I am the one thing in life I can control

I am the one thing in life I can control

Three weeks ago, I drove from Portland to Colorado Springs to participate in Camp FI, a weekend retreat for people interested in financial independence and early retirement.

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't drive this distance. It's a 1300-mile trip that takes at least twenty hours to cover. Or, if you're me, it's a 1400-mile trip that takes 23 hours of driving spread over two days.

But, in case you haven't noticed, we're in the middle of a global pandemic, and although I'm not nearly as cautious as many of my friends, I don't relish the idea of confining myself to close quarters with dozens of strangers for hours on end in an airplane. Besides, I like to drive. And I love the beauty of the American west. And I needed some time alone to think deep thoughts — and to listen to the Hamilton soundtrack over and over and over again.

Around noon on Day Two, as I exited I-80 in south-central Wyoming, I was listening to Hamilton for the fourth time in 24 hours when I was smacked in the brain by a lyric I hadn't heard before. I pulled off the side of the road to think about it — and to make some notes.

Wait for It

For those few who are unfamiliar, Hamilton is a hip-hop musical that tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton and his contentious relationship with, well, everyone — especially Aaron Burr. Burr is the nominal antagonist of the show (although, truly, he is no villain), Hamilton's most prominent frenemy. Burr is also a complex character.

Alexander's biggest beef with Aaron is that his rival seems wishy-washy, as if he has no moral compass. (“If you stand for nothing, Burr, what'll you fall for?” Hamilton asks early on. It's a question he asks repeatedly throughout the show.) To Burr, though, this chameleon-like nature isn't a character flaw. It's a survival mechanism. It's a strength. He's adaptable and patient; he believes Hamilton is too loud and too reckless.

Each major character in Hamilton gets a song to define who and what they are. Burr's song, “Wait for It”, comes in the middle of the first act.

Burr sings:

Life doesn't discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes and it takes, and we keep living anyway. We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes. And if there's a reason I'm still alive when so many have died, then I'm willing to wait for it.

And then Burr says: “I am the one thing in life I can control.” I'd never actually heard that line before. But there, in the middle of the rolling Wyoming hills, the lyric hit me like a ton of bricks.

Leslie Odom Jr. sings Wait for It

This is a powerful line in the context of Hamilton, sure, but for me personally, it's something close to a guiding principle. I've written extensively about the power (and necessity) of being self-directed. It's one of the primary themes of this website.

But here's the thing: As important as this notion is to me, I sometimes lose sight of it. This is particularly true when my struggles with mental health become severe, when the depression and anxiety threaten to pull me under. In these moments, I forget about personal agency and locus of control and related ideas. When I'm in the throes of depression, everything is overwhelming (even the simple stuff), and it feels like I'm in control of nothing.

A Very Strange Year

This has been a strange year. I know, I know. Everybody's saying it. But it's true! And while we, as a society, are “enjoying” this crazy year together, my own personal 2020 has had its own special flavor of weirdness.

As you'll recall, 2019 sucked for me. Objectively, my life was great, and I could see that. But subjectively, I was miserable. My life-long depression reached some sort of crescendo and was made especially spicy thanks to some new, unwelcome generalized anxiety. Mental health issues stopped me in my tracks last year.

After several months working with a therapist, I made some progress. In January of this year, I took a break from alcohol and began waking at 4:00 or 4:30. It took a couple of weeks to adjust to this new routine, but by mid-January I felt great and was enjoying my greatest productivity in years. Yay!

As our country (and the world) descended into chaos in March, April, and May, I still felt great. I was insanely productive, both for business projects (such as creating my upcoming FIRE course for Audible) and household projects (such as landscaping the back yard). I was flying high. There was a stark contrast between the overall mood of the world around me and my personal mood. I almost felt guilty. (It's an odd thing when you're doing well individually while so many other people are suffering. I'm not sure I like it.)

Then, in mid-June, things went haywire. Slowly at first — then all at once — my depression and anxiety roared back with full force. I found myself paralyzed by fear once more. Blarg! Was I drinking too much beer? Taking on too much work? Overwhelmed by current events? Flustered by chaos here on the homestead? (Our fence fell down. The hot tub broke. The fridge is dying. The sewer line is clogged. And so on.) Whatever the cause, I'd reached a dark place by the end of June.

It felt like my life was out of control. Like Alexander Hamilton, I felt like I was stuck inside a hurricane.

Fortunately, I recognized the problem quickly. And that moment in Wyoming — hearing Burr sing “I am the one thing in life I can control” — was key, a wake-up call. It reminded me of my philosophy. I realized that I was focusing too much on my “circle of concern” rather than my “circle of control”.

[Circle of Concern vs. Circle of Control]

I fought back.

During July, I took several steps to combat my depression. Among others:

  • I stopped drinking alcohol. I had my last drinks on Independence Day. My goal is to go one year without the stuff. No, I'm not being 100% strict. If I find myself in a social situation where it's better to drink than to make a fuss, I'll drink. But not much. And these situations should be rare indeed. (I've had one such occasion since Independence Day.)
  • I called my doctor to ask about medication. While I'm not opposed to meds, I generally don't like them for myself. I don't like the side effects. Plus, I have this stupid idea that I shouldn't need them. Well, in reality I do need them, that much is clear. So, we're playing with things to see what works.
  • I uninstalled my stupid videogame. (Again.) If you're a long-time reader, you know that computer games are my kryptonite. And in small doses, there's nothing wrong with gaming. It can be a great way to relax! But when I'm in one of my funks, gaming becomes an escape, a way for me to avoid reality. Until I'm moving forward under my own steam again, it's best that I simply avoid the temptation entirely.
  • I shifted physical fitness to my top priority. Like it or not, my body image has a profound effect on my overall self image. I wish this weren't the case, but it's true. Plus, eating right and exercising is conducive to long life and an effective way to fight depression. So, with help from my buddy Jonathan at Choose FI, I'm embarking on a six-month quest to lose thirty pounds. (I'll write more about this soon.)

In short, I stopped allowing myself to be a victim of external forces and started exercising agency. I am the one thing in life I can control. I need to exercise that control in whatever ways I can. It's the only way out of the pit of despair.

It's far too early to say how much these changes (and others I'm making) will help me, but I'm confident that things will improve in short order. They already have to some degree. I mean, the first thing I wanted to do this morning was write an article for Get Rich Slowly! (And I have a list of other things to write about too.)

Coming Out of the Dark

During my two weekends at Camp FI in Colorado Springs, I spoke about the true history of financial independence and early retirement. (These ideas have been around much longer than most people think.) My talk was rough, and I know it, but I hope to develop it into an interesting and useful presentation in years to come. And I hope to share a written version of this presentation here at Get Rich Slowly in the near future.

But for me, Camp FI is less about sharing what I know and more about connecting with like-minded friends and colleagues. I had a blast both weekends. I hung out with new friends and old.

I got to spend a bit of time with Michelle Jackson (who is one of my favorite people). Between weekends, I spent four nights in Mr. Money Mustache‘s basement. He and I hiked, swam in a creek, and had deep conversations on his delightful deck. I had lunch with Piggy from Bitches Get Riches (and met her chickens). I also had lunch with John from ESI Money. I got to know Mr. Refined from Refined by Fire. And so on.

Hanging with Michelle Jackson

Hanging with Piggy from Bitches Get Riches

Diania Merriam presents to the group

By the final night of the second weekend, I was more relaxed than I have been in months. Maybe years. As I sat outside with the die-hards until the wee hours of the morning, telling stories and laughing, I felt alive. I felt myself. I felt as if I were in control of things once more.

My road trip helped me re-realize something else important about my depression and anxiety. My suffering is intensified when I spend too much time alone. I feel better about myself (and my fellow humans) when I interact with other people, whether friends or strangers. I genuinely like people. They're amazing. I need to do a much better job of seeking out human contact if I want to maintain my mental health!

If only we weren't in the midst of a global pandemic…

More about...Psychology

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Sara
Sara
10 days ago

Long time reader, first time commenter:
Congrats on making the decision to take a break from drinking. I did that about a year and a half ago and it did wonders for my sleep and mental health (not to mention bank account)! Never looking back. I don’t think many people realize you can quit drinking even if you don’t have a problem. It’s catching on, though.
(If any of your readers are considering this choice, I highly recommend the book This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. Made it super easy to take a break.)
Loved this post.

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
10 days ago

Welcome back JD. Glad you’re feeling better.

What about just writing more? Writing will not only help you work things out in your head, but also help bring more readers and grow your website.

It felt like you were on a very focused path to monetizing more with Tom earlier in the year. You redesigned the site as well, which looks cool.

Publishing more has helped keep me focused with such a big storm swirling around us.

Sam

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
10 days ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Sounds like a plan! Do what is most enjoyable and easiest for you. I started doing more of the entrepreneurial stuff starting a year ago and there have been some good moments, but also some not very pleasant moments.
I really just like writing as well. Looking forward to the updates. Bummer on the hot tub breaking! Hope that gets fixed soon.

Stacy M Hamilton
Stacy M Hamilton
10 days ago

I really needed this today!! My anxiety hit a new high in June. I too was doing well and then zap. I might add staying off of social media to the mix. I love Hamilton too and never heard that line either. Best wishes!!

Dave @ Accidental FIRE
Dave @ Accidental FIRE
10 days ago

Congrats on turning things around JD, keep it going! Call me biased, but I think you’ll get the most bang for your buck with the fitness and weight loss pledges. For me I know 100% it’s what keeps me sane, especially when times get tough. And every other day it seems there’s more clinical research proving the benefits of exercise and movement on the brain. Cheers brother, onward and upward!

Treo
Treo
10 days ago

Glad you are back, JD! I think COVID has been a great catalyst for me personally to lose weight, get fitter, and also to reduce (not quit) alcohol. Since mid April, I’ve been consistently walking about 10 – 11 miles per weekday (with a few exceptions) and so far I’ve lost about 30lbs. I always knew I could do this (I lost about 100lbs once when I was younger over about 2 years time but gained about 60-70 of it back over the past two decades) but the reality has been historically that work demands always got in the way… Read more »

Frances
Frances
10 days ago

JD, Welcome back! I was so worried about you. Mental health issues are sure rearing their collective ugly head(s) right now.
You don’t need an excuse to turn down alcohol. Just Say No Thank You. Ask for water, or tonic with a slice of lime.
Alcohol is not necessary for a good time.

Doug Nordman @ The-Military-Guide
Doug Nordman @ The-Military-Guide
10 days ago

Hey, J.D., I’m having FOMO all over again reading about your CampFI weekends. But I’m still not ready to fly in an airplane. When you and I were growing up during the last millennium, people who didn’t drink alcohol were considered to be weird… and sad. They “couldn’t hold their liquor” or “didn’t know what they’re missing” or, even worse, were “party poopers.” Today, though, I think it’s generally accepted when people choose not to drink. The “social situation where it’s better to drink than to make a fuss” might be over… even if it’s still echoing in our heads… Read more »

Chris@TTL
10 days ago

J.D., this is one of the most poignant and powerful posts you’ve written in a long time. I’ve said before that your writing was the inspiration that lit the fuse for my FIRE ideas (before FIRE was a thing, like you suggested!) way back in 2007. Jenni and I wouldn’t be writing what we do without it, or living the life we have. I love that you’re struggling through life, clawing your way back from the demons and letting us all know it’s happening. It’s not in a “reality TV” sort of voyeuristic way; we aren’t rooting you on to… Read more »

Last edited 10 days ago by [email protected]
JanBo
JanBo
10 days ago

I am SO glad to “see” you again! I hear you. At the end of May I drove from my home to West Virginia, took off my mask and screamed. Then I got back in my car and drove 300 miles home, mask around the rear view mirror. Yup, that was a major break down. We moved to be close to our daughter and her family. After three months of being told that “it was not safe to see the grandchildren”, we made the decision to move back West. We want to be outside, on water, in woods- together. Maybe… Read more »

Care
Care
10 days ago

I totally resonate with this – from the shifting mental condition to the need to go alcohol free.
btw, You are a brilliant writer.

Selena
Selena
10 days ago

Hang in there, JD. It took me a while to not only find the right med but also the right dosage. And my body needed time to adjust.

I refused to take anti-depressants for years because they made me feel fuzzy headed. I didn’t feel like myself. Sometimes it felt like I was watching someone else go through the motions and I hated it.

A few months ago, my doctor talked me into taking my meds daily instead of only when I’d been sleep-deprived for days. I wish I’d listened to her sooner.

Brian
Brian
9 days ago

Glad you are back! I was worried, too. I think we all know that a long period of no posts means you are struggling. A book that helped me a lot is Feeling Good by David Burns, recommended by my therapist. It’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I second the write more advice. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is a 12-step program for people looking to “recover” their creativity. It has a lot of writing exercises (and is a bit like CBT in a way), but also preaches a lot of self care. Be kind to yourself. I’m happy to see you… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
9 days ago

This post makes me happy. When there are stretches with no posts (or only guest posts) we know that is when you are struggling. And since you are so open in your life’s journey on this blog we all feel your struggles and are rooting for you. I’m happy to see you doing what is best for you to turn things around. I am a fan of yoga and meditation. During covid I ramped up my yoga to 5-6 times a week and meditation every day. I can tell you days that I’m feeling anxious getting into my legs, aka… Read more »

Lucy
Lucy
9 days ago

I’m glad to see you posting again. I was beginning to wonder what was happening to this blog. I hope you’ll continue to write more. I think it helps both you and your readers, particularly during this crazy time.

Carmine Red
Carmine Red
9 days ago

My estimation of Aaron Burr just went up a couple of levels.

Chris
Chris
8 days ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

This is truth. “Wait for It” hit me hard, too, for the same reasons. I’m a Hamilton who should be a Burr. I had the good sense to hire a Burr to be my lawyer, though, so I guess I’m not completely blind to my own impetuousness. I cry every time I hear that song, so I listen to it as much as I can. I think the crying means there’s something there I’m trying to work out in my life. I hope that’s true because otherwise I’m an accidental masochist which is just the *worst* kind to be, really.

Shang @Savemycents
Shang @Savemycents
8 days ago

Dear JD. I’m a fan of over 10 years of reading your stuff and I’m always the most touched when you write about your mental health. It is so important to have someone like you speak out about this topic and normalizing it and being vulnerable. I too lately struggled with my mental health and despite using every abundance technique I knew of, I had to call a few days completely quits. It’s good knowing I’m not alone in this. Thank you.

Olga
Olga
7 days ago

Oh I have missed your personal posts. And I can’t believe you were in my home town (now) while I had no clue! That was a great quote, indeed. I repeat it often, to myself and my husband. As far as feeling great when the world is kind of suffering, I can relate. I was closed off work for 5 weeks, and started running a lot in the mountains. I was struggling with adrenal fatigue for 6 years prior after 15 years of competitive ultrarunning, and during March and April NY running suddenly returned. Go figure. This was my way… Read more »

yogi
yogi
6 days ago

Dear JD, I am a very long time reader from a different part of the world- India.( been reading GRS since 2007-that long!).Have always found your personal style of writing endearing and resonant. I am far ahead along the FI path ( in my context) and GRS has been a big part of moulding my philosophy and keeping me on the straight and narrow for so long. I am such a regular reader that the lack of posts from you in the last two months made me suspect about you being in some sort of difficulty. I want to sincerely… Read more »

The Crusher
The Crusher
5 days ago

J.D. – An absolutely fantastic blog post presented during a very challenging time for so many people. It was inspirational to read. Kudos in take charge of your life and focus on the portions you can control (vs those beyond your control).

I honestly have been going through my own challenges (laid off for 1st time in my life (30+ years) and it has been a bit of a pity party in my world. I know that will not help me and it is up to me to get my crap together. Your post was refreshing to read.

Thank you!

Piggy
Piggy
5 days ago

Boo, I love how honest you are about the mental health stuff here. My heart is going out to everyone who NEEDS socialization to be mentally well right now, when for the safety of everyone we need to stay so isolated.
Any time you want to drive back down and hang with the chickens, you’re welcome!!!

Linda
Linda
5 days ago

Congratulations on making these important life decisions. We all end up in the darkness at some point and are plagued by what we feel we can’t control. However, we all can’t write and share like you and it is what makes you so special. I read your posts often, credit you for many things, and haven’t thanked you enough. So thanks!
Linda

Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life
Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life
4 days ago

Leslie Odom Jr’s been echoing in my head for the past four days – we’re resonating on the same wavelength! Though I have to wonder if Doug isn’t right about the social situations and pressure to drink being over. I haven’t had a drink for about 7 years or so. I have no personal problems with alcohol. I initially stopped when I was taking pain meds several years back where it made more sense to avoid interactions and just never started again. The only social pressure I’ve felt this entire time was who to share my drink tickets with since… Read more »

Bill Bariteau
Bill Bariteau
4 days ago

Thank you for writing this. I am a new reader to your site but I like your honesty about the “demons” you face and your willingness to share.

Jennifer
Jennifer
4 days ago

Many people are struggling during this pandemic. People that struggle with mental health issues (don’t we all to some extent at some point in life?) really struggle more when isolated with their own thoughts. I’m glad you are speaking up about it and taking charge of your situation.

Anne
Anne
2 days ago

Honestly, I had kind of stopped reading GRS because I wasn’t quite so interested in the money advice as I was in your struggle. It resonates with so many of us. I stopped by today and loved this post.

Andrew
Andrew
2 days ago

Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing the mental health challenges you have faced. Love that you reprioritized your health to get back on track. It’s funny how simple of an idea it is to give up booze, eat better and to work out regularly. But it can be so challenging of a habit to build. Also, when my wife (at the time she was a girlfriend) and I moved in together she put a ban on any gaming systems in the home. It was to easy for me to get consumed for days in end gaming. It has been… Read more »

Gwen
Gwen
13 hours ago

So much to love about this post. Thanks, JD.

Nancy L Swanson
Nancy L Swanson
12 hours ago

Your posts are like candy to me. I devour them when they come in. I’m a long time reader. 65 year old single retired woman, have never commented. Have struggled with anxiety and depression for years. No apparent reason. I have a great life with many people who love me! (It’s hard to even say that… Do I deserve that?) Meds help a LOT; I’ve been on and off them many times because like you I always think I can overcome things myself. Well I can’t. As soon as I figured that out, life has been peaceful and happy. So… Read more »

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