Journal #4: When Chasing FIRE… Isn’t Actually About FIRE.

It’s journal time! I’ve written before about money and mental health, because if you, like me, are among the living, those two things affect you in some way. So, let’s just dive right in with me saying: I’ve been cripplingly depressed for the last four months and I can’t remember the last time I had a decent night’s sleep. Yay!
depressed sesame street GIF
Also, as I’m publishing this, it’s been raining for the past week and I haven’t seen the sun in 20 billion years. 
For context, I’ve dealt with depression (and a heaping side of anxiety) for as long as I can remember. It’s intermittent and changes shape frequently – sometimes ‘body image issues!’ Sometimes ‘loneliness!’ Sometimes ‘panic about paying my bills!’ While I don’t have ‘The Only Piece of Advice You’ll Ever Need’ for conquering these demons (and, truthfully, I don’t think it exists), I was inspired to write on it a bit; I’ve had great conversations lately about depression, anxiety and money, which have elicited a few ‘Aha!’ moments. It takes a village to get out of your own head sometimes, and I wanted to share where my head has been:

Obsessing about financial independence isn’t really about a desire for financial independence. 

Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar: You’re staring at your ‘Money Stuff’ spreadsheet, which has a dozen or more different tabs (ex: monthly budget, mortgage amortization, net worth, etc.). You make projections on how long, with the current state of affairs, it will take to reach your FIRE number. You become disheartened when the answer is not ‘tomorrow.’ You decide to introduce variables to your fantasy math: what if you took more face-painting and dog-sitting gigs? What if you took a second job entirely? What if your salary were X? What if you applied for a new job and doubled your salary? What if you paid an extra $500 each month to the principal of your mortgage? What if you didn’t go to Taco Bell so goddamn often? What if? What then?  Fiddle. Calculate. Repeat. This has been me lately, every day. Sometimes just a few minutes here and there, other times for hours on end. It might go without saying, that, for all this day-dreaming and spreadsheet-updating and fantasy-math’ing… I haven’t actually solved anything and I’m no closer to FIRE than I was before. I still have a mortgage. I’m squirreling away as much money as I can for a future investment property. My salary? I just got a 7% raise. I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got. Even so, I’m twice as anxious as usual, have a resting heart rate above 100 BPM, a handful of bona fide panic attacks, restlessness, trouble sleeping, a constant state of mental and physical exhaustion, my body just hurts… You know, all the markers that point to ‘something is wrong.’
panic GIF
Fuck it. All my images for this post are going to be Sesame Street and Muppets because they’re my true spirit animal.
I didn’t put two and two together; it seems obvious in hindsight that perhaps action-set A would of course lead to reaction-set B (pictured above.) However, when you normalize an unhealthy obsession (I mean, I’m planning for my future, after all! We’re talking about half a dozen decades or so; that’s a long time and it ought to take a lot of brain-power, right?) – the underlying cause doesn’t seem so readily apparent. At the core, it makes sense. Living with a problem is uncomfortable. If you had a splinter in the pad of your foot, you wouldn’t keep walking on it – you’d remove it, no matter how long it took*. The mind does the same thing, just a lot more dramatically. Read:
“Holy shit, you guys! I owe a bank SIX FIGURES for my house! That’s so much money! It’s a goddamn crisis, people, do you know howmuchmoneythatis?! There must be some unexplored angle, some solution that just hasn’t presented itself yet. You’re smart, chica – you can figure this out.” -my brain, all the time.
  • We (or, I do, at least) tend to fall into the trap of ‘if we think super long and hard about something, we can solve it.’ Maybe that works with calculus equations, or planning how you’ll remodel your kitchen, or what to name your dog… but most problems in life don’t have clear roadmaps for reaching a solution.
  • Some things, like saving money and paying down your mortgage, are just simply long-term problems by nature. It’s a 30-year note for a reason. Marathon, not a sprint. The only way out is through. Etc.
Getting frustrated and impatient over long-term issues with no quick solutions… it’s a fool’s game, I tell ya. I didn’t realize, exactly, that this was a problem so much as just ‘something I did.’ Why do it at all, though? Because anxiety and depression are slippery fuckers, that’s why. They come knocking on your door, and surprise! They’ve brought existential angst and dread along with them. The gang’s all here. They all barge in, uninvited, and it’s just a downhill shit-show from there because they run around your house like the world is ending, break all your shit, and repeat the same thing over and over:

“You don’t like working forty hours a week to survive. It takes away your freedom to live life the way you want to. This is a Bad Thing – if not truly The Worst Thing Ever, and you need to fix. it. NOW.”

the muppet christmas carol GIF
God I fucking love the Muppets.
And it only gets worse from there because they won’t fucking leave. At some point, because they’ve repeated it for so long and you’ve got the words memorized by now, and you’re tired of fighting it, you start to wonder, “What if they’re right?” (Side note: I think this is the key reason why I decided to quit life and start working on a cruise ship. Yes, I wanted the Fun Life Adventure, but there was also a part of me that thought that I was wasting my life at a desk-job and #shiplife was the solution.) So, your brain at this point is looking something like:
  • Problem: Wasting life with your job.
  • Solution: Attain FIRE, then.
Which quickly devolves to…
  • Problem: Attain FIRE. Quicker. Like, tomorrow. You’re already wasting so much time.
  • Solution: um???
Which, since you’ve already read this far, you know what that turns into (see: Scooter the Muppet above). To put it to a better bullet-point list:
  • Reaching FIRE does not equal the solution to (my) life’s problems.
  • Obsessing about it for hours on end is a misguided attempt, fueled by anxiety and depression, to ‘solve’ the problem as quickly as possible.
  • Working forty hours a week is not actively ruining my life – surprise! I actually enjoy my job.
.+++. The second ‘Aha!’ moment I wanted to write about was the realization that I need to learn how to spend my time in an intentional, meaningful way that doesn’t include obsessing about FIRE when there’s no active benefit to it. But… I’m still figuring that part out, to be honest. I know in part it looks like not burning myself out from side-hustling. After that, I’m at a loss. If this is what realizing you’re a work-aholic looks like, then here we are. I’d love to hear any anecdotal stories about how you zen the fuck out.
fozzie bear muppets GIF
Until next time, be good to yourself and others.

*Fun fact about me: one time, I had a quarter inch of glass stuck in the pad of my foot for a week or so, and I just walked on the outside of my foot because I couldn’t get it out. Finally, I took some manicure scissors (and a lot of rubbing alcohol) and hacked-slashed my way to a painful victory. So, all that to say, maybe it’s not the most apt metaphor I could have used.

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3 Replies to “Journal #4: When Chasing FIRE… Isn’t Actually About FIRE.”

  1. Great post, Sylvia. Of course one for which I have no answers.

    Do you, like me, listen to/read a lot of FIRE content? I use it to keep myself on track, but it can become a daily loop of hearing the same message (everyone else is doing better than us) over and over. Life has been super busy lately, and I’ve only just begun to dip into reading blogs again. While I missed the people, I’ve come back after months and found that nothing has changed. The messages are the same, and the world didn’t end because I stopped reading. Can you try a FIRE-free day?

    As for what to do when you you’re not side hustling, that’s become tricky too. Almost every hobby these days could be turned into a side hustle. Are you still drawing? Could you do that with a mindset of “when this is done, I’m throwing it out and starting the next”? No clutter, no emotional baggage weighing you down. Just pleasure in the doing.

    Finally, if writing posts like this helps, keep them coming!

  2. I, too, struggle with depression and have even been hospitalized for it. It’s rough.

    But I applaud you for writing about it and being so reflective! I figure the less we isolate and hide, the better, so yay for being open and honest in this post. Keep it up! For me, the solution to my sleep trouble was…. more drugs from the psychiatrist. YMMV.

  3. I love finding other bloggers who have an interest in mental health and money. Best wishes on your journey to make a friend with your mind! I really love this “journal” style of writing.

    Like you, I actually enjoy my job but obsess over FIRE ideas a lot. Sometimes I think it’s ridiculous how much pressure I put on myself regarding these issues when I’m objectively such a lucky person.

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