Sane! Insane!

I finished two nonfiction books yesterday. They were both very good and very thought-provoking, but they also made for a bizarre pairing. The first book, Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, is a smart, inspiring, funny, voice-of-reason guide to financial independence. The other, Madness, by Marya Hornbacher (author of Wasted, which I wrote about in May), is a smart, brutal, disorienting first-person account of living with severe bipolar disorder. In other words, I read a sane book about the most sane of topics (finance), and a crazy book about craziness. No wonder I felt so tired yesterday!

Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence
I’d been reading Money or Life for a couple of weeks, bit by bit, and I never thought I’d be so entranced by a book about money. The thing is, it’s not really a book about money; it’s a book about life, and how to make your relationship with money fit in to the way you live every other part of your life. The authors don’t even get into stocks, bonds, investing, and all that stuff until one of the last chapters! The authors’ message is one of empowerment: you can take charge of your own money, you can live a life that is not shackled to a paycheck, you can achieve financial independence — while you’re young! I think I can safely say that this book has really changed the way I envision my life.

At the heart of Money is a nine-step plan which the authors promise will bring financial independence if carefully followed. I believe them, because it’s not an easy plan to follow. It involves tracking every cent that enters or leaves your life, calculating a complicated formula that breaks down how much money you actually make from your job (taking into account factors like transportation time and costs, how much you spend on work clothes, how much you spend on eating out because you’re tired from work, how much time and money you spend on diversions because you’re worn out from work, etc.) and how many hours of your life are represented in every dollar you spend, investment, and of course the kicker, learning to think so carefully about every purchase that you eventually reach a level of consumption that is the lowest you can make it without sacrificing your comfort or enjoyment. Essentially, it’s a plan for mindful financial behavior at every level, from impulse purchases at the checkstand to career planning and investment. A year ago I would have dismissed this as too much trouble, but now I am excited to try. After all, after years of buying in (ha ha) to the consumer culture, I have reached a point in my life when I am swearing off shopping and even hating shopping when I have to do it. I’m even canceling magazine subscriptions because I no longer enjoy the consumer mindset they promote. So I think I’m ready for the plan.

Dominguez and Robin’s plan is seriously radical in the context of American values about money. They don’t just advocate not buying unnecessary things, they say it’s possible — nay, desirable! — to work fewer hours and fewer years of our lives, achieving financial independence well before retirement and devoting the rest of our lives to causes and activities that truly fulfill us. Woah! But this is like a clarion call for me; for years I have been disturbed at the amount of time and energy most people put into their jobs, and I’ve always asked myself, “Isn’t there a better way?” Dominguez and Robin say there is, it’s sane and practical, and it’s achievable for anyone from top executives to hourly-wage earners. The key is abandoning all our society-driven ideas about success and what’s necessary to live a good life. I’m inspired. The vision they describe is so beautiful, so enlivening, that I’m committed to give it a try.

Madness: A Bipolar Life
Reading Hornbacher’s book provided a totally different kind of inspiration and enjoyment… if enjoyment is the right word for watching a train wreck. Why do we so enjoy train wrecks? We know we shouldn’t, but it’s clear enough from traffic patterns that everyone does. They make us feel lucky and therefore grateful for our lives, they serve as warnings and cautionary tales, they make for dramatic stories to enjoy and to share with others, they make us feel real and connected through empathy and our shared mortality. Still, sometimes the suffering is hard to watch.

As she did in Wasted, Hornbacher persuasively conveys the muddled mind of a madwoman while still convincing us she’s sane enough to be telling us this story in the first place. While reading her book, I felt the same way I did when I read Elyn Saks’s memoir: like it shone a little light on all the crazy people we see all the time, and it made me feel more sympathetic and not so narrow-minded about what “crazy” connotes.

I also felt intrigued enough, after reading Madness, to go online and take a bunch of tests to see whether I have any mental illnesses. Of course I know I don’t, especially after reading Saks’s book and Hornbacher’s two memoirs; I even feel confident saying I don’t know anyone who is mentally ill.[*] Still, I was curious.

I found out that I am not obsessive, but could be compulsive, and that the makers of at least two tests suggest I be evaluated for depression. It was interesting to see my test results. I hadn’t known OCD behaviors could be separated into the O and the C, though it doesn’t surprise me that I have tendencies in this direction. I also understand the depressive results; those “yes” answers all stem from the period when I was in grad school and hated it so much. But I know that even then, I wasn’t fully depressed, I just had much darker thoughts than I’d ever experienced before (“Do you feel inadequate or like a failure?” “Does your future seem hopeless?” — but then, I bet most grad students would answer “yes” or at least “sometimes” to these questions, which is depressing in itself!). I used to think I had some weird habits before I read these memoirs; now I know I’m normal, but I also know which directions my craziness would take if I ever went around the bend!

Oh, and I also took a self-esteem test on which I scored normal, but I was shocked to get to one page of the 79-question test and find that I answered at the extreme end of every question. I guess this is why I would say generally that I have good self-esteem, but I would also say I can be very sensitive. I’m untouchably sure of myself in certain areas (I don’t fear rejection by those I love, or care whether I hang out with “successful” people), and mildly to extremely vulnerable in others (criticism, speaking up against authority figures, acceptance by others).

Anyway, I’ve long felt that we should all take our mental health as seriously as we do our physical health, and put no stigma on doing so. Marya Hornbacher went twenty-four years of her life before she was correctly diagnosed with bipolar, and she’s having all kinds of insurance issues because of the disorder. If we all just got mental checkups as often as we got physical exams, we’d all be a lot happier (well, or maybe more medicated, which is not good), and maybe some people could avoid years of suffering.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]

[*In retrospect this seems a frustratingly naïve statement, as if mental illness were a badge people wore on their clothing. I’m also raising my eyebrows at my blithe dismissal, in the next paragraph, of my own feelings of inadequacy and despair. I wouldn’t say I’m seriously depressed, but neither do I think those feelings are completely “normal” and therefore negligible.]