to write this post without imitating his cadence. I’m not sorry, because he’s one of my writing inspirations.

I put myself on the library wait list for Kitchen Confidential shortly after he died and it did not come in for several months. My copy was beaten up, its spine broken, its jacket covered in a thin slimy film, pages wrinkled, and undoubtedly dried after having water spilled on them. I tore through it in about 3 days, Tony’s voice narrating in my head the whole time.

This is first and foremost an autobiography, starting with Bourdain’s first experience with high-end French cuisine in Normandy, through his Tucker Max-esque days in 1970s Cape Cod, down through his drug addled 20s and 30s climbing the ranks in New York’s restaurant scene. This is a book written about the industry for insiders. It doesn’t talk down to the audience, or sugar coat any of the unsavory stuff that goes on behind the kitchen door. It offers a politically incorrect frankness about hot-topic issues like immigration or sexism (Bourdain takes great pains to express that the best kitchen workers are Latin American immigrants because they will do their jobs quickly, quietly and with quality results. The worst? Americans with pie-in-the-sky dreams of running a kitchen). Bourdain expressed remorse in the wake of the MeToo movement about some of the sexist conversation that was included in the memoir, but I do not think it was excessive, nor unnecessary. Male dominated fields like restaurants or warehouses are still hotbeds for these attitudes, and it is important to shine a light on them, regardless of how painful or unsavory it may be, in order to foster change towards a more equitable, friendly workplace.

Things do get a bit stale in the middle third of the book, when Bourdain begins to talk about the who’s who of New York’s high-end restaurant scene, using nicknames and pseudonyms to paint portraits of a cast of characters that seem a bit too exaggerated to be real. While I’m sure Bigfoot and “Real-Last-Name-Unknown” are larger than life, Bourdain missed an opportunity here to craft better narrative vignettes to really express how these different personalities impact their kitchens.

In all, Bourdain is painfully self-aware and his book drips with that. He was gaining some celebrity when it was first published in 2000, and spoke candidly about how he absolutely adored the spotlight and only hated celebrity chefs because he wanted to be one. Ultimately Kitchen Confidential would spin-off into a failed sitcom, and Bourdain would go on to host his own shows on Travel Channel and CNN. The man is a damn inspiration to depressed, self-destructive people everywhere, just look what he can do…and what we all could do, too, if we apply our gifts to fight our illness.

The SMART Method for Goals is Bullshit

Goals, I argue, shouldn’t target a specific condition, but rather a relative improvement to where you are at this exact moment.

The S.M.A.R.T. method for goal setting is like, the first thing that pops up when you Google “make my life better”. The theory states that a goal is only achievable if it is Specific Measurable Attainable Relevant and Time-Sensitive. This works for a corporate setting, and is most easily applied for goals with a monetary end (ex. I will cold-call(S) 100(M) clients, at no more than 5 min a piece(A – max 500 minutes of calling, probably closer to an average of 2.5 minutes, is 1 full work day) and tell them about our new product(R) by close of business today(T)).

Outside of business, this methodology breaks down, and I find it demotivating when I attempt to apply it to fixing my life. Specificity and Measureableness are both too constricting to really make me happy. For example, I’m sure some people have a fitness goal in mind when they start out (ex. to run the New York City Marathon in 2020), but most often, people just want to look and feel a bit better as their motivation for exercise. Time-Sensitive is the biggest killer. Setting a specific deadline for myself is a recipe for failure from two angles when you have depression:

1. If I miss a day or break the habit, I will feel like I’m playing catch up and lose the attainability. It will be easy to give up and confirm for myself I’m a failure.

2. If I miss my self-imposed deadline, I will focus on not having achieved my goal and feel bad, despite having a measurable improvement in myself from where I started.

Instead, I like to apply what I call the F.A.R.T. method of goal setting. Goals should be: Flexible, Attainable*, Repeatable, and Trackable. Let’s break it down letter by letter:

Flexible – Goals (like the 40 before 40 list and my book list) are not meant to be achieved as they were written (in fact, research indicates achieving a goal as written is often dissatisfying). Instead the goals should serve more as guard rails. I want to look and feel better (and not be winded sprinting up stairs after the subway). Feeling better is relative, of course. I feel a lot better after I’ve puked because the nausea has abated, but if I went from how I feel after cuddling on the couch with a loved one to that “just threw up” feeling, that would be feeling worse. Looking better is much the same, after puking I’m less green, and am standing less rigidly because I’m not actively fighting the gag reflex, but that is still a worse look than the smile and confident stance I take after a cuddle session. Goals, I argue, shouldn’t target a specific condition, but rather a relative improvement to where you are at this exact moment. Do 10 push ups, and you’ve done 10 more pushups than before, congrats you’re in better shape. Read 10 pages of a book, you’re better read than you were before don’t you feel just a little smarter and more enriched?

Attainable* – This one is the same as “Achievable” in that it should be something you’re capable of doing with your available resources (modifying your car to go back to 1955 is an example of a goal you can’t achieve, at least not without Libyan Plutonium and a classic DeLorean). I used a synonym to avoid a lawsuit. The asterisk here implies “preferably daily”. Since I often feel a lot better off the post-exercise high, and while a single workout isn’t going to make a noticeable improvement to my overall health or physical appearance right away our goals should also be…

Repeatable – Goals should be more focused on developing habits, not an end. The smaller amount of time you use to measure repeatable, the better. Daily should be your baseline, with stuff like fitness you can chunk as low as hourly (ex I will take a 5 minute break every hour to run up and down a flight of stairs). Reading 100 books in 10 years, especially thick tomes like the Complete Works of Shakespeare, is a daunting task and can feel impossible on the Depression Vampire’s low days. But reading 10 pages a day is easy, I can crank that out on the subway on the way to work. If I do it every work day for a month, I’ve finished about 220 pages or roughly one book (or about 3 plays based on my Complete Works version).

Trackable – you should be able to put your daily goals on a calendar and check off when you took a step towards them. Give yourself credit every time you’ve improved your position relative to where you started, even if it is a tiny baby step. Only read 1 page of your book today? Fantastic, give yourself credit for your “read more” goal today. Obviously try to do as much as you can manage based on your limited energy and time, but you have no excuse for doing 0. You’re not losing any real amount of sleep going to bed at 11:05 instead of 11:00.

Your assignment – think of a vague goal you’ve been putting off, then take no more than 5 minutes to apply the FART method to it, and do your attainable, repeatable, trackable action right now. Then see if you can do the same thing tomorrow. If you need help chunking out your goals into bite sized pieces, drop me a comment below and I’ll help you out.

Your Scrooge Moment Isn’t Coming

Don’t Wait for a Sudden Epiphany to Start Healing

In high school, one of the kids I knew from my robotics club had a dad who was, to put it diplomatically, a bit of an asshole. Let’s just call him Mr. Scrooge, minus the miserly attitude. He had a super awesome machine shop and regularly donated his time and money to manufacture parts for our robot, which made him an indispensable part of the team. Unfortunately, he used this as an excuse to press undue influence on a club dedicated primarily to teaching kids about STEM and preparing a new generation of scientists and engineers.

Marley confronts Scrooge, from Scrooge (1951) my favorite rendition of A Christmas Carol

While the professionally designed and manufactured robot parts gave us a competitive edge on the field, we weren’t actually learning anything. Mr. Scrooge also tended to be strongly opinionated, carried a toxic attitude with authoritarian tendencies, and threatened walkouts when he didn’t get his way. Even as a teen, I knew the often brutal arguments he had with our robotics and mentor were immature and petty.

Then, my senior year, this guy fell ill. I don’t remember exactly what, but in my hazy memory I think it was a heart attack. Either way he was out of commission for several months after a very serious surgery. One bitterly cold morning during February break (which coincidentally also lined up with crunch week for the robotics club), I was walking to the tech lab. Mr. Scrooge rolled up in his SUV, pulled over and opened the passenger door for me, beckoning me in. Nervous, but grateful for the ride, I hopped in.

“Heya Jon!” he said. Weird, he’d never called me by name before, I was convinced he had zero clue who I even was. “I’ve got some sodas on the back seat I’m bringing for the team, why don’t you grab one?” he said, reaching back and getting me a Sprite. I thanked him and cracked the can open, not wanting to set him off into a rage. I’d never seen him in a mood like this. He must have picked up on my shock.

“I looked Death in the eye, and Death blinked. I’m turning over a new leaf, as of today. I know I can be difficult, but that’s clearly destroying my heart. If you ever need help with anything, just call me.”

And by God the spirits did it in one night. Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more. Scrooge’s son, who was on the team, but several years younger than I am, was always a bit of an edgelord and brat. He cleaned up his act, too, got super into working out and now is a professional athlete.

‘But wait!’, you say, ‘Didn’t you say there is no Scrooge moment coming for me?’

You are correct, dear reader, there is not. I tell this story not because I’m trying to instill false hope, but rather because this is literally the only example from my 30 years on Earth, meeting hundreds if not thousands of people, where a miserable person turned his life around because of a catastrophic event set him straight.

My life is full of people, most wonderful, who have always been more or less the way they are today. One friend, despite needing both gastric band AND bypass surgery continues to live a sedentary life and eat dessert first. One of my closest co-workers has sworn the next shitty raise, benefit cut, or argument with upper management will be the spark that causes him to quit in a blaze of glory every day for the last five years. I also know a guy who has been literally inches from jumping to his own death twice in the past decade, and the biggest turnaround he had was sprinting off to spend a month in a foreign country to “find himself” before coming back just as stressed and miserable as before.

Wait, that last one is me.

The truth of the matter is, the human brain…sentient life in general…is pretty damn difficult to work with. A brain simply cannot fire on all cylinders all the time, it relies on slipping into autopilot to conserve energy, and the more it uses those autopilot connections, the more they become entrenched. Attempting to change a habit, even a simple behavior like remembering to floss, is the cranial equivalent of tearing up a neighborhood’s plumbing and installing brand new pipes. That is to say, labor intensive. Of course, it is possible, but only with a metric ton of hard work and focus. Everyone is more than capable of doing it, but it’s an uphill struggle to maintain the will to do so. This is why we so gravitate to the idea of the life-changing epiphany, and why it has become such a successful media trope.

To see change, you need to have a clear picture in your head of what change you want to see. Maybe it’s something simple like being the kind of person who’d offer someone a ride in inclement weather. Or maybe more complex like becoming a person who gives inspirational speeches at town hall meetings. Christmas may be a while off, but I implore you be your own Three Ghosts of Christmas right now. Take stock of your life, where you were in the past, where you are today, and what your greatest fears for the future are. Use it to create some goals for the upcoming year for yourself. More on goal setting in my next post.

The 4 Layers of You That Depression Impacts

How Depression Infects Your World Inside and Out

While the stigma associated with mental illness has been, encouragingly, lifting as depression and addiction have come to the forefront of our national conversation here in the States, there is still a frustratingly large population, cutting across demographic barriers, that believes it exists “all in your head”. This assumption, of course, is not true, and a growing body of medical research has been showing that depression is as much a physical ailment as it is a mental disease. Symptoms of depression that extend beyond just feelings of melancholy include digestive issues, muscle aches, physical sluggishness, disrupted sleep patterns, inopportune shots of adrenaline, and increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

But my position is that depression is a disease that regularly creeps and infects the world outside the body, and the symptoms of a person’s depression are not exclusively internal.

To explain, I’d like to introduce my philosophy on what truly constitutes a “person”. There is a lot said about the mind-body connection, but those are only the two most inner layers. A person’s home and greater community are just as important to understanding their identity, and, most importantly, the full extent to which mental illness impacts them. The handy graphic below shows the 4 Layers of a Person. Yes, my philosophy was inspired somewhat by Shrek. Ogres are people, too, and people have layers.

Super high-tech diagram. Only the best MS Paint graphics for my readers!

Layer #1 – Mind: Where your thoughts exist, your memories are stored, your personality originates…and so does your depression. Depression impacts the mind by slowing down or stopping reward feedback (the stuff that makes you feel good about yourself), as well as infecting your internal monologue with persistent negative thoughts and triggering your basic lizard-brain fight-or-flight in a manner inconsistent with your physical reality.

Layer #2 – Body: Your physical body, starting with the neurons and chemicals that provide the biological basis of your mind, extending into all the fun systems you learned about in high school biology class (endocrine, skeletal, nervous, muscluar, etc.). Depression here has both direct and indirect effects. It is directly, through the vagus nerve, slowing down your organs, resulting in digestive issues, nutrition malabsorbtion, increased heart attack risk, and giving you a general physical feeling that’s achy and sluggish. Indirectly, depression impacts how you handle body maintenance, by making a healthy self-care routine difficult. Disruption to the sleep cycle slows down the body’s natural healing processes and can result in eye pain, muscle aches, etc. Depression being a vampire that feeds on energy instead of blood, encourages snacking on sugary and fatty foods which can have disastrous effects on cholesterol, blood sugar, weight, skin, etc. Since it’s so sneaky, Depression also sometimes doesn’t like feeding the body at all, resulting in rapid weight loss and low energy that itself feeds Depression in a negative feedback loop. Depression can also drive a person to unhealthy levels of physical activity, most commonly too little, resulting in muscle atrophy, higher risk of illness, but sometimes too MUCH, resulting in increased risk of injury from overusing the body.

Layer #3 – Home: Your immediate surroundings, where you live, etc. is the next layer of “you”. Depression here can infect your home’s well-being, too. Dishes can start to pile up, clothes will sit on the floor instead of in a dresser or hamper, clutter takes over desks and tables. Depression will tell you to go out and buy expertly marketed products to make you happy, then slap you with remorse when the product sits in your home unused and bills begin to pile up. In some cases, Depression takes the opposite route of hoarding, giving away or breaking prized or useful objects because a person is made to feel they aren’t worth owning nice things.

Layer #4 – Community: Your friends, family, neighborhood. Depression will seek to destroy your relationships with the world around you – picking fights with loved ones, avoiding parties/gatherings that you one enjoyed, detaching from community engagement like religious service or volunteerism. Depression will make you feel disconnected and isolated from the world, in the rare cases you can drag yourself outside, you will feel like you’re walking through a dreamworld, or a video game, shuffling past nameless NPCs who can and do have little impact on your life. Alternatively, Depression can make the community seem hostile. It will appear as if people are intentionally trying to hurt you, get in your way, prevent you from reaching your goals.

This was a long post, but I hope you can see how Depression impacts far more than just a person’s state of mind, and whether you have Depression or not, that you understand a little better just how pervasive and destructive this disease is to every aspect of a person’s life.

The Depressed Decade

Who am I? What’s my story? And Why am I blogging?

I’ve been miserable as long as I can remember. As a child I was prone to sudden, often untriggered attacks of rage and self-destruction, landing me in the headmaster’s office often enough to be considered for permanent expulsion from school. My anger was swept up in the post-9/11 hysteria and transformed into fear, anxiety, and helplessness, which paved the way to depression.

My first depressive spell, at 16, was a doozy. During the heat of AP and SAT test week, I was sent home from school with a 103 fever, muscle aches, and splitting migraines. Tests for mono, Epstein Barr, lyme all came back negative, nothing in my vitals or other bloodwork indicated anything other than perfect health. Much of my time during senior year was spent driving off friends, coasting by in class, and withdrawing to my room to crank 90s pop tunes, play Pokemon, and pine for the best days I’d left behind.

I hit a nadir Christmas of 2007. My first semester in college went about as bad as it could have gone. I flunked Intro to Programming in C, and barely scraped by with a D in Calculus. I lost my scholarship, driven entirely by my desire to take the train into the city instead of going to class. I had trouble making new friends, instead preferring to stick with the friends from high school and spending our time illegally camping in a sand and gravel mine or playing airsoft in the woods. Lack of sleep from staying up watching shitty Flash movies on Newgrounds led me to totaling my car, and having to take the train to class every day, dropped off by my mom on her way to work.

December 18, 2007, I was standing on the platform, waiting for the train that would take me to Manhattan. I was cutting my last final exam and dreading having to tell my parents about my self-imposed failure. I told myself that as the train pulled into the station, I would jump in front of it just to put myself out of my misery quickly.

It started snowing. I felt a tap on my shoulder. A Chinese exchange student, who spoke very little English, indicated he needed to make a call, and his phone had died. I passed him my cell, and started to walk with him back to his dorm as he called his relative. The train came and went, and in a moment of clarity, I knew I was in trouble.

The rest of my college years were an upward swing. I changed my major from engineering to history, found a solid group of friends. I studied abroad twice: first in Shanghai, then Nice. Depression remained a vampiric presence in my life, delighting in my newfound affection for hard liquor and trying to get laid. More than once I woke up in a strange bed, and I hit several lows including waking up on a bench in Lu Xun Park with my hand broken at the wrist and my arm covered in dried blood.

I never considered myself a suicidal person, or an alcoholic. I would learn later I was a living stereotype. I would have argued that I maintained steady employment throughout my 20s, I kept my car in working order, got good grades (despite my hard first semester, I graduated with a GPA of 3.5 and a double major), paid off my student loans 5 years ahead of schedule, was always on time to my therapy sessions, and managed to build a sizeable 6-figure nest egg before my 30th birthday. Depressed people, I convinced myself, get hooked on drugs, listen to emo music, and are always struggling with money.

Things started to go back towards “the train” in my 29th year (2018), with the spate of high-profile suicides, all people I admired: Anthony Bourdain, Verne Troyer, Avici. Wanting desperately to avoid their fates, I began to over-indulge in the positive – cutting out of work early for added park time, binging on fruit smoothies, skipping meals to save extra money despite an already high savings rate. My vampire hung around, but I was choosing to feed it protein smoothies and bike rides along the East River, not self-destruction. Soon the joy I found in all those things was gone, cheapened by oversaturation. Despair set in, and with it thoughts of self-harm.

Hey, I live in a city of bridges and skyscrapers. Plenty of choices. I could make it spectacular.

I resisted taking anti-depressants for half my life, and that hasn’t changed. I don’t want someone else dictating what kind of chemicals are affecting my brain, regardless of how many years of schooling they have. Despite that, I’ve been consistently seeing a psychologist and trying all manner of non-invasive therapies. We’re still working on it, but for now, I want to keep living, so that’s something I suppose.

Where to from here? I don’t know. I have an idea of what I want to accomplish—what I think I would be doing with my time and money if I wasn’t struggling with debilitating mental illness. This blog, first and foremost, is to serve as my experimentation log – what feeds my depression vampire and what starves it? I also hope to serve as a muse to the no doubt thousands jaded by meaningless advice like “practice mindfulness” without anything resembling an actionable plan for how the fuck to do that. Finally, I hope to add my voice to the growing chorus having the tough conversations we as a society need to address mental illness and its partner in crime – addiction. The two kill well over a hundred thousand Americans a year. In the time it took you to read the first 900 words of this post, two Americans died from an overdose and another from a purposefully self-inflicted injury. That’s the equivalent rate to one September 11th death toll EVERY 10 DAYS. Think of all the good in the world we’re missing out on having lost those people.

Nothing I can say or write or accomplish will get these death rates down to 0. But I hope to build a clear road map out for some. Maybe I’ll be able to save 1 person from the brink and she’ll cure cancer! Or, maybe even better, they’ll just be there with their family and friends for their next birthday. No positive accomplishment is too small.