This blog post is part 3 in my 3 part series on Mental Health. You can find part 1 here: Medicating Ourselves Into Lives Not Worth Living, and part 2 here: Psychiatric Discontents & A Movement Towards A Better Model Of Mental Health
The Bridge from the Unhealthy Triad to the Average Triad
I should clarify that my first blog post is primarily directed at people in the average and healthy triads; levels 1-6. I admit, I haven’t learned very much about how to treat people at the severely unhealthy end of the mental health spectrum, it’s not where I have personal experience, and it is not where I think we are societally deficient. And I do believe that if your center of gravity is in the unhealthy levels of psychological development, medication can be a very stabilizing influence, helping people put their lives back together.
However, while I acknowledge that medication can be very helpful for people in the unhealthy triad, I must state again that it’s only part of the solution, and that our treatment of people in the unhealthy area of the mental health spectrum still suffers from rampant biological reductionism and a lack of self-empowerment. An alternative model to the DSM that I found I could strongly relate to is the Recovery Model. (I also like aspects of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy)
“It has also been pointed out that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders uses criteria, definitions and terminology that are inconsistent with a recovery model, and therefore does not promote a culture in which people can improve and recover. It has been suggested that the DSM-V requires greater sensitivity to cultural issues and gender; needs to recognize the need for others to change as well as just those singled out for a diagnosis of disorder; and that it needs to adopt a dimensional approach to assessment that better captures individuality and does not erroneously imply excess psychopathology or chronicity.“
Whereas the Recovery Model, “emphasizes and supports each individual’s potential for recovery” and “recovery is seen within the model as a personal journey.” The model posits that recovery is composed of 7 elements: hope, a secure base, a sense of self, supportive relationships, empowerment & social inclusion, coping skills, and meaning.
I found particular resonance with this model because I could personally relate to each of these 7 elements in my own personal journey with mental unhealthiness.
I guess this is the place to say that I reject the notion that “I did not experience depression, I only experienced teenage angst.” It is true, I did not have Major Depressive Disorder, but I’m fairly confident I had a mild case of depression. Just because this experience occurred during my teenage years does not make it accurate to relegate my experience off the mental health spectrum onto a compartmentalized label called “Teenage Angst”. If mental health is a spectrum where you can spiral up or down the levels of the development, then I could have spiraled down, just as I spiraled up.
I went back to my journal entries about depression while writing this post, in order to investigate my mindset at the time. I have decided to share some deeply personal quotes from these journals in the proceeding section, because I would like to share some of my experience in hope of helping others on their journey. I’ve been on a difficult personal journey the last 6 years and in the last few months have felt a major transformation in both my inner and outer worlds.
To provide more context for my journey, it could be helpful to know that in the personality typing systems of the Enneagram and Myers Briggs I’m a 5w4, INTJ/P. All types deal with their journey differently, so the more similar a personality type is the more relatable my experiences will be. The basic fear of the 5 is that they will be incapable of functioning successfully in the world, and their basic desire is to discover something new and share it with the world. After the successful release of the Startup Genome Report in May I had noticed myself feeling a new sense of openness. As I read the Enneagram Book in the following months I labeled myself at level 2 on the developmental scale of healthiness. I couldn’t label myself a 1, because I knew I had so much more room to grow. But as I reached the last paragraph on the very last page of the book I had an epiphany.
“Level 1, however, is not the end of the road, but the beginning of another. It is the beginning of the world of the True Self, the Essence, which is not defined in the ways the ego is. Once a person has become liberated from the trap of his own personality type, he will begin to experience all kinds of wonderful impressions of himself, the world and of life. Moreover, such a person would be able to integrate the positive qualities of all nine types, since they are no longer attached to behavior and beliefs connected with one of them. There is much that could be said about Level 1, and the expanding horizons of Essence, but that is for another time.”
My epiphany was, “that was me.”
This however does not mean that I cannot fall back down, and my ego certainly continues creep up in many situations in daily life. But those are “states”, and right now my overall “structure” and sense of being has, as the author’s of the enneagram put it, shifted from a world of ego fixation to a world of essence.
Here is a quote from a journal entry I wrote on Jan 9, 2007, when I was feeling very depressed, [no editing, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors preserved]
“I’m so fucking angry right now. I don’t like what I’m dong. I don’t like what I see ahead. In fact I can’t see ahead. Its completely cloudy. I am unfulfilled. And discouraged. In short, I am depressed. And I seem to want to be right now. Find some music to listen to that fuels that fire. Deepens the painful emotions. I think this is the most depressed, pessimistic I’ve been in a long time. It comes at a time after I felt the most optimism. Coincidentally? I thought I had shit figured out. I wanted to start making progress, exponential progress, feeling like limits were being stretched and its all seemed to come crashing down.”
In the entry I proceed to discuss what’s wrong with each area of my life (friends, a technology club I started, school, sports) and conclude with this:
“Hmm, Maybe my answer is to transfer… I had momentarily forgotten about that… New beginning, would get to stop sports, get new friends improve socially, new things are always good. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I feel really lost now. I want to start doing big important things. Ugh not even that right now. Just nothing I am doing right now is making me happy. Just look at my hours spent in the day. How much of what I’m doing do I like. I really need a mentor… or something like it. FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK. UGH… Why does that feel good?
I think I want to lay and bed and cry… release… it will make me feel better. I guess I know I do want to do big important things. But I have to do that in baby steps towards that goal. All my life now is fundamentals and fucking disappointment. I’ve had enough learning through failure now. At least until I can adapt what I’ve learned and fail again only once my mind as reached a new paradigm. I guess I’m out now…. FUCK FUCK… I hope things look up. Perchance I meet someone good at macworld… doors I’m read for you to open sesame…”
In fact, a large part of why I didn’t spiral down, is captured in the 7 elements of the Recovery Model.
“Finding and nurturing hope has been described as a key to recovery. It is said to include not just optimism but a sustainable belief in oneself and a willingness to persevere through uncertainty and setbacks. Hope may start at a certain turning point, or emerge gradually as a small and fragile feeling, and may fluctuate with despair. It is said to involve trusting, and risking disappointment, failure and further hurt.”
If there is one common thread in my journal entries about depression, it is that I never lost hope. It’s at the end of the previous quote and in many others.
Chat transcript with a friend 2-14-08 [lightly edited for readability; I am in italics]
i was miserable
at the end of freshmen year
i know u were
like seriously — depression
not medication kind
no i know the kind
but just like hella pissed off at my situation
its cynical introversion
it can get that way at times
and its a horrible state that requires a large effort to get out of
and its a bitch o an energy well that u can easily get sucked back into
would u say thats accurate
i know its an intellectual depression from being a realist
its definitely a bad state
its about state control
it can be hard
when its one of your natural habits
I find myself not getting in them very often now
i had to artificially pump my state up
and went too high as to be unnatural
in the beginning
and its taken work finding that balance
and YES for sure I’m a realist
it only happens with me when my game isnt going wellwith women or in job searches or academic wrk
i know exactly what u mean
i was inflated in my ego for a while
ok so in congruence with checking about a lot of this game stuff another person who i initially thought was sleezy
like all these game people
but have found to be really smart
and able to communicate really well
is tony robbins
i’ve actually found i’ve built a really good system for myself
where its bad i will still feel bad emotions
and maybe it will sit with me for a day
stuff doesnt sit with me much longer than a day
3 dys at worst
but I rebuild stronger — my motivation is always err my disappointment is always channeled into going back out and doing it again — better
the best thing you can do is take action
is not taking action
I build back a passion every time i fail
right now that cycle exists for me
though the periodicity is too long
ha thats interesting
I think of myself
in cycles too
like cycles on a very slow curve upward
its a giant second order differential equation that is the driving force of development
i won’t know what that is till next yr
no u wont
but u explained it accurately
i use music a lot too
music matches my mood
and can be a tool to change it
that and my time at the piano and on my bike
the trick is putting a transform on your time axis
to increase rate of growth
and decrease periodicity
i think i know what ur saying
and peharps amplitude of cycles also has to increase as a result
exercise is also really good
it releases a lot of important chemicals
that drive growth
i know and i let my wrk get in the way
schoolwork has been getting in the way
of my personal growth
btw I’m really glad i failed freshmen year
because you need a bad experience — many hit a bottom , a rock bottom way worse than mine – but you need something to motivate you to change
and I’ve discovered so much from it
Email to a David Braun, (2-25-08):
“I’’m happy to listen. I know what you’re talking about. When the only option is to take on challenges and succeed and failure is not an option, we can do amazing things. So many examples of this. Pushing yourself in the 4th quarter, hitting rock bottom and taking on game, the spartans burning their boats before battle, the list goes on. I hope to continually challenge myself and grow. I was depressed in a sad and frustrated way, for a while in the early years upon becoming a teenager. I remember being sad for the first time on a birthday when i was 15. I was like “fuck, another year’s gone by? I’m losing my childhood”. But since taking full control and responsibility of my life and really being obsessed with learning and growth I’ve become so much happier. And now I look back at the last few years and am wowed by what the future could be if I can maintain the kind of progress I’ve had over the past 2 years. I also realize how quickly it could all disappear, that I haven’t really achieved anything yet, and that only makes me push harder. “
2) Secure base
Appropriate housing, a sufficient income, freedom from violence, and adequate access to health care have also been proposed. It has been suggested that home is where recovery may begin.
Although I didn’t discuss much of my inner turmoil with my family, they were incredibly supportive throughout most of this journey,. I lost some support from my Dad and Sister when I decided to take a gap year and then later not go to college, but by that time I was ready to handle the pressure and make a bold, independent move. My mom stayed supportive throughout the whole process, and has been a source of unconditional love my whole life. I feel very fortunate. My dad played a major role in helping me get my feet underneath me when I wanted to transition my focus away from sports into the world of ideas. He taught me the basics of starting an organization, went to conferences with me, showed me how to network, and was a sounding board for operationalizing many of my ideas.
From Tyler Emerson,
“I remember meeting Max at Singularity Summit 2007. Once in a while you meet someone who you know will do great things. I had that feeling when meeting John Schloendorn and Michael and William Andregg. The same feeling was there with Max. It wasn’t only his passion, intellect and sincerity. It was the passion and support of his Dad. His father’s joy at seeing his son in an intellectual candy store. The pride and excitement in which his Dad spoke about him. Max alone made a lasting impression, but I’ll never forget that feeling of seeing a precocious son being supported unconditionally by his father. Max is already beyond his years. I hope he finds the support that his creative, collaborative gifts merit.”
From Kosta Grammatis,
“You came from a privileged life with two parents who adore you. Not many are lucky to have the perspective you have – you didn’t have to worry about a lot of things.”
Recovery of a durable sense of self (if it had been lost or taken away) has been proposed as an important element. A research review suggested that people sometimes achieve this by “positive withdrawal”—regulating social involvement and negotiating public space in order to only move towards others in a way that feels safe yet meaningful; and nurturing personal psychological space that allows room for developing understanding and a broad sense of self, interests, spirituality, etc. It was suggested that the process is usually greatly facilitated by experiences of interpersonal acceptance, mutuality, and a sense of social belonging; and is often challenging in the face of the typical barrage of overt and covert negative messages that come from the broader social context.
Until my teenage years, much of my identity and social circle had been built around being a star athlete. Then I experienced a back injury that severely limited by ability to compete, challenging the roots of my identity. Following is a quote from my dad, (4-26-08):
Are there any unusual circumstances your child has had to overcome?
Max has always been a superior athlete. Primarily soccer and basketball. However, in 8th grade he had a number of collisions and ended up with a major injury. His sacral-illiac joint was jammed. Neither we nor the coaches picked up on how serious it was for over a year, and just expected he would “get over it” and that he should “play through it”. His body reacted by shifting his pelvis to protect itself, which later caused a compounding groin injury. He was misdiagnosed as having one leg shorter than the other and for a year wore orthotics. It took us three years and many specialists to unravel the compounding effects of the injury. Throughout it Max continued to try and play, but was never on top of his game. Though he would get somewhat discouraged as we went from one specialist (chiropractors, physical therapists, sports trainers, muscle therapists) to another, he remained determined to regain his ability to play. Sports had always also been a major way that he got recognition, a lens through which he was seen by his friends. It has been difficult for him, especially as entered high school, and for the last three years, to not be seen as a star athlete. We think we solved the original problem and have been eliminating the compounding secondary problems, and he had his best year this year. He plans to do additional outside core strength training in order to finally have the kind of sports year he’s been hoping to have.”
With regard to changing social context, by December of my senior of high school I had almost completely removed myself from my high school social scene and turned my focus towards starting fresh and finding like-minded peers in the new communities of futurism and entrepreneurship. Two and half years later I have forged a completely new social circle, and since have had little to no connection with anyone from my high school years. I’ve worked through all the negative feelings and associations that lingered about that stage of my life, and now feel that there are some people from high school who I would like to talk to again, and others I would not, but I have moved on and discharged any bad feelings about the whole situation.
Self-acceptance was actually something that never wavered throughout my journey. I almost never said things like, “I wish I was somebody else” or “I hate myself”. Self-acceptance was always inside me but journaling, adopting strategies from personal development books, and consistent action that eventually created numerous small victories, really helped me solidify a belief in myself.
4) Supportive relationships
A common aspect of recovery is said to be the presence of others who believe in the person’s potential to recover, and who stand by them. While mental health professionals can offer a particular limited kind of relationship and help foster hope, relationships with friends, family and the community are said to often be of wider and longer-term importance. Others who have experienced similar difficulties, who may be on a journey of recovery, can be of particular importance. Those who share the same values and outlooks more generally (not just in the area of mental health) may also be particularly important. It is said that one-way relationships based on being helped can actually be devaluing, and that reciprocal relationships and mutual support networks can be of more value to self-esteem and recovery.
By senior of high school I started actively seeking out a new community and I want to thank a number of my close friends who I discussed these issues with on many occasions, which played an instrumental role in supporting me on this journey: Bjoern Lasse Herrmann, Alexandros Pagidas, Tyler Willis, Rahmin Sarabi, Mike Del Ponte, Travis Wallis, Rafe Furst, Kim Scheinberg, John Smart, David Braun, Ben Casnocha, Kosta Grammatis, Mathias Holzmann, Eddie Harran, Sagarika Sundaram, Korvus Friend, Mike Deliso, Preben Antonsen and many others in smaller doses.
5) Empowerment and Inclusion
Empowerment and self-determination are said to be important to recovery, including having self control. This can mean developing the confidence for independent assertive decision making and help-seeking. Achieving social inclusion may require support and may require challenging stigma and prejudice about mental distress/disorder/difference. It may also require recovering unpracticed social skills or making up for gaps in work history.
I continually carved out my own path and preserved my own autonomy. I read about subjects I was interested in, I started projects I was passionate about, I attended lots of industry events and conferences, I took a gap year, and decided not to go to college when I realized I had better options. I talked openly about what I was dealing with, and I actively worked on improving my ability to relate to people.
6) Coping strategies
The development of personal coping strategies (including self-management or self-help) is said to be an important element. Developing coping and problem solving skills to manage individual traits and problem issues may require a person becoming their own expert, in order to identify key stress points and possible crisis points, and to understand and develop personal ways of responding and coping. Being able to move on can mean having to cope with feelings of loss, which may include despair and anger. When an individual is ready, this can mean a process of grieving. It may require accepting past suffering and lost opportunities or lost time.
I was obsessed with translating my daily will power into systems that would support my continued growth. I was obsessively focused on learning productivity systems, self-management techniques, energy management systems, regular journaling, reflection practices, meditation, power naps, affirmations, goal setting, personal development books, tapes, anything I could get my hands on and my head around to improve. This burning desire grew out of the following and final element: meaning.
Developing a sense of meaning and overall purpose is said to be important for sustaining the recovery process. This may involve recovering or developing a social or work role. It may also involve renewing, finding or developing a guiding philosophy, religion, politics or culture. From a postmodern perspective, this can be seen as developing a narrative.
I always told myself that my frustration was just a temporary situation. I just needed to keep fighting. Big things were in front of me and I was part of a much bigger story. I just needed to keep going and never give up.
In reference to athletics, (12-8-05)
“I don’t see the light down the tunnel. Its looking dark. I’m not playing well, or how I think I can. It was put there 2-3 years ago in foresight of my determination, I tell myself it’s to stop you from getting in the athletic life…you can’t get into that, it will lead you away from something big. Something big you are gonna do. What will it be? Sounds cliché eh? So you get the picture things aren’t going well, I’m feeling depressed today. Bored with stuff. I can’t find anything to do.”
“I go in out of these depression phases so often. Never like deep suicide depression just this sense of failure, life is slipping away. And other times there is this feeling of connectedness and awe and that everything is going to work out. My destiny is unfolding.”
9-30-2007, email to John Smart:
“My belief, although Preben argues it is probably an altered instantiation of the same God Complex Program that humans have somehow developed, is that there’s much more to the Universe than we currently understand. I don’t think that humans are insignificant. I think that there’s some purpose to the Universe that we don’t yet understand. It doesn’t make sense for what we know now, for this to be all there is. This idea is somewhat counter to the atheist dogma, that “Humans are only here for a short time, we are insignificant, the universe is so big we hardly matter. Nothing you do in your life has any affect, the cycles in the universe will continue regardless of yours or humanities actions. Enjoy life. Spend time with family, be a good person and death will come and take you away inevitably.”
My belief is that we are building up to something. That we are a part of something bigger. And here the singularity fits in. Where the things we discover with greater than human intelligence will lead to new paradigms in thinking about the universe. The universe seems too goal oriented, too intent on increasing order for there not to be big revelations around the corner. And yes, its very possible this humanity fails.”
“This journey I”m on. It’s not just for me.
I felt the death of casey [my golden retriever, my brother of 10 years], and kendra [my classmate and one of my twin sister’s best friends]. Last night and this morning. I look at the emotion, the pain, the celebration of life.
The future of that is on my shoulders. I feel that depth. That’s what I’m driving for. It’s not Max striving for mastery in a vacuum. That’s what I’m keeping alive. I have the ability. It’s now my responsibility. A long with a few others but not many. I don’t know if they will make it but I will.
Look at all the human connection. We are keeping that and taking it to the next level. As well as taking life to the next phase of evolution. Life doesn’t stop with humanity. We just happen to be holding the baton now. But we must not collapse. Others came before us. Others will come after us.
Nail entrepreneurship as a management science and trigger the entrepreneurial enlightenment. Nail the software and understand how to execute the principles and how they all fit together and leverage data to understand the real business implications. the software is the best place to go first —
I’m not focusing on emotional relationships right now. Or focused on figuring out the pattern [of the universe] with john smart. That’s a 3rd 4th and 5th priority and I only have permission to devote conscious will power to those projects when the primary projects are aligned and cooking. Those are my priorities. “
The Bridge from the Average Triad to the Healthy Triad
Medication is okay for people in the unhealthy triads, but I have many grievances with the emphasis we place on medication to help people in the average spectrum of mental health. Medication can’t make you healthy, it can only play a role in stabilizing unhealthiness. So once you’re in the average spectrum, most what I said in first post still applies. The path from the average levels of development towards healthiness is paved by taking conscious control of your development in psychosocial spheres; not by altering your mental state with biological drugs.It’s difficult to generalize about all drugs, but many drugs, especially anti-depressiants and psychotropics, have the side effect of a loss of creativity, a loss of emotional clarity, and a loss of empathy and motivation, which significantly inhibits a person’s growth toward healthy levels of development. Granted there are edge cases, where people are biologically incapable of becoming healthy, but this is not the case for 99% of the population.
Many have argued that taking medication has enabled them to hold a job, buy a house, uphold a marriage and maintain a social circle. I think that’s great progress for someone moving out of the unhealthy triad, but we must not let people confuse security with fulfillment. Fault me for seeing too much potential in human nature but I don’t think a life of maintenance, teetering on the contingency of continued medication is what we should be striving for. When people in the aforementioned situation try to tell me they are fulfilled, I can’t help but wonder if their criteria for fulfillment is completing some mental checklist modeled after the Jonses. I’m sorry, but if you believe this is fulfillment, you are selling yourself short. This is settling. Push yourself to get over yourexperiential avoidance and confront your fears. If medication subdues any part of your true self, you are achieving stability at the expense of authentic self-expression. If you desire fulfillment, stability must be a temporary trade off. No path to fulfillment is stable. You must RISK something!
The way forward is a worldview that puts pathology in its rightful place, and focuses most of our energy on a science of healthiness and human flourishing.
The lack of models, frameworks, and techniques for the healthy to accelerate their development is stagnating society’s top line.
Martin Seligman, former head of the American Psychological Association, has well documented our obsession with pathology, and our lack of scientific literature on what it means to be healthy. This points to a deeper problem that is also at the crux of my first blog post. If we don’t how to help someone flourish, the best we can do is make someone “not ill”. But if we can help someone become “not ill”, but we can’t help them become healthy, then they will most likely become ill again, where in, we can help them become “not ill” again, perpetuating a cycle of mental relapse where people never discover how to become healthy. And there is no doubt relapse is a too frequent phenomenon.
So, what would a science of healthiness include?
Here’s how I’d imagine the journey:
We’d first turn our focus inward, since true progress in the outer world will never be found if we don’t first understand ourselves, how we work, what we want, why we do things, and who we really are. In pursuit of self-mastery we’d first nurture an indefatigable optimism that there are greener pastures ahead, and a sense of personal mission that we are on our own Hero’s Journey. We’d grow our self-awareness so we could start lighting the dark caverns of being within ourselves. We’d starting dreaming of the life we want to live and set goals that inspire us. We’d learn the science of managing ourselves through techniques like energy management, journaling, andneuro-linguistic programming. When our inner world stabilized and began to grow, we’d turn our attention to our outer world. We would start searching for problems we are passionate about solving. We would look honestly at ourselves to make sure the path to achieving our goals matched our skills and interests. We’d start taking action towards our goals, working diligently, patiently and persistently. We’d learn how to optimize our productivity and how to “get things done“. We’d move swiftly and flexibly, adjusting both our inner and outer trajectory as time passed and we continued to experience and learn. We’d strengthen our decision making skills and make tough decisions with integrity whenever the time came. We’d know our purpose and our priorities and make sacrifices when they were called for. We would do so with a calm resoluteness knowing that we will find all we need in due time. When things on journey inevitably turned south, we could rely on the inner strength we have developed to carry us through difficult waters. We’d put in our 10,000 hours and develop mastery around a skillset aligned with our purpose. We’d have harmony between Body, Mind, and Spirit. We’d have financial freedom and fulfilling relationships. We’d have abundant physical energy, emotional openness, intellectual stimulation and a driving sense of purpose. We’d have the courage to keep asking the hard questions, and in our pursuit for higher and higher truths, we would finally transcend the world ego and step into the world of essence.
Every End is a New Beginning: Ego Transcendence And Beyond.
“Transcending the ego is the gate to every spiritual path”
“The form of transcendence that appears to link directly to ethical behavior and human well-being is the transcendence of egoity in the midst of ordinary waking consciousness. It is by ceasing to cling to the contents of consciousness—to our thoughts, moods, desires, etc.—that we make progress. Such a project does not, in principle, require that we experience more contents. The freedom from self that is both the goal and foundation of “spiritual” life is coincident with normal perception and cognition—though, admittedly, this can be difficult to realize.”
I wonder what would happen if a greater percentage of the world’s population made it this far. If we tapped into the development of our True Selves. If we loved ourselves, our friends, our community, our humanity, our planet. If we all contributed in our fullest capacity to the larger story of an evolving, unfolding universe that everything around us is a part of.
It’s hard to imagine how fast the world would evolve if a greater percentage of the population reached this level of mental health. It would be the end of war, the end of hunger, the end of corruption, the end depression and despair, and the beginning of a wonderful new world that I hope someday we all get to experience.
This blog post is part 3 in my 3 part series on Mental Health. You can find part 1 here: Medicating Ourselves Into Lives Not Worth Living, and part 2 here: Psychiatric Discontents & A Movement Towards A Better Model Of Mental Health