DRMacIver's Notebook

Silently losing critical life infrastructure

Silently losing critical life infrastructure

I’ve been having a pretty bad time recently. I don’t intend to talk about the details, but suffice it to say I’ve been extremely stressed, depressed, and anxious, and my appetite and sleep have completely fallen apart.

This isn’t about that, not directly. It’s about some interesting things that this has revealed about my personal infrastructure for supporting my mental health.

One piece of infrastructure is the daily writing. That completely dropped off during this period, as you’ve probably noticed. I think that’s… fine. The daily writing is absolutely intended as a mood and meaning-making support, but it’s designed for chronic conditions, and I think in acute cases it diverts resources that probably need to be spent elsewhere. I’m not sure that’s true, but it felt impossible to continue, so I didn’t. Maybe that was a mistake but I’m not sure what I could have done differently at the time.

Another piece of mental health infrastructure that hasn’t fallen off on the other hand is exercise. I’ve kept going to Pilates, I’ve kept going to the gym. I haven’t necessarily done a great job of it, but I’ve kept going and that’s I think been helpful. Insufficient to solve the problems, but that’s a bit much to ask of it. The fact that it was somethign that I could just show up to and it’s fine even if I don’t particularly engage with it made it infrastructure that didn’t fall apart in a crisis.

Another thing I’m tentatively chalking up to an infrastructure success is that, astonishingly, I haven’t really got significantly ill during this time period, despite illness sweeping the house. This might be my body going “I don’t have time to get ill!!!” and I’m going to get every cold at once when I finally relax, but I’m chalking this up as tentative evidence that this nonsense zinc mouthwash I’m using really is doing something.

But there are two interesting major failures of infrastructure, which it turns out fell apart before things went wrong and I only discovered that they’d fallen apart too late.

The first is that I’d run out of sleeping pills months ago. This is, in the normal course of things, absolutely fine. A normal heavy period of using sleeping pills for me involves taking half a tablet in a month, and I’d figured out non-chemical tools for getting to sleep on difficult nights, so when my single packet of sleeping pills that I’d had for over a year ran out, I didn’t think it was worth renewing. It took me until my third night on two hours of sleep to realise that this was incorrect.

Fortunately I managed to get an emergency sleeping pill prescription on a Friday and took half a pill every night for a few nights until the worst of the acute night-time anxiety had passed. I’m now (thankfully, I hate the experience of using them, I just hate it less than the experience of not using them when I need them) managing to sleep merely badly without them, so I’m back to not using them again, but they were an absolute life saver both for getting through the bad nights and also for being functional enough to get things moving in the right direction.

I don’t necessarily want to say that it was a mistake to not renew my sleeping pill prescription. I genuinely thought I didn’t need them any more, and I’ve gone most of my life just fine without having them. I think it was an arguably reasonable call at the time. But I’m sure not going to let myself be in a situation where I don’t have any sleeping pills left again.

I think this is an interesting example because the sleeping pills are very much dampeners for low probability events. The normal events they damp out are something like 3% probability events, and are survivable without them. Nights like I’ve been having recently where I get 2 hours sleep are maybe something like… 0.2% probability events, in that I maybe get a night that bad every few years. Having several nights like that in a row is too unprecedented for me to assign a probability. I think it’s a proper black swan event for me, as I wouldn’t actually have predicted it was possible - I’d have assumed the first night would exhaust me enough that the second night I would sleep no matter how anxious I was.

So what happened is that all of the events of medium severity that happened sufficiently often that I regularly encountered them were now solved, and I incorrectly generalised from this to determine that the infrastructure was no longer useful, and this turned out to be incorrect.

Anyway, having experienced this, I declared my lesson learned and that I would no longer abandon infrastructure that was a solution to a predictable class of problems, even if I thought it was no longer necessary.

This makes the second infrastructure failure especially infuriating.

A few days ago, I was talking to Lisa about how everything was terrible and I was utterly miserable. Then I went to bed. Then I came down about an hour later to get something, and we talked a bit, and she noted that I’d perked up significantly in that hour. “Huh, have I?” was my response, and I went back to bed.

Then I introspected and decided she was right. It’s not that anything had become less terrible than it was previously, but it sure felt more manageable. There were major problems, but I could engage with them rather than despair about them.

Then I thought about it a bit more and realised that I was an absolute fucking idiot.

What had happened between those two times was that I’d gone “Oh yeah, inositol helps with my mood, and I’ve got a bit left, maybe I should take some inositol”, so I took some inositol.

I’d stopped taking it a few months ago, not really through any deliberate decision, it just stopped doing much for me. I attributed this to the fact that my diet had improved and I was regularly taking a probiotic. At some point I’d mostly run out and stopped having a regular supplement regime so it just got quietly forgotten.

Unfortunately, I stopped having a regular supplement regime, so I also stopped reliably taking my probiotic.

Also, as I got more stressed, my appetite was suppressed and I was eating less well.

So, apparently, quietly, all of the problems that inositol solved for me previously, gradually and quietly came back, and because things were actually terrible, and because I didn’t have a good poitn of comparison of events on and off inositol, I didn’t realise that that was what was happening.

Anyway, I’ve been taking it regularly again for a few days, and the effect has persisted. Everything is still terrible, but I’m more able to cope.Admittedly there are some other improvements in the situation which help, but there does feel like a qualitative difference that I can’t explain with that alone.

This is interestingly almost the polar opposite of the sleeping pill thing, because it’s a chronic problem that gets worse in… I don’t want to say non-obvious, because the results are very obvious, but let’s say difficult-to-attribute ways… if I neglect the infrastructure maintenance. I don’t realise I need it not because of the irregularity of the events, but because of the regularity of the events. If I don’t ever take the inositol, I don’t notice how large the impact of it is, and the fact that my mental health infrastructure is in slow collapse just looks like everything being terrible.

I’m not sure I have a good generalised lesson from this other than “Yes, David, you need to take the fucking inositol even if you don’t think it’s doing something”, but I do want to share a related observation from the other day.

There are two different skills for dealing with anxiety. One of them I’ve written about before and is about only feeling anxiety in situations where it’s an appropriate response. But the other, equally important one, is that when the appropriate response is a high level of anxiety, you should be able to deal with it.

In this case I couldn’t really say anxiety was inappropriate. There was a high level of uncertainty and it was legitimately scaryThere still is. But also there was.. But boy was I not able to deal with it. At the time I thought this was a generalisable thing about me, and to some degree it is, but in retrospect I was dealing with it much less well than I might have.

So I guess this leaves me with the following question: If you’re struggling to deal with something, is this maybe because the infrastructure you’d use to deal with it has collapsed or gone away and you didn’t notice because you didn’t think you needed it any more?