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Pulling Yourself Out of a Funk
I was in it, the pit / you were in it, the pit
I often wonder about writers firing out multiple newsletters a week; once every seven days feels exhausting enough. But lately I’m wondering whether a daily delivery schedule might be a blessing. My weekly deadline—let’s call him Steve—keeps this train on the tracks, haphazard as they are. Steve can be flexible. But Steve keeps me honest. Steve gets my arse into a chair. Steve ensures I keep my fingers battering against a keyboard. Steve makes me cram in round after round of edits before eventually telling me to “ship this thing, even though I know you want to spend another hour moving commas around.” Some weeks pleasing Steve comes easy. Other weeks require more effort. Those tougher weeks tend to pass and I’m back on top soon enough.
But the last few weeks? Steve is kicking my arse. This rebound has taken a while, and I’ve felt myself slip into a funk. It’s not just here—it’s spreading its slimy tentacles towards everything it touches. From talking to friends and fellow dads it seems I’m not alone. If you’re feeling it, your particular flavour of funk might flow from a number of sources: the intensifying cycle of horrific news, dark evenings bringing the dreaded cycle of “Is this seasonal affective disorder or something worse”, uncertainties around the economy and the increasing cost of everything (bar salaries), the inevitable exhaustion that comes from trying to balance it all and feeling like you’re doing a shitty job of everything. These things pile up.
I’m simultaneously working my way through The Ferryman, a novel by Justin Cronin set on the utopian archipelago of Prospera. Citizens measure their life satisfaction via monitors embedded in their forearms, indicating their physical health and psychological well-being on a scale from 0-100. Most characters sit in the 90s. A drop below 80 is cause for concern. But as they get older, and the weight of the world begins to strain upon them, their levels skydive. When that magic number falls below 10, they’re forced into retirement, leaving the island with the ferryman, never to return.
My mind has wandered this week to the utility of such a device. Might it help me realise I’m falling into a fog, catching me before I notice it myself? How much of an effect might that have? Maybe I’d shift into better habits earlier or let loved ones know before its fangs had made their way into my flesh. What if we could subscribe to a live feed of our friend's numbers? You’d know when to reach out without them feeling they’re putting pressure on you. Instagram might take on a new dimension if well-being numbers were attached to carefully selected highlights.
I looked for instructions on the way out of the pit; search results of Reddit threads turned purple long ago. But I hadn’t expected the best advice to be right under my nose: amongst our own community of dads. Looking through previous questions in our “Therapy Couch” channel, I found a dad who opened up earlier in the year about what to do when “Life feels flat, and how to get yourself out of a funk.”
I’ve been struggling a bit recently with life feeling rather “flat.” I’m using this as a place to vent so apologies upfront! I find it hard to get excited about things, even though I have a toddler who gets excited about practically everything.
I have this vague underlying feeling that life shouldn’t feel this way, like there is a lot of inertia keeping me in place and it’s hard to put my finger on. It might not necessarily be something external, I’m not caught in a “when, then” trap (unless you count the “when I pay off my mortgage” daydreams.) I’m currently speaking to a therapist and addressing some issues from my past and I’m trying to take up exercise again as I always seem to fall off the wagon. Like others, I’m the only dad in my friend group so am also a bit isolated in that manner.
I’m not sure what I’m hoping for here, I feel a bit directionless in life in general. By society’s standards I’ve arrived, bought and living in a property that gets my child into the best school in the country and that we have enough space we will never need to move again, so “is that it” I tend to ask myself.
I think there is just a lack of adventure or spark but I’m not sure how to bring this back and get out of this apathy I seem to be stuck in. I feel this apathy is emotionally draining on those around me and I know I’m not giving my best to my family, but also in order to give them the best I need to look after myself.
Just wondering if others have felt this way and if so how did you kick yourself out the funk?
I bolded that bit for those wondering what this has to do with fatherhood. Because inherent in pulling yourself out is who you’re doing it for. When you’ve only got yourself to worry about, you can easily sit in your underpants for hours, Xbox controller in hand, working on your Call of Duty K/D ratio before you finally shame yourself into taking a shower. It ain’t pretty, but you’re the only person paying the price. But when you’re a dad? You owe it to those around you to get back out, because your funk has a particular aroma that can stink up the whole house.
For those of us who have struggled with our mental health in the past, these funk phenomena come with an added element of dread. Is this a bump in the road? Or has that dark fog caught up again despite our valiant attempts to stay ahead of it? Bob Hoskins—the OG Super Mario—spent the bulk of the 90s reminding UK residents that “It’s good to talk.”1 He wasn’t wrong, a fact echoed by a bunch of dads chiming in with tips, and opening up about their personal struggles.
With the kind permission of those dads, and after removing names and details to protect the innocent, I felt compelled to share the conversation here. I started putting some of this into action this week. It has already helped me feel like I’m coming out of this rut. One dad noted, “This sounds like it’s endemic to so many people at the moment.”
So, if you’re feeling it, I hope you find something useful. And as a reminder, everything I’ve written about mental health is always available here.
Onto the dadvice.
L: This resonates a lot. I’ve been feeling better recently because I’ve pushed myself to be more social, and, importantly, not just online. I reached out to an old friend and we’ve started golfing again recently. Golf alone has been good for me to get back into. I’m a better-than-average player and enjoy the challenge of trying to improve. It’s a decent form of exercise, as long as I walk the course. But it’s also a great way to be more present because hitting good shots requires total focus on the task at hand and blocking everything else out in those moments when you hit the ball. It can be frustrating too, of course. But I’m trying to care less about my score and appreciate that I can make the time and can afford to be out there.
J: I think this feeling is entirely common. But it doesn’t make it any easier. I also echo the exercise recommendation, preferably with a group. It adds the community aspect and you may meet a fellow dad or two. I think it was K. (editor’s note: not me!) who recently shared how he went up to another dad in his child’s school and started talking. Worst case scenario it breaks the monotony of things feeling the same. Best case you’ve got someone to break the monotony with multiple times.
N: I don’t have any advice other than to say I’m in the same spot. I’ve fallen into a deep depression and now I’m searching to find myself again. Hang in there. I’m a fellow traveller.
M: Feel this very strongly. I think it’s a mix of having a kid being very boring sometimes, getting older and not realising that I’m not my younger self any more, and probably still quite a bit of post-pandemic funk. My therapist says that so many people are feeling like this, so it’s not uncommon. That doesn’t make it easier. She ended up basically telling me to get a hobby 😂 but I think she’s right - I need to reconnect with doing a thing that’s just for me, and that gives energy rather than taking it. I find that hard for a bunch of reasons as well, but she’s right for sure. Hang in there and stay open about it!
B: Also a fellow traveller—some thoughts of mine that I’ve gathered from reading and therapy, targeted toward my specific struggles. They generally help me, although not every time and while I’m sure your mileage will vary, hopefully, it might be of some help—crazy how depression messes with your memory and gives you tunnel vision:
Negative feedback loops: reach out to people/go do things. Tell your spouse/friends how you are feeling. Do your support networks need rebuilding/revitalizing? Don’t just be superficial, say “I am struggling, can we chat”. “They should invest in their relationships with other people. We found that the strongest predictors of who not just stayed happy but who was healthy as they went through life—the strongest predictors were the warmth and the quality of their relationships with other people.”
Don’t wait for the motivation: do it unmotivated, do it sad/scared. Go through the motions of things that you have enjoyed doing in the past, or things you have wanted to do. What's the expectation we’re putting on ourselves? Let's make it wayyyy more manageable. Not going to be energized and super into the book I’m into, best climber ever, most social person, etc. Right now, just show up. The goal is just something actually achievable—break down any/all tasks into manageable chunks.
Therapy / CBT: stop “shoulding” yourself. Rational vs irrational thoughts translating into feelings and choice of actions. Chased by a dinosaur? Great time to panic! However if your feelings are mostly derived from irrational thoughts (EVERYTHING will be ruined if I am ten minutes late!), take a step back and just know that this is the opportunity to rationalize my behavior and align my actions. Not about a shame game, just an understanding of the connections and opportunities. Feelings aren’t facts, acting on feelings instead of facts usually means you’re acting nonsensical without any factual moderation.
Journal: having a space to emote can be extremely beneficial
Prioritizing good sleep hygiene, eating habits. Make sure all basic needs are met—Maslow’s hierarchy. Prioritizing exercise, especially social sports.
Self-compassion. SELF COMPASSION. Break the “I’m a POS” feedback loop
Celebrate wins, no matter how small: Depression can be like carrying an invisible 800-pound backpack, that others may not experience. Some days, just getting out of bed is enough and needs to be celebrated. If my depressive symptoms spiked today—it doesn’t mean I am anything negative, it just means it’ll be harder to get things done today. No dumber than the last time I did this activity I’ve done before, it just means it’ll be harder today. If I persevere and push through it, eventually I’m going to trend upward. If I get mad at myself and shut down, then I’m ultimately not going to trend upward. Kinda like certain yoga poses - might not be able to do the same stretch two days in a row; my body may just be a different body on a different day, and if I give a good faith effort then i’ll eventually trend in the direction I want to go.
Good-faith effort standard: considering all the shit going on in your life, did you put in a good-faith effort? Not just at the gym, but at work? Cleaning? Chores? Some days, a single push-up is enough. And that’s ok!
I: sigh I feel you bud. This has been my mood for the last year at least, but really, I think it goes back much earlier, pre-baby, pre-pandemic. I haven't been able to put my finger on it, but here are a few things I've thought about...
Becoming a parent wasn't really something I "planned' for in life, but saw it for others and felt a pull to—as my old friend said about her ambivalence about being a mother—"sign up for the full experience". In many ways being a parent is like one drawn-out Peak Experience: very little means as much in comparison now, especially compared to what I used to define my life as. I mean, it is absolutely just repeating on a treadmill in many ways, but it's also just life presenting itself in front of you every minute, and that's about all we can ever ask for really...
So I wonder if there's something about how the things you/we used to enjoy just hit different now we're parents - and the things that make life more difficult (less exercise, poorer sleep, less disposable cash) are side effects - and we just need to re-calibrate a bit more to finding joy in other things, that may just be a bit more subtle? Being younger was big gestures of Life (travelling, parties, early careers, different relationships...) but now maybe we're just starting to brew a bit into different creatures...?
Not sure if this makes any sense, but you writing this just made me think out loud and wanted to convey that I feel very much the same, and maybe it's worth us keeping this open as it seems to have struck a chord.
The (caveat: not a therapist in the slightest) other thing that comes up is something about emotions in general. If you feel that you are lacking in joy, it may be because you are denying yourself the emotions of joy because you are blunting yourself from difficult emotions. You can't pick which emotions to feel, you either feel them or or you blunt/disconnect from them. Maybe worth thinking if you are trying to avoid difficult emotions elsewhere in your life that stop you from feeling the feelings of joy that might otherwise appear.
J: Agree on the journaling. I went with “40 words per day, every day” when I hit forty. My bar is now 42 words a day and I have missed just one day so far. It’s helped put things in perspective. I’ve even laughed at how mad I was going to bed some days for simple things. And I just put it in my bullet journal. My handwriting is terrible so I don’t care about anyone reading it.
And on exercise: the best way I’ve found to move when I don’t want to is to put my exercise gear on first thing in the morning before leaving my bedroom. It forces me to say “I’m already dressed, just get outside the house” and leverage the guilt of how I’d feel if I didn’t. I also sign myself up for an early morning class and refuse to cancel it the next before as a pre-commitment routine. Today, both of those are getting me out the door and I’m 85% sure I’ll come back from the gym feeling much better than I am now.
S: Whilst I’m lucky to have never truly experienced depression that others talk of, the flat feeling is definitely there. Most of the time it’s something that I sit at the edge of looking away from but recent personal experiences, namely my dad being diagnosed with terminal cancer, have led to it creeping closer. This is all to say whilst I’m not in quite the same circumstances I am very onboard to be part of a group looking to bring a more positive personal experience to fatherhood.
Because that’s the rub isn’t it? That having kids makes things so much fucking harder, I mean they’re great and all, we can all agree on that, but having zero free time, being constantly tired and the distancing that happens with friends means that we’re making these changes with a massive handicap.
I think I. is onto something, there does need to be a shift in mindset - I also think there’s a lack of fatherhood role models too, people that you can see working it out in the best way. Just like Kevin, I base a lot of my aspirations for parenting on Bandit Heeler.
I put some of this advice into action yesterday. I dropped the kids off at school and took advantage of a morning without meetings to venture into the mountains and walk it off. I felt notable resistance all the way up: you have emails to answer, a newsletter to write, it’s going to be too windy up there, your laptop might get stolen even though it’s completely hidden in the boot of the car. I remembered the words of Steven Pressfield in The War of Art: “Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.” I shut them off and hiked towards Tibidabo—500 metres above the city, a pair of beautiful conjoined churches sitting alongside an old-school amusement park. The views from up here are unparalleled—looking down onto Barcelona’s many sights and out into the Mediterranean. I walked through the forest, listened to some music—another aspect of life that has felt hollower over the last few weeks; one more thing to keep an eye on as I wait for them to invent the forearm monitor.
I felt the rain on my face. I started writing this essay. I fired off a few messages to friends, intentionally taking my head out of the sand. Today I feel a little better. Tomorrow, hopefully, better still.
Wrapping Up / Over to You
A little different again this week. Thanks to P., whose opening up inspired this conversation, and the many dads in the community who contributed to this issue and allowed me to share their responses. (If you’d like to join such a group of wonderful, supportive folks, you know the drill.)
I want to wrap up by using this space for something positive. The heart of TNF is dads helping other dads out. So, if you feel like you’re in the middle of a funk and finding things especially hard, why not share how you’re feeling, and what you’re struggling with? For those who’ve been there, and coming out the other side, what has helped? Like I always remind myself, this too shall pass. But sometimes a stubborn blockage requires a good shove.
Let’s get to work.
How did you like this week’s issue? Your feedback helps me make this great.