You may have noticed the blog turned quiet over the past month. Unfortunately during the second week of December, I had an involuntary job thrusted on me:
My dad unexpectedly passed away. He was 62.
His death was under difficult circumstances and I had to step in as the responsible family member to start dealing with everything that comes along with this. My mom and dad were teenagers when they got married, in their early 20s when they had me, and divorced before 30. I never remember living with him and our relationship wasn’t without challenges, but the loss hurts. The circumstances around the loss hurt, and the mess I’m left with includes blended family issues that are going to drag on for a long time.*
What Can I Say Thus Far?
I’m so thankful to be financially independent and without a corporate job. I couldn’t imagine this happening in early December in my old profession. In that role, everyone would be trying to jam six weeks worth of work into the three weeks everyone is in the office. How would I have been able to drop everything and step in? What if I still lived an eighteen hour drive away instead of seven?
We’ve also had to advance a decent amount of money in the last four weeks, far past what we are comfortable exceeding our monthly budget by. We have it and are fortunate not to have to pass the family hat to other grieving family members, but it still hurts. It especially hurts when it’s unexpected and any reimbursement will take a long time to work through. How much worse would the stress be if we didn’t have those funds available?
What if I didn’t have my corporate experience? I had to spend seventeen years learning how to set my emotions aside in stressful situations and manage tasks and large projects. Did my family think of me as an unemotional robot while I was coordinating a bunch of stuff? It’s nice to stay busy, but there’s also time I’ve needed to take to process everything. Everyone deals with grief differently and needs the time and space to handle that grief.
What About Stress?
The biggest reminder of my “why” of financial independence was the return of high stress. I spent seventeen straight days in a stage of sleep deprivation. The number of tasks to handle were constantly overwhelming with more tasks being added to the list than taken off. Getting in bed was often the only time my body and voice could slow down, leaving my mind to race thinking about the next thing and the next thing. I had plenty of those moments in my corporate life, but none that lasted seventeen days straight. I could have a few bad days or even a bad week, but reach some level of recovery before the next week started. This was seventeen straight days without a solid night’s sleep. Fortunately I’m about a week into getting a decent night’s sleep at least half the time.
My uneducated thought is that some of how we deal with stress and anxiety is learned, but other parts of anxiety is genetic. Many people in my family have a bad history of how they deal with stress and anxiety, including lashing out, using substances, and withdrawing from the world. Add in the underlying money problems I saw growing up, it drove me to look for a different path. For years I thought the lack of money equaled the stress and subsequently equaled their coping mechanisms. As I matured into adulthood, I eventually realized that money didn’t really create more happiness, but it prevented added stress being thrown on top of underlying anxiety issues. I also saw the challenges substances added when used as a short term coping mechanism, which frankly scared me into making different choices.
Now for my the deviation from the story and a rant about 2020….
Mental Health and 2020:
Through all of this, I’ve become incredibly frustrated at the entire year 2020 and its impact on mental health. There are horrible signs that excess deaths for 2020 are far worse than just the increase from COVID and its offset of lower motor vehicle accidents. The state’s vital records office is running eight weeks behind to issue a death certificate needed to deal with final affairs. I’m calling the departments of companies that specifically deal with deceased accounts and getting an automated message about long wait times.
This caused me to think a lot about mental health, stress, and anxiety. My main coping mechanism with stress and anxiety is exercise. I don’t look like a “gym bro” and don’t run around preaching to everyone else that “exercise is the solution!”. I can only say what works for me. I need to run or do something similar 2-3 times a week and running on nature trails is my ideal activity. It requires focus, provides me exhaustion, and I’m left with a sense of accomplishment. I also like the feeling of lifting weights then the soreness it leaves me with for the next couple days. It reminds me that I’ve done something productive. I’ve added surfing into the mix, which I’m falling in love with because it provides me with that same challenge of focus, exhaustion, and a sense of accomplishment while leaving my arms and back painfully sore for the two following days.
Missing more than eight weeks of gym access earlier this year took a toll on me. It sounds odd to some, but I lost one of my coping mechanisms and it stunk. Sure I could do some things on my own, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t my routine. Our gyms reopened in mid-May and I quickly made a risk management decision. The 1 in 3 chance I get the virus, the 99%+ survival rate if I did, and not being around high risk people to spread it had to be balanced against my mental health. This was an easy decision for me.
We are also traveling soon, despite it being a complete pain thanks to the virus. Another “why” of Financial Independence and my mental health is our ability to escape winter. Sunlight, being outside, water, and warm temperatures bring all sorts of positive benefits for my mental health. I moved somewhere with nice long “shoulder seasons”, but it still deals with the same weather that plagues most of the continental United States from December through February: Too many days that involve temperatures below sixty, grey skies, and occasional cold stuff falling from the sky. We spent sixteen years working and saving to be able to get away from this and one month in we are more than ready to get out of here.
All of this left me with the thoughts of how many people were taken out of their normal routines? How many of these people were dealing with underlying mental health issues? What was the actual risk to them otherwise of dying from or spreading a virus relative to their routine and coping mechanisms being taken away? How many people are seduced by the onslaught of pessimism? Are people hurting themselves more through risk avoidance decisions when they should be making risk management decisions? Is public policy properly managing the mental health risks of the response against the physical health risks of a virus?
I have opinions on all of these things and know what happened in my family, but the main thing is experience is a painful teacher. I think most of the actors involved in the virus response have the public’s best intention at heart. The one exception being some information entertainment (news) outlets who gain viewership and advertising dollars by seducing an audience with sensational negativity. “Why aren’t we as good as ____ country?” Well, this is the first pandemic the western world has faced in a century while it’s around the fourth one in twenty five years if you’re in Southeast Asia.
Hopefully the western world learns from this experience and if it happens again, that experience will drive both individual habits and government responses. I hope this is the only pandemic I experience in my lifetime, but if not, everyone will be more prepared in the future.
I can’t imagine a more challenging way to end 2020, but through it all I am optimistic about 2021. There are old relationships being reformed and new ones being created through this tragedy. There’s a lot of responsibility ahead, but I’m thankful for being able to manage this responsibility from a place of financial independence and good mental health. There’s no amount of money that reverses a loss, but it can avoid additional stress and anxiety compounding on top of tragic circumstances. This just further reinforces my belief that financial independence, or at least the habits that lead to financial independence, are for everyone.
Cheers to a prosperous 2021
* I wish I could write / share more, but the issues are still raw and some issues need to navigate through the legal system. Maybe I’m paranoid as a banker who survived the financial crisis, but I’d rather not have details contained in a blog post show up in legal discovery and cause unnecessary headaches.