Wednesday, September 10, 2014

RU OK Day: The Bad Stockbroker

It's been a big week for mental health awareness, and some of you might have been surprised by how quiet I've been about it.

Yesterday (10th of September) was World Suicide Prevention Day, so there's been a lot of statistics flying around emphasising what a pressing and urgent issue suicide really is. As I've said previously, I would personally like to see more nuanced conversations around suicide, beyond "Don't Do It". But an international day of recognition isn't nothing, and I hope that it helps people who need to talk about suicide or suicidal tendencies do so more easily.

Today here in Australia (11th of September) it's now RU OK Day, a national initiative intended to encourage people to ask their friends if they are indeed okay. as with World Suicide Prevention Day, I have some personal misgivings about the actual effectiveness of this campaign on for a significant proportion of people with serious mental illnesses, but it's also encouraging to see people at least considering mental illness something to be spoken about, as hamfistedly as they might do so.

Instead of grumbling about what I don't like about these campaigns, I decided to take a more positive tack, and write up one of the most valuable pieces of advice I've ever been given about dealing with my own depression and anxiety.

(No, the advice is NOT "just be positive")

Way back in the way back times, a couple of years ago, I was deep in the throes of a really bad brain period. So bad, in fact, I'd actually managed to wrangle some appointments with a psychologist paid for by the Australian welfare agency, Centrelink. I was expecting the psychologist to pretty poor, considering he was almost certainly working for a laughable wage, but to my surprise he actually ended up being one of my favourite therapists of all time.

I was enormously self concious about my crazy at the time - I was convinced that my anxiety, depression, and general emotional instability made me entirely worthless. As I saw it, there was no hope for me - I was unemployed, and I would stay unemployed forever because no-one would ever take on a total fuck up like me. I was so ANGRY at myself for being crazy, all day, every day. I resented the way my brain worked so much I couldn't conceive of being kind to myself, let alone letting any perceived fuck ups pass without at least a day of tormenting myself. I KNEW all the terrible things I was afraid of were wildly unlikely, I KNEW my brain wasn't coming to rational conclusions. But I couldn't help listening, and I hated myself for it so much. I KNEW that depression lies, but I couldn't figure out how to dismiss thoughts that were so damn loud and persistent.

And this is where The Bad Stockbroker comes in. He began as a throwaway comment from my psychologist, a phrase he used to sum up just how irrational the lies that mental illness tells us are. When I explained I had trouble dismissing the parts of me that insisted everything would turn out the worst possible way, he asked how often they'd been right. I thought about it for a while, and then had to admit that actually, on the whole, those predictions hadn't been right very often at all. He asked if I would trust my money to a stockbroker who came up with inaccurate predictions as often as my anxiety did, and a lightbulb suddenly lit up my brain. The Bad Stockbroker was born, and has become an integral part of how I manage the impact my illness has on my life.

Imagine, if you will, all the parts of your brain that tell you unhelpful things all day are actually a person. Bundle all the "They really hate you" and "You'll never make it" and "Why even try" into a little squishy ball, and then make that ball into a person. That person is The Bad Stockbroker. In my mind, the Bad Stockbroker looks something like a conglomeration of these two images...

He wears a really cheap, wrinkled, shiny looking suit with a disgusting looking stain on the lapel. He's always sweaty - even in the middle of winter, he's always got a slight sheen on his balding, combed over forehead, and his office always faintly reeks of stale, sour sweat. His office looks a bit like this...

Noir Office by Francois Conradie
All the furniture is a little bit broken, and a little bit sticky. He only has one chair for clients, and it always feels like it's about to fall apart when you sit on it. His office is in a really rundown part of town, in an office he rents from some friend of a friend in an overly complicated and yet suspect arrangement. He is, to put it bluntly, not very good at his job. If you give him your money, he will every now and then make a successful prediction. But for every successful prediction he makes fifteen wildly inaccurate ones, and if you let him have all your money, you'll be broke in a matter of months.

Take a minute to just really picture this guy in your head. Gather together all the little details that make him real for you. And then ask yourself - would I listen to this guy's advice?

By creating a character with a backstory, and an office, and a fondness for cheap whisky, I found it much easier to dismiss what the psychologist called "intrusive thoughts". All those second guessing, fearmongering lies your brain tries to tell you are WAY easier to ignore when you imagine them coming from The Bad Stockbroker. "You can't go to the shops," he'll tell me. "You'll get run over, or someone will laugh at you, or you'll get robbed." All I have to do is imagine the crusted crumbs on his sleeves, and I remember he's not someone I should take advice from.

"Yeah, I did pick this shirt myself. Why do you ask?"
There is one more part to the whole Bad Stockbroker technique that I had to figure out for myself, over the years since the idea was first suggested to me. See, my ability to dismiss The Bad Stockbroker isn't consistent - depending on what else is going on at the time it can be really easy, impossible, or anywhere in between. Manging my mental illness on a daily basis takes energy, XP, spoons - however you want to describe it, there is a certain amount of resources required to be a (more or less) functioning member of society, and some days I use up the resources I have faster than I can replenish them.

On the days when I run out of resources, I can't do the mental maths it takes to translate the intrusive thoughts into The Bad Stockbroker, and then dismiss them. They repeat enough times and I can't help but listen, like when you've been up all night watching infomercials and you suddenly decide you DO need a lettuce dicer after all because you're too tired to remember you hate lettuce. Sometimes, I do give The Bad Stockbroker my money, because I'm too tired to argue. And inevitably, there's mess to clean up later, because he's VERY bad at his job. For a long time, I used to kick myself around for days after one of these lapses. Even if the mess left behind by the actual lapse was tiny, or even completely undetectable to everyone else, I would treat myself like I'd lost the family fortune in a slot machine.

Eventually, I came across a school of therapy called Mindfulness - it's verrrry loosely based on some Bhuddist meditation practices, and to be perfectly honest, a LOT of the material written for it is ludicrously woo-woo. Like, you can smell the patchouli as soon as you open these books. There's lots of talk about "sitting with the moment" and "honouring experiences", but once I got past all that there was actually some really useful stuff in there. One of the central ideas of Mindfulness is that no feeling or emotion is inherently good or bad, and that judging ourselves on our thoughts or feelings just leads to more stress. It's a grand idea, but as it turns out it's rather difficult to put into practice on a daily basis when you're someone who has as many feelings per minute as I do. I'll admit, I haven't yet figured out how to distance myself entirely from my emotions, and "honour the experience" - but I have learned to forgive myself for being crazy, for being weak, and for sometimes listening to The Bad Stockbroker.

Mindfulness helped me take a step back, and look at my relationship with The Bad Stockbroker in a less emotional way. It made me realise that, in the real world, despite their shadiness and ineptitude, people still give money to the real life Bad Stockbrokers every now and then. Looking at the news, I see stories of people being ripped off by these kinds of shysters all the time! Human beings make decisions that are not in their own best interests pretty frequently - All humans too, not just the crazy ones. The most neurotypical person has had at least one moment of weakness, where something seems like a great idea when it's really not. So how could I expect myself to be better, more sensible, stronger and more rational than literally EVERY OTHER person in the world? THAT is some crazy talk. If no-one else has figured out how to avoid decisions that aren't in their own best interests EVERY SINGLE time, then perhaps it's okay not to hate myself for messing up every now and then. Don't get me wrong, there is still a part of me that clicks it's tounge in frustration and disappointment every time I listen to The Bad Stockbroker - but I no longer hate myself for it. I do my best to ignore his wacky advice as much as possible, but if I do get sucked into his bullshit, I don't tear myself apart. I sigh, I shrug, I clean up the mess, and I start again. 

Mindfulness also helped me get on better terms with my Bad Stockbroker.  Mindfulness teaches that thoughts aren't inherently good or bad, and so because The Bad Stockbroker is a personification of thoughts,  he's not inherently good or bad either.  He's just someone who is really bad at predictions, in a job where being good at predictions is kind of his whole deal. When I thought about it like this,  I actually started to feel a little bit sorry for The Bad Stockbroker. I felt bad saying no to his suggestions every single time,  so every now and then, when the stakes are really low, I'll throw him a bone. Maybe I'm considering going out, even though I'm tired, and he's in my ear predicting the literal end of the world if I do. I know he's wrong - but every now and then instead of saying no, I'll say, "Okay, let's stay in". Just like a real person,  I've found if I let the Bad Stockbroker have his way every once in a while,  it's easier to say no when it really matters. 

So, my summation of years of therapy is simply this - acknowledge your Bad Stockbroker. Give him an office, an outfit, a cheap haircut and a nasty cigar. Laugh at his advice as much as you can, but don't hate yourself if you end up listening to him every once in a while.


  1. I LOVE this analogy! I'm reading through your blog and we have some things in common. I'm female, 35, and live in Sydney and I'm in recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder, social phobia, anxiety and depression (I'm also a recovering alcoholic though, which you obviously are not). I've done a lot of CBT and DBT and I'm doing a social phobia course right now. Have you ever done anything with schema therapy? I think for me it was schema that really changed my life and recovery. Anyway, I journal too (livejournal, not publicly) and I love making analogies like this though I think you've done so more skillfully here than I ever have (I'm really imagining my negative voice as the Bad Stockbroker now and I think it will be so helpful). Thanks for writing this.

    BTW, did you know that the founder of RUOK day and his teenaged son both died of cancer in the last few years? There was an Australian Story about them.