Overcoming depression, hitting the reset button, and the art of living out Stoicism

When November hit, like most Novembers do for me, I was overcome with an onslaught of depression.  It’s not the kind of depression that comes and goes with my mood (i.e. “the blues”) — no, I’m pretty sure it’s a few things:  the change of seasons, losing daylight rapidly, chilling temperatures, spending less time outside, and losing sight of what fuels me with purpose and get-up-and-go.  It’s a lot of things all at once, and November through February tends to be unbearable months for me and the depression difficult to overcome.

I don’t know what made this past November particularly different from any other, but something happened inside me, an internal resistance that just said “Enough. Something has got to change.”  I remember thinking that I need to call my health care insurance company and go see a psychologist to help me sort through a lot of things.  I was angry all the time — angry at idiot drivers in traffic, angry at our government, angry at Trump voters/backers and Trump himself, angry about Second Amendment idiots backing the insanity of refusing common sense gun laws, and angry at a whole lot of other things that would spring up like a whack-a-mole game — each blow with a hell of a lot of cursing under my breath and overwhelming exasperation.

So now it wasn’t just depression, but it was anger, it was feeling out of control, powerless, defeated, and with little purpose beyond my obligations as husband, father, and friend.  I was really hating life, and I wasn’t prepared to endure this anymore on my own — I really needed help and badly.  About two weeks into November I had started searching for a psychologist to see and somewhere along the way — I had become distracted by the usual Facebook scrolling and came upon an ad for Vertellis “Chapters”, a journal designed to help inspire mindfulness and lead a more fulfilling life through reflection and journaling.  Somehow in the process of reading through the background information in “Chapters”, I came across references to Stoicism… and that led me on a hunting expedition to learn more.

Before long I had subscribed to the Daily Stoic emails and begun devouring everything they sent my way and anything I could get my hands on, including The Practical Stoic podcast hosted by Simon Drew.  Straight away, there were a few principles that I started applying to my life in hopes that I’d see a change — anything. Remember that I was in an utter state of distress, with depression weighing in heavy, feeling unloved, persistently angry, and completely out of control of my life.  I was hungry to make some changes in my life….anything to get out of this super thick fog that was enveloping me.

Journaling

The first thing I started doing right away was journaling — keeping a digital journal using Day One to start doing some self-inventory, getting my feelings and thoughts out in front of me, and evaluating what was going on in my life.  I feel that I’m already a pretty mindful person, thinking about internal issues and all that is unseen.  And a week into this, I also received my “Chapters” journal from Vertellis, which gave me structured questions to journal around and immediately had me focusing on gratitude, what things are going well, and what could be improved.  You also reflect on your day and rank it at the end of each day’s entry.  This new daily habit helped establish a pattern of mindfulness and being more self-aware.

The dichotomy/trichotomy/spectrum of control

In various Stoic circles you’ll hear about the dichotomy or trichotomy of control — effectively a tool to help you understand what you can and cannot control.  I prefer to think of it as a spectrum, because while there are indeed things that are fully in or out of your control, there are sometimes areas that have varying degrees that you can control or influence.  But at the end of the day, it’s just best to figure out what exactly you have control over, put your energy towards that, and forget the rest of it.  All those things that I was angry about that I mentioned early on? Well, I have precisely zero amount of control over all of those things and the only thing I have control over is me.  Which brings me to the next important aspect of Stoicism.

You can change your emotional response to something or someone by changing your opinion on the matter

I can’t overstate how much of a difference this single point made in me, especially when paired up with understanding what you can and cannot control.  When I realized that I didn’t have to be angry — that I actually had the ability to change my perception and opinion on an event or person — and could think differently about something, it was like flipping a switch in me.  That jackass that cut me off in traffic?  Most days I’d end up in boiling anger, cussing out the f*ck-twat that cut me off, and remain angry the rest of my drive in.  But if I step back to just assess the situation and other possibilities — maybe he honestly just didn’t see me, or perhaps he’s distracted by something, or maybe he feels he’s legitimately rushed by some urgent thing that he is oblivious to the danger he’s putting himself (and the rest of us) in.  Regardless of what may be the real story, I don’t have control over him and his choices.  I can only control me, how I respond, and how I drive.  In making my focus inward and specifically on what I can control, I am less likely to be in a raging funk the rest of the way into work or on my way home.

Your perception about something, your opinion about it, and how you formulate your response to it all is all entirely in your control.  Sure it oftentimes happens in a split second when you’re not mindful about your emotions — and that in itself can take a long time to cultivate — but it can be done.  And already I’ve seen the positive outcome of applying this to my life.

Seeking wisdom, knowledge, gratitude and virtue

You can’t spend all of your time a brooding mess and dwelling on all the things that are wrong with your life, all the ways that you’re a flawed  human being, or all the people you’re certain don’t like you or no longer love you.  I know that I’ve blown far too many waking hours dwelling on and mulling over negative thoughts and feelings, meditating on how flawed and loveless I feel that I am.

But this has to change, too.  You have to spend time meditating on all that you should be grateful for in your life, reading and listening to modern-day virtuous people that can help you on your quest for wisdom and knowledge, and figure out how you’ll lead a more virtuous life.  For me, I get daily stoic emails sent to me, listen to a few different podcasts almost daily, and then will retreat back to my journaling to reflect on these things, apply them to specific areas of my life, and discover all the areas that I’m really grateful for.  That energy and time spent focusing and dwelling on positive things really has had a tremendous impact on me and has greatly helped hold back the fog of depression that once engulfed me just a month ago.

Between journaling, understanding what can and cannot be controlled and how your opinion can shape how you respond to life, along with seeking virtuous things (wisdom, knowledge, gratitude), life has dramatically improved for me.  The fog of depression hasn’t returned or enveloped me, and I have a greater sense of clarity, purpose, and a renewed love for life.  End of story?  Not remotely.  In fact, I’d be remiss to leave out this last bit:

Memento Mori

It’s Latin for “remember that you will die.” The one finite and limited resource we have — our time — should not be squandered and thrown away as if time weren’t in short supply. But the reality is that we could die at any moment, and we’d be foolish not to live out our life in the fullest manner possible.

A quote that I heard recently really resonated with me from Seneca:

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”

It really doesn’t matter how long you live — you could reach the end of a long life and have never really lived.  I think I’d rather pack in the fullness of life and only live a shorter life and having lived it well.

Staying the course

I was sharing with my friend Jamison about all these changes that I’ve made in my life, an how I noticed that even missing a few days on these new-found behaviors and habits could have negative side effects.  I noticed that when I missed out on fulfilling a few of these things in my daily habits, traces of anxiety and depression could metaphorically be seen knocking at my door.  Another way of putting it, I was noticing how it didn’t take a lot of effort to lose my grip and control over my life and head into a tailspin with my life driven by my emotions and how I was feeling at the moment.

For me, this is now a part of my life — I’m 30 days into practicing Stoicism, have seen dramatic changes and benefits in my life, and am not the same person that I was 30 days ago.  I’m still a bit of a schmuck and still have plenty of faults to go around — but I’m working on me, working on the things I know I can change, and am daily trying to become a better version of me than I was the day before.  And if I fall — and I have, forgetting to journal or listen to modern day stoics, or read stoic writings — I simply have to dust myself off, figure out what went wrong, learn from it, and try my best to change.

The best part about it is that you’ll never be a perfect version of you, and that it’s a life-long journey.  You simply have to show up day-in, day-out, and keep trying — practicing Stoicism on a daily basis to become a better version of you.  Which brings me to my last point — a point that really isn’t about Stoicism itself but rather the immediate fruits of this change in my life.

Hitting the reset button on my creative outlet

I’ve been intentionally putting off talking about this publicly for a variety of reasons, mostly because I want to make sure that all my motives and priorities are in check and that I’m doing things with a balanced and more stoic perspective.  So in an effort to prepare myself for having this conversation with friends and family, I’m “soft launching” the whole reset button on my blog to work out some of the frameworks behind what I’m going to invest my time into and why.  No one reads my blog anyway, so it’s a bit less intimidating to do this here than on my Facebook feed.

After seven years since I last released a full-length album under the pseudonym Michael Miles, I’m hitting the reset button on my music.  I’ve done a serious mental inventory of all that has gone wrong over my lifetime in music, all the unhealthy expectations, the naive hopes and motivations, and spent some time distilling what it is that I actually have control over (applying the Stoic practices to my music efforts).  The comparative list of all the things that are not in my control versus the distinctly shorter list of what actually is in my control has helped me find personal release and freedom from all the times I felt like I failed in my efforts.  I fully realize just how much I cannot control — how people will respond, whether or not they’re going to like what I make, who will be willing to buy my music, the level of success, even the number of likes, shares, and subscribes… all of that is out of my control.

Which brings me to what I can control:

  • How much I practice and spend time to refine my skills and the musical part in a song
  • The attention to detail in my music
  • The quality of my recordings, limited by my abilities at this time and the equipment at my disposal
  • The frequency that I release material, only limited by my available time

Technically there are more minute details that I can control, but these are really the core things that are within my focal point that I know I can address.  The rest — once that music leaves my computer and heads out to the world at large — is completely out of my control.  While that was entirely liberating for me, it also needed to be backed up with two questions “Why do I do this?  Why is it so important to create music?”  I feel that I’ve been able to sum it up in a short paragraph of thoughts:

I was born to make music that makes me feel good, helps me to find peace, comforts me in tough times, energizes me to be a better version of me, and helps me live a focused life.  I may not make much money from selling my music or trying to raise funds through Patreon, but I will still create and live my life fully.  And if others feel similarly about what I’ve created — that they find peace, comfort, and focus in what I make — then that is the icing on the cake. But my happiness and fulfillment will not be determined by other people and the level of outward “success” of my music.  I am creating music for me and what I want out of it; and in a selfless twist, sharing it freely while offering opportunities for people to give back or say thank you.  That is why I am making music again.

I’m not going to return to my roots as Michael Miles — that ship has sailed and I’m done sharing album lists online with a banjo player from Chicago.  It’s with great enthusiasm that I’m announcing that I’ll be creating music under the name “STØLACE” — a word that combines the idea of finding solace in Stoicism.  It works for me, and for a little creative flare and a nod to my Scandinavian heritage, I’m using an Ø in printed/graphic materials instead of a regular O.  Why?  Well, because I want to.

stolace-profile-album-art-vol1

Before I get over my head too much and start blabbing to everyone in my social networks about this, I do need to create more music first — and I have been.  In fact, I’ve been pretty damn busy.  In less than two weeks, I’ve already re-composed two of my old instrumental acoustic pieces and come up with new arrangements for them with nice nature-centered videos to present them on YouTube.  For your convenience, I’m going to embed them below.  If you’re interested in checking it out, head over to stolace.com where I have links to all the different social networks I’ve linked up, including my channel at YouTube.

I have a list of about ten more instrumentals that I’m going to tackle in the coming months and hope to have my first full-length released by March or April of 2019.  I’m extremely excited about this — you don’t even know.  And why am I excited?  Because I’m finally creating music again, and I’m doing it for me and because I enjoy it again, and I’m not doing it for you or for my friends, or for my family.  Sure, I’m going to share my music at every opportunity that presents itself, but now my happiness is derived from the creating process.  If you or others find benefit from what I make, great, but for once in my life, it’s not what drives me to make music.  You don’t know how refreshing and entirely liberating that is for me.

Well, it’s late and I’ve been at this blog entry for three hours now.  Time to head to bed.  But before I do, here are the two videos that I finished this past weekend.  Enjoy!

“A Moment of Clarity”

“Morning: 1”

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