The Unplanned Year

Published in Personal / Featured - 10 mins to read

It’s fair to say that looking back at 2018, it was a radical departure from the plan. At the start of the year, I had been rudely awakened from the fever dream of ‘professional' poker and found myself lying in the cold pool of sweat that was not having a clue what I am going to do with my life. I had been forced to deviate from the path I had chosen, and had arrived at what felt more like a cul-de-sac than a fork in the road.

To look further back in time, only a few short years ago I had been at university reading law, with a long term girlfriend. I was going to become an advocate, marry her, make an unnecessary amount of money, buy a boat and have 2.4 children and a hypoallergenic dog. Neither the law nor the lady panned out, so then I got a job as a sports trader and rented a flat. Then the plan became to rise through the ranks, become a god-tier market analyst, work hard and smart enough to make the company an amount of money exponentially more unnecessary than the one aforementioned, and be justly rewarded with a portion of it myself. I had officially fled the nest, I was never going to move back in with my parents, I would find a new partner and be less impetuous about the whole plan-to-be-together-forever thing. I was an Adult, with a capital A.

Obviously that didn’t work out either. It turned out that once again, I had displayed exceptionally poor judgment in selecting people close to me, and my roommate got us kicked out. Around that time I donked my way to a wholly undeserved $25k score in an MTT, and paired my lack of judgment with truly breathtaking naïveté by quitting my job and sheepishly moving back in with my parents to play poker full time. I slowly bled away the money I had earned over the next few months, meanwhile neither furthering my career nor acknowledging my deteriorating mental health. In a moment of blind optimism, I once again tried to flee my parents’ metaphorical basement, by packing a suitcase and heading across the Atlantic, to Mexico. I vowed to never come back; I would work hard to overcome my poker woes, and enjoy the lifestyle of a digital nomad for the rest of my days. I would start a travel Instagram filled with more clichés than a Buzzfeed listicle and proceed to have sex with untold numbers of free-spirited backpackers who hadn’t showered in weeks.

In retrospect, I really don’t understand how I thought that was actually going to a work. I’m equal part ashamed of myself and impressed at my own lack of touch with reality. This time last year, on the verge of having a breakdown that could well have ended my life, I flew back to Guernsey, and moved back in with my parents again. I had no job and no plan, but on the bright side I had the mother of all existential and identity crises to keep me warm at night. It wasn’t actually all that warm: to continue the metaphor, if my self esteem was a temperature, it was -273.15°C. The particles of my soul appeared to have ceased all vibrations. Everything I had built my identity around had evaporated and I really, truly felt like a failure.

I survived for three months doing absolutely nothing, spending 15 hours a day playing Runescape, leaving the house once a week or less. I didn’t even think about the future, only bearing to take one day at a time, focusing solely on my virtual life, the entirety of my socialising being with members of my online clan. My character seemed to have his life in far better order than I did - he set goals and accomplished them. He was perseverant, successful and respected. If my life goals were to complete quests, slay mythical beings and rescue damsels in distress, I could’ve learned a lot from being more like him. I was doing my best to numb myself to the visceral pain of reality, but I knew living off my parents’ pity forever was not a viable lifestyle choice. My less-than-comprehensive ‘plan’ was to focus on improving my mental health first, and worry about actively participating in society later.

As if I was not already abusing my privilege enough at this point, the universe delivered me another lightning bolt of unwarranted good karma at the end of March. I dread to think what manner of grim persecution I must’ve faced in a previous life to be so fortunate in this one. Out of nowhere, I got an email from my now-employers asking if I wanted to interview for a web development position, after having speculatively sent them my CV 4 years prior. My initial response could be summed up as ‘uhh…. are you sure?’, and much to my surprise the answer was yes. This surprise turned to full-blown bafflement upon being offered the job in question - what would it be like working for an employer that seemed to have such low hiring standards? Had they seen through my ruse of confidence and aptitude at the interview, and upon realising how pathetic my existence was, decided to offer me the position out of pure compassion? Was I the dog in the shelter that nobody else would take home at Christmas, after a lifetime of neglect, my fur matted and eyes milky?

It seems not, I had actually fooled them. I can only imagine what the other candidates were like. The job pool for developers here is more of a job puddle, so I suppose it shouldn’t be that much of a shock to me that they were faced with a best-of-a-bad-bunch situation. And here I am, 9 months later, having started with no meaningful knowledge of programming whatsoever, now a somewhat passable web developer. I’ve picked up quite a few marketable skills: front-end CSS and Javascript, back-end PHP, git, Linux, basic server admin and devops. I’ve read Hacker News every day for months and have discovered a newfound adoration of technology, startups and ideas, as dumb as the last one might sound. The industry has given me some sense of hope about the future, that there are people genuinely trying to make others’ lives better. I have increased the number of acronyms I know by several orders of magnitude, but I still have no clue why programmers like recursive ones so much - they’re not funny guys. You can do better. Stop it.

It seems like I’ve at least accrued some good career capital in 2018 then, but has my mental health improved similarly over the last 9 months?

No, of course not. Don’t be stupid.

I can’t really review the year fairly without talking about my health struggles. At the start of the year I was a true NEET, and seemed to have no direction in life at all. Now, I leave the house every day, have a full time job and have signed a lease for a flat, so you might think I am doing significantly better, but in truth, I don’t think I am.

Despite being high functioning, I have been battling depression as frantically as ever and I would say this has been one of the worst years of my life in that regard. It is a war of attrition, and it has been raging for a long time now. Where a proud rockface of motivation and emotional resilience once stood, an unforgiving sea of misery has eroded the cliffs such that they are crumbling and the homesteads atop them are in an evermore precarious position. I’ve struggled with it for 10 years, but when I was younger there was still a sense of hope that this was merely teenage angst, and I might grow out of it the same way I grew out of eczema and stuffed toys. This year has well and truly brought home the point that that isn’t going to happen and that any change is going to be slow, difficult and painful.

Speaking about depression has become a little easier, but one component of it is still a taboo and immensely hard to speak about, even though it is the element most necessary to talk about openly and honestly.

Talking about suicide is a little bit like talking about the menstrual cycle (hear me out). I didn’t get the best sex-ed in school, and when I was a teenager with a girlfriend for the first time, I thought I had the basics covered, but really I had no clue about how the whole period thing works. One month my it turned out that she was late by a couple of days, and I had no idea whether this was normal and fine or she was 100% pregnant and I needed to start re-planning my life accordingly. On one hand I was a dumb kid, but on the other hand I was in a terrifying situation with a lot less information than I would’ve liked. I think trying to talk to someone about suicidality is often the same - if I say to someone “I’ve been thinking about killing myself recently”, they really have no way of knowing if I mean that one rogue thought popped into my head and I have no dangerous intentions whatsoever, or if I am planning on ending it all tonight and this is my final goodbye. I have had that conversation with a few people this year and every time I think I have done a poor job of articulating the reality of the situation and explaining what I would like them to do to help me.

The truth is, the concept of suicide is a big part of my life, and so I need to talk about it. I suppose a big part of the reason it’s difficult to talk about is because it can worry the other person, they can feel a sense of responsibility, and the knowledge may become a painful burden to them. To try to allay any of these worries you might have dear reader, I would like to tell you with a reasonable amount of certainty that I will never actually go through with killing myself, perhaps barring any major changes to my life circumstances.

There’s always been a part of me that very strongly wants to keep on living, and sometimes it is more noticeable than others. I think the fact it is part of my consciousness is a good reason to keep going. Given that I have not previously taken my own life despite reaching what felt like rock bottom on multiple occasions, it seems very unlikely that I will do it in the future, another positive sign. Right now I am also more hopeful about improving my health going forward than I have been in a long time, maybe ever, for reasons I have already talked about here and here. I’ve thought about it a lot and felt for a long time like there is a choice to be made between killing myself and trying to get better, accepting that the latter will be even more agonizing then I feel like my current situation is. Get busy living or get busy dying, as one might say. So, I have finally made a choice to get better, no matter how harrowing that experience may be.

Again, that might sound positive, but to be honest I am struggling with it. The main attraction of suicide is that it offers a solution to all your problems, albeit an inelegant one. With that solution removed, I am back to the drawing board on all the things that are causing me pain in the first place. I feel directionless and terrified at the prospect of trying to deal with everything.

But I am determined to deal with it nonetheless. I suppose I'll have to take baby steps.

So that was the unplanned year. Making any kind of plan for next year seems somewhat futile - perhaps my life will take another wholly unexpected turn and I make another suitably angular career change or end up in some far-flung part of the world or get married to someone I’ve yet to meet. Perhaps nothing will change, and I can just copy and paste this post for my 2019 year-in-review piece.

I am making one plan though - to try everything I can to get better. Happy New Year, friends.

See other posts in the The Unplanned Years series