500 Words on Dynamism

Everything changes.

I’m finding myself thinking about the paradigm in Mage: the Ascension that some refer to as the Metaphysical Trinity. It’s a cycle that consists of Dynamism, Stasis, and Entropy. As I prepare to leave the start-up life behind, hopefully forever, and move into a position in life that is more stable and less inducing of constant low-level stress, at least on the employment front, it feels more than anything else that this cycle in my life is moving from Entropy into Dynamism. Things are changing.

With the benefit of hindsight of the recent past, it’s clear to me that for the latter half of last year, I was existing in that state of Entropy. I was struggling to hold myself together, constantly afraid of things falling apart. While those fears have not entirely left me alone — part of ongoing grief is the knowledge that lives can be shattered with no explanation at any moment — I’m trying to grapple with and understand them, rather than just letting them exist without engagement or pretending they either don’t exist or will somehow leave me alone. To cope with them better, I’ve had to grow, to change.

I’ve been taking a hard look at my expectations and goals for myself, as well. What is it that I actually want? Am I my own person, deep down? How much have I relied upon or catered to the perceived expectations, needs, or wants of others, especially those closest to me? Employers, partners, family, friends — my relationships have, by and large, been defined by not my own guidance, but the influence of others. That, too, is something I need to try and change. I want to live a healthier, more personally fulfilling life. Not an easy thing when your previous experience and head weasels have spent years telling you that your self-worth is irrelevant in the face of your utility in the hands of others.

That can and must change. Everything changes.

My hope is that, with the nature of my day-to-day stressors drastically changing, and a more stable structure being introduced in the form of new employment, I can build on top of that foundation. If there is a core of good things upon which to base change, the change is ultimately for the better, no matter what form it takes. And I know that the people who love & care about me want to see me thrive, not shrivel. Entropy causes me to shrivel. And, for now, I am leaving that nadir of the cycle behind and moving towards better things.

Even the cycle will change. Things will settle into a recognizable, even comfortable, pattern for a time, and then they’ll break down through personal perception or life circumstances, only to change again. As much as I know I can’t go through these changes alone, at the end of the day, I do need to find my own way, to kindle and shine my light to guide myself through change.

Everything changes. And so must I.

The Hermit from Mage: the Ascension tarot art by Joshua Gabriel Timbrook

The Magic’s Back

I really wasn’t expecting to get back into Magic: The Gathering.

I’ve been a Hearthstone player for a while, now. And it did a decent job of scratching that CCG itch that started back in ’93 or so when I first picked up my first starter deck of Magic. The Warcraft theme and some of the design elements of Hearthstone still hold some appeal, but I can’t deny I often felt something was missing. I play EDH (Commander to you young ‘uns) with my father and brother-in-law on the holidays, but that wasn’t often enough to clear up my feelings.

Then I got into the Arena beta, and everything started to click.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think Hearthstone has its place. Mucking around in a Tavern Brawl or even playing a couple of games on the ladder is good while I’m waiting for coffee water to boil or if I’m sitting on the toilet. But knowing what I know now, I don’t think I’ll be playing it as often, nor will I be streaming it. It all comes down to a single word — interactivity.

I’m the sort of person who gets the most enjoyment out of a game when I’m working to anticipate the moves my opponent are likely to make. I want to set myself up for success. A non-interactive deck undercuts that enjoyment, and very few decks in Hearthstone feel interactive. I mean, it’s one thing for me or my opponent to have to work in order for a particular combo to go off; it’s another when I feel like I’m getting ground up in my opponent’s well-tuned piece of cardboard clockwork. Not to mention a few people I’ve played against in person who put together those sorts of decks have been incredibly smug about it.

To put it another way, there have been times when I’ve felt like I can just walk away from Hearthstone for a bit while my opponent takes their turn because there’s fuck-all I can do about whatever it is they’re doing or planning to do. Magic gives me the opposite feeling. In anticipating my opponent’s plays, and either having an immediate response in my hand or knowing I could be just one draw away from swinging the advantage back in my direction, I’m engaged from start to finish. I can plan ahead. My brain’s always working. And losses feel as earned as wins. “I have to watch for that next time, because this time X happened.” Sure, getting screwed or flooded by decks happens, but that’s different. At least, it feels different to me.

Among the other things that make me feel excited about the “fresh start” feeling I’ve been cultivating for a couple of weeks, the prospect of getting more into Magic, both in person and in Arena, has my brain aflutter with possibilities. Between setting up new decks to take with me this holiday and participating in more events locally, there’s something about Magic being a part of my life again that feels… right, for lack of a better term. Sure, it will take some time, and I’ll want to be more stable financially before I start making the more serious investments. But anything worth doing is worth taking the time to do right.

In the meantime, I’ll keep playing Arena and honing my skills. Even if that means I’m going to have keep playing burn for a while.

500 Words on Happiness

HOLY SHIT IT’S A NEW BLOG POST

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much time I’ve lost, or has been stolen from me, because I’ve been unhappy. Unhappily married, unhappily employed, unhappily living. As human beings, nobody would choose to be unhappy, save for the willfully masochistic, and I’m not one of them. I neither wish to glorify nor romanticize ‘the struggle’. I’d rather not struggle at all just to be happy for more than a couple of hours at a time.

I know that a bulk of my unhappiness is not my fault. There’s trauma in my past that has undeniable influence on my bipolar disorder. The grief I carry is fairly substantial, and with that comes a generous helping of survivor’s guilt. These things raise barriers, between me and happiness, between me and others. They alter my perceptions, deprive me of balance, and prevent me from focusing on happiness. They squat in the back of my mind, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. And I have to work to wrangle them, every single day.

Even when they don’t overwhelm me, fighting back against the tide of negativity takes focus and energy. It’s an expenditure of spell slots, to put it in D&D terms. And those are fewer spell slots I have for writing, for looking ahead, for just enjoying life and the good things and people I have in mine. Again, this isn’t anyone’s fault. I refuse to make it anyone else’s fault or responsibility. Because these damaged processes and erroneous perceptions are entirely internal, they’re mine to understand and overcome. Even if I can’t, at least I can try.

On top of that, it’s not just me they effect. It takes a toll on my relationships. It has for a very long time. I’ve built most if not all of my committed relationships, anything beyond being close friends, on some form of false assumption or premise in terms of what role I feel I need to fulfill. I know that I am able-bodied, privileged in many ways, and simply have a willingness to add value to the lives of those around me, rather than keeping it for myself. That creates in me a sense of noblesse oblige, that it’s not only my desire to use these things for those I care for with less privilege than me, but it is my duty. It’s another thing that negatively impacts my happiness.

And rather than actually adding to the happiness of others, as consistently and completely as I want to, it gets in the way of their happiness, too. Thus creating a cycle that breaks me down and wears me out.

So, what can I do about it?

I can talk to my therapist, adjust my medication if necessary, keep reaching out for resources and knowledge and guidance. I can push myself to learn more and do better. I can at least try. I can fight.

And I can write about it.

Sometimes, that’s all I’ve got.

A Pawn No Longer

“There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.” — Denis Waitley

I know this is a long post. Thank you for reading it in its entirety.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

I was diagnosed with Type II Bipolar Disorder 14 years ago at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC. This was probably a diagnosis that should have been discovered long before the point of the nervous breakdown that put me in there. There have been inciting incidents, before and since, that have caused emotional reactions within me, and it has taken me years to develop the tools to properly manage my behavior in light of those reactions. The intensity of the emotions has not changed, but as I continue to work on myself for myself, these tools become more refined, more precise, and I handle these things better.

One of the ways in which these tools can be forged is through Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). A DBT instructor’s manual on emotions defines them in the following ways:

“Emotions are complex; they consist of several parts of different reactions happening at the same time.

“Emotions are automatic: they are involuntary, automatic responses to internal and external events.

“Emotions can not be changed directly; we can change the events that cause emotional experiences; but not the emotional experiences directly. We can’t make ourself ‘feel’ a particular emotion and then feel it. Willpower won’t stop an emotional experience no matter how desperately we might want it to.”

The sequence in which synapses fire within our brains is not within our direct control. We cannot choose to not feel something. The emotions are not something we can stop or merely turn off. We have to handle them. We can avoid them with distractions, which is not advisable. We can cope with them through various mechanisms, some of which are healthier than others. Hardest of all is to try and reason with them. It is an entirely internal process. We must apply facts and evidence to a situation in comparison to the emotions being felt by that situation in an attempt to choose the best and healthiest way to handle and express those emotions.

For a person with a mental illness, going through the process of reasoning with emotions is far more difficult than it is for someone who is neurotypical. And this is not a temporary condition. It’s not like breaking one’s leg, then needing to learn how to walk on it again. This is more along the lines of a physical chronic illness, where walking in and of itself can be challenging due to the nature of one’s body.

It is unreasonable to say to a person with such an illness, “Just get up and walk! It’s so easy, why can’t you just do it! Your inability to consistently walk is holding me back/making me feel bad, and that’s your fault.

It is just as unreasonable to say to a person with mental illness, “Just stop feeling these things! I don’t, so why do you? Your inability to handle your emotions the way I do is making me feel bad, and that’s your fault.

These are things I have been forced to learn, wrestle with, and draw conclusions from since that breakdown 14 years ago. The steps have been incremental, sometimes frustratingly small, and some have fallen on unstable ground. There have been times when it has been difficult to take these steps and use these tools entirely on my own. Others can help, be they therapists or family or friends. But, in the end, no other individual can or should be expected to do it for me.

Within the last few months I have found myself gainfully employed after a long period of searching for work that falls within a marketable and well-documented skillset I possess. My list of published and referencable writing is rather small, while my experience with web development operations and programming is better at filling out a résumé. It is with the latter that I secured employment. After over a year of not having something with this rate of pay, this sort of work environment, and this sort of support and direction, the stress caused by not being an “earner” in a post-capitalist society was removed. My significant lack of an inability to recognize self-worth, however, remained, and in the space of that removed stress, that neural pathway found new room in which to exist. It amplified, causing emotions and reactions that proved very difficult to handle.

As I said, distracting ourselves from our emotions is inadvisable. I distracted myself by spending a great deal of time not engaged with my personal space or my partner, instead choosing to be elsewhere. This was pointed out to me by them and, at first, I denied the cause. Subsequent discussions, sometimes highly emotional ones, helped me realize what I was doing. As a result, I chose to take a step back from major in-person social interactions to focus on handling this underlying problem in a more healthy and comprehensive way.

Part of that process was writing a post about that sense of self-worth, and how much I want to believe in myself, now more than ever. Writing is, and has been, my primary way of expressing myself and exploring these spaces. Rather than do so in a story, I chose to write about my real emotions and experiences, and I chose to post it publicly. I made that choice for posterity, and to provide insight into my emotions and behavior. I thought it might be useful to and for those who are in my life, and who have watched me go through these moments of emotionality that have a negative impact upon them. Others can see or even feel the effects of what my emotions do to me; they cannot always see the cause.

I have been told “it hurts me to watch you put yourself through this, to beat yourself up.” I believe that. I’ve experienced that, as well. My partner, who has chronic illnesses, cannot always do the things they wish to do. To watch them struggle against the constraints of their bodily pain, to hear them express disappointment in themselves for not being able to do what they want, is painful to me.

At no point do I hold my partner’s illness against them. They can’t simply not be sick. It’s not their fault. It’s unfair, unreasonable, even cruel and abusive, to make them feel responsible for my feelings regarding their disability.

By the same token, it is unfair, unreasonable, even cruel and abusive, to make someone with mental illness feel responsible for another person’s feelings regarding that illness.

If something said or done directly to another person causes harm, the person who said or did the thing is responsible for that. And it does not have to be direct physical or even emotional harm, either. A manipulative turn of phrase — “if you love me, you’ll do X” — is the responsibility of the person who says it, because it is delivering an ultimatum to the person in question. Words have meanings; it is through language that we communicate what we feel, what we intend, who we are.

So when I write at length about an internal process regarding handling my self-worth, or as above regarding the nature of my mental illness, and no language is employed that makes these things the responsibility of others, to have others claim that I am making them responsible for these things or that this language is somehow problematic or abusive is absolutely baffling to me. As a person with a mental illness, I am using that terminology and language to expand upon and explore my condition. Again, I am making the choice to write this for posterity and to allow insight into my internal thoughts, emotions, and processes. That is the purpose of this writing. Nothing more.

These emotions of mine — complex, automatic, immutable — are simply that: mine. They are entirely internal. Disregarding their influence on my life, it does not impact other people when I feel something. When I feel a question or lack of self-worth, for example, that is an entirely internal process. No person outside of myself is responsible for it, nor is it my desire to somehow make it another person’s fault. That would be unfair. That would be manipulative. That would be bullshit.

When someone else, on the other hand, questions my self-worth, or validity, or integrity, that is another matter entirely.

I’ve read over my posts, this one and the previous one in this vein, several times. Others have as well. At no point in either do I directly say that a person or group of people outside of myself is somehow responsible for my feelings or my actions. These things come from a place within my self, and from no other source. These things are amorphous, difficult, and even painful. The last thing on this planet I would ever want to do is put them onto someone else. I would rather not deal with them; why make someone else do it? That is, as above, unfair, unreasonable, and even cruel and abusive.

We cannot choose when and how we feel things. We can, however, choose how to handle those feelings. And when we take action to handle a feeling, we can choose to take responsibility for those actions, or we can choose to make someone else responsible for it. We can own, or we can project. We can accept, or we can blame.

We get to choose that.

I do not agree with all of the choices I have made in the past, but I accept those are the choices I made. Some of my choices have caused me pain or loss; that, too, is my responsibility. Others have made, and will make, choices to make me responsible for things that are not mine. Those choices will attempt to manipulate me into taking responsibility for those things. In the past, my lack of self-worth and my desire to do good for and please the people around me put me in a position to simply accept what I was given, despite its absurdity or toxicity. It is a weakness of mine that has been exploited time and time again.

I cannot accept this. I will accept this no longer.

Just as how I get to choose how I handle my feelings, I get to choose who I am and who I want to be.

I am a person with bipolar disorder. And I choose to not be a pawn of my emotions, nor of anyone else’s.

Ballad of the Doomguy

I’ve been playing a lot of 2016’s DOOM lately. It hearkens back to the shooters of my youth. There’s a lot of catharsis in blasting demons with cool weapons and punching them in the face. The levels are large and they reward exploration with opportunities to customize your preferred blasting methods and adorable figurines. Perhaps most of all, for me, it showcases some fantastic storytelling and a wonderful way to leverage a silent protagonist.

The data logs you find on everything from the UAC’s methodology to data on the demonic minions you’re exterminating are very well-written. They, like the upgrade tokens, are fun bonuses. You can get all of the story you need, though, just from the brief in-game interactions and the Doomguy’s emoting. From the start, you get a sense of your avatar’s personality, without him uttering a single line of dialog.

In brief: explorers discovered an odd geological rift on Mars that was spewing a fascinating form of energy. The Union Aerospace Corporation’s CEO, Samuel Hayden — imagine the love child of Scott Pruitt and Elon Musk who downloaded himself into a cybernetic body — went into leveraging this resource to solve an energy crisis back on Earth. The EPA can’t file lawsuits if you’re exploiting a natural resource on another planet, right? Right. And Argent Energy rendered nuclear power and fossil fuels obsolete overnight. Hayden didn’t count on his head researcher being a covert cultist who discovered the energy was coming from Hell, and talked to demons about some sort of shady deal. Next thing you know, the UAC facility is getting worked over in the style of the colony from Aliens, and Hayden is trying to figure out how to maintain profits when all of his workers are dying horribly.

Enter the Doomguy.

Our hero hates demons with a fiery passion, and was put on ice after the last time he somehow made Hell worse, at least for its demonic denizens. He wakes up in one of the UAC’s isolated labs, find his iconic armor after smashing some zombified UAC folks with his bare hands, and realizes there’s a demonic invasion afoot. Hayden contacts him right away, figuring the Doomguy can clean the place up and get the energy production back on track.

It takes about 5 seconds for the Doomguy to communicate he’s not down for being a corporate stooge.

The monitor with which Hayden contacts our hero gets smashed to the floor. Moments later, in the elevator to Mars’s surface, Hayden tries again, giving some spiel through another monitor about “the greater good”. That monitor gets a solid, indignant punch.

I can’t tell you how much I love this.

Characterization in video games can be difficult, especially in shooters. Halo’s Master Chief is your stereotypically stoic one-man army in power armor. Most of the Call of Duty protagonists tend to be walking talking recruitment campaigns for modern military organizations. Other bullet-dispensing avatars whoop and wisecrack their way through the bad guys, kicking ass and looking for a fresh pack of bubble gum.

Doomguy’s just here to smash demons and give middle fingers to corporate America while he’s at it.

On top of the pretty obvious disdain he has for the UAC, the Doomguy’s got a sense of humor. When you find the collectibles, there’s a fantastic little sting of classic DOOM music as the hero looks the figurine over. But when you find one that’s the same coloration as your current incarnation, the Doomguy gives it a fistbump. The scion of anti-demon violence and masculine badassery fistbumps a figurine.

And then there’s this little Terminator 2 Easter Egg, when the Doomguy takes a bad step and falls into molten metal:

The developers could have easily just left the Doomguy as an angry psychopathic killing machine. But they didn’t. He has a sense of humor. There are glimmers of knowing self-awareness. And when confronted with the notion that smashing all of the UAC’s work will plunge the Earth into a new energy crisis, the Doomguy shows himself to be a person with conviction, weighing that reality with the fact that demonic invasions are literally the worst thing. Hayden doesn’t agree; the Doomguy doesn’t care. Demons are bad. Sure, making life difficult on Earth is bad, but it’s still life. Better to worry about the prices of your utilities than an Imp eating your face, right? Right.

Video games are mediums of visual storytelling. They’re made for showing, rather than telling. And 2016’s DOOM does this beautifully. I think that these moments, and the data logs, keep me playing just as much as the action and exploration. Fast-paced shooting is one thing; being compelled to see the next bit of story is icing on the cake. It’s a glorious storytelling experience on top of a visceral exercise in catharsis.

I love story-based games. My next solo gaming project is Witcher 3, which will be very different but, from what I understand, rich in its own storytelling. I’m just as invested in the lore of Overwatch as I am its game balance and being a better Reinhardt. But I’ll probably be coming back to DOOM now and again. There are harder difficulties, arcade modes, classic maps, challenges… there’s a lot there, and not just in terms of ammunition and well-designed enemies.

The ballad of the Doomguy is a work of pulse-pounding death metal punctuated by shotgun blasts and breaking bones, but its melody is one of those sprawling lyrical epics about one man standing against a tide of darkness. It’s Beowulf with a BFG.

And I am, as the kids say, so here for it.

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