Again and Again and Again and…

I want to cry.

Yes, it’s been about 10 years since I last had kidney stones. Well, they’re back, and with a vengeance. I walked about a mile this morning before I had to stop, collapse on the cement for about ten minutes, and turn right back home. Little wonder they decided to “show up” now; I’ve walked about thirty miles in the last two weeks, so whatever stones I’ve got dancing around in there finally came loose. I’m like a freakin’ maraca, and I can’t even stand up without feeling like I want to die.

And yes, they’re on my left side, meaning they won’t be passing without surgical assistance.

*sigh*

Do I have a job yet? No. But if I manage to get one this week, I guess I know where my next two or three paychecks is going: straight to paying for another round of lithotripsy.

Guh.

The Actual Final Fantasy Lies In Corporate

A recent article written by Inverse made a bit sad. And it was the final nail in the coffin that made me decide to write this response. It features the man, the myth, the legend, Final Fantasy 14 director Naoki Yoshida (also known as Yoshi-P to fans) stating:

“In terms of whether Final Fantasy is successfully adapting to industry trends, I believe the series is currently struggling. We’re now at a point where we receive a wide variety of requests regarding the direction of our game design. To be honest, it’d be impossible to satisfy all those requests with a single title. My current impression is that all we can really do is create multiple games, and continue creating the best that we can at any given time.”

The writer states that Yoshi-P believes that “Final Fantasy has never been about chasing trends, but setting them.” While I agree that this is certainly why people love Final Fantasy, I don’t believe this has always been the case. Don’t get me wrong, no one else in the industry has had the guts to take their broken, outdated-before-it-released MMORPG, literally drop a meteor on it, and then reimagine it into the wonder-fest that is A Realm Reborn. But I believe Final Fantasy got into a troubling habit a long time ago, catching a corporate virus that all well-known entertainment brands invariably seem to catch when developers and producers try too hard to bank on nostalgia and familiarity.

It’s called sequelitis. And for Square-Enix, it became a terminal case.

This argument isn’t a new one. It’s the reason Pixar made four Toy Story movies and a Buzz Lightyear movie no one watched (although that bombed for a different reason altogether). It’s the reason they made three Cars movies. It’s the reason the Star Wars sequel trilogy was made. It’s the reason they kept trying to make Terminator 2 over and over. It’s why there are so many Jaws sequels. It’s why they made All Grown Up! from Rugrats, or The Cleveland Show from Family Guy.

It’s why they made Final Fantasy X-2 (pronounced ten-two). It’s why they made two sequels to the hallway simulator that was Final Fantasy XIII. It’s why they made two disconnected and (in my opinion) inferior sequels to Final Fantasy Tactics before remastering the original into The War of the Lions. It’s why Final Fantasy IV: The After Years exists. It’s why Final Fantasy Dissidia exists, and why everybody (including me) was disappointed to discover that the “story mode” in Dissidia NT was nonexistent, and had been designed as nothing more than an arcade fighter. It’s why they’ve made and told every before-and-after story to Final Fantasy 7 that they possibly can, and won’t be stopping for the foreseeable future, no matter how bloated and confusing the whole of it becomes. And even though Final Fantasy XIV wasn’t meant to be a sequel to Final Fantasy XI, the clunky UI and 1.0 system suggests otherwise.

Final Fantasy may not chase trends with the stories they tell. But the decisions Square-Enix makes as a company certainly does.

Earlier this year, Square-Enix sold their holdings over Eidos, Crystal Dynamics, and the Square-Enix Montreal studio over to Embracer Group, the Swedish-based owners of game developers and publishers such as Gearbox Software, THQ Nordic, and Coffee Stain Studios. What did they get for selling such well-known and popular IPs as the Deus Ex, Tomb Raider, The Legacy of Kain (which went criminally unused), and Thief franchises?

$300 million dollars. To compare, Embracer Group acquired Gearbox Entertainment (which includes the Borderlands series, Duke Nukem (for what that’s worth anymore), the Homeworld series, and a few others) for $1.3 billion dollars.

You’re telling me that the company that got rid of Lara Croft and Adam Jensen are now complaining that they’re in a bad financial situation? I totally understand that their most recent Avengers game ended up in the garbage pretty quick (games as a service is a terrible idea). But they had just released Guardians of the Galaxy, and by all accounts, it’s not that bad.

Thing is, they’re not in that bad of a bad financial situation. I mean, look at their financial reports from March 2022. 9.8% sales increase over 2021? That’s pretty dang good, isn’t it? And by their annual investor report, it looks like the only real crash that occurred in 2021 was to their “Amusement” segment, which oversees “amusement facilities and planning, development, and distribution of arcade game machines and related products for amusement facilities.” Dissidia NT, anyone? As of June, the numbers for sales don’t look as good. But is it really worth selling all of your overseas studios so quickly and for so little?

I don’t think Yoshi-P is lamenting the financial state of Square-Enix’s business practices when he says that Final Fantasy is struggling. But we know, Yoshi-P, believe me. It’s been struggling for a while. Ever since Charlie’s Angels took over Spira, by my account. I don’t even know what to make of Chocobo Racing GP, for crying out loud (although it does look fun, I want my Switch back, *sniff*). Final Fantasy has tried to be so much for so long, it’s no wonder it’s struggling to know what it is beyond chocobos and crystals.

For the last two decades, we’ve seen Final Fantasy do just about everything except what made the series so fantastic in the first place: turn-based battles, stories that told fantastic tales of heroism against nihilism, and a true middle finger to the trends of the day. Do you know why Final Fantasy IX is almost universally loved by those who played it when it came out? Because it used nostalgia the right way. It wasn’t a sequel. It wasn’t a prequel. It wasn’t a spin-off. It was a love letter to its own franchise. As stated by Alex Donaldson for vg247.com:

My personal perspective set aside, FF9 is indeed special… It is often reductively described as a throwback game, a tribute to past Final Fantasy titles. While it is absolutely packed with references and winks for fans, it is far more than that, however. It’s a unique Final Fantasy with its own style and energy that hadn’t quite been done before or since.

But what made Final Fantasy IX special, according to Alex?

Part of this is down to the game being made by a multicultural, international team of developers. While of course Japanese-led, a huge amount of FF9’s development, particularly its art, was undertaken in Hawaii, a US territory. The game’s staff included Americans, French, Germans and more. These days, many Japanese games are made by diverse teams thanks to international hiring policies and outsourcing, but FF9 was ahead of the curve.

It’s a real shame that this doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

According to Eidos Montreal founder Stephane D’Astous, the reason Square-Enix let go of all of all of their Eidos and Crystal Dynamics holdings wasn’t really because they weren’t making enough money. Apparently, they just “weren’t committed” to working with overseas studios:

“The pressure was starting to build, and my employees towards me, me towards my superiors. I think when people are in a crisis situation where there’s a lot of situations, you do see their core behaviour or values. And I didn’t like what I saw. There was really a lack of leadership, courage, and communication. And when you don’t have those basic things, no employee can do their job correctly — especially when you’re heading a studio.

I was losing hope that Square Enix Japan would bring great things to Eidos. I was losing confidence in my headquarters in London. In their annual fiscal reports, Japan always added one or two phrases saying, ‘We were disappointed with certain games. They didn’t reach expectations.’ And they did that strictly for certain games that were done outside of Japan.”

It wasn’t just this lack of communication. It was poor planning, too.

“If I read between the lines, Square Enix Japan was not as committed as we hoped initially. And there are rumours, obviously, that with all these activities of mergers and acquisitions, that Sony would really like to have Square Enix within their wheelhouse. I heard rumours that Sony said they’re really interested in Square Enix Tokyo, but not the rest. So, I think [Square Enix CEO Yosuke] Matsuda-san put it like a garage sale.”

So, let me get this straight, Square-Enix. You wanted… ALL of the money. I get that. So in order to get ALL the money, you gave up… a LOT more money?

Nah, Final Fantasy doesn’t have any problems, Yoshi-P. It’s Square-Enix leadership that has the problems. Call it a symptom of late-stage capitalism if you have to. I call it “being stupid and impatient”. If Square-Enix really is planning on being acquired by Sony, great; maybe putting a company with corporate problems into a larger corporation will fix things (I say with GREAT and MIGHTY sarcasm). But Sony had better be watching. If they do acquire Square-Enix (and it looks like it may be becoming more likely), get rid of Mr. Matsuda, and whoever else thought it wise to sell Lara Croft for a penny.

Better yet, don’t acquire them. Let them stew. Make them regret not having ALL the money.

Maybe I don’t know how intellectual property rights work. But could they not have simply sold the overseas studios without giving up the rights to the IPs? Or, you know, hung onto Tomb Raider, at least? Or was that part of the package? I could just imagine Sony salivating at Playstation-exclusivity with Tomb Raider just as someone at Square signs the paperwork and hauls Lara away in a cardboard box with holes punched in the top so she can breathe.

Square-Enix is not helping to fix the image of poor corporate decision-making.

I hope Final Fantasy 16 becomes a masterpiece. I really do. I mean, the fact that they’ve put almost all of FF14’s best developers onto FF16 (Yoshi-P as director, Masayoshi Soken as composer, not to mention the battle system designer Ryota Suzuki for Devil May Cry 5) is saying something. The way Square-Enix trashed Eidos, if they “lose” Final Fantasy (or sell it to the Swedes for lunch money, who knows), it will be corporate’s fault.

Like it always is.

And that’s the real sin. Yoshi-P, you’re wonderful, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Examining the Wounds Without the Bandages, Part One

I don’t talk about my mission much. When I do, I usually only talk about it long enough to mention where I went, when I served, and how much it affected the person I have become. If you’re familiar with that person, then it’s probably safe to assume that you think I absolutely hated my mission and wish I’d never gone. I’ll admit, I have said those exact words before. Many times, actually. But I don’t think that simple statement helps illustrate how I really felt about my mission service. After all this time, after dealing with depression and bipolar disorder in all the wrong ways, I feel like I should revisit some of my memories, especially now that I’m slowly removing all of the “band-aids” that I shoved over the wounds attempting to ignore them instead of treat them properly.

I served as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Los Angeles Mission from 2007-2008, my time cut short due to a major bout of kidney stones that required surgery to remove (twice, actually, separated by a few years). To say that those 14 short months were “formative” to my present life would be like describing the excavation of a craver via a nuclear explosion as “repositioning some dirt”. I’ll explain why, and why I believe, ultimately, that it was a good thing I chose to serve.

On Top of the World One Minute…

I graduated from Timpanogos High School in Orem, Utah in 2006. Right from senior year, I had a full-ride scholarship to Brigham Young University, Idaho, and I was super excited to dive into life and learn as much as I could about everything. I did not yet show any symptoms of bipolar disorder, and only minor signs of depression stemming from the typical teen angst. During junior high and high school, I was the goody-good Mormon boy (at least I felt that way). I never had any really good friends in my family ward, but I had a group of close friends from school that expanded as time went on. I ended up pretty confident and optimistic, all things considered, especially going into the transition to college.

I was able to live with my grandparents while I attended BYU-I at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, which became a wonderful learning experience; my grandpa, Richard Bird, was previously a watercolor/oil painting teacher at the old Spori building on campus, and I was able to take advantage of learning from him when I took a few art classes.

It was during this time that two major health issues revealed themselves.

I intensely remember sitting down in the living room of my grandparents’ house one morning, turning on a marathon of The Lord of the Rings trilogy that was showing on TBS, and being unable to rise off of the couch for the entire marathon. And it wasn’t because I felt any strong desire to watch them, either. For those of you who know me, sitting down, willingly, to watch a fifteen-hour marathon of anything on a channel that made a nine-hour, non-extended-edition experience that much longer because of commercials… I wouldn’t do that, especially not the week of midterms, not when there were things that needed to get done.

It was my first brush with what I called “depression” at the time, but now realize was my first manic/depressive downswing.

I also began feeling the first twinges of pain from my left kidney. There’s a story there, beyond the kidney stones. I was born two weeks early, which doesn’t seem like it should have been much of a problem. But, hey, I’m a problem child, and I came pre-packaged as one. Not only could I not breathe on my own right out of the gate, my left ureter (the tube that connects my kidney to my bladder) was formed incorrectly. Surgery was performed to fix the blockage when I was a few months old, and I’ve got the scar to prove that the doctor tried their best. Unfortunately, while my ureter is large enough to process water, the scar tissue on that dang little tube doesn’t allow kidney stones to pass on their own.

Why is the ureter so dang thin and long? Asking for a friend.

I did not realize this before my mission. Nor did the doctor who performed my physical and approved my physical ability to serve. This will become important later.

…Crashing the Next

It’s not too hard for me to point to why I feel like my mission was the worst thing evar. The difficulty arises in admitting that I don’t actually feel that way. So, if you’ll allow me, I’ll lay it all out in the most awful way possible and then attempt to build up from the lowest point.

Growing up in Utah, it’s not difficult to see how I was able to feel confident enough to serve a mission. I was surrounded by friends, family, co-workers (for the most part), ward members, and even complete strangers that believed in exactly the same things that I believed in. When I made the decision to serve a mission, this was celebrated, and expected. So expected, that I was not aware I had a decision to the contrary. I had family that decided not to serve, certainly, and I didn’t hold that against them; I still don’t. I felt I had no reason not to serve. After all, in the LDS church, it is expected that every able-bodied and worthy young man should serve a mission. For all I knew, I was able-bodied. And I felt worthy.

So I did.

I can’t even begin to describe what it feels like to go from a pure and understanding environment where you have been taught to value a single ideology with your whole being, to enter a place where no single person believes anything remotely similar to you. To go from a place where you are one of a comfortable majority to one in an intensely singular minority. But not just any minority. A minority that belongs to one of singular scorn and contempt. To most people on the street, you become something less than human. Less than a telemarketer calling during Thanksgiving dinner. Less than a teenager going door-to-door selling pest control, because at least they can easily explain the purpose for why they knocked on your door. Less than a Jehovah’s Witness, because at least they know what they believe. What was I? A scrawny white kid from a creepy cult who couldn’t speak much Spanish… and frankly, not much English either, at least not with any great charisma.

When I put on the badge, that black missionary tag with the name of the church and “Elder Bird” engraved on it, I became a target, for better or for worse. Combined with the white shirt and tie, a very visible target, one that made an excellent backboard for 64-ounce Big Gulp soda cups and drunk people who wanted to let off some steam. People go out of their way to cross the street to avoid talking to you. Those that do want to talk to you usually begin the interaction as a confrontation instead of a conversation. Sure, you get doors slammed in your face. But I began to prefer that. It hurt much less than talking to a very tired elderly mother with four mentally-handicapped adult children (all of whom she still cared for) that demanded to know what a nineteen-year old boy could possibly explain to her about the unfair god that “blessed” her in such a way. How could I explain to a woman who, in an effort to show pity on a deluded and brainwashed young man and tried to convince that I had fallen for a “delusion”, that I had chosen to believe of my own free will and choice, and that it was my choice to teach the gospel I had grown up learning, knowing, and, yes, loving with all my heart? How could I even hope to convince a veteran that had fought in the killing fields of Vietnam, whose lungs had inhaled enough Agent Orange to cause serious and life-threatening damage on its own, that I knew something that could put his heart at ease, in any way?

When Christ healed the man with palsy, he asked a very pointed question to the scribes: “For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?” Growing up, I used to equate the two in “difficulty”. I don’t equate them anymore. Palsy, leoprosy, blindness, deafness, even the condition of death itself. The human heart is infinitely more difficult to heal.

It’s one thing to give blessings. It’s one thing to baptize. It’s one thing to administer the sacrament.

It is an entirely different thing to look someone in the eyes and tell them that they will never hear something that will matter more to their eternal happiness or misery than what they will hear from me. To do so with a straight face. To do so with as much sincerity, clarity, and quality as such a discussion demands. And to do so for fourteen hours a day for two years.

And Then It Ended

And then I came home early from kidney stone issues. Remember the ureter problem? I had two dime-sized kidney stones that made any movement painful and missionary work impossible. And for the next fifteen years, the bipolar got worse, I never found a medicine that could make the mood swings tolerable, and I lost my grandparents before I ever found the courage to really look at the choices I’d made.

Logically, as a missionary, I knew two things. That the Savior was asking me to help Him carry His cross, and that He promised that His burden was light. But I was not wise enough to realize that the “burden” he was asking me to carry was not merely the one I carried as a missionary. It was the whole of my life. True, He was asking me to carry what I could, enough that I could “walk and not faint“, that I ought not “run faster or labor more than [I] have strength“. I’ll be the first to admit it, I always bite off more than I can chew. I always pick up heavier rocks than I know I can lift. I’m not a wise individual. And I’m a show-off by nature. I added an unnecessary amount of pain to my healing process.

But I did it because I thought I was supposed to. Returned missionaries are always stronger when they come home. Or so I thought. Returned missionaries always return victorious, triumphant, with a greater conviction. Or so I insisted was the case for me. When I came home, no one really asked why I was ten months early. I assume those who cared already knew why. I didn’t really talk about my mission because no one really asked me about it. And when I did, only these negative emotions rose to the surface. Only the bad times came to mind.

I was in a lot of pain. Physically, because of kidney stones. Emotionally, because I had been a psychological and sometimes physical target of ridicule and abuse for fourteen months. And spiritually, because I thought I had utterly failed as a missionary. I had baptized one person personally. A mom who wanted what was best for her and her child. A mom that I had felt guilty teaching (whether or not that guilt was warranted, I don’t honestly know; in my view, the circumstances of it were strange and kind of hard to explain).

I didn’t stay in contact with anyone I met on the mission, besides old companions. I feel bad about that. It was easier to hope that everyone I knew had forgotten about me. Better that they stayed in contact with missionaries that were stronger than me, better examples. Better with the language. More confident in sharing the message. Less ashamed of the good fight. Even now, I’m scared to reach out, even just to say hello. Even now, it hurts to even contemplate improving my Spanish, so ashamed I was (and still am) at my feeble attempts to speak it in the mission field. I did my best in that regard, so I know the shame is unnecessary. But when has necessity ever dictated what I felt?

Was It Worth It Or Not?

The Lord and the prophets have called the trials and tribulations we live through a “refiner’s fire”. The process of ore purification requires a ton of heat to separate the pure metal from the impurities and dross that make the material otherwise unusable.

I like the analogy. The mission is certainly a refiner’s fire, a never-ceasing application of intense heat and pressure. But I feel like we then equate all of life to the same process. But it isn’t. On the whole, life can be spicy, and the conflicts of day-to-day living can get pretty hot. But it’s much more situational. There are episodes of extreme conflict followed by long stretches of relative calm. Life is much more the potter’s game, a longer period of sculpting and formation, with much more emphasis on patience and practice. The mission belongs to the blacksmith, endless hours of heat, hammering at an object that does not like to budge. An intense period of time where chunks of yourself are sheered away in explosions of sparks and flame, and you’re never quite sure if the metal will bend or shatter.

Me? I was pulled out of the forge early. I wasn’t given time to anneal. I hadn’t adjusted to the pressures and the pain that the hammering was inflicting before it all just… vanished.

But just like there are many forms of refining, there are also many different versions of annealing, hardening, or “finishing” metal. The Lord knows my specific alloy. Maybe instead of annealing, I needed another form of finishing to “harden” the faith I had formed.

Maybe my finishing required a process such as this:

Believe me, the narrator in the video stating that the usefulness of the age hardening process depending on the alloy is not lost on me. My kidney stones were a time bomb that went off precisely when it was meant to (whether you, the reader, believe that or not is irrelevant, by the way). For me, the refining process was specific and intense. What it meant is left for me to interpret, the purpose of the final form known fully only to the Master.

Well. That’s only partially true.

Elder James E. Faust shared President David O. McKay’s words of what happened to the survivors of the Martin Handcart Company during a conference talk in April 1979. He stated:

Some years ago president David O. McKay told from this pulpit of the experience of some of those in the Martin handcart company. Many of these early converts had emigrated from Europe and were too poor to buy oxen or horses and a wagon. They were forced by their poverty to pull handcarts containing all of their belongings across the plains by their own brute strength. President McKay relates an occurrence which took place some years after the heroic exodus: “A teacher, conducting a class, said it was unwise ever to attempt, even to permit them [the Martin handcart company] to come across the plains under such conditions.

“[According to a class member,] some sharp criticism of the Church and its leaders was being indulged in for permitting any company of converts to venture across the plains with no more supplies or protection than a handcart caravan afforded.

“An old man in the corner … sat silent and listened as long as he could stand it, then he arose and said things that no person who heard him will ever forget. His face was white with emotion, yet he spoke calmly, deliberately, but with great earnestness and sincerity.

“In substance [he] said, ‘I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited was there, too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.

“‘I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it.’” He continues: “‘I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.

“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.’”

I wish I could say that I had never complained. I wish I could say that I never asked the Lord to tell me why I was feeling so devastated and hopeless, when I did what I knew was right. I wish I could say I always had the right mindset, or had the right perspective. I even wish I could say with certainty that angels had guided my steps in that City of Angels.

But I can say, with absolute certainty, that I have become acquainted with God in the time since. I know that Jesus Christ is my savior, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is His ministry, and that there is more to life than the fire.

In that way, I can say with equal surety, that I am glad I served a mission. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That, or the wonderful memories that I’ll share in my next blog.

Playing With the Percentages

A lot of famous (and infamous) men have had things to say about percentages and statistics through the years.

“There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

Benjamin Disraeli, former prime minister of Great Britain

“I couldn’t claim that I was smarter than sixty-five other guys–but the average of sixty-five other guys, certainly!”

Richard Feynman, theoretical physicist

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns- the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense under President George W. Bush

I’ve actually got my eye on writing a whole other article about that particular quote (a serious one, too; as nonsensical as Rumsfeld’s words may first appear, there’s actually a solid chunk of truth there). But my personal favorite, and the idea around which I want to form my current hypothesis, is this:

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”

Mark Twain

My hypothesis is this: there are things about myself that I cannot change, and that will never go away. But I can increase or decrease the likelihood of negative circumstances occuring through small actions I can take right now.

I call it the XCOM Strategy to Mental Fortitude.

Why In the World Is It Called That?

If you’ve ever played the pc game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2, or any one of the myriad titles in the series, then you know that the game is all about calculating percentages. When one of your soldiers aims at an alien on the battlefield, the game calculates many different variables and provides a percentage chance that your soldier will hit the enemy with whatever weapon they’re using.

It looks something like this:

I apologize for the size of the image; the important details are in the bottom left.

In XCOM 2, the system gives you the details of what will increase or decrease the chances of your soldier hitting the enemy. If your solider has good aim, the chances go up. If your soldier’s gun has a scope, or they have a height advantage over their target, the chances go up further. If the enemy is behind half-cover or out of range of your soldier’s weapon, the chances go down. If the enemy is enshrouded in smoke, or has specific resistances, chances go down further. If they’re behind full cover or invisible, you may not have any chance to hit at all.

There is, however, one option that (almost) always works: go AOE and make it explode.

Of course, going explosive is dangerous. The grenade could damage any allies in the area, or bring down local infrastructure (I’ve lost quite a few fights to poor explosion calculations). It also has the nasty habit of destroying your enemy’s weapons if they die, leaving you nothing to salvage after the battle is over.

So, in XCOM, you’ve got some facts. The enemy aliens want to turn you into goo, and there are more of them then there are of you. Your opponents know how to use the terrain, and they have technology on their side. Unless your soldiers are well-trained veterans, their aim is going to be poor and you’ll want to give them every technological and psychological advantage you can scrape together to make them more effective combatants.

In a similar way, although I have been at this mental health business for well over a decade, I am a novice. My ability to stand up to this disease is lackluster. Medicine, the one “advantage” I thought I had, instead smokescreened me to the reality of my situation, and I used it as a crutch that hindered my own desire to make any real changes. So, instead, I’m currently doing (or planning on doing) a number of things to increase the possibility that I will have fewer depressive episodes, and when I inevitably do, increase the likelihood that I can rise out of them faster.

Why is it called the XCOM Strategy, then, instead of just the Statistical Strategy? Mostly because of this:

And this (keep an eye on those percentages):

And this:

As in life, even if the statistics say you have a 99% chance of making something happen, life has a funny way of making the improbable occur instead (if in doubt, consult Murphy and his related laws). Nothing I do will give me a 100% chance of allaying a depressive episode. But that doesn’t make playing with the statistics a poor decision. Life is life, for both pessimists and optimists. No matter what happens, the more I improve my social, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being, the better the depressive episodes will be when they happen.

What I’m Doing Now

  • At the worst of things (March 2021), I weighed 265 pounds. I am now 222 (as of August 2022), aided by the fact that I no longer need to eat all the damn time because of my medicine.
  • I am walking regularly, at least three miles a week. Also aided by the fact that I can now exercise without being blinded by a waterfall of sweat that only seemed to fall from my forehead and absolutely nowhere else. It’s very hard to walk while blind. While this may sound silly, it really was an issue, and the main reason I never wanted to exercise. While taking my medicine, my body just “ran hot”, and I’d have hot flashes more often than I care to admit.
  • I’m writing more. Here, specifically. Fiction and non-fiction.
  • Increasing my workload with my freelance. I get to write two articles about muay thai kickboxing this week. Rock on.
  • I’m submitting applications for full-time employment. While starting a new job runs a bit contrary to my present efforts of resisting depression, the social and monetary benefits outweigh the downsides.

What I Want to Do, Immediately

  • Start studying scriptures again. One conference talk (I’m LDS) and the week’s sunday school lesson’s worth of scriptures a week. I’m still not strong or brave enough to go back to church, so I need to restart somehow.
  • Eat a protein-heavy and fat-heavy breakfast every morning. A lack of energy is currently my mood’s number one enemy.
  • Sleep better, and more regularly. Mentally, I know I function better at night. I’ll have to make adjustments when I do find a job, but this is an important one.
  • Make someone I know happy, every day. I try too hard to make strangers happy, all the while ignoring the people that I love. Strange, isn’t it, how the more depressed you feel the stronger the desire to reach outwards? And when I mean “outwards”, I mean in the wrong direction, towards the internet and total strangers who have less of an incentive to truly care. I was on Twitter a lot before March 2021. Let me tell you where that led me:
No hyperbole here, either.

What I Want to Do, Eventually

  • Make a stranger happy, every day. By this, I mean “try” to, make the world a better place one person at a time. In-person is preferred, but online too. Compliment someone for an idea, thank someone for saying something. There’s far too much tearing down online and not enough building up. I’ve sort of started doing this, but I know I’m not strong enough to endure if I do it wrong. The trigger is still very much alive there. I consider this one my AOE strats: if it works, it really works. If it doesn’t, it REALLY doesn’t.
  • Return to church. And by extension, return to the temple. I need all the assistance I can get, and if I can improve my social health and the lives of others along the way, all the better.
  • Get my weight below 180 lbs. My current goal is to get to 200 by December 31st, 2022. For a five foot, eleven inch tall man, the optimal weight is 155 – 189 lbs. I just want to have a pointy chin again. Not a round one, and certainly not more than one. With less weight, I’ll also have more energy, which will hopefully mean fewer depressive episodes related to not being able to do the things I love.

What I Want All This to Lead To, In Orders of Magnitude

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to enjoy Dungeons and Dragons without anticipating a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to roll with the punches and take surprise events without increasing the likelihood of a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to contemplate dating again without having a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be strong enough to finish my stupid book.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to go on an actual date.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to get married, start a family, have children.

And maybe one day, I’ll be able to look back at my life and say, unequivocally, that I resisted the urge to end my own life, and make it one worth living.

There’s always an XCOM chance that it won’t work. But there’s also an XCOM chance that it might. Either way, a blaze of glory is better than a fizzle.

When You Love What You Hate

One of the hardest things about mental illness is feeling pain and anxiety while doing the things you love, to an unbearable degree. But you have to do the things you love. You have to. You have to serve those you love, because the alternative is to give up every good thing you have. So you do your favorite things, and you help your friends and family, and all while your mind is screaming at you to stop.

The Trigger

Disgustingly accurate meme about choosing depressing shit over the things you love.
It’s too real.

During depressive episodes, even as I’m going through life as usual, things affect me in ways they shouldn’t. Or, I should say, they affect me in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.

Yesterday was already off to a rough start. In fact, the whole week was, because a depressive episode had started brewing on Monday, skipping a day to begin properly beause who-the-hell-knows-why. I had just finished editing the first four chapters of my book, posting them here on my blog and inviting people to read them if they wanted to. I didn’t get a whole lot of feedback, as usual. I don’t know what kind of audience my book is really for, besides myself. And honestly, not many people have the time to read these days, and even less have a desire to read on a screen instead of on paper. That, I totally get; it’s why I use a text-to-speech program, I always miss punctuaction and spelling when writing online, and that’s when writing, never mind reading. (EDIT: I messed up the previous sentence while writing it, case in point.)

By the afternoon, my sister had stopped by the house to see my mom and dad, and I told her about my writing. I had told my mom about it the day before, and she had started reading it, noting that she hadn’t noticed too many differences in the first two chapters she read. Which was to be expected; chapters three and four were the chapters to receive the greatest amount of change in terms of plot and conversation.

After talking to them about it, I thought I would then message a few online friends about it, to see if they would want to read something I wrote.

And that was the moment it started. That was a trigger.

What the Trigger Triggered

Though my “career” as a writer (if you can call it that) has been rocky because of mental illness, I’ve come to a certain level of awareness about the type of content I produce. In online marketing and content writing, the true purpose of content isn’t necessarily about the meaning of the words you type on the page. SEO marketing (or search engine optimization) depends on the writer using the right keywords and keyphrases to attract people to read whatever is being presented. If I’m doing work for a puppy grooming salon, I write to the topic they want me to advertise, I write the words “puppy grooming” a certain percentage of times, and mention a location, usually the town or city of the business’s physical location (let’s say Burmingham, Alabama). So if people in Burmingham, Alabama look up “puppy grooming” in a Google search, the fact that I used those words tell the search engine to suggest they click on that page, as it may hold the information to the service they’re looking for.

In all likelihood, the person searching Google for “puppy grooming” is not going to read the 600 words I wrote for the page that appears. Unless it’s a blog (and a pretty good one at that), they’re likely going to skip ALL of the words on the webpage to find a phone number, an address, something specific, especially if it’s for a small business with a specific product or service. No one reads the marketing. And why would they? I don’t know anything specific about the businesses I write for, and it’s specifics people are always hunting for.

In other words, you might say that I have spent the majority of my adult life writing for search engines, not for an audience, and certainly not for myself. That’s not to say that I’m not grateful for the paychecks, and it certainly isn’t to say that I haven’t learned how to be a better writer by proxy.

But search engines don’t easily demonstrate appreciation. I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve received any kind of feedback from my work, negative or positive. Of those, the majority were because I colossally messed something up. That’s not to say I’m a bad writer. Or, at least, I don’t think I am. It’s just the nature of the beast. Even though I always try to find the interesting details, try to throw in some humor with the professional copy, when it comes right down to it, I’m not being paid to be interesting or humourous. I’m being paid for a word count.

I’m a performer for machines.

So, when I finally have the chance to show off a story, a narration that I’ve had locked in my brain for more than a decade, and I’m nervous as hell to do so…

It hurts when I hear nothing back but the same echoing silence.

Cue the Pity Party, Right?

No. That’s the part that I hate the most, actually. I’ve never written anything besides the SEO stuff. I shouldn’t expect anyone else to care even a fraction of what I do for the story I’m trying to tell. Everyone I love, all of my friends, they have their own lives to live, and I should not expect anyone to drop everything they’re doing to read 80 pages of what is likely to be hot garbage. Besides, this is the hobby portion of the thing I love, there is no time limit on its creation or its editing, and I’ve said many times to those of my friends and family who have taken time out of their busy lives to read it that this is a personal project with a target audience of one.

Me. I’m writing this story for me.

But that’s the thing. The story is personal. There are many aspects of the main characters that are facets of myself, or the person I wish I could be. I’ve tried to design these characters to have needs and desires that make them unique. They tell stories to each other, and crack jokes that made me, as the writer, actually laugh out loud. I’ve spent a lot of time crying with these characters, even, and poured a lot of my self-doubt and hatred into a few of the scenes in the book. Perhaps more than I should have, seeing as how I wrote much of the book while dealing with the worse moments of my own life.

Writing is one of the few methods I have at my disposal where I can truly express how I feel. How I see the world. How the world affects me, and how my mind interrupts and distorts the proper flow of information, both in and out. For the majority of words I’ve ever organized into coherency, my writing has been written to be ignored. Sure, word count and percentages aren’t the only things that matter. But I can guarantee that I’ve posted incorrect information that got the job done anyway. And like an electrician, or a plumber, my goal is to make something that works. I only get feedback if I do a bad job wrenching the pipes together.

Just for once, I want to create something that makes people happy for having read it. I want to make someone want to know what happens next. Hell, I want someone to tell me, flat-out, that they read my story and thought it was one of the most boring things they’d ever come across. I would love someone to tell me that my work put them to sleep. That it wasn’t their thing, but they read it because they knew I wrote it.

I’ve performed for machines for so long… and I just want some feedback.

So What Did the Episode Look Like?

Pretty deep depression. The suicidal type, for about a day and a half. Me, wondering if it’s even worth my time to be here. Me, wondering if I’m worth anything more than my physical presence. Me, desperately wanting to talk to someone about it all, but knowing that I will make zero sense, especially if they assume I want “solutions”. Me, wanting a purpose in life but seeing none if I can’t rise above this. And, worst of all, me, wondering what the conversations would be like between my friends and family if I did actually end it (the fact that my diseased brain finds that shit in any way cathartic being the number one reason I should be seeking professional help, but being too scared about money and time to do so).

A lot of “me”. It always is.

At about 11 o’clock P.M., the episode finally lifted. I went downstairs and made some oatmeal butterscotch cookies. Then I jumped on here to write about it.

What I’m Learning

Being off of medication has flipped things one-hundred and eighty degrees, and not in the direction you might think. Not upside-down, but right side-up. I can more easily recognize that it isn’t ME that hates the things I love, that wants me to stop writing, that wants me to hurt. It’s the imbalance. And it has always been the imbalance.

You know what? That’s what you are, officially, with a capital “I”. You are the Imbalance. You are the stain in the mirror. The shadow on the wall. You are the reason I hate myself, and want my time on Earth to end. But you are not me. On medicine, that distinction was so blurred, I could not see where I ended and my shadow began. The window was so blurred, I couldn’t see that the reflection had fangs, and the face of a fallen angel.

You are not me. You are this.

I haven’t learned how to fight back yet, but just the fact that I can recognize the difference… maybe it’s a step forward.