Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Choosing life in the face of depression

In the wake of Robin Williams's recent death to apparent suicide, Dan Fincke of Camels With Hammers wrote a beautiful piece about how he viewed Robin Williams's life and death. Let me highlight a few parts that called out to me:
Reading the various lamentations of the suicide of Robin Williams, I’m troubled by the tendency for people to take a single deed to define a man’s entire disposition towards life. There is a tendency to frame what happened as Williams losing his battle with depression. Or to take his act of suicide as his ultimate verdict on the value of his life, or of life itself. 
But it’s neither of these things. 
Monday he had a bad day with depression. A lethally bad day. 
But had he been lucky enough to survive it, he would have likely regretted it. Most survivors of suicide attempts are glad to be alive. And his judgment day after day prior, over the course of decades of struggles, was that life was worth enduring even through the blackest nights of addiction and mental illness. He transmuted his pain into enduring art. It took the form of manic, exuberant, genius, edge-of-the-seat improvisational stage comedy that exuded life more than any other comedian’s. And it took the form of painfully self-revealing dramatic performances. He played so many characters who brimmed with combustible desperation and vulnerability.
And then later in the piece he wrote:
And those are the twin things to remember about life. Nobody gets out alive. We all die. Whatever the cause. But in most places on most days, everybody gets out alive. No matter how bleak things are for us, most of us live to fight another day. And it’s the same for those struggling with depression. Most days, they win. Most days, they endure. Most days, they choose life. 
On their darkest days the simple act of breathing is an act of hope. Even when the mind and heart feel like they’re in despair, they manage to breathe. They manage to take themselves to the next moment and see what it has to offer. 
My point is that people who struggle with suicide win their lives over and over again. They choose life more often than those who never make living into a question. They survive numerous ledges that their minds push them out onto, managing over and over again not to fall. And we should appreciate what their high wire skills tell us about them and what matters to them. Each time they choose their family, their friends, their life’s cause, or even just the next day, it’s a choice. It’s a choice to continue valuing and to continue giving.
If you've read this blog, or you know me personally, you know I've battled, and still battle, against depression. In my worst periods I've been suicidal. One night when I was 19 I got off work, and realized that if I went home, I might not --probably wouldn't-- survive the night (actually, I didn't even consider it in question). I made the choice to self-admit myself into the psych ward at a local hospital. I had to choose to think that life could be worth it -- or at least, that it was worth finding out. I didn't really think of it in those terms at the time, but that's what it was. To me, it seemed like I was battling twin desires: the desire to live, and the desire to end the pain. I made the choice to live.

Some years later, in my third year at college, I made two attempts at suicide, two attempts to choose an end to the pain. In one (I don't remember which was first), I started to cut my wrist before stopping myself. In the other, I started swallowing sleeping pills and chasing them with alcohol. In both cases, as I was doing it, I thought about what my suicide would do to my friends and family, my loved ones. I thought of the pain it would cause them. In the case of the sleeping pill attempt, I remembered the clear and obvious concern on a friend's face who ran into me as I was buying the alcohol I was planning to drink with the pills. I didn't tell him what I was planning, but I still noted that concern. And that concern was instrumental in making the choice to stop swallowing pills. In the wrist cutting attempt, I actually wrote a note, addressed to my roommate, and the process of that writing reminded me of her caring. And so, I could not finish the cut once I started. 

I made the choice then to stop, but though this may sound bad, it wasn't an easy choice. This was one of the worst periods of my life, probably my worst bout of depression, and every day was a battle. The sense of despair and hopelessness was at times overwhelming, and I can say that without hyperbole. 

But now I'm glad. I'm glad that I chose to live, even with all the pain I was in. I'm glad that I'm alive now to face yet another bout of depression, one that saps my ability to concentrate on things I'd normally enjoy, like reading or playing video games. I'm not suicidal this time (another thing I'm glad for), and I'm not giving up. I'm choosing to face this, and live. 

Thank you, Dan Fincke, for your beautiful words.



Sunday, August 3, 2014

More depression is depressing

Lately, I've been more depressed. It started, I think, at the end of May. It was subtle at first, and I didn't notice right away. I shouldn't be surprised that I didn't notice. Depression symptoms generally come in patterns over time. It doesn't always immediately manifest itself as some overwhelming feeling of "depressed." Sometimes there are feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and despair, but not always. And even when they do appear, they can be subtle, and creep up on you until suddenly they're there, and they've been there all along, like the Silence from Doctor Who.

But feelings aren't at the crux of my current symptoms. Not those feelings anyway, though I can sometimes sense them creeping up on me. I've been managing to hold them off for now. No, instead there are patterns of behavior and difficulty.

Let's just start with the pattern that I spotted first, probably because it seems to be the most important. I haven't been thinking "deep thoughts." I haven't been reading those posts on feminism and atheism that I usually enjoy reading, or reading posts on philosophy and ethics, or reading news stories that I would generally follow (the Hobby Lobby decision, for example). I haven't been taking the time to think through many issues or questions of importance.

When I try to read up on things, to examine complex posts online, I can't concentrate. It's exhausting just trying to get through a few paragraphs, and I find myself struggling to understand what I've read. This is complete and utter bullshit, because that's just not me, and yet it's happening.

So, I've caught myself avoiding such things. I didn't even notice I was doing that at first. I've been using video games in an attempt to avoid doing any mental heavy lifting. But then, I find myself not enjoying the game I'm playing, and quit after a relatively short period of time. Again, that's not like me. And since I don't want to watch anything on Netflix, because that's another thing I struggle to enjoy lately (at least I still enjoy sex), I find myself pacing, restlessly, not knowing what to do with myself.

Before this depressive stage hit, I'd been working on a project to better myself, to become a better version of me. About all I've managed to keep from that is attempts at exercise (though even that had fallen by the side for a bit). I've been exercising a little bit every day, but it's a struggle to keep going. My wife's been wonderful in helping to hold me accountable for the exercising, and without her, I think I would have given up already. Which would have made me feel worse. Unfortunately, I don't really enjoy the exercise I've been doing. It's a 30 day challenge (part of an app I'm using) though, so I don't want to quit to do something different until I've completed the 30 days. If I did, I think I'd feel worse, like a loser. However, once that 30 days is done, I'm switching to weight training at the gym. I actually enjoy lifting weights (and I hope I still do).

There's outside factors as well, things that cause stress. Worry about how we're going to manage financially with our first child on the way, worry about how this depression is going to affect my school work, some relationship issues with a friend (which have been resolved), and the like. But much of that started after these other symptoms started, so while they feed into the depression, they are not causing it.

No, the cause is once again just my brain breaking on me. As such, at my last psych appointment a few days ago, we upped the dosage on my Abilify to see if it helps alleviate symptoms. Maybe it's helping. I'm writing this after all, and this was something that I'd been avoiding as well. So this could be a good sign.

One way or another, I'll get through this. I have to keep believing that, even though it can be a struggle to maintain hope and optimism at times like these. I'll get through this.


Monday, July 7, 2014

"How am I suppose to trust anyone when I can't trust like 50% of the thoughts in my head?"

That was said to me recently by a friend, and not as a rhetorical question. I told them I needed to think about that before I could try to answer it with any amount of intelligence. This friend lives with a mental illness, like me, though not the same one. It's not really relevant to the general public what it is, just know that it's there and it can have serious effects on their thinking and emotions.

I was reminded of various things as I tried to think the question through. When I was younger, like young teen years, I didn't trust anyone. There's various reasons for that, some of it probably related to then undiagnosed depression, but that's what it boiled down to. But I wanted to trust people. I wanted someone in my life that was trustworthy so I could be close to them. Eventually, I decided that if I wanted someone trustworthy, I needed to start by being trustworthy myself. So, I set out to become a trustworthy person. I vowed to myself not to lie (barring extreme, life-threatening situations), even if it would cause me pain, or hurt someone's feelings. This doesn't mean I'm lacking in tact. I know how to keep my mouth shut, and I don't mind telling only half the truth, so long as I don't out and out lie about it. I can be evasive. For the most part, I've stuck to this principal, even more than 20 years later. I think my idea was that if I could be the trustworthy person I wanted others to be, than others would be more likely to be trustworthy in their relations with me, and that trustworthy people would find me. For the most part, it appears to have worked. I have trustworthy people in my life now, but perhaps that was just a matter of time. I don't know.

So, a question about trust reminded me of my own trust issues. Big surprise. But it doesn't seem to entirely relate. Sure, I can recommend to my friend -and anyone else- that they be the trustworthy person they want others to be (though not necessarily to take vows against lying). And I do recommend that. But that's not so easy when you have an illness that fucks with your thoughts and emotions, making it difficult to trust even yourself, and may be not be entirely helpful.

Of course, I was also reminded of some of the difficulties my own illness, depression, has caused me. In the worst of my times, I had a hard time believing that there could ever be a happy future for me. I had friends, people who cared for me, people I trusted. But my illness made it very difficult for me to see any possibility of a positive future. It would blind me to the positive things in my life, and rob me of my energy and motivation. It made suicide seem like a reasonable choice. Eventually, it was a matter of I would either die, or something had to improve. Intellectually, I was able to see the possibility of hope, and for a while, that intellectual decision had to be enough. To realize that intellectual hope, I had to take my meds and take my treatment seriously (i.e., therapy). Eventually, the intellectual hope I clung to started becoming emotional hope, something I could actually feel. I got past that particular bout of depression, and into the future.

However, my situation, again, is not entirely the same, or entirely relevant. But I was also reminded of a blogger named JT Eberhard. JT's particular illness is anorexia. Sometimes, his anorexia causes him to hallucinate when he looks in the mirror, and at times, these hallucinations will contribute to him not eating. So, I searched his blog to see if there was anything that could be helpful. The first part of this post seems relevant.
The worst part isn’t admitting that you’re crazy (that was, ironically, very liberating). The worst part is doubting everything else. It’s thinking that if I cannot rightly perceive reality with regard to mirrors, is there anything else my brain is twisting? It makes you paranoid, and it makes you question your ability to interact with the world in an acceptable way.
Sounds similar.
It occurs to me though, that all of our brains are deficient toward accurately seeing the world in one way or another. This is how illusions exist. For instance, take this image of the famous checker square illusion: 
Squares A and B are the exact same color. You can use photoshop or whatever other means you wish to confirm this.  . . . 
Virtually every human being will be unable to perceive reality correctly with regard to the two squares. None of our sensory inputs give us all the correct information, and none of our brains parse that information in a way that gives us a fully accurate view of existence. This is why we have science, critical thinking, and other means to get around the flaws of our cognition 
For people like myself, like John Nash, and the other anorexics, schizophrenics, and such out there, we deal with one more way in which our minds deny us reality, but it doesn’t make us as different from everybody else as one may seem. There’s this perception that there are normal people and those who are crazy. But the line is actually not that distinct, and I suspect every normal person, when presented with an illusion like the one above, can relate to us in not seeing reality accurately. This is what it feels like to hear voices that aren’t there or to see reflections that aren’t real, the only difference is that people can become frightened of you if you are plagued by the latter illusions.
This seems a wise observation to me. To some extent, none of us can trust the thoughts in our head. Wikipedia has a whole list of ways that completely normal brains bias our thinking in ways that can lead to false beliefs, including confirmation bias, illusory correlation, etc.

So, how can we trust other people, and perhaps ourselves? As JT said, "This is why we have science, critical thinking, and other means to get around the flaws of our cognition." Follow the evidence, learn about critical thinking, and practice those skills. Most people are basically decent people, so you can start with an assumption that the person is probably trustworthy, at least to a point (the same principles I'm talking about can apply even if you don't think most people are decent, and you can't bring yourself to start with an assumption of basic trustworthiness). Then, over time, and over the course of your interactions with that person, apply critical thinking to the evidence they provide, and apportion your trust accordingly. Just remember, in order for someone to demonstrate that they're trustworthy, they need to be given the opportunity to prove that they're trustworthy. This means you will need to take some risks, and put yourself out there, perhaps more than you're strictly comfortable, but they're necessary risks. Nonetheless, feel free to start small, and take your time. If the evidence matches your gut instincts most of the time, then you can start to trust your gut more as well.

At the same time, be observing yourself (if you're asking yourself questions like what my friend asked me, you're probably doing this already). A big part of critical thinking is understanding that everyone makes mistakes in cognition. Watch yourself for those, even as you're watching others. But that also means that we should be forgiving of such mistakes.

Even if you practice this for years, and get to a point where you're usually able to make accurate assessments and determine who's likely trustworthy right from the start, even if you've got this down to a science, you're going to be wrong some of the time. That's to be expected. It sucks when you're wrong about someone, when you thought you could trust them, and then it turns out you can't. It sucks when you think someone's a good person, and then it turns out that they're not. The danger here isn't so much in the being wrong, it's in coming to then doubt everything because of that mistake, to overgeneralize that negative event to other events, and assume that all of them will be bad, or that you're always going to be wrong, or that you really can't trust your judgement. Forgive yourself, and try to learn from the mistake. Then move on.

That probably won't be as easy as I make it sound (it isn't for me), but try. That's all we can do. Try.

And hope. What I said earlier about using hope to get through depression can, I think, apply to trust as well. Hope that the person is trustworthy as you put yourself out there. Hope that you can learn to trust your judgement. If you can't actually feel that hope, then just recognize on an intellectual level that some people are trustworthy, and there is a non-zero chance this person will be as well. And other people have developed the skills to trust their judgement, even people with a-typical brains, so there's a chance you can as well. Better to aim for that chance than not, I think. Hopefully (heh), your intellectual hope will eventually be realized.

Friday, June 27, 2014

How to care for introverts -- or is that everyone?


Sometimes I see things that I want to agree with, and then I realize it's not that simple. For example, an image called "How To Care For Introverts" that I spotted on Facebook. It's supposed to be a list of things that teach to, well, care for introverts. But as I read through it, my most prominent thought was "shouldn't you just treat everyone that way?"

For example, the very first item on the list is "Respect their need for privacy." How is that specific to introverts? Shouldn't everyone, even extroverts, have their need for privacy respected?

"Never embarrass them in public." That really should be a general rule, followed whenever possible. Introverts (and yes, I am one) are not special in this respect.

And it goes on like that. Rules or guidelines that just seem like they should apply to people, rather than only introverts. The only thing on the list that is close to specific to introverts is the last item, "Respect their introversion. Don't try to remake them into extraverts." Even that just needs a swap of terms to apply to damn near everyone, in a wide variety of situations.

Introverts and extroverts do have their differences, but this list is not helpful at all in capturing any of those differences.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Some background for Caladrel, a drow noble ronin sword saint

A character I came up with using the Random Character Generator from Ultimate Campaign for Pathfinder. Some details are left deliberately vague, and not all of his gold from the Wealth by Level table has been spent, leaving him with 4,350 gold pieces. If anyone wants to use him, feel free, but I suggest spending some of that gold to round out his gear. He could use a bow, for example.


It's unknown why Caladrel was with the drow raiding party. He no longer remembers why. Certainly it wasn't to fight, as he was just a child. But there he was.

A drow raiding party attacked an elven village when Caladrel was young. They were beaten back, and when the elves assessed the damage, they found the young child hiding in some bushes, terrified, yet defiant. Somehow, in the confusion, he failed to follow the raiding party's retreat. He was deemed too young to be complicit in the attack, and was adopted by the weapon and armor smiths for the local militia, a young couple with no other children. Though the exact relationship wasn't determined (uncle? brother?), one of the drow men killed in the attack was clearly related to young Caladrel, and clearly was important to Caladrel. Though he remembers little of his time before the surface elves, that death still haunts him.

While growing up, he received training with the militia, and came to worship the god Gorum, god of war, when a wanderer, and cleric of Gorum, briefly joined the militia. This cleric had been exiled from his previous home for reasons unclear, but nearly everyone was suspicious of him. Everyone but Caladrel. Caladrel befriended him, and listened to him, and over the brief time the cleric was around, became a fanatical follower of Gorum.

A misunderstanding between the cleric and a local family became exacerbated by Caladrel's fury when his newfound beliefs were questioned, causing Caladrel to murder the entire family, including their child, in a fit of rage. Only the cleric knew, and helped him cover his crime up. The cleric left immediately after, leading many to suspect he was the killer. Caladrel stayed on for a full year before finally leaving. He truly regrets the murder of innocents, but nonetheless keeps it a secret.

A samurai sword saint, specializing in the katana, he became ronin when he left his home to travel. He became a mercenary and adventurer, and is known for never betraying an employer, or his comrades. He remains ever zealous in his devotion to Gorum, and some companions have remarked that it's a wonder he isn't a cleric himself.

In battle, Caladrel singles out an opponent, and seeks to eliminate that opponent as quickly and efficiently as he can, before moving on to the next. It is rare that he willingly backs down from any fight, a trait that has nearly caused his death more than once. His weapons and armor have been crafted by himself, though enchanted by others, and he cares for them as his most precious possessions, only replacing them when he feels his crafting skills have progressed enough to create even better gear (and when he has the coin to afford new enchantments).

Currently he resides in Telazar, taking on whatever jobs come his way that allow him to ply his skills of war and violence, for only in the midst of battle does he truly feel alive.


Calendrel, CR 14
Drow Noble samurai (sword saint) 13
CN Medium humanoid (elf)
Init +9; Senses: Darkvision 120'; Perception +6
-------------------------------------------------
DEFENSE
AC: 27 (+8 armor, +5 Dex, +2 Natural, +2 Deflection)
HP:118 (13d10 + 26)
Fort +10  Ref +9 Will +8, +2 vs enchantment
Immune: sleep; SR 24
Weaknesses: Light Blindness
-------------------------------------------------
OFFENSE
Speed: 40' (30' base, 10' enhancement)
Melee: +2 keen flaming burst adamantine katana +22/+17/+12 (1d8+11, +1d10 on crit, 15-20x20), or +2 keen flaming burst adamantine katana +22 (1d8 +13 +2d8, +1d10 on crit, 15-20/x20)                              
Ranged:
Special Attacks: Challenge 5/day, Iaijutsu Strike, Brutal Slash, Terrifying Iaijutsu, Weapon Expertise
Spell-like Abilities:
     Constant—detect magic
     At will—dancing lights, deeper darkness, faerie fire, feather fall, levitate
     1/day—divine favor, dispel magic, suggestion (DC 15)
-----------------------------------------------
TACTICS
Caladrel will pick the most dangerous looking warrior and declare his Challenge, then try and move into position for an Iaijutsu Strike, adding his Improved Vital Strike damage. If the opponent still lives after that initial attack, he'll go into a full attack routine. If he's in a situation where he can only make one attack, he'll hold his katana in two hands and use his Improved Vital Strike feat. Once his opponent is finished, he'll move onto the next, again seeking to use Iaijutsu Strike, unless circumstances would prevent that or make it unwise. He always tries to concentrate on eliminating one opponent at a time, using Power Attack only if their AC appears low.

-----------------------------------------------
STATISTICS
Str 20 Dex 20 Con 14 Int 16 Wis 18 Cha 15
Base Attack +13; CMB +18; CMD 33
Feats: Improved Initiative, Weapon focus (katana), Weapon Specialization (katana), Vital Strike, Power Attack, Greater Weapon Focus (katana), Improved Vital Strike, Greater Weapon Specialization (katana), Penetrating Strike
Skills: Bluff +18, Craft (weapons) +19, Craft (armor) +19, Diplomacy +18, Knowledge +19, Sense Motive +20, Survival +20
Languages: Elven, Undercommon, Common, Draconic, Goblin
Special Qualities: Self Reliant, Without Master, Resolve, Greater Resolve, Honorable Stand, Greater Challenge, Ronin's Challenge (+3)
Combat Gear:
Other Gear: +2 keen flaming burst adamantine katana, +2 mithril breastplate of moderate fortification, Ring of Protection +2, Amulet of Natural Armor +2, Belt of Physical Might +2 (Str and Con), Boots of Striding and Springing, Lenses of Darkness, Bag of Holding Type III

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A magus prepares his spells

Just a wee bit of fiction based on the RPG Pathfinder, written as an exercise in imagining spell preparation from the perspective of a magus or wizard using a spell book. More exercises in imagining game mechanics through the eyes of a character may or may not be coming. Critique is welcome.


Tizen settled down cross legged, his back against a tree. It was just after dawn, and a glance around the camp showed that the others were engaging in their morning routines to get ready for the day. Sarlan, the cleric, was facing the rising sun, holy symbol held before him as he prayed to his god, requesting his spells for the day. Shawna, a powerful psychic warrior, knelt in front of the dying embers of last night's campfire, meditating to replenish her psionic energy. Once she was done, she would begin her stretches and excercises for the more physical side of her art. And Speckle was up in the trees, watching everything, and keeping an eye out for trouble.

Tizen turned his attention to his spellbook, and opened it up in his lap. He took a deep breath, and let his vision go unfocused as he looked at the spellbook, clearing his mind as he began his own meditation to prepare his spells. The world fell away as he mentally wiped away the lingering dreams from his sleep, and prepared his mind to ready his spells. Though it seemed but a few moments to him, it was fifteen minutes later before he let his vision refocus on his spellbook. Now it was time to select his spells. First, Corrosive Touch. This would allow him to charge his hand with magical acid, that could then be delivered to an opponent with a touch, eating away at flesh and bone. He traced the runes of the spell with his finger, whispering the words that would lay the spell in his mind. The formula was complex, but then, even the simplest of spells had a complex formula, requiring great effort if one wished to truly memorize the spell and eliminate the need for a spellbook to reference each day.

He reached the end of the spell, or rather the end of preparing it. It was now mostly cast, thrumming in his mind, ready to be released. That release would come with the proper gestures and words used to finish the casting, most likely in the heat of battle, though perhaps also to dissolve a lock on some chest in a dungeon. It remained to be seen. Tizen continued selecting his spells that he would have for the day, preparing each in the same manner, taking just under an hour to finish them all. He left room in his mind for a couple more spells to be prepared, in case he came across a situation that could benefit from a specific spell he hadn't prepared (and assuming he would have at least 15 minutes to prepare such a spell).

He looked up at the camp, blinking away his concentration. The world tended to disappear for him when he prepared his spells. As usual, he was the last to finish his morning routine, and the others were quietly chatting.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

A modesty meme

I saw this on Facebook recently:


It says, for those who can't see the image:
Dear Girls,
Dressing immodestly is like rolling around in manure. Yes you'll get attention, but mostly from pigs.
Sincerely, Real Men
It made me a little angry. "Dressing immodestly is like rolling around in manure." So, according to this meme, if you dress "immodestly," you're dirty, and may as well be covered in feces. Gee, isn't that just the most respectful thing you've ever heard?? Don't show too much ankle, or by golly, you may as well be covered in stinky cow poop.

All right, let's see if I can do this without more sarcasm. First off, who decides what's modest, and what's immodest? Western culture really did consider showing too much ankle to be indecent (read: immodest) at one time. Even a knee length skirt would've been considered scandalous. And right now, some Muslims believe that a woman must wear a burka in public, or it's considered immodest.  So, what standard are these so-called "Real Men" using to determine who's dressing immodestly?

But that's not the worst of it. What this meme asks us to do is place a value on women (or "Girls"; just what age bracket were they aiming for with that salutation?) based on what they are wearing, and to consider those that are dressed immodestly as less valuable. Yet the value of a woman (or anyone, for that matter) is not, or should not, be based on what they're wearing. When you devalue someone, whether based on clothes or not, you encourage feelings of disrespect for that person, which in turn makes some people think that the devalued person deserves whatever they get. That is the real "manure" behind modesty.

Respect for self (and some modesty advocates claim that modesty is about self-respect) shouldn't be based on one's wardrobe choices and completely arbitrary standards of modesty. Instead, let us base it on our character and actions. How do we treat others? Are we seeking ways to empower each other to our fullest potential? Do we strive for appropriate fairness in the way that we treat each other? And so on.

As far as clothing, just wear what makes you feel comfortable, or happy. If you want to dress in a way that makes you feel sexy, go for it. If you want to dress in a way that makes you feel powerful, go for it. You can, if you want, treat your clothing choices as an art form, as self-expression. Or you can treat them as a simple utility. Whatever it is that you think is going to be most comfortable, and help you flourish the most.

But for goodness sake, stop thinking that your respect is based on how modestly you do or don't dress.

For more on the manure of modesty (because there is more that can be said), I recommend reading Love, Joy, Feminism by Libby Anne. She's written a lot on the subject.