Chatty DM, Freelancer, Part 4: The Pit and The Plan

This post is part of a continuing series on how I became a freelancer and game designer. You’ll find part 1, part 2 and part 3.

The Amazing Ride

I came back from Gen Con 2008 surfing the wave of a certain type of madness that was later labeled as “Hypomania”. Excited beyond belief, ready to take on the world as a writer and a designer, I started a ton of projects and wrote all kinds of weird posts, including my all time favorites, micro-posts I dubbed “Yet Another 5000 word epic post about the contents of my laundry basket” Here’s an exemple:

What Gen Con Meant to Me

Feeling: I entered Gen Con 2008 feeling like a Nobody, I left it feeling like a Rockstar

Lesson learned: Edition Wars hate mongers are idiots. Rules are lies, Game systems are guidelines at best. Bask in the awesomeness of your bile and leave us alone while we have fun.

That was it, barely 70 words but oh so filled with emotion.

That part of my life was one of roller coasters and thrills. I started a new blog to talk about my design activities, I started a photo webcomic about talking D&D minis. I created a project called “Kobold Love”  (a D&D adventure where the PCs were kobolds and the quest was to go and kill the good-aligned quest giver that kept sending adventurers into the dungeon, killing all the monsters).

I had great ideas aplenty, my mind aflame, sleep a luxury I decided I could do without. Hell, one of the D&D designer I admired the most told me I could bounce ideas his way once in a while.

Oh how much I burned that bridge… the once in a while became A LOT, and TOO OFTEN.

Yet… as this magical manic phase receded, I found myself juggling way too much with almost no time left.

I started dropping balls; I discovered the concept of Nerd Projectitis (and even wrote about it a few months later)

The roller coaster ride of manic-depression was starting to accelerate into darkness…

Opportunity Knocks at Dusk

As I started struggling with all the plates spinning to “bring Chatty to the next level,” I had my first industry breakthrough, and it was the strangest thing.

During Gen Con 2008, I visited the Goodman Games booth and bought a D&D 4e-compatible adventure.  As I was paying the nice guy at the booth, I noticed that his name tag fit the one on the adventure I was buying.

Phil: Would you mind signing this adventure for me?

Harley Stroh (Looking very surprised): Huh? Of course!

A few weeks later, as I was prepping his adventure to run, I retraced his email and asked him a few questions about the adventure. We started a cordial back and forth, me sharing feedback (and his adventure made it into my play reports).  At one point I pooled my courage and pitched him a special gaming product, I forget which. He answered that they weren’t looking for something like I was proposing. He did however ask me to pitch 2 wacky short adventure ideas  for an anthology they had coming up. I accepted, pitched 2 ideas and one eventually made it into print  2 years later.

The Pit

Toward the end of 2008, I sank into what was to be my second depression of the decade. I abandoned nearly everything but the blog and writing the adventure for Harley, aptly titled “When Madness Seeps Through.” I felt my life crumbling around me as  I found my job overbearingly impossible to manage and I pushed away friends and family. My marriage, already on very shaky grounds after Alex weathered 2 other such depressions in a 10-year time span, nearly shattered.

I was at a loss and called out for help when I hit rock bottom.

With the help of my therapist and my family physician, I was put on sick leave for months, given anti-depressants and was referred to a psychiatric clinic for an evaluation. I had to wait a few weeks before seeing a shrink (the joys of public healthcare). During that time I focused on exercise, writing and taking my meds. I also got tremendous support from my stubborn friends and family, especially my parents. My father called me often and gave me pep talks like only worried dads can. Promising that even if I lost everything, I’d be always welcome in his home for as long as I needed (thanks dad).

Shortly after, I got the psycjiatric evaluation and was diagnosed with Type II Bipolar Disorder (one of the most manageable versions of the mental disorder) and refereed to a gentle, grandfatherly psychiatrist who ushered me through the shock and denial phases, took me off anti-depressants and unto mood stabilizers (Lithium, then Valproic Acid, 2 dirt-cheap industrial acids from the 19th century).

He also told me I was the luckiest bastard alive.

Phil: How so? I have a mental disorder old dude.

Shrink: Oh, but bipolar disorder is the easiest one to treat! You’ll keep all your faculties! You should see how zonked out some of my patients must be in order to function.

Phil: Ahhh. Presented like that… Hey doc, what about my creativity? Will it remain intact?

Shrink (Reaching for a book): Well, in all honesty, you stand a 1/6 chance of losing some and a 1/6 chance of gaining some. Otherwise you’ll remain the same but likely be more disciplined.

Phil: Will I be stabilized for good?

Shrink: On average you stand an 80% chance of never having another manic episode.

Phil: Well I guess I have to accept those odds…

I soon became better, the mood stabilizers cleared the noise in my mind and the regular exercise played the role the anti-depressants used to. I started my recovery.

And along that recovery came my second fully produced project: The One Page Dungeon Contest (and resulting Deluxe Codex with the help of Chgowiz and Stargazer)

Aside: I still have a few paper copies of those, anybody wants to buy them for 20$? I could bring them to Gen Con.

The Plan

My mother also did her part in what became the central piece of my recovery. Sometime in the dark months of winter 2009, she  approached me and told me something like this:

Chatty Mom (She really is, I love her for that): I don’t know what made you become like this, but I suspect it’s linked to your work.  Why don’t you quit your job, tap in your retirement savings and give yourself 6 months to start something you really want to do, like writing games, or a novel.  If it doesn’t work out, return to a normal day job.

Chatty: But, I don’t want to be a burden on Alex and the kids.

Chatty Mom: That’s why I said you should tap in your savings. They are yours after all.

Chatty: I’ll think about it.

When I discussed the plan with Alex, she said she was ready for us to take a financial hit for me to chase my dream, but I could sense the worry that it would be just another pipe dream. Just another version of the often intoned “This next job is THE one for me Alex” that I so often tried to sell her on.

Then I sat with my long time friend Math (the one I’ve been gaming with since 1986) and exposed my mother’s idea….

Math: I think you totally should do something like that but you forget something capital…

Phil: What?

Math: First you need to get better; to take care of yourself so your mind stabilizes.

Phil: Hmmm,you’re right, the last thing I want is to jump into this with the deck stacked against me.

Math: Right, what you need is a Plan.

And thus was the Plan born:

By June 2011:

  • Get Better
  • Switch to a part time job
  • Land and deliver freelance writing assignments.

Depression Management Advice: After going through 3 of them in 10 years, I speak with experience when I tell you that prompt recovery and prevention requires a multi-pronged strategy.  You need friends and goals (which Jane MacGonigal nailed in her SuperBetter game). You also need professional help in the form of both drugs and therapy. Finally, especially if you can’t afford the drugs or therapy, you need exercise… lots and lots of exercise. If you can only do one thing in your day, make it a walk to any grocery store that’s at least a mile from where you live whenever you need to get milk or bread. That’s what I did… 

The Plan in Motion

And so the road to recovery was paved with purpose and, above all, the support of those who believed in me.  This includes all of you who  suffer through those interminable posts that are NOT about gaming. From that tribe of family, close friends and cyber buddies grew a large network of contacts and friendly acquaintances in the industry.  I recovered quickly from then on and returned to work in the summer of 2009, after a pause of about 4 months. I hit Gen Con 2009 and continued to  grow my network.  I came back with my mind whole and the hope that I could make the plan happen.

In October 2009, I placed a phone call to an education center, offering my services as a trainer, as luck would have it, a teacher had just been fired and I was offered her course load along with a series of classes I built. Such classes paid almost as much  per day that an entire week at my then job as a QA manager.  Feeling that was the opportunity I was looking for, in January 2010, I asked at my job to be granted part time status: 3 days a week. I was shocked to see them accept instantly… with the huge caveat that after 6 months, my employment would end.

There it was. Opportunity always comes with risk. And I took it. 6 months later, I opened my own consulting/writing company and stared collecting enough big clients (always part time)  to pay my share of the household budget.

My life had stabilized, I was working part time… and my lifestyle was maintained. I had 2/3 of the Plan implemented, I was ready for the last part: Become a Freelancer.

Up next: The conclusion to the series.



  1. I am really enjoying this series, and I am thinking of doing something similar myself. I know that this is an RPG blog, but I would actually love to know more about your experiences in becoming a consultant/trainer, if you are willing to share them.

  2. @Nenad: We can definitively use the comments to do so and if I realize there’s material for it, I might revisit it. And know that this remains my blog (the Musings part) and I was never really compelled to write about RPGs all the time… it’s just what I do best.

    I became a Quality Management consultant when my old job ended. In fact, I was immediately hired back by my old employer at a substantial pay increase (but, of course, with no benefits). I worked as a genetics laboratory QA consultant, helping the lab prepare for accreditation. After that, I went to work for 6 months for an affiliated Clinical Research organization, writing IT security procedures and policies. Now I’m about to go back to my original job for another 6 months.

    As for training, I teach 1-2 day seminars ( I think I now teach 8 of them) spread over the Fall, Winter and Spring months. The courses are given in one of Montreal engineering schools but is aimed at corporations and small businesses. I teach the following courses, up to 4 times a year each:

    Word/Excel for beginners
    Ms Outlook and managing your time effectively
    Advanced Word
    Power Point
    Preparing your company for a regulatory audit
    Writing and managing quality documents
    Blogging for businesses
    Social Media for Businesses

    I own the material and the courses themselves (meaning I can teach them to other organizations) but I do not own the courses’ formal names and descriptions, those belong to the school.

    While course preparation is not paid, I get paid near 4 digits a day to teach each seminar.

    If you have more questions, don’t hesitate.

  3. Thank you for posting this. A lot of my experience with mood/anxiety disorders is with folks who have been sick since high school and who I honestly wonder if they’ll ever get better, because their problems are severe enough that the “friends and goals” part never quite gets locked into place. :/

    My own problems aren’t nearly on that scale, but it’s good to have some perspective, because the worst part about it, for me, is feeling terrible and not being able to do the things I want to do and thinking, “No one really gets better from this, I can’t deal with this for the rest of my life.”

    So thanks. It’s good to be proved wrong once in a while, and you’re spot on about how to deal with this stuff.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I’ve been fortunate enough to never have more than very minor episodes of depressions (probably not even full blown enough to be diagnosable). However, a couple of my friends as well as my wife and her grandmother have suffered with depression for a long time. The one thing I’ve learned is that one of the most important things to do is to make sure those suffering from the disease know they are not alone.

    I thank you for your courage in writing this (as well as your part in the previous article here). Education in this area is key for everyone, not just those who are suffering. Sadly, one of the biggest problems with depression is that there often are no “obvious” signs (like a fever or rash) that something is wrong, which I know often makes things worse. People who don’t suffer from it, and don’t know anyone who does, can’t always understand that something really is wrong since there’s no visible evidence.

    I sincerely wish you the best of luck here on out both professionally and personally.


  5. It’s inspiring to read your story. I had put many of the larger bits and pieces together, but never had the whole picture and didn’t realize how tough things had become for you and how much they affected your home life and family. What’s inspiring is how you grabbed at bits and pieces that were available when you could and managed to construct a kind of life raft for yourself that you are still building and improving on. The bits and pieces are important because we often think that psychological diseases can be treated like physical ones, with a single medical solution. Or that they can’t be treated at all. Great work and good luck going forward.

    Also, I have to totally second you on the exercise advice. I’m not a depressive person (actually quite genetically disposed to happiness, which is a very fortunate birthright), but even for me, when I exercise, I always feel better. The weird thing is that you don’t believe it will before you exercise, even though each time, you feel better after. We have to keep reminding ourselves to just get out there and do it.

  6. Have you ever considered publishing an e-book or guest authoring on other websites? I have a blog based upon on the same subjects you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my readers would appreciate your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to send me an email.

  7. Hi Chatty–

    It seems like there’s a lot of us struggling with mental issues. I’ve fought serious depression myself, to the point of having been hospitalized with suicidal tendencies about six years ago. I’ve had several therapist tell me it’s common with more “creative” types. I can only echo what you said — don’t wait to seek help. I’ve always looked at it this way: if I need help with money matters, I seek an accountant or someone else trained in money matters; if I need help with legal matters, I seek an attorney; if I need help with mental matters, I seek a therapist or someone else trained in that field.

    There should be no shame in seeking professional care.

  8. Boy, you sure excel at creating a huge, online support group. In and of itself, surely a talent, and an indication.
    So glad to see you work through it all. So very glad.


  1. […] This is the last of my autobiographical series that describes my becoming a writer and a freelancer. You can follow the series by clicking: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4. […]