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Coping With Coping Mechanisms

This isn’t a fun post. This is a mental health post, for me, and I don’t blame anyone for skipping it. The neat game rules and industry observations are still all available, this just isn’t one of those. And it’s going to meander.

Sometimes, my desire to write and publish posts for therapeutic reasons is put at odds with my internal censorship rules.

Some of those rules are based on ethical concerns–when I know and am bothered by something I’m not in an ethical position to reveal, whether than be the result of an NDA, or something I learned in confidence, or that I have reason to believe revealing would result in the harm of someone who doesn’t have harm coming to them over it.

Others are the chain of mental iron forged by my introversion, or family ties, or appropriateness, or common decency.

Sometimes I am just too mentally and physical exhausted to face the inevitable backlash of revealing my raw feelings on some contentious topic.

Sometimes I am ashamed. Those hurt the most, I think.

Sometimes I don’ feel like my opinion is on a firm enough footing of being well-informed and rational a topic. this is especially true when it touches on an area where I have significant advantages over other people who might be impacted by either the issue, or my thoughts on it.

Sometimes I don’t want to worry people, because it sounds worse than it is.

Of course it is the perversity of life that these topics, ones I don’t think I should share due to good and reasoned personal guidelines, are the ones which are most likely to infest my mind. Venomous thoughts I am ill-equipped to tackle on my own, and that seem similar to things I have defused with the coping mechanism of writing about them.

The more it’s something I have good reason not to talk about, the more it can be a relief to talk about it.

Of course therapy can help with that. And sometimes therapy can bring me to a new place where I can talk about an issue, either because I am better informed or because it has less ability to hurt me and others. This is what lead to my being able to discuss the fact I was sexually abused by someone I thought was my friend as a child.

Or to discuss the memory of kids in the Boy Scouts digging a pit as Scout-A-Rama, and having a young woman lure me out to it, and as a group encircling me and shoving me over and over until I fell into it. How they jumped on my back, and held me in place, and began to shovel dirt down around me. How, during this time, several of them laughed that I was stupid enough to think anyone would actually want to spend time with me.

I have nightmares about that still, sometimes. It feels like the worst bullying I ever received. It’s given me trust issues my whole life. I was almost never bullied in school, as a result of some unusual circumstances, but scouts was different. My troop was never involved—I think the troop fathers were too good at monitoring the group as a whole, and being strong role models. But when we gathered with other troops, and I was separated from the people I knew, it was different. It’s the main reason I gave up on scouts.

But sometimes it’s not something I can’t share because it hurts too much. It just wouldn’t be fair or appropriate to talk about it, and I want the relief I get from using writing as a coping mechanism.

So sometimes, I write about something else. And that can help, too.

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Working Sick

Generally speaking as a writer, if you get a cold, or get the flu, you write as best you are able while sick, and to still hit your deadlines you depend on being able to catch up in a crunch when you’re better.

If you’re going to be sick for longer than a few days or a week, things change.

I have a medical issue causing severe fatigue. We know at least part of what is going on, but don’t know yet if we have identified the root cause, or just found a symptom of something more serious. And, it may be months before the testing finds a conclusive answer to that question.

And that means, I have to consider how I am going to manage if my energy levels crashed for weeks, or months to come.

I have, for the past month or so, been more exhausted every day than the day before. Since the issue causing my fatigue is at least potentially progressive, I began to despair that I was on a downward arc that might actually incapacitate me sometime before it gets addressed up to 3-4 months from now.

Of course I *also* had two conventions nearly back-to-back in the past month, and am under pressure from a number of major deadlines. That can be exhausting under the best of circumstances.

So I have maintain the best self-care I could, and attempted to employ new coping techniques suggested by some research.

Today, for the first time in 4 or 5 weeks, I’m not immediately more fatigued than I was yesterday. Indeed, I haven’t been this functional for a week or more.

Any medical condition is likely to have ups and downs so I don’t plan to read too much into this, but it’s nice that I might not exclusively be looking at a downward spiral for personal energy.

That said, as I finish short- and mid-term projects, I’m not replacing them with anything. Hopefully that’ll leave me with time and energy to tackle my long-term things (especially those that are months behind schedule) even if my energy level doesn’t recover any more than this in the foreseeable future.

That’s the only way I can see to keep my career on-track, and not let down anyone who is depending on me.

And I’ll monitor my progress, both medical and wordcount-wise, and see if the steps I’m taking are good enough. If not, I may begin to consider backing out of some long-term commitments, as much as I hate doing that.

We’ll see.

Sick and Tired of Being Tired, But At Least I’m Not That Sick

For a couple of weeks now, I have dealt with the specter of possibly having cancer hanging over my head.
To cut to the chase—that doesn’t seem to be the case. Thank goodness.
The full version of the story isn’t a whole lot longer.

But please, only read this if you can resist giving me any medical advice. I have a good relationship with my medical team and a few folks I turn to if I need advice. I prefer not to get advice from the general public, and ask you not offer me any.

For months now, I’ve had much less energy than normal. Given the number of enormous projects and drains on my serenity I’ve had in the past couple of years—from helping design the Starfinder RPG to moving to overextending myself on other game-industry matters—for quite some time I assumed I was just exhausted.

But when that didn’t seem to be getting better, I decided to talk to my doctor about it, and that brought on a series of tests.

One of those tests did point to a potential cause… which can itself be a sign of cancer. So, that lead to a whole new round of tests.

These tests are, apparently, not completely definitive. There isn’t an absolute yes/no about having cancer of the type I might have had. But all the test results are giving the results you’d most likely expect if there was no cancer. Having no other symptoms, that’s what we are assuming for now, though it’ll change the context with which we’d look at certain other changes should they come along.

Now, I can see about trying to fix the energy level thing with my doctor. That’s still going to take some more tests and maybe trial-and-error, but it’s still ncie to be at the stage that largely rules out worse possibilities.

On Dan Harmon; What Next?

Dan Harmon has confessed to harassing Megan Ganz when she worked on Community. He has detailed the circumstances, apologized, and she has accepted and public stated she forgives him.

I think seeing this handled to Megan Ganz’s apparent satisfaction is important. We do need to think about, since all these terrible things happened, once we accept that…. then what?

I’m not claiming anyone gets a pass, or that even that a harsh, honest accounting and confession fixes everything. And clearly in the broader context we need to look at what needs to happen for men to stop harassing women.

But we also need to look at what are the correct steps to take for harassers, both in acknowledging their wrongdoing, and what is appropriate from there. 

And to be clear, there’s no room on this post for discussions of due process or innocent before proven guilty. None of that is relevant here. Dan Harmon acknowledges his guilt.

He has apologized for it. Megan Ganz has accepted his apology and forgiven him.

Now what?

I’d be entirely understanding if a production company said “Given your self-confessed track record, we’re not willing to allow you to have hiring and firing power over women anymore.”

Should a company Dan works with do more than that? Should no one be willing to work with him? Does he get three strikes? Is there something more he must do to make this not a major concern to those interested in working with him?

What’s next?

Serious Talk about My Abuse

This is about the sexual abuse I suffered as a child. It’s the most I have ever said about it, and I say it simply in the hopes that others who have suffered will find some strength in knowing they are not alone, and it’s not their fault. If you don’t want to read about that, I certainly understand.

I’m not sure how old I was. Older than 7, younger than 12, but I can’t tell you where in that range. The abuser was someone I and my entire family trusted, but not a family member. They were my friend. The abuse occurred once, that I can recall.

I never told anyone. I didn’t know how, and the transgressive nature of what happened to me was so great I was afraid. Afraid I’d get in trouble. Afraid I’d be  blamed. I felt too much shame to tell my family, and had too many bad experiences with trust violations or lack of belief with other authority figures.

I was also afraid I’d be a social outcast. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I mean, 3 or fewer. Often only 1. Losing someone I could hang out with, that my tiny number of friends hung out with, someone important to my social existence outside the home, was more than I could handle. The idea I had to spend time with my abuser or be alone was horrible, but ultimately I decided to be with my abuser. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it happens. One reason I have said RPGs saved my life is that they gave me a way to make more friends. Once I had a few more friends, sometime in the 6th grade, I stopped ever speaking to my abuser. I think that hurt their feelings. I don’t care. As I was making that transition to new friends, suicide had begun to be a practical solution for me.

For years, I couldn’t tell anyone. I was in a youth support group for most of my teens. These were people I trusted, literally with my life in a few cases. But I couldn’t even hint that I had been abused. It has been so long, people would wonder why I hadn’t said anything.

I told one of them, a young woman slightly older than me, on a weekend retreat to a rent house. She burst into tears, and told me how many times she’d been raped. We talked about her, not me, and I think that was the right call. She swore me to secrecy. I’ve never said anything about it, and only mention it now because it’s impossible even for people who know me to identify her, for various reasons. She never brought it up in group. In fact, she really never talked to me again, and I understand. I hope she got help.

I had been married for years before I told my wife. I had been in therapy with the same therapist for years before I could talk about it in therapy, and it’s still something that makes me freeze if I try to talk about it in person. Writing is safer. And writing about it, when I can, is the main way I try, still, more than 35 years later, to someone grapple with it.

Imperfectly Normal

I try to be open about my various mental, emotional, and physical issues. But I also try to not harp on them. I’m not sure what the right balance is, but as I sit 10 days from Gen Con, and the release date for a whole series of books that have eaten up a lot of my headspace, it seemed reasonable to offer a snapshot of how I am doing.

The idea here is not to bemoan my circumstances (I am fortunate and privileged in many, many ways) or ask for help (I have the support I need). But I do want people who feel their own limitations puts various achievements out of reach to be able to see the spectacular level of imperfection that is normal for me. Your path may well be much harder. I’m not trying to give some life coach pep talk. Just honestly share where I am, and let all of you who care to read it decide what that information means for you.

There’s more work to be done than hours or brain cells to do it, and even when I have the time I don’t always have the capacity. Numerous things that trigger many of my anxieties are all happening at one, and even knowing I have been through these things many times before doesn’t really seem to help me keep a handle on things. This is a spectacular confluence of events hammering my sense of calm. As an analogy–knowing ripping the band-aid off will hurt, and that it’s both necessary and temporary, doesn’t reduce the pain of doing it.

I’m not getting enough sleep, and I am stressing too much. These factors will build until after Gen Con, and then, maybe (but only maybe) I can get my life back to some semblance of normalcy.  Until then, I am desperately trying not to let anyone down, not turn over sub-par work for anyone else to have to clean up (a task at which I have apparently already failed a couple of times), and not cry in public. That last is trickier now that I work in an office than it was when I worked from home 90% of the time.

I know, intellectually, I am going to get through this. I am even proud of a lot of the things I am accomplishing, and I have no intention of giving up. But I also am being honest with myself–there are yet more rough times ahead. There will be great times mixed in with them, too. That’s kinda how life works. My depression is a wild card, but even that I’ll get through if it rears up. The important thing is to keep doing everything I can, whenever I can. Some days will be good. Some will be bad. And I need to keep to my coping mechanisms, and forgive myself when they break down.

I’m exhausted, and repetitious, and run down, and worried. But sometimes I am proud and excited, too.

To a lesser extend, this is what any major new release or convention appearance does to me. this year is just magnified significantly in all regards.

It’s all imperfectly normal for me.

Burnout, and the Rent

This industry eats people alive. That’s because it’s extremely demanding, draws in those who are passionate, but doesn’t pay well. I’ve been a full time game writer for most of the past 20 years, and more than a decade of that was freelance. A lot of people who began when I did have left, for computer games, novels, or in some cases security guard gigs or farming. They leave because the time demands, creativity demands, occasional unprofessional ruining either your projected income or something you love, and the pay is, compared to other things with similar demands, low. And often, they leave broken, vowing to never return.

To be clear, I don’t blame anyone for those facts. That’s the way the industry is. I work for, and with, a lot of great people who do their absolute best to take care of everyone they can. I’m not railing against some corporate greed, or claiming I could do better. heck, I’m a publisher as well as a writer and developer. I know what the economic realities are. I am very fortunate to have as many great employers as I do.  It’s just a rough business, and it’s somewhere between hard and impossible to do well by only putting in 40 hours a week.

So, I do more than that. But that’s not a universally good thing. I know I take on a lot, and I try to give everyone what is expected. And, I fail sometimes. Sometimes very publicly. I’m in my late 40s, I have two decades under my belt, and I still feel like this is all a learning experience.

And like a lot of game designers, I live locked in battle with two extremes—burnout, and the rent.

Burnout is real, and if you fully burn out you are done. There are lots of signs of burnout—never enjoying the work instead of only not liking some parts of it; not being able to force yourself to work on a specific project; depression; panic; confusion, as to why what used to work to get projects finished doesn’t anymore; apathy; slowing of new ideas; reduced quality; a willingness to cut corners in ways you know aren’t right (be that ethically, legally, or just not the kind of work you like to produce, depending on who you are and how badly you burned out).

But just because you can see potential burnout, doesn’t mean you can walk away. Everyone will tell you to… but they don’t know your budget, your needs, your situation overall. If you have people depending on your to provide for them, if you know you can’t survive a loss of income, if you’re going to be homeless if a project falls through, “taking a break” may not be a realistic option for you.

I have flirted with burnout more than once over the years. Sometimes I’d love to have walked away, but at that moment it wasn’t financially practical. Other times I knew if I could push through some specific project, I’d be fine. It isn’t always the big projects, either. Sometimes something small will suck up hundreds of hours of time, because you just can’t get it right.

On the other hand, you also can’t just ignore signs of burnout. If you see it coming, you need to do something. Stepping back from even one big responsibility can make a huge difference. So can powering through something to see the results of your hard work. So can assign for help, if you have people you can ask.

In my experience, those things don’t fix problems immediately. But if you don’t take steps like that, and burnout gets worse, you are traveling a dark path. One that has taken out better designers than I.

Big and important projects—new core rulebooks, connected series of adventures, new jobs that have extremely steep learning curves, ventures with partners counting on you—can be particularly brutal. And if you do more than one of those at a time, the effects multiply, rather than add.

But such projects also, eventually, smooth out. Either you finish them, or you learn the ropes.

It’s all too easy to end up in a position that is unsustainable, caught between burnout and the rent. But small changes do, eventually, make a different. Not everything must be sustained forever.

Also, know what helps. Or if you don’t know, look. I’ve been very public with a lot of my mental issues, and I have posted a lot of retrospectives, like this. These are both a release valve for me–a cheap and useful form of stress relief–and something I do because I would have loved to have this information in 1997, when I was writing freelance material but nothing had been published yet. It helps me, and I hope it helps someone else.

Each person must navigate their own path between these creative and financial Scylla and Charybdis. And sometimes you just have to strap yourself to the tiller, lay on sail, and hope you are still above water when you reach the far side.

But if you do that…keep those navigational charts, and try to avoid those waters in the future. Most people, myself included, bring burnout down on themselves. Try to learn from it.

You’ll keep making mistakes, of course. Just try not to make the same mistakes over and over.

Patreon

I have a patreon. It’s one way I try to navigate between burnout and the rent, and it has some exclusive content.

If you ever find my posts to be entertaining or useful, consider offering a dollar or two a month of support.

Bad Nights and Coping Mechanisms

It’s late, and I’m tired. Today was a massive failure. As a result, I feel like a massive failure.

So, to coping mechanisms.

Though I do not believe it emotionally, or intellectually, I am going to keep telling myself everything is going to be all right, and that things will get better. There are risks to this, but it serves me better than despair, so that’s the mechanism. It has to be rote, or I won’t do it when I most need it. I have sometimes dug up my old checklist, from when I literally could not trust myself to make smart care decisions on nights like this. I’d stare at the times, and feel total apathy. But doing something seemed smart, so I’d do those things. And check them off, each as I did it, no matter how minor. Some lists even include not doing things, so I get to mark those off just by properly focusing my sloth.

The coping mechanism says I have to go forward assuming I can fix things tomorrow. I can’t keep the failure of today with me, count all my progress against the negative value of this and all the failed days that came before. That’s stacking the deck against myself. I need to have a realistic assessment of what is possible, but that’s about looking forward not weighing down measures of success with things I could have gotten done if I just hadn’t failed miserably on a range of occasions.

I do know, looking at my track record, that sometimes I pull it out, and sometimes I don’t. I also know I am a bad judge of my ratios of success to failure, and that smart people I trust often have a very different opinion of how I am doing. That all gets added to the coping mechanism calculations.

But there’s no point on hammering my brain any harder about this tonight. That hasn’t worked since I was 35. When I am done, I am done.

I need to go through my checklist of things to try to give tomorrow the best chance. What I eat, what I read or watch, how late I stay up, whether I take my prescriptions—these things feel utterly pointless right now, but I know they are not. However bad things are, there is no point in making them worse.

I am bad at self-care, but making every effort I am able to is part of the coping mechanism.

Also do the best you can to take care of yourself, and forgive yourself of your failures.

Games Matter

Monopoly was originally designed as “The Landlord’s Game” by a woman, Lizzie Maggie, and was intended to be a teaching game that showed that rents enriched property owners to the financial detriment of renters, who had little power to change the situation.

The design was patented twice, and despite that stolen by someone else, and turned into a hit with none of the teaching intent maintained, the original patent bought, and by the 1970s it was commonly stated the man who stole it was the sole creator of it.

So, yes. Credit matter. Presentation matters. Intent matters. And games can normalize concepts and help shape societal thought, despite the fact “they’re just games.”

Also

Patreon. I has one.

On Screwing Up

I screwed up recently (not a new or rare occurrence), which lead me to begin running down my mental checklist for how to handle that fact. I realized I’ve never talked about that checklist, and that lead to:

Screwing Up. Next Steps.    

Congratulations, you screwed up. Now what?

This is my general guide for when you screw up on what to do AFTER the screw up. It is born of my professional experiences in the game industry, and personal experiences as an uneducated depressive introvert with confrontation, communication, and time management problems.

In short this comes from a LOT of experience screwing up, but they are all a specific set of screw-ups. Your massive personal failures may vary, and I am not a trained or expert screw up therapist.

Step One: Accept and Acknowledge

These are two separate things, but they are pretty tightly linked. Let’s start with acceptance.

This is specifically a guide for when YOU have screwed up. Not when someone screwed something else up and you catch the blame, or when the universe screws things up and you have to find ways to fix it. The built-in framework here is for when, yeah, you screwed up.

So, you have to accept that.

Acceptance is important for a lot of reasons. First, without your own buy in that you screwed up, you won’t be able to internalize the lesson that screw up contains. Second, acting like you screwed up when you don’t believe you did leads to resentment, among other things.

I’m not here to tell you when you screwed up. Just to say you have to take a long, hard look at major failures, and decide if that’s your own fault. If no, then you need to manage the disaster with an eye towards those factors that DID cause it. But if you screwed up, you need to accept that fact.

Acknowledgement in this case means acknowledging the screw up to those effected. If you fail to do something you said you’d do, or do something that causes problems for others, you need to let them know that YOU know.

This isn’t the place for self-flagellation. The object here is not to garner sympathy, or make yourself feel worse, or make the people who are negatively impacted by your screw up feel worse. It’s just a heads-up that yes, there’s a problem, you caused it, and you know it. Doing this right is tricky. I find efforts to spin why or how you screwed up often get in the way of a clean and useful acknowledgement. Sometimes people need to know why or how, or ask for their own purposes, and that’s fine (if it’s not private, which it can be). But the idea in this acknowledgement isn’t to cover your ass against the consequences (but in some environments you might have to do that, and only you can make that call). The idea here is to bring the other people involved up to your level of information in a polite, professional, and straightforward way.

Step Two: Assess

Okay, this entire article assumes you have screwed up. That’s the premise. This is about finding out how BADLY you screwed up, and what led to the screw up.

Step two is really about baring down on step one as many times as you need to. I personally think accepting and acknowledging at least begin before assessing—admit you screwed up and let people know there’s an issue as soon as you are sure there is one. But right after that, figure out how big a problem you caused. If that calls for accepting that things are worse than you thought (or realizing it’s not that big a deal), and updating anyone else affected, then do that. You need the information to continue this checklist.

Step Three: Mitigate

Nope, the steps aren’t all A words.

Now that you have an idea how big a problem you caused and how you caused it, see if there’s anything reasonable you can do to fix it. What’s reasonable is going to vary, and I can’t really give you hard rules for that. Small problems, or screw ups that it is easier for someone else to fix, or screw ups so massive or personal that anything you try only makes things worse, certainly do happen. You need to see if you can fix it, and if not can you make things better, and if not what can you do to minimizing making things even worse.

Those are of course, all super vague. Lemme give some examples.

If you are working on a project for someone and you know for certain you are going to miss a deadline, you have likely screwed up. If you accept and acknowledge that fact, and assessed the screw up, you should have contacted the person you are to turn it over to and let them know you are going to miss the deadline.

The next question is, now what?

If you are only going to be a little late and the person you are working with can handle that, then mitigating is making sure you hit your new deadline. If you can’t finish the thing at all, you may need to figure out what you can do, and see if that’s helpful. And certainly, you don’t keep hiding or obfuscating that the project is going to be late in the hope you can finish it before you get pinned down. That’s not mitigation.

This may include some hard conversations with people you have let down. Again, straightforward and professional behavior is, in my experience, your best option. But you need to mitigate your screw up with appropriate levels of effort. Don’t cause more problems or become obsessed over the great lengths needed to fix a minor screw up. You can’t let even moderate screw ups take over your life. And if you can’t mitigate the damage you have done, you need to accept AND ACKNOWLEDGE for that too. People may be disappointed or even angry, but they deserve the truth.

Step Four: Learning

Most of my own screw up result from behavior I could have avoided if I had been smart or forethoughtful enough. As a result, after I realize I have screwed something up and done what I can to fix it, I want to examine what I did wrong. Making mistakes is human. Making the same mistake over and over is dumb.

Keep in mind, you often won’t get this right. It’s easy to take the wrong lesson away from an issue, or think your error was unique to a specific circumstance without recognize an underlying behavior that applies in a broader context than you think. Making a mistake about how you made a mistake is frustration, but it’s going to happen. So when you screw up, be sure to examine not only that specific calamity, but anything similar that you’ve screwed up before. In some cases, you’ll find you missed a larger lesson, and that’s your opportunity to finally learn it.

Take Away

None of this can fix the fact you screwed up, and while that’s unfortunate it’s also okay. Everyone screws up from time to time. Hopefully you’ll screw up less often than I do, and you won’t need a mental checklist of how to handle such situations. But because everyone screws up occasionally, I have found that when you tackle you own screw ups with honesty, clear communication, and an effort to fix both the issues you cause and the underlying problems that lead to the screw up, people are generally understanding. Not everyone, of course, but you can never control the behavior of other people. You can only control what you do, and imperfectly at that. Which is what makes handling your own screw ups in an adult and reasonable manner so important.

My Patreon

Changing topics entirely, I want to let folks who haven;t read the end of one of my articles before know I have a Patreon. It’s how I justify taking the time to write a lot of this material on my blog. I’d love your support.