RW109 - Conga Forever

This week, Dan and John talk about:

  • Back Pain follow-up, how to deal with set-backs (Aging)
  • Support groups (Drugs)
  • ADD and alcohol (Drugs)
  • Early diagnosis when John was 7 (Depression)
  • Hidden alcoholics and drug addicts (Depression)
  • Spending months in bed (Depression)
  • Doing the Whole 30 (Aging)
  • Staying hydrated, John’s current morning routine (Aging)

The show title refers to ”breaking the conga line” and getting rid of the mania that follows depression, to sit down and have some apple slices and orange juice.

John’s computer kept saying that there were some updates it couldn’t install automatically, over and over for days and days on end. It was trying to make John think that it was such a small and simple thing and John had a few minutes before Dan was calling so he clicked on that button to make the computer stop freaking nagging him, but immediately it was like ”Hah, 35 minutes!” When it came back, all his audio-stuff had been reset. Dan thinks that John sounds really good, better than last time. John is trying to upgrade his system and is putting new stuff in the signal chain every day.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Back Pain follow-up, how to deal with set-backs (RW109)

John is doing really well. He is standing up straight with his shoulders back, he tucked in his stomach, he is walking, getting air in his lungs and feeling good. His back felt better and better and he even considered to mow the lawn, but he waited on that. Yesterday evening as John got out of the bath tub, he felt a very sharp pain in his back in a different location. Since then he felt like he was in pain again, but it was coming from somewhere else, maybe he has slipped a second disc? His shoulders are now out of whack and something just sprung, which is very similar to what happened before he saw the Rolfer. John was just doing something simple and because his system is all gunked up, he is all screwed up now. It felt like a big set-back and for the last week or so every time he stood up or sat down he was really conscious of what was going on. John was keeping his shoulders back all the time and was standing really straight, but yesterday he felt really discouraged and started to slouch again. This is a thing John faced his whole life: He encounters a set-back and the discouragement almost becomes a greater obstacle than the initial problem. For some reason John is really susceptible to that kind of ”Well, that didn’t work!”

John played a show last week and after the show he had a very mild feeling of discouragement, although he was feeling ”Well, that is over with”. He had been sitting at the piano every day for 5 weeks, working on stuff, jotting stuff down, and trying stuff out and he got home from the show and the piano just doesn’t look that enticing anymore. Now he didn't sit at it for a straight week again. None of those set-backs are really that bad, he didn’t get an evil pan in some newspaper, but it was fine, it didn’t go that well and it was actually a little embarrassing. On to the next half-assed thing!

It very much is a state of mind. Evolving his psychological habits is maybe the subtlest iteration of those voices in his head. They are not saying ”You are stupid or you are a failure!”, but ”Well, too bad about that!” John is sitting here, trying to sit up straight, but it doesn’t have that excitement of getting better, but now it has a feeling of ”Well, maybe you will never get better!” and last night he didn’t even go for a walk. John admires people who encounter a setback and then just re-double their efforts. He felt depressed and although he has had very good results from his Bipolar-treatment, which was against all of his expectations, he had no real believe in psychopharmacology, but thought is was a racket. The really good results from his medication continue to astonish him, but he still has Bipolar disorder and he is still reluctant to acknowledge it. Dan disagrees, because John has done an excellent job of acknowledging it and talking about it.

Support groups (RW109)

Someone close to John just went to a ”Friends and Family of Bipolar” support group in order to understand better why they struggled to interact with aspects of who John is. Although he is taking his medicine and he is no longer facing daemons everywhere, he is still clearly exhibiting Bipolar behavior enough that 2 years into his treatment people close to him are still wrestling with it. They roll their eyes at one another and make silent gestures with their hands when he says ”It is so interesting, I bought a helicopter yesterday” and they are just ”Oh, boy!” John doesn’t want to deal with it more than he already is. His medicine keeps him from feeling desperate and it keeps him down and out of the trees, but John doesn’t want to go to a support group and he doesn’t want to think about whether or not his behavior could be corrected further, either by doing something differently personally or by taking a different medicine.

He is not super-happy, as they have discussed, but the prospect of messing with it scares him. He has been suffering from depression lately, but it is not the kind of depression that would just wipe him out. Instead it is back in that family of depression where he feels like he is not eating right, he is not exercising and he doesn’t do anything, which is all true! John is not healthy and he is not engaged and he could do something about that. The cycle of depression is such: If you would do something about things, it would make you feel better, but you feel so bad that it is very hard to do those simple things and you are caught in this ouroboros. It is low-grade depression, but like all depressions it feels valid. Sure, there is a reason you feel bad, which is also the logic of John's former catastrophic depression. You are bad and you should feel bad!

John is bumbling along and he doesn’t know what the next step is. He is very reluctant and even resistant to the idea that he would go sit with a bunch of people in a church basement somewhere like an AA-meeting and listen to them all talking about the helicopter they just bought and feel any commonality with them. John has gone to Bipolar websites where people are doing group talking and it is immediately annoying. There are deeply troubled people on those sites, but also people who really need attention. Someone starts a pretty interesting discussion, like ”Did anybody ever have this?” and somebody answers reasonably, but pretty soon it derails with somebody who says they have 74 disorders. This isn’t fun and it isn’t where John belongs.

Like in every situation where you are trying to find a community, John doesn’t know how to find one that feels wise. It is the same with AA, and John is making the exact same complaints: People say they can’t go to AA, but they want to quit drinking and John says that nobody wants to AA because it is terrible, but people who have been going for 30 years get to a state where they like it, but even they say things like ”I need it” or ”It’s a fellowship” more than ”I love it”. Those meetings are uncomfortable for everybody, but John knows that world enough that he can say that. Some kind of support group for people who keep buying helicopters? Partly John wants to keep buying helicopters!

ADD and alcohol (RW109)

In the past John had constant desperation. He was not just bummed, but he was wrecked and it went on for year, a gradual descent into super-super-bummer-town. Bipolar doesn’t come on until you are in your 20s and John was always tangling with stuff. If you are alcoholic at the same time, it is hard to know exactly what is what. The first time a psychiatrist diagnosed him with attention deficit disorder ADD, which at the time was a brand-new diagnosis and is now called ADHD, John had to run a battery of tests, like looking at a computer screen and play Pong on a table-top game, seeing how many Mai Tais he could drink and if his performance improved. John was 20 and he was off the charts for ADD, which was great because it gave them some idea of how to treat him.

They said that a lot of John’s struggles in school and a lot of his personal struggles were going to be helped by this medication, but John was a snarky kid and asked if the fact he drinks 18 beers a day could have anything to do with his problems. They said that if they treat John's ADD, his desire to drink 18 beers would be reduced. John got a prescription, walked out of there and threw it in the garbage, because he wasn’t going to take any medicine on top of 18 beers, and he didn’t believe the reason he was drinking 18 beers was ADD. At the time John thought that ADD was snake oil. He had pretty strong opinions about things and he recognized that being 20 years old is to have strong opinions about things you don’t know anything about, but what exacerbates what?

Early diagnosis when John was 7 (RW109)

John was a really good student when he was a kid but he was also really disruptive in school. Depending on whether or not he had a good teacher, they would give him independent work, sequester him somehow and gave him a special corner of the classroom. They gave him books and things he could go do. Sometimes those teachers knew what they were doing, but some of them were exasperated. He had a teacher in 5th or 6th grade who assigned him A Tale of Two Cities to read, which was a gesture of ”Fuck you, kid!” and it was terrible. John sat in his corner and tried desperately to understand this book, not having ever heard of the French Revolution. He was just grappling with the words and didn’t understand what half of those words were. John didn’t understand at the time that she was basically punishing him.

Now John has a kid in school and recognizes how disruptive a disruptive kid is. He wasn’t tantrum-y or mean, but he just had a lot to say about stuff, he got done with his regular work early and he needed more to do. A doctor in the mid-1970s prescribed Ritalin and told John’s mom that this would help him focus and treat his over-enthusiasm. The doctor recognized that there was something going on. John’s mom’s reaction was that John was a normal kid who is precocious and doing normal things and he wants more books to read and she was not going to give him a drug to dull him down so he can cope with being in a mainstream elementary school. If your kid is not doing well in a general education context, maybe it is on you to put him somewhere else and take him out of public elementary school, put him on a farm, have him go cut trail, or send him to Christian school! The theory of education back then was that kids like that need discipline.

There was an elementary school in Anchorage with an educational philosophy called the ABCs. While a lot of schools were going in the direction of ”No walls! No grades!”, there was this other movement of ”No! Back to walls, back to grades! Students, sit up straight in your chairs! They are going to learn Algebra and they are going to get hit with a ruler” In Anchorage, kids were just cowering as you drove by the ABC-schools, because you had this picture of teachers with Crew cuts sitting in there, disciplining kids, and John really didn’t want that. His mom was poor and worked 60 hours a week, there weren’t any other education options and they didn’t have resources. Figure out what to do with him, but she was not going to medicate him!

At the time, John wasn’t aware of all that, but his mom had very strong feelings in the early 1970s that child psychology and child pharmacology was quackery. This influenced very strongly how he ended up feeling exactly the same way himself later on. In the 1990s it was extremely fashionable in his set of artsy 25 year olds to take some kind of medication. It wasn’t like chic and nobody was taking these drugs to get high, but it felt like a real albatross and people were trying to deal with their depression and with what became ADHD. John knew a lot of people with diagnosed mental illness, but nobody took these drugs if they weren’t really earnestly trying to find a solution. John just scoffed at them. Some of them were bad, and he watched good friends just get dull-eyed and report back that they at least didn’t feel bad anymore, but they didn’t have any energy either and felt cloudy all the time. John was like: No, thanks!

Hidden alcoholics and drug addicts (RW109)

This self-destructive, depressive, dramatic, hyper-active tendency started to turn into feelings that were incapacitating. John quit drinking when he just turned 26 and by the end he drank however much you could shovel into him, not just beers. John is a hail and hardy fellow, he can drink a lot of beer and there are a lot of different styles of alcoholic: Some of them drink once a month, but when they do, they lose it. Whether or not you have a drinking problem is very personal and you judge it by whether or not you feel like you are fucking up. There are a lot of people who drink very heavily their whole lives, they have a boat, they never miss a day of work, but they have a big red nose that matches their polo shirt and they go to college football games with their red-nosed wife. All they do for their whole social life revolves around drinking, but they never fuck up and so you think it is fine. John doesn’t know what their kids would say about their lives, but it is a reality of the drinking world. You can always point to someone else who, if they get the opportunity on a weekend, they wake up in the morning, have a Hair of the Dog and drink all weekend. When they go on vacation it is all about drinking and the whole reason they golf is so they can drink.

It is normal, because they are wasps and that is what wasps do, or because they love sports and that is what sports people do, or that is what their friends do, or that is what they have always done. Not everybody ends up crashing their car and living on the street. There are people who drink once a year, but when they do, they black out for five days. You can’t decide for anyone else whether or not they are an alcoholic and John knows people who are maintenance junkies, who have professional jobs like lawyers, but they shoot up. They never OD, they never die in their car and they don’t end up tricking because they got a job and somehow they manage to do their job and keep their lives together while also being drug-addict, or should you say they have found a way to enjoy heroin?

We don’t really talk about heroin as a thing that very many people just cook along with, but there are plenty of people who manage to integrate hard drug use into their lives. Here is a hat-tip to you! But like with John’s own mental state, you don’t know what it is like without it, and it is hard to gauge whether or not you are living your best life or not. John has been in that situation for a long time. When he first heard the term ”rapid cycling”, he assumed it meant that you were manic and the depressed several times over the course of a month, because that is what it sounded like. Later he found out that it meant you are manic and depressed in the same year. Your typical Bipolar II has much more gradual waves, meaning that John was a real rapid cycler. For a long time he thought that he had seasoning defective disorder, meaning he is happier in the spring and sadder in the winter, but that wasn’t true. The mania could come at any time in the year. and so could the depression.

Spending months in bed (RW109)

In 2004 when John was 35 years old, he spent 4 or 5 months in bed. The Long Winters had put out 2 albums, they had done relatively well, John was working on a third album, he was frustrated about it and he hit a low-patch, which was not unfamiliar to him, but it took him out of the knees. John would sleep as long as he could, then he would keep laying in bed. He had his first laptop at this point and he would sit in bed and write, which felt like he was doing work and he wasn’t just like a slug. When no-one was around and he was guaranteed to not bump into anybody, he would slump downstairs, make some Macaroni and cheese and then quickly run back up to his bed. He would stay there until it was night and all the world was back asleep, and he would stay up until dawn watching Poker on TV. Months and months went by!

This was during the period when he was arguably in the midst of a successful music career. He was still doing interviews with the Believer over email, and he was presenting himself to the world as very positive and energetic. He went through that Howard Hughes-y thing where his beard was down to the middle of the chest. There are not many pictures of him from that time, but you can see just sad eye. Somehow John rallied from it by cycling back. He got up and finished the Ultimatum EP, which was not supposed to be an EP, it was supposed to be an album, and for a year he totally raged while recording Putting the Days to Bed. The day he got done with that album, he thought that writing songs was easy and you just need to go back into the studio right away and make another record, because you are up on the horse and you just stay on the horse.

Putting the Days to Bed was the last record John ever made. The Long Winters toured for 2 years on that album, and when he got back to Seattle, he bounced along for a while, but then he hit a trough that he couldn’t really ever get out of. From about 2008 until 2015, even when he would be on an upswing and feel that mania, it never was the kind that propelled him into the world like a rocket. It was much more like he was feeling better, but the depressed side was pulling down on his pant-legs all the time. This wasn’t clear to him at the time, largely because it felt justified and there were many reasons why it was a reasonable reaction. Clearly, it was not a reasonable reaction to anything. By playing music and having a job that was outside the context of a daily job, John had the resources to stay in bed for 6 months. He was earning money and so it felt normal.

There are people who have been sober for years or decades and who still harbor the fantasy that there would come a day when their obligations to the world retired. They had raised their kids, they had been sober throughout their career and now they had a pension and they would move to Florida and they were going to drink. They were holding out because drinking is so great that they want to retire to it. The stories you hear about it are always terrible and they are drinking a bottle vodka every day at lunch and their drug addiction starts up right where they left off. John doesn’t harbor that kind of fantasy, but he gets asked a lot if he thinks about having a drink. Maybe his problem was just that he was 26 and he has grown out of it.

Doing the Whole 30 (RW109)

Dan knows a lot of people who can’t do the whole 30 because they can’t go more than a couple of days without some kind of drink. The whole 30 means basically eating well for 30 days, kind of how Dan has eaten for the last 8 years, but part of it is no alcohol, low to no carbs, no sugar, no processed foods, high protein, lots of vegetables, but there are a lot of people who only made it 3 days before they had to have a drink. They weren’t really trying. Anybody can do anything for 30 days, there are just a lot of people who don’t want to. The ones who astonish John are the ones who were in AA for 5 years and who connected with it, and then they had that thought of ”maybe I was just 26, and now I’m 31 and I’m over it” and they start drinking and they are back in the bars.

John would run into these people for years when he went into bars to get a pack of cigarettes. He would see an old friend from AA sitting there with a look of middle-of-the-day-drunken-misery. They didn’t want to look at John! How could you have been over here, which admittedly is not the greatest, but then be back over there sitting in the Comet Tavern drunk at 2pm and not after a time feel like you should get back to being sober, because they know the route. Being drunk all the time is a drag, but maybe that is what you deserve? Maybe this is real-er, and it is the true-er life, closest to reality?

That is what John is wrestling with now and one of the nice things about being on his medicine is that he no longer feels like this is reality, but he is living an honest life. He can see through that now! What would be that thing is that would inspire him to do the whole 30 (John calls it dirty 30)? It is a simple thing to decide to do and it has zero bad consequences. Maybe he should do the whole 30, quit drinking coffee, and stop eating garbage. Dan is not sure if John had to get off coffee (he wouldn't), and if John could keep drinking coffee, then there is nothing to keep him off of that.

Even when John was amped up and manic, he never chose positivity. Mania doesn’t feel like everything is great in the world and you just want to be a happy part of it, but mania feels like you are raging against injustice and stupidity. It is a very grand state, but it doesn’t sweep away doubt and insecurity. Instead it replaces these things with the feeling of superiority and hyper-competence, which are super-different from the things that would motivate you to eat well and exercise. That is the trick of it: You are never in a state of just calm pursuit of normal good. To do the whole 30 sounds like a small manageable path to wellness, but all of those words: Small, manageable, path, wellness are not typically in John’s vocabulary. He wants a grand unmanageable express elevator to massive success or failure.

This was the conversation John recently had with his psychiatrist, who replied to Dan Benjamin’s question if John is happy that happiness is just the absence of all that grandiosity, which sounds boring. Another way of saying boring is saying "not in a constant state of randomly buying helicopters", which is just an albatross, because none of that drama really brings him any pleasure. John doesn’t know where to jump into the conga line of his own thinking or his thinking about the world and say: Okay, I am going to break apart this conga line of a thought process and I am going to put something else in it which isn’t a conga line, but: Put the lines on! Everybody sit down! Bring out some orange juice and apple slices! There are plenty of people who say that sounds fun, too! That conga line was great, let’s turn the lights on, it is time to go home! Then there are some who ask "What the?" Why would you stop this conga line? We could conga all the way out the door and up the street and Conga forever!

Staying hydrated, John’s current morning routine (RW109)

Jason Finn asked John the other day if he is hydrating, because John needs to stay hydrated because of his back. Staying hydrated is such a chore as a daily pursuit and it is a perfect example: John loves to get hydrated! When it is time to get hydrated, he is going to get hydrated, but to stay hydrated? Dan likes that Jason Finn is like John’s Jewish grandmother! Jason had told Dan he had an idea for John and had presented it to him, but it seemed that John wasn’t into it and when he subsequently tried to contact John to chat with him, John ghosted him, as the kids would say, either ghosted or submarined him, until Jason said that John should forget about that idea, at which point John came back to resume conversation. Jason is somebody who knows what is best for John and sometimes he will get an idea that he wants John to sign off on. Maybe it is stuff Jason thinks about trying himself, but it is a lot easier to suggest John to try them! The thing of staying hydrated is that it is in the category of something that John is doing everyday now and doing routinely and routine is always something that John has equated with breaking the conga line.

John has routine now because he has given himself something to do every day. He is recording a podcast every day at 10am except for Roadwork that starts at 11am. Every day he sets his alarm for 9:45am, he gets up, and tumbles down the stairs. Hopefully he will have some coffee leftover from yesterday, because those day when he doesn’t and has to make a pot of coffee between 09:50 and 10am are the worst. He splashes some water on his face, he rolls in, sits down in the chair and there will be some friend of his on the other side of the headphones that he is talking to. At that time, John is not in his best thinking mode and he doesn’t know how it would be if he would record all these podcasts at 5pm or 11pm. They would sound very differently for sure. That one episode of Roderick on the Line when John was at Merlin’s house and they were talking about Chinese food (RL182) was recorded in the afternoon. Hearing that, Dan wants to do an episode later in the day, because it sounds enticing to have John in full possession of his mind. During many of his shows he is still half-asleep, searching for words, trying to collect his thoughts. John is a very slow person to wake up.

John's best life is where he wakes up, sits and reads the newspaper, has a donut and 2,5 cups of coffee, and works on the crossword puzzle a little bit before anyone speaks to him. Then he puts the paper down, picks up the cop of coffee and and starts looking for somebody in his house. It is one of the reason why he doesn’t live with people because this is not how most mornings go with other people. John and his mom were such good roommates, because she doesn’t want to talk to anybody in the morning either, but when John woke up it was the middle of her day and she had all these questions to ask him. He would say over and over ”Mom, you woke up at 5:30am and you had 5 straight hours of alone-time and I need that, too!” and she would understand and leave. It is hard to ask that of someone you are in a relationship with, but because of this job John has given himself, he wakes up in the morning and has to interact immediately.

What’s nice about it is that Dan is not looking at him. It is the sustained eye contact that he really doesn’t want in the morning. If John would record these shows between 9pm and 1am, he would be in full flight and his brain would have been thinking about stuff all day. Maybe that is what is nice, because John never comes to one of these shows with any plan and any preconception of what he is going to talk about. His brain is empty when he has been awake for 10 minutes, and he is just taking his first sip of coffee. John is still one foot in dream land and he almost does some automatic talking. If Dan would be calling him at 11pm, John would be ”Here is the thing about mass transit” or ”Here is something we need to know about how the spleen operates!” It would be radically different!

Now John has this pattern, he goes to work and it creates structure, but it doesn’t feel like having a healthy life. The idea of getting up at 9am, having breakfast and reading some kind of newspaper and then sitting down at his podcast chair and getting to work after having a complete morning is unobtainable for some reason. It is not even a dangerous edge, like riding a motorcycle across the Andes, but it is these little poultry edges. Am I going to make it all the way into the podcast? John's reality is different from going 30 days just eating healthy food. John admires it and at some point this year he will get his back collected, start doing beach body and he is going to do 30 days of good eating. He does cycle through periods when he is attentive and patient with himself and the results are always undeniable. He always feels so much better and he is like all these great Americans, saying ”I’m never going back!” It is so easy to just not eat garbage and it is so easy to walk a little bit every day, it is just so hard to stay hydrated.

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