A Trader Opens Up on Mental Health
Summertime and it is getting too hot to breathe or even think much. We start to wonder if we are hallucinating an alternate reality when reading about the River Valley High School murder in Singapore, police suicides in the U.S. and a lot of nastiness on social media that is overflowing with fake news, the very loud woke movement that has a transgender compete as a female in the Olympics and people getting fired for something they said 30 years ago, as Bill Maher pointed out.
“This is the BIGGEST bubble I have seen in my career.” — Stanley Druckenmiller
“Today we’re in an “everything bubble,” says Oaktree’s Howard Marks.
Ask us to write anything sensible about the markets and we come to a big blank because there is nothing worth talking about as we watch Robinhood shares get decimated and rise 24 per cent one day (up 65 per cent intraday) and another 13 per cent the next which is nothing compared to the meme stocks. Blue chips are gyrating to the tune of tens of per cent in China and elsewhere, and bonds yields are displaying volatility of penny stocks. It is just meaningless.
After six million years of evolution for humanity and her ancestors, we have come to a situation where if you had invested in a virtual coin named after a meme Shiba Inu at the start of the year, at half a cent, you would now be up over 5,000 per cent for the year, not counting the time when it was up 14,000 per cent in May. And all the years of analysis and education count for nought in the world today.
We are just mentally exhausted, challenged daily to make any sense of everything, quite burnt out so to speak and cheering Simone Biles and her decision to quit her Olympic events to focus on her mental health.
Closer to home, we are not alone in our mental quagmire because a dear friend of ours confessed she is not in a good place lately; quite on the edge, and has not felt such prolonged mental pressure in over a decade. All seven months so far, and of course, we asked if we can write about it.
As a veteran trader of over 20 years, all the signs were there for her after a trailblazing 2020. She managed to emerge from the March crisis and roared to a fairytale ending on a high.
2021 could not have been more painful starting with a massive bond market correction and getting caught in the crosshairs of a multiple standard deviation move, followed by the stress of a potential bond default in April. Progress was slow, despite a comeback in the following months before getting wrong-footed again in the July rally, which mirrored the February correction in intensity in a double blow.
Who would expect the first loss-making year in more than a decade after a stellar 2020? The emotional upheavals in the past seven months saw her mental wellbeing spiral to a low. Imagine how hedge funds like Alphadyne must be coping after losing $1.5 billion in the rates short squeeze, down almost 10 per cent through July after making wagers on rising rates.
What makes it worse in 2021 and more unbearable is that many people are thriving and doing extremely well, or at least, we seem to be reading and hearing about it. Many traders are on track for record profits and investors are reaping in extraordinary rewards from idiosyncratic bets from Bitcoin to AMC. If one has lost money, they are indeed in their own loser league leaving a huge dent in the pride and confidence, in other words, the ego.
The feelings of disbelief and blame strike first. What went wrong? What is happening? Despair and panic are typical even for experienced traders who are better able to shut off fear in normal times, but not when you have been caught like a deer in the headlights of extraordinary volatility, some days wishing for a meteor to strike Earth.
Anger would be usual in her younger days, directed at the markets and people. But now years later, the feelings are muted and replaced more by disgust at the absurdity of market moves and disappointment in herself. But the market is always right even if nothing makes sense.
Nihilism overtakes at some point and one would lose the sense of time, be absent-minded in conversations and feel alienated from the world. You open the fridge and forget what you are looking for, or try to brush the teeth with face wash, or change your daily walking routes to avoid oblivious human beings, or find excuses to get out of socialising, while maintaining a normal front even if snappish and impatient to those closest to you. Rationality starts to falter and you would associate every single tiny disturbance or obstacle you encounter in life as part of the universe conspiring against you.
Poor sleep is normal (waking at odd hours), loss of appetite, unhealthy overindulgence in vices and thinking of dying is normal too, as we have come to know (after Bill Murray opened up about it). It is pointless to talk to people looking in from the outside because they will all just see success, the good life, the house and car, etc., and remind you to practise gratitude and mindfulness. Both are all too easy to practise when things are okay and relatively harder when she is feeling low and does not have a life partner to remind her (she deleted her dating app too).
“It is just a job” is also a favourite reminder, which is not helpful because the job is a mission and she is not listening anyway. And years of experience would vouch that she is not on the brink of insanity.
Maintaining the façade is really the hardest because there is still the job of managing risk and it is draining to make sure business goes on as usual without a hitch, which requires summoning certain inhuman amounts of inner reserves, but hey, that is what experience is for.
“Man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn’t calculate his happiness.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky
“Be someone that makes you happy.” — Banksy
“When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
The breakthrough really comes from within and the long and hard (brutal) self-examination is harder than it sounds, because there is the easier escapist alternative of sitting for long hours and spamming tweets while downing copious amounts of wine.
It happens quickly (because older people have less time left) and this time it started with walking with a vengeance, meaning at a pace of around 5-6 km/hr, tiring the mind out. And after a few days, it is easier to take stock and start to notice the beauty in the surroundings and beautiful imperfections just like the beauty in the madness of the markets today.
Every step is a mindful moment and instead of tweeting or engaging on social media, it is okay to just sit and look back on life—and all the things that have happened over the years and start appreciating the story of her life. Stop thinking about the markets and just go and stare at the stars at 3 am in the morning if you cannot sleep. It is okay.
Weeding out toxic people a.k.a. anti-vaxxers also helped this time and blocking the auntie who refuses to vaccinate and sends out about 60 messages a day on why she will not (which is mostly either religious propaganda or fake medical news).
And thanks to the cat. Yes, a beautiful stray calico cat that walked into her life earlier in January—giving a new sense of purpose to the empty nest since her child has grown up. This new furball comes with a “magical tail” that whips about when she is pensive, like a windscreen wiper for her small Instagram following.
We believe our dear friend is in a much better headspace now despite her claims. It is que sera sera, what will be, will be, because there are many more adventures ahead and battles to fight as we live to trade another day.
No one likes to read a happy story from page one till the end. We have never come across a bestseller or fairytale that was happy all the way without a single adventure in between. How can we talk about the Asian crisis or Lehman if we had not experienced it, for all its ups and downs? This mental health episode will go down as one of the many harrowing episodes littered throughout a colourful life story and we are grateful to pen this down if it can help anyone out there or for a good laugh in the future.