How I Didn’t Beat the Madness

If you’ve read pretty much anything in these series, you know I haven’t been quite right in the head since at least late 2017. Then again, it hasn’t been getting worse lately. Yes, like I described here and there, 2019 didn’t start off great. But the frequency and intensity of my generalised anxiety and major depressive disorder attacks has diminished rather a lot since then.

The reasons for that are as mysterious as why the whole madness started in the first place. As a matter of fact, these two questions are really just one. And this final piece of my gruesome recollections is the first shaky shot at what the answer to that most intriguing question could be.

You might think drugs could have helped. The SSRIs, SNRIs or NRIs can apparently do wonders in cases like mine. But taking drugs to get rid of things haunting my head? No, thanks. That’s never felt quite right to me. Moreover, I find it slightly disconcerting that no one really knows how most antidepressants work (by the way, this is more common than one would perhaps like to believe). And then there’s another, way more important reason for my saying no to psychopharmacology dope. Spiriting the symptoms away and pretending all is jolly good is not the solution I want. Sure, such strategy can bring temporary comfort. But comfort is far from actual salvation. That much I learned already.

Did I get a good therapist then? No, it wasn’t that either. Yes, I should have contacted a mental health professional right when the whole thing started. But I somehow never got to asking for help. I’m a solitary stubborn asshole who prefers to crack problems on his own. And I didn’t seem to have cared much about the fact that it could have actually killed me.

Well, whatever. Despite my stupidity, I got lucky. I survived. And then I got even luckier. I realised that solving the curious problem of my madness meant chewing on the rancid medicine of honesty, as served by the dead punk I quoted above. There was no other way for me, tough as it was indeed.

I already started to elaborate on parts of that process here. The post about finding love in rather unexpected places is arguably the best example. If you’ve read that thing, you know I had certain issues not only with loving other people, but also with loving myself. And that’s a textbook example of roots of depression.

Eureka! I thought when I found out I kind of hated myself. This awkward but also profound revelation made me feel quite empowered for a while. But it only lasted for so long. The thing is, what exactly one should do with such a fact?

Finding out how to stop hating myself would sure do the trick, I thought. Before I could fix my mind that way, however, I had to learn why things broke in the first place. So I grudgingly decided to cut my self up and see. No excuses, no remorse.

Going down that road has been the weirdest and most interesting trip I ever took. The maze of conflict and delusion I’ve been navigating ever since often seems astonishingly complex, and yet it always turns out to be so embarrassingly simplistic the moment I find a map and flip it the right way up. And what’s perhaps the sadly funniest thing of all is that the growling monsters and slithering shades I’ve been dragging out to wither in the sun are as deeply personal as they pertain to the whole pretentious human species.

But that’s a bit out of scope for this hasty little blog post. I’d better get back to the culprits of my madness.

There was this very promising conflict between thinking I have no emotions to speak of while actually having quite a lot of them. But I suspect I’d had that issue for most of my life, and I only became properly broken few years back. Therefore there must have been something else gnawing on my mind, something more recent.

It took a while and quite some perseverance, but now I have at least a plausible guess at this other frog on the spring of my sanity. I think it was the perception of myself as some sort of a genius, a wildly delusional misconception clashing with the ever-increasing certainty that I’m just another guy.

Perhaps there are things I could use as excuses for my skewed thinking that was so outrageously arrogant that I didn’t dare to admit it even to myself. For instance, I didn’t get to know many other seven year old kids in my perfectly average neighbourhood who would wonder day and night how to make their own thinking machines inspired by Asimov’s I, Robot. The other thing is that I was born in a country that indulges in its pleasant mediocrity while cultivating a strong tradition of fictional stealth geniuses and lovable morons who are capable of subverting whole empires. So maybe it’s not so terribly surprising that I felt I was entitled to feel different from very early on.

Growing up, I may have moved into a slightly more selective social niche due to the schools I went to. But it didn’t help much to put my self-perception into a more sober perspective. I still felt like a bit of an outlier in my early teens, rising high in both math and humanities olympiads and stuff, until I discovered the sinful magic of booze, girls and other more or less illicit joys that put an end to any sustained intellectual endeavour on my side for a couple of years.

When I partly came back to my senses, I plowed through a few university degrees, often while working full time on the side. Then I got invited for a dream PhD abroad, and kept populating my CV with other shiny stuff. But one little problem was becoming apparent. The further I got in pursuing my varied interests and self-indulgent passions, the more evidence I had that I may not be exceptional in anything at all. Decent in a rather broad spectrum of activities, maybe, but never really excellent, outstanding, world-class, etc., which is precisely what one would kind of expect from a genius, right?

Probably the most eye-opening lesson I got in that respect was delivered by Ed Hovy, a Carnegie Mellon professor who commands quite a bit of respect within the global Natural Language Processing and AI communities. In other words, a man who could sure tell a genius from just another upstart striving to make a living in academia.

What was that horrible and much cherished thing Ed did to me? He suffered through the ordeal of evaluating my PhD thesis as the external reader.

The fact that he agreed to do that at all meant I wasn’t a total loser. But he also made it very clear in the beginning of the viva grilling that what I’d done wasn’t as groundbreaking as I thought, and that I had actually been doing it wrong most of the time anyway.

Forty rather sweaty-shaky minutes later, I earned that piece of paper saying I can call myself a doctor. But maybe I shouldn’t have. The ostensible success meant that the important lesson Ed gave me took very long to sink in.

The other things that happened after I got my PhD didn’t help much either. For instance, people across three continents have poured over eight million euros into my research projects over the past seven years.

I suppose this was great for my institute and plenty researchers I’ve worked with on those projects. Maybe it improved the world a tiny little bit as well, though I’m way less sure about that particular thing. But it most certainly wasn’t good for my mental health in the long run.

The reason is that the relative success made me suspect my research perhaps started to make sense again after that joke of my PhD. On particularly delusional days, I even thought what I was doing was exceptional. Deep inside, however, I always knew it was just luck and politics, and maybe also the fact that I can very well mask the lack of competence by infectious enthusiasm.

You may have noticed one or two telltale signs of the impostor syndrome in this harsh assessment of my career to date. I wouldn’t disagree with that. I probably do have a mild case of the thing on top of my more serious afflictions. But I still think it’s more about being realistic in the context of the motivations that had made me become a scientist in the first place.

When I first started to think about bringing my various interests to fruition in the field of AI research, I thought people who do that at a decent level must be some sort of geniuses. And I hoped in a rather well-disguised way that becoming one of these researchers would help me make peace with myself. A sound construction, one might say, but it was doomed to failure from the very beginning.

I know now that most of these successful researcher types are simply people who do their job well, even if that often means just exploiting the system better than others (similarly to what I might have been doing without realising it until quite recently). Then you have precious few great scientists who do their job extremely well without much need of exploiting anything. And that’s it. The whole genius thing is largely an independent matter of history and arbitrary external labeling. In other words, something a wise person shouldn’t bother about at all.

Coming to this conclusion was a great relief. I’m not a genius. And it’s very unlikely I’ll ever be considered one. My research may be all right, but it simply isn’t at that level and I know I can’t make it substantially better no matter how long I keep trying. But that’s okay, because I can still strive to do what I like in the best way I can, and perhaps help few other people on the way. And I’d better be damn happy about that, just like everyone who has the great fortune to have a job that doesn’t feel like actual work (on most days, at least).

This seems to have been the very thing I needed to make peace with myself. But the process of coming to that conclusion had a curious side effect that may keep puzzling me till the end of my life.

Before I even managed to embark upon the laborious quest of self-healing, my madness gave birth to another major delusion. In one post here I talked about how I thought I was burning out. The best way of dealing with that problem seems to be changing jobs, perhaps even whole careers. So I had this amazing and sparklingly original idea of becoming an esteemed (or at least best-selling) writer instead of being a mediocre scientist.

I didn’t get deterred by the numerous statistics showing the futility of such a career move as long as feeding the family is concerned. Because, obviously, I was going to become a great writer, never to be bothered by any financial straits once that first book gets written and published due to my sheer will and ambition. I knew my thinking was precisely the thing many knowledgeable people in the publishing business warn against. But I also knew such warnings are for the crowds of inept wannabes, nothing to trouble me. Because I, of course, was one of the select few who were gonna make it.

I suppose that in some sense, I should be glad for this particular highly unreasonable idea I got obsessed with for over a year. It was a delusion all right but it might have helped me to sail through some of the tougher times. And it probably didn’t do much lasting damage. I didn’t let it eat at my slowly healing mind long enough to take place of the other demons I’ve been trying to dispel.

At least I hope that’s the case. I like to think I’ve been getting a little better at not deluding myself lately, yet fighting this particular aspect of human nature is not an easy feat. Things will sure keep slipping by. But that’s okay, as long as I keep tracking them down to try and see them for what they really are.

And that’s about it. As of October 2019, I wouldn’t say I’m completely sane. Maybe I’ll never be. But I seem to have my madness under pretty firm control, largely due to those surprising discoveries of the last year or two.

I found out emotions are not necessarily just a useless blob of mushy concrete stuck to my feet, dragging me down while I try to soar to the heights of intellectual rigour. And it’s been a constant source of wonder to embrace such a trivial and yet mind-boggling fact.

I also might have finally learned how to be a happy lifelong failure at becoming a genius. And, last but not least, I’ve realised that every single cell in my body screams I’m a fuckin’ writer more than anything else.

Now, I recently came to the sobering conclusion that even after nearly three years of trying hard, I’m still not a very good writer. Maybe I won’t ever “make it” as one. But here’s a thing. It seems I might as well spend the rest of my life trying.

Why is that? I’m not quite sure yet. But what I do know already is that this writing thing feels truer than anything else I’ve tried. The stuff I want to write about ensnares my mind day and night and it’s pure magic despite the frequent bouts of frustration due to my ineptitude. Most importantly, though, writing is incredible fun to me. Sometimes it’s actually so much fun that I entirely forget I was once an anxious, depressed, suicidal shade of a man. And if that’s not a cure, then I don’t know what is.

The feature image is based on a work of the English Wikipedia user Kat123 who released it into the public domain.

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