Since I was quite young I’ve always battled with depression. In fact I’m quite public about it and where it has led me (you may have seen me on CNN over the summer). At the same time, however, I’m also a very high achiever (I believe this relates to the depression but that’s another post entirely) and while there are times that the disease overtakes me, overall I’ve found my own path to happiness. Part of how I have fought and beat depression is through being aware of my mental state and observing patterns over time. One thing that has stuck out recently is what I call my Theory of Mental Seasons.
Before I had gotten my proverbial shit together and learned to deal with the symptoms of depression I almost totally self-destructed. I did a stint as a heroin addict, dropped out of various colleges (including a damn prestigious one here in Chicago which I regret the most), was this close (pinches fingers together) to being convicted of a felony, and drove everyone I cared about away/insane.
Then things changed. I had always been a stellar student and was always considered one of the more intelligent people in any given group I happened to be involved with and so I made a conscious choice to live up to my potential. I won’t go into those details because they could fill a novel but I will add that I feel like luck may have played some role in my turnaround because the odds were truly stacked against me.
Observing the first patterns
The first thing I did on my road back to success was to get a full time job and start finishing college. It sounds simple and mundane but coming from where I was at it was a big deal and considered a huge success at the time. Then suddenly the depression struck again without warning and seemingly for no reason. It persisted for some time until finally I made a change. I quit my full time job and went into business for myself. My energy returned and I was on fire. I went from dirty druggie to entrepreneur in the course of about 18 months. Then toward the middle of my second year in business the depression came knocking. What was it this time? I was a success, after all! I was running a company and making more money than I had at my previous job which was as a manager of a fast food restaurant. Think about that – I was flipping burgers and bossing around teenagers just one year before successfully starting a business. How could anyone be upset or depressed after that? Once again I decided another change was in order. I started looking for another job – full time. In Chicago. And I got one. A good one! As a web developer. I kept my business and worked full time at my new job making more money than I ever imagined I could have before. I was living the dream and then after about four months the depression came calling again. And this is where we are now in the story (and believe me that was the short version). In the thick of another depression spell. But how could the depression still find me after such a steady string of successes spanning 3 or so years?
The Theory is Born
A few weeks ago, just when I had realized the monster had found me again, I thought back over the last four years and I noticed a very clear pattern that reminded me of seasons. It was clear to me that I was cycling through what I now call Mental Seasons. There are four seasons; Inspiration, Motivation, Success, and Stagnation. To be clear, this is not bipolar or any other type of syndrome, disease, or mental disorder. Its just plain old depression and this is how I experience it personally. I’ve been to enough doctors that’s very unlikely to have been misdiagnosed.
Inspiration is the first season and its a lot like Spring. Endless possibilities. I’m usually just coming out of the last season with a new idea or a new set of goals to achieve. I imagine the possibilities, make a plan, and look forward to implementing those plans. This is the season I look back on after accomplishing something and say “Wow, remember when that was just an idea? Its even better now than I had imagined”. This is a pretty short lived season most times unless the goals I’m dreaming up are overly complex or unrealistic.
Like Summer, Motivation is the season when my goals have gone from seed to full grown plants (wow that’s a really cheesy metaphor). I decided I wanted something in the previous season and now I’m some distance from having achieved it. This season is longer than Inspiration and most times about equal to Stagnation.
This is the shortest of the seasons. You know that feeling that hits you at about 5pm when its not quite afternoon anymore but its not exactly evening? The sun isn’t exactly at its afternoon brightness but also not quite looking like its ready to fade and set? That’s kind of what Success is like for me. I suppose it corresponds to Fall. Summer is over, my goals have been achieved, I’ve gotten what I wanted and now I get to sit on the back porch with a beer and maybe a small fire and be proud of what I’ve done. Unfortunately I come from a long line of worriers, perfectionists, and crazy people so once I reach Success I almost immediately get bored of it and start looking for the next thing. I know its wrong and I know one should learn to be content but I simply can’t do it and its not for lack of trying. Its in my DNA to never be satisfied and instead of supressing my urge to achieve more and more I channel it and that’s the key – its the weakeness in the system that’ll let me beat the tyranny of mental seasons.
Here comes to depression. Success inevitably leads to this season. I’ve gotten what I wanted and now I’m bored. Life is too easy. Work is too easy. I need to take things to the next level, be better than someone or do something impressive. But what? Have I peaked? Is this it? Will I ever be able to summon the energy and will it took to get me here? If every season new cycle brings challenges that are tougher than the last then maybe I’ve hit my peak and am no longer able to achieve anything more than what I already have? I just don’t have the energy. Everyone is better than me.
Did you read that above? That’s basically what goes on in my head during this season. This goes on util I finally pull myself out of it and start planning my very narcissistic-sounding ascent to the mythical “next level” which then brings us back to Inspiration and the cycle repeats. Note that the original ideas/thoughts/dreams/goals for the season following Stagnation are present while the depression hits but its not until I’m able to believe in my ability to achieve them that Inspiration strikes.
Short Circuiting the Mental Seasons
Mental Seasons suck. If it were up to me I’d have Motivation and Success constantly and I’d just leave out Stagnation and Inspiration. Just a magical, endless loop of achievement would be great (if you haven’t picked up on it by now, achievement is how I keep depression at bay but the side effect is this cycle of Mental Seasons) but its not realistic. So how do I short circuit this loop and either bypass Stagnation or shorten it to a trivial length? I’m not sure yet but that’s what I need to do. History shows I’m capable of far more than I believe so there’s no reason for Stagnation to have a place in my life.
As it stands now I have the seeds of what will become the ideas for the upcoming Inspiration season in my head now but they just haven’t been planted. I have serious doubts that Stagnation can be bypassed completely but there must at least be a way to shorten it and manage it in such a way that it doesn’t threaten to take down everything I’ve worked so hard for the previous seasons.
Wow, how’s that for a first blog post?
Update: Discussion on Hacker News and comments are working for this site now as well.