2020 Review

Hello and welcome back to Mortgage Advisor on FIRE.  This blog post is something of a bonus installment, as we say goodbye to 2020 and look forward to 2021.  This entry is somewhat different to my normal content, in that there will be less focus on finance and more focus on mental health, and a look back at what was the worst year of my life.  

Mortgage Advisor on FIRE has been going for just over a year now.  I started in November 2019 and the blog has evolved since that first post.  It was not my intention to write about my health in any significant way, but as the blog evolved I noticed I was getting as many messages of support about my health as I was regarding my financial philosophy.  I started this project to keep myself on track with the idea of helping other people dependent on those people thinking I had something useful and interesting to say.  So, here is my 2020 review which will hopefully help other people who have struggled.  For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to go over this chronologically.  

My year started with several ongoing health problems.  I was undergoing investigations for my heart and I had only just come off crutches after a month-long spell where I had the worst pain I’d ever experienced and was unable to walk properly.  My recovery from this pain was short lived as I found myself back on crutches for most of January and February.  At this point, Covid-19 was still half a world away and so our trip to India in late-February proceeded as planned. 

I was not in a good way and was carrying most of my weight through the crutches. I was taking eight tramadol a day at the height of the pain.

The two-weeks in India were disappointing for the most part due to the incompetence of our tour guide and travel agent.  There were some spectacular sights, such as the Taj Mahal, but the abject poverty that was evident everywhere was heartbreaking.  I don’t want to sound too “woke”, but I came away from India with a much greater appreciation for what I have in life, and for what I don’t have to contend with on a daily basis. 

Not long after returning from India, Covid-19 was starting to spread throughout the UK.  In the first days of my return, shops were being emptied of toilet rolls, hand soaps and cleaning products.  I coped very well with the lockdown and other restrictions.  I started working from home and found myself in a good routine.  I started a new exercise challenge for charity, where I was attempting to cycle the distance from Sheffield to Snagov on my exercise bike.  I was doing well until *gross out warning* blood started pouring from my ass.  I don’t think it takes too much explanation to understand why this is a bad thing.  I had to end the attempt after getting just past the halfway point.  

There are certain things that happened this year that I’m not going to talk about directly, but I do need to mention in passing because it had a direct impact on the rest of my year.  In late May, something happened that knocked me sideways.  I was in a very dark place for several weeks, and then the other shoe dropped and I was mentally broken.  I found myself in an emotional state I had never experienced before.  It wasn’t depression in the sense of sadness or melancholy.  It was complete nihilism.  There were many nights where I would just sit, unable to concentrate on anything.  For a few weeks I would go out for walks and just wander the streets until the early hours of the morning as the sun was rising.  I was on autopilot for most things and I can’t remember a huge amount.  At no point was I suicidal, or in any danger of doing physical harm to myself.  I always had a little voice in my head telling me that this would pass, and that I would come out the other side stronger.  Something had changed inside me though.

My cat, Sweep, did his best to make me feel better, just like he does all the time.

There is a thought experiment in philosophy known as the Ship of Theseus.  There are some variations of the experiment, and I will provide a simple overview.  Imagine a wooden sailing ship that is travelling the world.  Throughout the voyage, parts of the ship fall into disrepair and are replaced.  Over time, every part of the ship, every plank of wood, every mast, and every oar is replaced.  Is the ship still the same vessel that started the journey?  There is a second part to this experiment.  Imagine that all the parts of the original ship that were replaced, were cast overboard.  Then, a second ship following recovered all of these parts and rebuilt the original ship.  Which ship would be the Ship of Theseus?

Some people would argue that identity is more than just physical.  It’s about memory and emotion.  The legitimate Ship of Theseus is the one that the crew believe in.  Can an inanimate object have an identity though?  The reason I bring this idea up is because humans are similar in many respects to the Ship of Theseus.  Over time our cells die and are replaced.  We change size and shape, as we gain or lose fat and muscle.  Our brains change as we age, and memories are formed and lost over time.  Our personalities and knowledge change from one moment to the next, depending on what we encounter and experience through our lives.  Am I the same person I was a minute ago?  I guess so.  What about the minute before that?  And the one before that?

What I’m talking about now is a form of gradualism, in that we change subtly over time so that from one moment to the next, we appear to be the same.  When you zoom out and look at the bigger picture over a longer period of time, the change becomes apparent.  There are occasions where change is not so gradual, where something so catastrophic happens that you are fundamentally altered and there is a definite before and after.  That is what happened to me this year.  2020 will always be a milestone year for me.  

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I’m not the same person I was in 2019.  In some ways, the awful year I’ve had has been positive, in that it’s brought a few things to the fore that would otherwise have been left simmering in the background.  For a long time I have suspected that my numerous physical and mental health problems must have an underlying cause, and it would appear that is the case.  It is now suspected that I have an underlying condition that has contributed to many of my health problems, and although there is no cure for this condition, simply knowing the cause is enough to bring a sense of relief.  It also allows me to start tackling the root cause and putting in place measures to manage the condition, rather than treating the symptoms as and when they flare up.  

One of the ways in which I’ve changed in 2020 is that I’m no longer willing to tolerate bullshit, whether that’s in person or online.  If someone annoys me online, I just block them.  If someone wrongs me in real life, I cut them out of my life completely.  Don’t misunderstand; I’m not going to cut someone out for a simple disagreement, but I’m done placating people for the sake of others or maintaining peace if they consistently disrespect me.  Life is too short to be dumped on by others, and I’m worth more than being a doormat for others.  If someone is wronging me, it is unreasonable of anyone else to expect me to keep the peace by not responding in some way.  That person urging restraint is saying that my feelings are subservient to theirs, and that appeasement is more important.  Well, I say fuck that.  Fuck.  That.  

As I’ve struggled this year, I’ve received support from some surprising places; people who I did not expect to support me have done so.  Then, people who I thought would be supportive have not.  That’s not to say I’ve been let down as such, because this year has been an absolute dumpster fire and I’m trying to get better at realising people have their own worries and concerns.  This might sound like common sense but there is a lot of research out there that suggests we attribute the perceived poor behaviour of others to their own personality rather than external factors.  A basic example would be that if a colleague is grumpy, we think it’s because they’re an asshole rather than them being kept up all night by their newborn baby.  It’s important to remember that we are also the subject of this attribution from other people.  If I have a bad night’s sleep and I’m short with people the following day, they will probably think I’m an asshole rather than wondering why I was short with them. 

This summer was awful.  Covid-19 and my rapidly deteriorating mental health really took a toll.  My birthday, in September, was also awful.  I spent the night at home with my girlfriend in one of the most depressing mental states I’ve experienced.  I was physically and mentally broken, and I needed time and space to recover. We did go for a fantastic meal with family the day after my birthday, but even then I was still not mentally present to the point where I could fully appreciate the experience.  The last quarter of the year resulted in more hospital visits and tests for my shoulders and for further tests with a gastroenterologist.  It was suspected that I have Crohn’s but the pill camera did not show any significant worsening since I last had the test a few years ago.  So, it would appear that my various health issues are all related to this single, unifying condition for which there is no cure.

I’m not too downbeat about this situation now, after all it would do no good.  Rather, there is a sense of relief that I now have a root cause I can tackle.  This does help in some respects, but knowing the cause of something does not help with the immediate symptoms in the same way knowing your house fire started with a cheap phone charger does not extinguish the flames.  The last few months have given me the mental space to realise several things.  I’m not talking about how I suddenly realised the small things matter, or that life is special or that I’ve found god or some other banal rubbish.  I’ve realised that for a long time I’ve been acting out a role that has been causing me a lot of mental exhaustion.  It’s like the advice a lot of people give out, “fake it until you make it.”  The problem is, what if there is no end in sight?  Faking it in this way just leads to an eventual breakdown.  I suspect I would have arrived at the point eventually, but the events of this year both in global terms and also what happened to me specifically brought forward my eventual breakdown.  

Mental health is such a minefield and in many ways I believe it’s worse for men.  This comes back to the idea of playing a role or “faking it until you make it”.  There is still a stigma attached to men displaying vulnerable emotions such as fear, sadness or loneliness.  Roughly three-quarters of suicides in the UK are men.  I’m not trying to downplay female suicides or female mental health problems.  I’m a man though, and a man who has struggled with mental health problems for over two-decades now.  The support that’s out there is just not fit for purpose.  I’ve had a few experiences with counselling and not a single one has been positive.  I ended my last counselling program when my therapist responded to my description of how I get really angry by explaining I need to “calm down”.  

I’ve found much more helpful advice from words written two-thousand years ago by Marcus Aurelius, and other notable Stoics.  I wrote in a previous post about how I try to combine the best of humanism, stoicism and nihilism to inform and guide my actions.  There are things I do which also help me maintain some form of mental stability.  A couple of years ago I discovered Audible and signing up is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  Audiobooks are amazing.  One of my greatest pleasures is going for a long walk with a good audiobook for company.  There is so much that can be learned from history, philosophy, science and even fiction.  Something else I find a lot of fun is memes.  I love memes.  I can happily sit and scroll through lists of memes for an hour a day, laughing my ass off.  My girlfriend thinks this is a little bit lame, but so what.  I enjoy it.

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Another thing I’ve come to realise is that I’m not on the same wavelength as a lot of people.  I’m not saying I’m better or worse, or more intelligent.  It’s like I speak a different language to most other people, although that’s not quite accurate either.  I guess it’s a little like that idea that we don’t know if we all perceive colour in the same way.  Do I see blue in the same way you do?  This disconnect is part of the reason why I’ve struggled to maintain friendships.  There’s something missing in that connection.  I find a lot of social interaction unnecessary and pointless, especially with things like small talk.  I enjoy a good conversation about a subject that interests me, but I struggle to maintain interest in general chit-chat.  I think this is why I’ve struggled with networking in the past, and why I’m seen as outspoken in some quarters.

I don’t generally make a good first impression.  I know that I’m not well liked by people who don’t know me well.  I don’t really care.  When people do get to know me, I tend to get on well with most of them.  I just find, what I class as unnecessary social interaction, to be more trouble than it’s worth.  I think this is why I find online interaction much more rewarding, as conversations are centred around specific subjects of mutual interest.  

2020 has been awful in so many respects, but most of that has been because of things that have happened to me, as opposed to anything I’ve done in error.  As I type this on the last day of the year, I can look back with some satisfaction that I survived.  Although I don’t think I was ever in physical danger, my mental state took me to such dark places that I think I was just another blow away from going over the cliff.  I took everything that 2020 had to throw at me, and I’m still here and I’m ready to tackle 2021.

The strange thing about the new year is that it’s an entirely human construct.  We measure time according to the Earth’s rotation on its axis, as well as the time it takes to orbit the sun.  However, neither of these are exact.  A day is not exactly 24-hours and a year is not exactly 365-days.  We’ve created a model that is more-or-less accurate to enable society to function.  Nothing actually changes when the date ticks over from 31/12/2020 to 01/01/2021 (this is the correct format; DD/MM/YYYY – fight me!).  It’s a purely psychological change, but it can still be useful as a breaking point between what came before and what is still to come.

I’ve set several goals for 2021, which I will now share with you.

  1. Reduce my weight back to a healthy 92.8kg.
  2. Read or listen to 104 new books.
  3. Complete module RO3 for my DipFA.
  4. Complete RO4.
  5. Complete RO5.
  6. Complete RO6.
  7. Walk 2,500km by the end of the year.

I fear that a lot of people will make two mistakes heading into 2021.  The first is that they assume a new year means that the problems of 2020 will just disappear.  The thing is, societal and economic issues do not just vanish because we change the calendar.  The second mistake is that they will set goals for the new year, but will not think about how to structure or design those goals.  I talk a little bit about SMART goal setting in my previous blog post, so I will not labour the point here, except to state that the best goals are; Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.  

This year’s goals pretty much went out of the window due to Covid-19, and my physical and mental health problems.  I almost hit my reading target for this year, having finished 83 books in 2020.  You can see my reading list for the last few years here.  2021 is a vitally important year for me, as I look to achieve financial freedom as soon as possible.  Although I’ve given myself until the end of 2023 to reach financial independence, I’m hoping to make significant strides towards it by the end of 2021.  Assuming that the world returns to some semblance of normality, I should be able to make substantial progress.  

If you are still reading this far, thank you.  I know this has been a little bit of a rant, and I appreciate you spending your time reading my thoughts.  I hope you have a happy, prosperous and healthy 2021.  

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