Tag Archives: mental health

four days of unemployment flow state

I’m actually unemployed for the next four days.  I haven’t been out of work since moving to NYC so I’m kind of in shock at this.  This isn’t like taking a vacation because I literally cannot work.  Merkle has cut off my IT access so I can no longer work on anything for them.  I have not yet started at OMD.  There is literally nothing for me to do in terms of actual paying work.

I cannot work, so I have the extreme luxury of spending my week engaged in my own personal projects and self-development.  Which, today, means a Cave Day.  This is enforced focus time, in which phones are confiscated and participants are encouraged to work on singular projects to encourage “deep work”.  I chose instead to work on my backlog of email and Scout related tasks, which doesn’t quiet my monkey mind, but does make me feel like I’m making headway on my always overflowing inbox.  Despite not having sunk completely into the “flow state” that often soothes my brain,  I  was able to action, reply, and file over a hundred emails in a couple hours and identify new projects and opportunities to be of service to the community in the process.  Feeling like I am supporting my people, my community, is valuable, even if I’m doing it one small task at a time.

For this afternoon, I’ve chosen to write blog posts for the sheer experience of being back in a “flow state”.  This means that this isn’t going to be a terribly entertaining post.  (Although, really,  have my posts been that entertaining since I stopped chronicling the Adventures of Being In My Mid-20s In Los Angeles?  PROBABLY NOT.)  It is, however, a chance for me to get my own thoughts under control and to assess my priorities in a slightly more public forum.  When I’m not working an actual paying job, what is it that I choose to do and why?  And what long term effects do I hope to get from only four days of such chosen activities?

Let’s start with the challenge of being in a flow state.  This does require one to focus on a singular project or task.  No checking emails, no checking Facebook, no responding to notifications. However, there is a school of thought that believes that the state of flow is one of the most critical factors to happiness:

https://embed.ted.com/talks/lang/en/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow

The inverse of flow state is what I have most recently heard referred to as acedia, a state of despair resulting from apathy and a disregard for life.  This term was originally coined to refer to monks who did not pray sufficiently, a condition that later became a sub-category of sloth.  I tend to think of it as inertia, an inability to move forward or to regain the energy for life that keeps me in perpetual motion.  The cause, however, seems to be ultimately a lack of flow state activity.  A brain without flow state activity, be it a monk unable to focus on meditation or prayer, or a secular individual not engaging in deep work, seems to be a disconcerted and unbalanced brain.  Add to this our American Puritan notion of work & the value we place on ourselves as related to our accomplishments, and you have a tremendous recipe for mental illness from both shame and misery.

To combat some of this, I’m focusing more on activities that bring my brain into a flow state.  Blogging is one of those; I spend an average of an hour on a blog post, from concept to writing to editing.  I drop into a flow state sometimes when I’m sketching out concepts for work, drawing out slides for a presentation.  Give me headphones and Excel and I’ll drop into flow state while I tease out data for the story of a presentation. I can spend a half hour drifting along on the piano, noodling on scraps of pop songs.  And when I’m biking in traffic, with my whole brain occupied with movement and not dying, I’m really in a flow state.

Still, writing is the best and most reliable way to enter that brain state, so I am trying to change how I look at it.  Instead of writing for fun as being what I do when I have finished my other work, I am trying to look at it as what I do to train my brain back into being able to do deep work.  Ultimately, by doing so, I’ll also quell my monkey mind, capture a state of deep work and satisfaction, and make my brain a little calmer and happier.

I also want my brain to be practiced in how to do deep work as I transition to a new job.  The value of a knowledge worker like myself is in her ability to do work that no one else can do.  That is deep work, the work I pull out of myself, the observations I create and act on, the goals and vision I work towards.  I will be looked to for my ability to deliver unique work, and only by really focusing and delving deep into my brain will I be able to do so.  I have to practice putting my brain in that state so I can deliver on that promise to my new team, my new agency, my new clients.  Whether it is the distraction-free peer-pressure focus of a Cave Day, or an hour spent framing up a blog post, I must work my brain just like I work my quads and hamstrings in a spin class until I can beat my own time over the Brooklyn Bridge.

It is with the end in mind, or rather my mind in mind, that I therefore planned out my “week” of unemployment.  I could have spent a month doing this, easily, and I actually considered taking more time off to do so.  However, I also have to have healthcare benefits for my little family, so four days it is, and I’ll be grateful for the time I do have.  With that said, I’ve chosen to spend today trying more to monotask, at a morning Cave and then spending the afternoon in the same physical space, albeit without the facilitator (meaning I get to keep my phone).   After this, I’ll go to the gym, lift some weights, do a spin class to stay in my bike commute shape, and then go to a GTD meetup so I can revisit my productivity ninja skills before going to a new job.

The rest of the week, I’ve opted to alternate productivity practice with “staycation”.  I plan to spend Tuesday at the spa on 57th, getting a good old fashioned Korean skin scrub to fix my itchy, itchy winter skin and then I intend to loiter extensively in their hot tubs and saunas for the day before going to meet friends for drinks.  Wednesday, I have another morning Cave, followed by the (sigh) next stage of my right side dental implant and then I’ll be home to celebrate my husband’s birthday for the one hour between when he gets home and when he has a co-op shift.  Thursday, I have no agenda, and I may  choose to spend at least part of the day at one of the museums (the Morgan, the Met Bruer) that I really would have liked to have gone to by now .   I’ll also prioritize re-establishing some of the habits I fell out of while in my own state of acedia the last few months that benefit my mental health so much, such as my love of intense cardio (spin classes!), and my piano practice.

Four days isn’t anywhere near enough to engage in the kind of re-development, habit building and brain-training I’d like to be able to engage in but it is something.  It’s like four days of gifts in a row, the free time and ability to refocus my energy on something that isn’t agency work, a license to engage my brain on projects that are easier to launch myself into and stay engaged in.  Of course I will obsessively plan the time five times over and realized I still won’t have time for everything I wanted to do, but that’s also okay.  It’s four days of learning and focus.  It’s four days where my only job is to not have a job.

optimizing my brain

It has become fashionable, the past few years, to attempt to “hack” one’s brain.  This is an attempt to get one’s brain to run better, faster, smarter.  It is also a great way to sell something called “nootropics“, a futuristic, Orphan Black-esque term for a new wave of vitamins (mostly amino acids and vitamin B derivatives) that are supposed to aid with such “hacking”.

Image result for brain hacking

This is your brain…ON THE FUTURE

I believe, to an extent, that there is some brain “hacking” that can be done, although I do not love the term.  To me, it smacks of Silicon Valley bro-ness, the kind of toxic masculinity that has made the tech industry deeply awful for women.  I prefer to think of it as brain optimization, rather than hacking, as optimizing my brain is really about understanding the 2+ pounds of electricity and protein that lives inside my skull, that contains everything I am.  If I can better understand the mechanisms that govern the electrical impulses that make up my thoughts, then can I get a better grip on the efficiency of those thoughts?

I recently read Stealing Fire, a book on the use of substances or other methods of altering one’s brain for extraordinary results.  While it does focus extensively on the use of mind-altering drugs, it counts everyday substances in that category, everything from coffee to prescription medications. We may not all be using ketamine for out of body experiences, but most of us are using some form of chemical to alter our brains.  It was an interesting perspective, much more on the metaphysical plane, putting the quest for brain control and mind altering more into the realm of philosophy (“I think, therefore I am” sort of meta-ness), telling a universal human story rather than limiting the results to th emore prosaic productivity boost that “brain hacking” promises.  “Stealing Fire” was a more grandiose picture of mankind’s ongoing quest to lift up our mental and spiritual energy through physical substance (see also: Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas), and it contextualized the “brain hacking” trend as really just being a small corner of that quest.

My own quest falls somewhere in between the metaphysical and the mundane, as it’s directly related to the mental and spiritual effects of having a chronic depressive condition.  For the decade plus that I took Wellbutrin, from 2005 until, well, six weeks ago, I grappled with its effects on my actual being.  Was being on this substance altering who I was, in any way?  My ultimate answer to that question was that not only did that particular non-SSRI antidepressant not change who I was, it actually allowed me to be the person I was meant to be.  It was a substance that unlocked my brain.  The Wellbutrin reduced the paralyzing depression that had previously impacted my ability to live my life on a consistent basis.   Problem solved, I thought, at the time, as I went on to build my life, meeting my husband, building my career, moving to Brooklyn, building the Scout organization, building my friend circle – my life is extensive, expansive, and has few limits on how much I can do in it.

Reducing the impact of the biological condition of depression actually brought forth who I am as a person, allowing me to explore my own mental and spiritual state without the intervening detriment of poor mental health.

The problem is that the substance I relied on to make me, well, me, wasn’t consistent.  My depression flare-ups became longer and increased in frequency over time.  When I changed my body’s response to food by switching to a Paleo food lifestyle in 2013 , the condition improved again.  And over time, rather than change my dosage, I began to try to identify more and more ways that weren’t the Wellbutrin that would net similar results to the antidepressant: cardio or HIIT exercise, being in sunlight, not drinking, avoiding grains and dairy, avoiding sugar, getting a good night’s sleep, meditation, journaling, etc.  Some of the tools made more difference than others, but overall, I began to understand what had an impact on my brain, and began to understand the links between the mental, the physical, and the spiritual.

All these physical, mental and spiritual factors are interconnected, and we cannot separate them if we wish to be whole and happy.

And then I finally faced reality.  The antidepressants I had been taking weren’t working.  They likely hadn’t worked for some time.  In fact, in November, my brain wouldn’t recognize the anti-depressants or the caffeine I added to them each day,   I thought I had Lyme disease, I was so exhausted, until I finally cut back on caffeine, added some nootropics, and felt better for a while.  I made it through the winter, and then as soon as we hit the March equinox, I went off the substance I had been using for thirteen years to alter my brain chemistry.

Needless to say, it was unpleasant.  The first few weeks, I could only stay awake until 2pm.  Twenty-five years of caffeine reliance plus thirteen years of using a stimulant as a basic part of my brain chemistry did not allow me to remain at one 8oz cup of coffee per day.  Instead, I felt like a puppet whose strings had been cut, drooping and looking for the system that had pulled me through my life.  I started eating for energy, as working from home gives me endless access to snacks, many of them of the higher carbohydrate variety from Ben’s snack assortment.  I could barely drag myself to the gym or through workouts, I was so tired, yet I couldn’t sleep at night. It was a textbook withdrawal.

Two weeks of this and I was almost in tears at the lack of productivity and the lost time.  A month in, and I sprained my ankle and had to weigh in at the doctor on my visit and realize, it wasn’t just that I’d lost time, I’d gained almost ten pounds of weight that would have to come back off if I was to fit in my client visit suit or my tick-proof camp pants ever again.  This isn’t just about vanity or societal pressure, but about not having to replace my utilitarian clothing in a larger size.

So now I have to not only hack my brain to run without antidepressants, but also have to “hack” my own EXTREMELY STUBBORN biology to lose the weight.  Which is a whole other entry as well.

Image result for plump as a partridge lose weight

Yep, this about sums it up.  Thanks @lacomtessejamie

And I have to recognize that despite all this “hacking” or “optimization”, or whatever I wish to call it, there are going to be days when I just…can’t.  Last night, I had a rough day “at” work, in that I made a major misunderstanding on one of my new accounts in how I interpreted an agenda topic as related to the client’s business.  I also failed to move outside the house, choosing instead to rest my ankle.  I was also tired by 4pm as a result, and I just felt hopeless.  How am I supposed to live my life, I thought, if I can’t stay awake until 4pm even with a good night’s sleep, if I have an ankle that will seemingly NEVER HEAL, if I can’t even understand the job I am supposed to be good at

There are always going to be days in which I feel like I can’t.  And it’s going to be hard to change that and say, I can, without having a stimulant to get me all hyped up and enthusiastic.

So now, what I have to work on, is getting up every day and saying, “I can,” and pushing myself through the work that will optimize my brain to replace the load of stimulants that I cranked through it since I was a twentysomething junior digital media buyer living in Venice Beach.  I am a different person now: I acquired several additional layers of person along the way, including a husband and son.  I built a life in which many people rely on me: my friends, my colleagues, my community.  I built that life using a brain I used a commercial antidepressant to optimize.  Now I have to achieve the same results without that medication.

Most of the time, I feel like this is a story where the moral is that the Wellbutrin didn’t actually work, and therefore was really only a “magic rock” kind of thing: I did this all by myself and the antidepressant was believing in myself all along!  And then I’m tired at 4pm or can’t sleep CLOWN’LL EAT ME and think, why did I give up the stimulants that gave me the energy to push through this, even if they weren’t actually fixing the problem I took them to fix?

The answer is, because those antidepressants, while they worked great to correct my perception of my condition, weren’t fixing the actual problem that causes my depression.  I have a genetic biological condition that alters my brain chemistry enough to impact my mental state.  The NRI was just pushing me through that condition by effectively overriding it.  The most recent research on depression suggests it is more akin to a flare up of a biological condition than just a matter of “being sad”.  Taking a stimulant every single day may have forced my brain to remain in an upbeat state by altering my brain chemistry and increasing the amount of norepinephrine floating around in it, but it doesn’t fix the underlying physical flare-up that caused that mental state to occur in the first place.

And that physical aspect of the condition – that I can optimize.  For that, I can take physical, real-space actions to reduce the impact on my mental health.  That’s where all this brain “hacking”, optimization, whatever one wants to call it – that’s where it comes in.  It’s a quest for the “true self” on a higher level, but on a day to day basis, it’s “what actions can I take to keep my brain in a healthy state where it will crank out client presentations and not sink into a state of despair?

And that – that is another entry, for another day.  Probably tomorrow.  Because one of the bright sides to being benched with the ankle this week, is that I have extra commute time to re-invest in writing blog posts – one of the other many things I’ve identified that makes my brain a little happier.  A few days of writing, a return to a solid meditation practice, it’ll all help optimize my brain.

simulated caffeine withdrawal

Last Friday, I hit a wall.  I ran out of energy.  I thought it was a depressive episode at first, triggered by hormones, a unique facet of depression that only biological females have to contend with.  Then it stretched out for a week of exhaustion, of headaches and dizziness, of a slightly elevated pulse, of a need to constantly nap or rest.  Now I’m not sure what it is, if it’s depression that has extended itself into physical symptoms or a physical condition that’s causing me to be exhausted and subsequently depressed.  Given that cardio – either running or cycling or HIIT – is a key part of my self-care and depression maintenance, it may just be that my inability to muster the energy for exercise is making the mental condition worse, feeding into the cycle.
Whatever it is, I would like it to stop so I can have my life back.  It feels like I’m in caffeine withdrawal, like someone has swapped my two cups of high octane organic coffee with decaf.  It feels like the norepinephrine and dopamine that my antidepressants are supposed to keep in my brain are missing again.  It feels like any and all stimulants, whether from the antidepressants or from caffeine, are simply missing, leaving me in a state of withdrawal and misery and exhaustion.  It feels like my batteries are drained.  Maybe I’m sick, maybe I’m depressed – I have too many x– factors to be able to tell.
I thought it was enough that I already spent hours every week trying to hack my brain and correct the chemical imbalance I was born with.  I have a problem with my brain’s wiring, an inherited depressive condition that causes a complete lack of motivation.  Superficial research indicates that this is a problem with the receptors in my brain: I do not get any sort of positive reward for tasks accomplished or for actions that should give me joy.  Hence, a sort of Eeyore-ish response of “why bother?” to every possible action.  Why accomplish anything?  Why even get out of bed if there are no positive emotions to be had for it?
This is not the best way to live my life right now.  I’d like to have my normal existence back now please.  Perhaps there is a physical reason I feel this way.  I hope it’s something I can figure out, fix, and get back to my normal existence