2018 tried really hard to destroy me

How I was less productive but found new ways to enjoy my life.

A rough start

One year ago I tweeted how excited I was for the possibilities of the new year and being an independent tool maker. We had been through a lot and I had been struggling with stress and depression for a year but I had finally reached a point where I was feeling healthy again.

6 days later I found out that health insurance carriers in Georgia terminated all individual plans that would cover my wife’s Multiple Sclerosis care and prescriptions.

Throughout the past decade, I have freelanced and paid for my family’s health insurance directly. Losing access to coverage for my partner’s chronic condition meant losing the freedom to freelance. I was left with 2 real choices: pivot my one-man company back to client work and hire enough people for a group insurance plan, or get a real job again. Both options meant major changes, but hiring a team under external pressure rather than out of business growth did not seem wise.

The support from friends and people online was truly overwhelming. There were words of encouragement and genuine job leads in my inbox. Ongoing product development was halted and I began talking with companies across advertising, design, and technology (oh god anything, please).

While all of this is happening, bills for ongoing tests, specialists and prescriptions had to be paid in order to keep my wife walking. I’m doing my best to exclude politics from this post, but in America no matter how wealthy you are, it is not possible for anyone to afford the prescriptions for lifelong diseases.

  • $1000/month for daily pain meds
  • $5000/month preventative medicine that was lowering her white blood cell count making her sick for weeks at a time. She really needed to switch to the alternative of ↓
  • $70,000 preventative infusion every six months

During 3 months of out-of-pocket medical expenses, we accumulated a lot of Amex points 😃 and debt 😟. We were reaching our personal limit (and credit card limit) when in April I begin working with my friends at Google again. We got the insurance we needed and we were able to stay in Atlanta for school, family, and doctors. It’s hard to describe how much this meant to us.

Depression

This shit is real. Like a lot of art people, I go through a low wave after a burst of extreme creative energy. But recently, I experienced real depression for about a year after being on the other side of the country from family and friends with a partner who could barely walk. I started to come out of it then got plunged into another 8 months of it when the rug got pulled out from under us.

You know that feeling when you’re in the flow a project and time flies and you’re unstoppable? Depression like the opposite of that. It feels like nothing goes right, time moves ultra slow and you’ll never escape. It’s really terrible. I didn’t talk to anyone professionally because of pride and thinking that I could beat it on my own, but now that I’m finally on the other side of it, I wish I had. I’m pretty sure I could have gotten back to enjoying life and being healthy a lot quicker if I had taken my mental health seriously.

Finding balance

For me, picking up a hobby has always meant drawing or starting personal design projects or learning new software. I’ve always just used my free time to do more work. This can be really valuable when you’re trying to increase your skill set in order to actually get the job you want. After many years in this business, I find an important part of being an artist or designer is having a perspective on life. In order to have a perspective, you have to do things that aren’t on a computer.

If you do what you love you n̶e̶v̶e̶r̶ ̶w̶o̶r̶k̶ ̶a̶ ̶d̶a̶y̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶l̶i̶f̶e̶ will never ever be happy and you will make the people around you miserable because of your weirdo obsessions

2018 was the first year I actually started doing things for myself that were not related to design work or making money.

Music

Back when I used to play in awful metal bands, I was the guy with the synthesizers. I’ve always liked the mix of electronics, technology, and sound. I had a bunch of cheap gear up into the mid-2000s but sold it all to make space in my life for design (I was also pretty bad). This year I set out to explore music simply for the fun of it. Since I stare at screens all day, doing everything away from a computer was really important. I bought a Moog Mother 32, then a few months later a Moog Grandmother. I had every intention of staying away from eurorack and just patching with these but after attending a local modular meet-up, I sold my soul to the control voltages.

I am slowly building a small case that is simple enough to let me learn the tech and what I like about sounds. I find that removing the visual feedback of the sound (common on most modern music apps) has allowed me to use a completely different part of my brain and this activity refreshes me during a lunch break.

The process of patching different signals to affect elements and shape sounds or modify a melody very closely parallels the way I work systematically with code and design. I’ve never been good at imagining a song and playing it linearly, so and this allows me to be surprised and discover new things by exploring. Adopting the mindset of a complete beginner has been the most beneficial part of this process.

I’m a believer in daily/weekly practice and doing a lot of volume in order to find what you enjoy and get bad ideas out. I also don’t think these explorations always need to be shared on social media. I find that it can cause the act of making to become secondary to the reception of it by others. I am currently using Instagram to document my progress but I’ve removed the social aspect from it by recording small patch ideas to a secret account (with no hashtags) a couple of times per week. This affords me the benefit of making and shipping something so I can move on, but without sharing it beyond a few friends it removes the external influence of other people liking –or not. If I come up with something I like I’ll try to record it into Ableton to practice mixing.

I don’t think this music is actually good or what I want it to be, but making it has helped me a lot. I’m currently interested in learning how to progress through timbres over time and building something that can be picked up at any point rather than having a start/end. Basically just ambient music.

Reading

I bought a subscription to Audible. While I do enjoy reading books with my eyes, but I find it difficult to make enough time to become hooked by a book. I do have a lot of wasted time folding laundry or picking up after a 5-year-old though. I find the practice of active listening has helped me learn to retain more when speaking with people. I’m on a bit of a Stephen King kick right now. This year I read:

Language

Me riding on a dolphin

We celebrated our 10th anniversary in Mexico this year. I really liked it there and would like to go back but actually be able to talk with the people. So I started using Duolingo to learn Spanish. I’ve never had any kind of success learning languages but I’m currently on day 222 of a learning streak. I find exercising this part of my brain has helped with my memory retention.

Exercise

I struggle with this one on consistency –mainly because of the Atlanta heat and cold. Once I get over the initial discomfort of it, I actually enjoy running. Joe Donaldson is the champ at this and I hope to be near his level one day, but he has encouraged me to think about it as an actual meditation than a task to be completed. Making time for exercise means carving out time from something else, but there is something magical about making your blood move around that actually helps you work and live better.

Social media

I removed the Twitter app from my phone. I am grateful for the active and encouraging community of designers and animators online but wished to engage with it in a more focused way –rather than allowing a feed to become a reactive time killer. The idea is to keep apps on my phone that are about learning and creation but the goal is the reduce the amount of time I look at a screen overall.

Family

I get this question a lot (especially from people who received email responses from her at Battle Axe), my wife Ashley is doing a lot better since her diagnosis in 2016. She is more mobile and adjusting to how her body wants to work differently with a disease that affects her spinal cord. It can be really tough sometimes and she definitely has bad days/weeks (even months), but she is unbelievably tough and keeps going.

Ashley’s energy level drops as the day goes on which can make date-nights tough. Since the kid is now in kindergarten I can start work a little earlier and clear time for weekly lunch dates. This has been huge for our relationship to make time to be a couple again. I’m really grateful for this flexibility.

My kid got really into playing video games together. We played though Breath of the Wild and then broke out the old Wii to play Twilight Princess. I had mostly removed gaming from my life, but reintroducing it as a fun family activity feels good. Also, Twilight Princess is a lot more frustrating than you remember.

Meditation

This is probably the biggest thing that has helped me overcome depression this year. I’m no mindfulness guru or anything but after a few months of daily practice, I find that when I allow myself to feel my feelings and let them exist as they are, I become more relaxed and able to connect with those around me. Headspace is what I use and it’s really simple to get started (plus the animations are super cute).

As I write all this, I just realized that everything that’s been beneficial to me this year has been a form of meditation and mindfulness. Being present instead of being distracted.

2019 and moving forward

My goals for 2019 are flexible and more about a direction than things that can actually be attained. Rather than “record X number of songs,” I’m making the goal for myself to enjoy playing music. I would rather do it less than risk turning a happiness activity into an obligation. Instead of a goal like “meditated every day” or “run 3 times a week” I’m trying to be more aware of my mental state. Maybe that means stopping down work to be quiet for 5 minutes or that could mean running more or less as my hierarchy of priorities allows. At this phase of my life, it’s more about small daily progress than big projects.

At the beginning of 2018, I set out to release 2 new products and start doing things for fun, like music. In spite of the difficult start, I actually had fun and started to enjoy making music. I was not successful with the product releases (but currently have a beta for a new Google tool though).

I am over a year into writing a pretty big tool called Timelord and have begun experimenting with the early stages of math for the 3rd version of a certain rigging system thanks to the urging of Kyle Martinez. I’m planning to finish Timelord in the first half of 2019. I’d love to do more but sadly there are fewer hours available each day.

Disclaimer

I have no idea what I’m doing. I work full time for a great company, I run a business, I help take care of a small child, and I do my best to support a beautiful woman who’s had a disease thrown at her, I’m trying really hard to add the elements to my life that allow me to be happy enough to make the people I interact with feel loved. Nobody’s life is like mine and I am not a model of how to live.

Find your own way in this world and find ways to care for yourself and those around you.