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{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Whelm

But what is it that you actually want?”

I blinked. Looked somewhat bewildered. Not sure that I understood the question.

Not the commitments.

Not the obligations.

Not the responsibilities.

Not the excuses.

Forget the over-complications of being a grown-up. The many hats that you wear. The masks you hide behind. Benevolent boss. Diligent employee. Dutiful husband. Responsible father. Supportive son.

Forget all of that. What do you want for yourself? Are you investing in the right things?

A fleeting look of frustration crossed her face. Her tone becoming slightly exasperated. She was asking a deep soul-searching question. Something that went to the very heart of a person’s psyche.

And I had a deer in headlights moment. Mouth opening and closing like a goldfish. I had nothing.

I was seated on an uncomfortable chair, opposite an earnest and well-meaning therapist who was asking equally uncomfortable questions. She was of the school of thought that the answers to our problems reside within ourselves. The behaviours and blockers of today having been formed and conditioned by the events in our past. I was sceptical, but had decided to keep an open mind and see how it played out.

The journey that had led me to that seat is a tale in itself.

We all use conversation starters like “how are you?” or “how’s it going?”. Questions issued as statements. Part of a conversational ritual. Social convention demanding a throwaway response, “good” or the pessimistic English variant of “not too bad”. The asker is rarely interested in the reply, it is just a polite bridge to the real substance of the conversation.

Except on this occasion, it had been my younger son who was asking. My automatic response of “ok” was met with a raised eyebrow and a troubled expression. “I’m not sure you are”.

Which gave me pause. Kids are perceptive, and young kids have not yet learned to filter their thoughts or censor their words.

Upon reflection, I realised he was correct. I was a great many things, but “ok” was not one of them.

I am descended from a long line of alpha males. Stoics. Dependable providers. Robotic cavemen from the old school. Raised to suck it up when things didn’t go our way. Get over it. Move on.

No time for a pity party. No patience for those who self-indulgently play the victim. “Woe is me” was a character flaw, an unacceptable lifestyle choice.

A simple approach. Straightforward.

One that appeared to perform admirably over many generations, when it worked, which was most of the time. For the rest of the time, there had been alcohol.

For a long time, life had felt like it was spiralling out of control.

Not a single sudden shocking event. Contracts terminated. Getting sued. Terminal diagnosis.

Nor a brief rollercoaster ride involving abject terror and the uncertain feeling that I was about to lose my lunch. Becoming a parent for the first time. Providing palliative care. Visas renewals rejected.

No, this was more pedestrian. Less dramatic. A seemingly endless succession of small things. Accumulating. Piling on. Each a trivial everyday thing. Yet in aggregate becoming overwhelming.

My inner saboteur is normally adept at keeping me grounded. Letting the air out of my tires so that I don’t get a big head when I was winning, and using dark humour to avoid beating myself up too much when things weren’t going my way. However, in this, he only shook his head and offered a “you poor bastard”. Which seemed heartfelt, if unhelpful.

The troubling thing was that I didn’t understand the why of the overwhelm. The only thing that appeared to have changed was my ability to cope. Everything else was as good, or as bad, as ever.

Which was bewildering.

Leading me to swallow my pride.

To fight against my instincts to soldier on, play the ostrich by burying my head in the sand.

To ask for help.

Talking to a therapist was a leap into the unknown. Humbling and scary in equal measure.

Were my problems real or imagined?

Will they criticise, judge, or laugh at me?

Would they be able to help?

What if I didn’t like the answers they helped me find?

The first few sessions were different to what I expected. I had studied two years of psychology during high school, but therapy did not involve any of the things they taught us about. No reclining on leather couches talking about dreams. Nor did it require subjecting random strangers to electric shocks. There were no pop-psychology multiple-choice tests, to make sweeping judgements about personality types or sexual purity levels, with the same degree of vague certainty as a newspaper horoscope.

Instead, there were a series of hour-long conversations, with a seemingly engaged audience.

Someone who actively listened. Asked astute questions, relevant to the topics being discussed. Outwardly at least, they didn’t appear to judge. Objective rather than supportive or dismissive.

Dialogue where the main topic of conversation was me. And to begin with, I did most of the talking.

An experience that was as unfamiliar as it was unsettling. I couldn’t remember the last time I had talked about myself for an hour. It had been years. Possibly decades. Receiving the sort of focussed attention that was only available to those newly in love or those who were paying for it.

We explored my childhood and upbringing. Life and loves. Hopes and fears. Dreams and disappointments. Joys and frustrations. Relationships past, present, and future.

The therapist subtly guiding the conversation, attempting to get a feel for who I was and what had made me the way I am. Periodically reminding me that patients only got out of the sessions what they put in, those unwilling to do the work would be unlikely to achieve the results they desired. Ever conscious that she was receiving a selectively filtered account, viewed through the biases and perspectives of the storyteller. Opinion, not fact. Impossible to independently verify.

And for the most part, that was ok. The facts themselves were not the problem. It was how we perceived and felt about them. The attitudes we carried. Behaviours we deployed.

By the fourth session, the therapist had concluded I was a relatively well-adjusted middle-aged man. With few regrets, fewer demons, and largely unburdened by the ghosts of the past. Which is pretty much how I described myself at the beginning of the first session, when the therapist outlined her philosophy that our problems of today are often rooted in the events of our past.

So we changed tacks. If the answers I sought did not lie within, then perhaps they could be found without. Outside influences and external stressors. Things that lay beyond my control.

Eventually, the therapist was able to piece together enough of a picture from my rambling anecdotes and war stories to put forward a tentative theory. Something that explained much, and left me feeling like a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders. Initially, at least.

I spent the next week trying to tease apart the theory. Prove it. Disprove it. Research it. Throw bricks at it. Analysing it from all angles.

To give credit where credit is due, the therapist’s theory withstood scrutiny surprisingly well. Not perfect. Not a silver bullet that answered absolutely all of my questions. But an excellent starting point, something to work with.

The good news was the world began to make sense again.

The bad news was the things I was struggling with were things unlikely to change.

Railing against them would prove about as effective as complaining about London’s crappy weather.

Which meant the path back to coping lay in acceptance and making my peace with things. An ignoble end to my valiant quest for understanding, which I had hoped would yield the discovery of a magic pill that would neatly deliver some easy answers and allow life to return to normal.

Instead, it led to the sort of searching questions the therapist raised at the beginning of this story.

Questions for which I don’t have good answers. Yet.

The therapy sessions usually left me feeling drained, but better for the experience. A bit like a hard workout or a successful job interview. That day I didn’t fancy returning home, or an afternoon of relentless back-to-back video conference calls. Instead, I dawdled along the river, reflecting on the journey so far.

Mental health is a topic we often hear given lip service to, yet not one I had personal experience with. I have a newfound respect for the challenges people with real mental health problems face, often as debilitating as a broken leg, yet in the absence of visual cues and visible scars they receive far less patience and understanding. In hindsight, I am relieved I got over my ego and sought out help, and grateful that I was fortunate enough to be able to afford to do so. Many aren’t so lucky.

The process has had many parallels with that of good financial planning. Recognising that without understanding the why, it is difficult to find a workable what or how. To put a viable plan together, that stands a fighting chance of succeeding.

The therapist threw down the challenge about whether I had been investing in the right things? Not asset classes or fund choices, but rather devoting my scarce time and energy to the things that really mattered. I was guilty of having misaligned priorities, the money stuff providing a convenient shield to hide behind, offering an illusion of control and a sense of progress while real-life spiralled.

I still have more questions than answers, yet I am beginning to figure out what they are. The illusion of progress? Perhaps. Or maybe realising that I had a problem and needed some help was a tentative first step in the right direction.


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24 Comments

  1. FI-FireFighter 11 October 2021

    Firstly, I’m glad you are feeling a little better and that the weight has been lifted somewhat.
    Second, well done for seeking help. It’s a massive thing to do, far easier to bury your head deeper in the sand. As men seem to be prone to do.
    Re ‘the weight’, from experience I didn’t realise how heavy the weight was or the impact it was having on me until it was lifted.
    You have made the hardest first step, now you are on the path to resolving / removing /accepting the things that need attention.
    Best wishes mate👍

  2. Sas 11 October 2021

    Firstly I have to say you use the English language beautifully.
    But secondly I have a similar story and have walked the same river also trying to work out what I accept and what I change. Difficult questions I have been adept at ignoring over the years that never went away.
    I believe slowly finding answers to them will help me to be a better me, but also recognise that I need to be my own best friend to care for myself along the journey.
    I wish you the very best as you navigate your questions.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 11 October 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Sas, that is very kind of you. Thanks also for sharing your story, I wish you every success in finding that workable outcome. Look after yourself.

  3. Liz 11 October 2021

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I often thought about a therapist myself but I am afraid that I will be disappointed by the experience! Surely a therapist can’t be better than myself at analysing me! But perhaps I’m dismissing them too easily.

    I would be interested in hearing your misaligned priorities! I suspect many readers here have followed your blog through an interest in FIRE and hence m-o-n-e-y, so we are all equally guilty of prioritising finances perhaps a tad too much.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 11 October 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Liz.

      The therapy experience has been a mixed bag. It is true that much of it has involved telling me things I already knew, but there have been a few times where it was able to illustrate alternative perspectives or interpretations to the same set of facts. That part was eye opening, as we often are unaware of our own biases or blindspots. How we perceive our actions can be very different to how others may, potentially explaining their reactions or responses. Those alternative interpretations may not seem valid or rational to us, but are all too real to those who might hold them.

      I would be interested in hearing your misaligned priorities!

      That would be a long and storied list!

      The short version is that I view money as an enabler for freedom, buying control of my time. I view financial independence as an enabler for that control, allowing me to choose more of what I “want” to do and less of what I “have” to do.

      But here is the thing. The money stuff is mindless. Technical. Robotic. Simply invest, compound, and wait. However, a paid off mortgage or a million pound brokerage account won’t magically provide happiness or contentment. They are simply numbers on a screen or piece of paper. Those emotional subjective things come from within, and need not wait until an arbitrary milestone has been celebrated.

      Meanwhile the real important stuff, the friendships we wish to enjoy and the relationships we wish to participate in, don’t magically take care of themselves. If we fail to cultivate and nurture them, then they may not be there once we finally do make the time for them.

      Lockdown provided a cautionary tale on this front, resulting in many people spending unprecedented amounts of time with their immediate families. Few of my acquaintances saw their relationships break down during the lockdowns, but the number who have subsequently separated since Boris declared “freedom day” is truly eye-watering.

      The lockdown experience provided an uncomfortable glimpse into the future, of what retirement or relocation away from existing social support networks might be like. For an unfortunate number of folks, that sneak peek did not include the visions of unicorns and rainbows they might have hoped for. Resulting in abrupt course corrections, while they still had enough years remaining to try for more/better/different.

      • Liz 11 October 2021

        Meanwhile the real important stuff, the friendships we wish to enjoy and the relationships we wish to participate in, don’t magically take care of themselves.

        Agree! For most of us, we just roll along day by day, doing what’s expected of us, by society, by our family, a life unexamined—and that is in some way, a good thing, because examining life takes up huge cognitive resources that most of us don’t have. Until, of course, a shock comes along, a divorce, a death, a nationwide lockdown….

        For me, I had a parent die when I was in my 20s, and it was a crucial lesson and daily reminder to me on not ever taking things for granted….

  4. Fire And Wide 11 October 2021

    Hey Indeedably.

    I’m not sure congrats is the right word to use but you will understand what I mean I think. It’s good to hear you are pulling your head out of the sand, even whilst the answers may be scary whilst also liberating.

    The battle between acceptance and holding out yet more hope for an impossible change is tough – it gets much more peaceful once over. Yeah, I’ve been there..

    Personally I found once you’ve decided (whatever way it turns out) things start to feel ‘right’ again – even whilst going through the tough business of necessary change.

    Thanks for being brave enough to share this one – I know a lot of people who wouldn’t have that same courage. Take care eh.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 11 October 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Michelle.

      Personally I found once you’ve decided (whatever way it turns out) things start to feel ‘right’ again – even whilst going through the tough business of necessary change.

      Wise words, well said.

  5. John Smith 11 October 2021

    What I want for ME in general? Nothing, really! Just to be healthy, peace in the country where I live. [If you want something, then it means that you feel the missing of that thing].

    In the past, it took me 3+ months to recover after out of control events (like job redundancy, father’s death). Not my fault but still feeling guilty that I could do more. What helped me was communication with my family, more sleep, longer walking, good food (and sex). More local / natural environment than digested world info.Thinking about money (taxes, inflation, houses), or TV (almost always bad news) will not help. Try and see what works for you, but I can bet will be something basic, not magic.

  6. No true Alpha either 12 October 2021

    One of the best blogs out there. Thank you for writing. I always enjoy the articles and almost always agree with you, but one thing that stood out while reading this one:

    “I am descended from a long line of alpha males. Stoics. Dependable providers. Robotic cavemen from the old school. Raised to suck it up when things didn’t go our way. Get over it. Move on.”

    My thinking after reading this part: Provider sucking it up when things don’t go his way? Wait a minute isn’t that the definition of a beta male?

    Since you are anyway now searching for what you desire, it might be worthwile to reconsider the definition of an alpha male.

    All the best and looking forward to future pieces!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 12 October 2021 — Post author

      Thanks “No true Alpha either”

      You raise a valid point, perhaps I didn’t express the sentiment as clearly as I could have.

      The dependable provider bit was in the vein of a man provides, a man takes care of his own, a man’s job is to solve the problems and keep the monsters at bay. If a man gets knocked down, he gets back up again, and keeps on battling until he wins. No quitting. No excuses.

      The challenge with that approach is it didn’t leave any room for failure, nor provide a model for conducting a strategic retreat, regroup, and rethink of approach. Succeed or die trying makes for entertaining viewing in a Hollywood film, but is less practical in real life when things aren’t going to plan.

      So I don’t mean alpha male in the knuckle dragging big swinging dick with an inferiority complex sense of the term. More akin to having a knight in shining armour complex, forever riding to the rescue, taking in orphans and strays, and valiantly trying to save the day.

      I’d understood beta males to be the toadies and followers, lining up for whatever scraps, leftovers, and sloppy seconds the alpha deigned to throw their way. Dominated and bullied, like the high school kid who gets beaten up for their lunch money every day.

      Which isn’t the picture I was attempting to paint.

  7. David Andrews 12 October 2021

    I absolutely agree with your statement that “The money stuff is mindless. Technical. Robotic.”

    For some of us that’s the appeal. It represents a tangible goal we can measure our progress against. As somebody once said “families are complicated” people and relationships are much more difficult to measure or otherwise quantify. People rarely act in a rational fashion which can cause frustrations.

    If I was asked what I actually wanted I’d have a very difficult time trying to put that into words. After being a parent for the past 7 years, what I want for myself has mostly been forgotten. On those very rare occasions where I have time to myself I normally have no idea what I’d like to do and instead fall back to those tasks that I have to do instead.

    I’m definitely middle aged and at the point where I know that the next 5 – 10 years are going to pose some significant challenges with very few of those being able to mitigated with the funds I’ve amassed.

    However, having the financial side mostly sorted takes some other issues out of the equation.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 12 October 2021 — Post author

      Well said, David.

      One of life’s truisms is things could always be better, or always be worse. Somebody smarter than I am, possibly Homer Simpson, once said “contentment comes from having low expectations“. They were definitely on to something!

      Having the money side of things sorted out means we can avoid some of the traps and pitfalls that might otherwise occur. To an extent it also means we avoid some of the money induced stressors that plague many relationships.

      What it doesn’t help at all with however, is all the “relationship stuff“. In fact, having the money stuff sorted frees up the mental capacity to focus on those complicated subjective qualitative things, that can’t be quantified or resolved with a nicely reconciled spreadsheet.

      I think there is a parallel here with the arc of many FIRE-seekers. To begin with they focus on the money and mechanics, mistakenly believing that attaining their arbitrary Financial Independence magic number represents the finishing line and the answer to all their problems. As they near that goal, they start to think about what comes next. Once the financial imperative has been removed, so too has many of the excuses they have spent a lifetime hiding behind for feeling unhappy or unsatisfied or unfulfilled or whatever.

      Some figure it out. Some make changes and course correct. Some retreat back into the workforce, rationalising that having externally imposed structure and socialising and life script provides a safety blanket that absolves them needing to think of an alternative way of living to the daily grind. None of those options are necessarily better or worse than the others, they simply highlight that the money stuff was never really the main problem to be solved.

  8. weenie 13 October 2021

    Good to hear that you are feeling better. I was feeling somewhat overwhelmed myself last month but was able to come out of the fog. I’m not sure I’m out completely but I feel a lot more in control.

    Well done on seeking help – I’m not sure I would have done so myself.

    “I am descended from a long line of alpha males.”

    I’m the other way round in that I’m from a long line of strong women who ‘got things done’, often despite the menfolk in the family. In a similar way to your sucking it up when things didn’t go your way, there were to be no girly tears or damsels in distress when things went wrong in our family, we had to get things sorted or just accept and move on.

    This probably isn’t entirely healthy really and there’s been the occasional crack occurring in the recent past, but at least this generation is a lot more aware of mental health issues and much more likely to spot the signs (like your son).

    All the best with working things out and hope acceptance comes easier for you.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 13 October 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Weenie.

      Glad things are starting to come together for you, hope you bounce back to your normal self before too much longer.

      The matriachy is strong in your clan! Sounds like the mechanics are much the same though, only the blokes are the ones needing rescuing (whether they admit it or not!).

  9. Q-FI 13 October 2021

    Well, addiction has unfortunately given me an unwanted nor sought after PHD in the neurosis of the human mind… hahaha.

    I rarely see posts like this, hence, probably why I enjoyed it so much. I also think it takes a certain courage to unlock a piece of ourselves and share online. So I thank you for that.

    This is why I still like to tell random stories about addiction. Although cathartic for me in the writing, you never know who might resonate with it. Authenticity and honesty seem to be some of the best welcome mats to open the doors on mental health.

    I have also previously written about the catch 22 of asking for help. When we are prideful, over achieving, alpha males, sometimes we don’t even know how to do it. That was the old me in a nutshell. It seems so simple, yet might feel impossible.

    I’m glad you sought assistance or clarity in the areas of your life that have been challenging. Sometimes the answers never come, but understanding the questions can steer you in the right direction.

    Great reflection piece and best of luck to you bud. From your previous writing, I have no doubt you’ll succeed in whatever you endeavor.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 14 October 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Dr Q-FI (PhD), very kind of you!

      I’m not sure courageous is the sentiment I was aiming for, more reflecting on the experience to assess the value and weigh up whether to continue. It seems to me that therapy can be a valuable form of first aid. However, I can also see how it could easily evolve into a crutch, serving as a poor substitute for having close friends or family from whom we seek support or share out troubles.

      • Q-FI 14 October 2021

        Hahaha…. the PhD of screwing up in life.

        I’ve usually found people get what they put into it – kind of like when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Timing in life can play a big role in how open a person might be towards it. Sure, it can be first aid, but also so much more if allowed.

        I’d actually propose the opposite. Close friends and family can be a poor substitute for a good professional that knows the right questions to ask and deeper connections to probe. People tend to think they know a lot more about themselves and are in tune with their emotions than they really are. More often than not we prefer denial to the truth… hahaha.

        With that being said, therapy is no different than any other profession. There are tons of therapists/counselors that are terrible. It all depends if you can find the right fit and someone who really knows what they’re doing. In my experience, this is no easy feat.

  10. Malcolm 14 October 2021

    Some one said”Man does not live by bread alone” .These hard times have brought that thought very much to prominence
    Money is of course the “ oil in the engine “ but that’s all it is
    People are much more than machines and need a dream to function once basic needs are met
    Religion used to fill this space for most of us but the “ baby was thrown out with the bath water “ when this well proven resource was abandoned
    Humans of course will then go on invent poor substitutes-Climate Change , Identity Politics etc(The biblical Golden Calf for those of you that remember your Sunday School!)
    Searching for a reason to go on is a tough one but nothing new in the human condition
    Starting from scratch to sort this problem out is well nigh impossible for most of us and tried and tested models should be studied as a shortcut to getting a grip on this very serious life threatening issue
    xxd09

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 16 October 2021 — Post author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Malcolm. I absolutely agree it is a well trodden path, a set of questions that occur to everyone not living hand to mouth at some stage.

      The collective belief system and predefined path offered by movements, cults, and religions are part of their appeal. A feeling of belonging, dogma and mantra to fall back on where others have already done the thinking. Depending on the motivations of those in charge, they can be a force for great good or quite the opposite, but either way it isn’t hard to see the attraction. The church is but one example, Park Run or the FIRE Movement tick similar boxes for many of their enthusiasts.

  11. The Investor 15 October 2021

    Hey, thanks for sharing but most of all congratulations for stepping up and going. 🙂

    It took you half your life to get here, right? Don’t have to get it all together all at once. Compound interest works on lots of different things, as you know, and I believe it can help you here too.

    I’d suggest trying to be open to the world and being kind to yourself. (We’re all a mess!) Baby steps + time.

    I’ve had more experience than I’d like of mental health issues with myself and others, and you’re right it’s not to be fcked with. But reading this it’s clear you have your head screwed on.

    Just my two cents but remember life is going to happen, whatever you do. You can’t control it all, and it’s not your responsibility to — not for yourself or anyone else. Sometimes you have to just float along.

    Take care!

    TI

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 16 October 2021 — Post author

      Thanks TI.

      It took all my life to reach this point, I think the same is true for all of us. Having our shit together is a transient state I think, as ephemeral as happiness or contentment. Moving targets all.

      You are spot on about compounding. Pumps up the value of investments over time, or gradually shatters the works should you get sand in the gears. It is why do periodic maintenance. Inspect. Repair. Recalibrate. I think that is apt description for the mode I’m in at the moment.

      Some excellent suggestions there, thanks for sharing the benefits of your experience. Much appreciated.

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