A couple years ago I sat in the back of a talk listening to the person on stage discuss their struggle with depression. While I listened I was thinking “No. Not here. This is uncomfortable. Can we do algorithms instead?”. And then I started crying. Everything the speaker said resonated deeply with me. I really wished it didn’t.
Those two warring reactions of running away and exploding with emotion summarize how our community deals with illness pretty well.
The last year has been one of the toughest of my life. Since August 2015, I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety. Compounding the problem was a feeling that it wasn’t okay to be not okay. I hated myself for not being able to simply try harder and make things better.
Despite the fact I enjoy my work in Developer Relations, I often felt like I was a failure for leaving development. Everything that is not development seems to be seen as lesser and I had given up the higher status job to pursue something that made me happy. I felt like I was letting everyone down.
And I was often stressed out that I couldn’t do everything I thought I needed to do. I couldn’t do study group, meditate, exercise, work, read books, keep my house clean, care for my cats, and keep my personal relationships afloat. I felt like everyone else both could do all those things and expected me to do those things to their standards. I was afraid to tell anyone how much I hurt and I felt stupefyingly alone.
I called this section Round Three because this was the third time in my life I’d been down this path. I saw it coming but I felt like by my mid-30s I should have the tools to deal with this on my own. I felt like all I needed to do was to try harder. I started an aggressive self-care regime (see exercise, meditating, reading books, nurturing my relationships above). But that much self-care would take multiple hours some days which caused me to fall further behind. I kept falling deeper into my failure hole.
In a normal “I was depressed, we should talk about mental illness more openly” essay, this is the part where I talk about hitting rock bottom. I didn’t have a rock bottom moment. For a couple months, everything pretty much sucked. There were multiple days where I felt the world would be better off without me. Multiple days where I would put a couple hours in at work and be so overwhelmed that I had to go home. I felt powerless but I did my best to pretend that nothing was wrong because culturally sharing your struggles with others isn’t appropriate.
I spent much of the fall and winter trying to do the normal things to help with depression, anxiety, and burnout. For me, things like exercise and mindfulness weren’t enough. After numerous false starts, a friend recommended a doctor. That doctor helped me turn my life around. I got a diagnosis and with the diagnosis came two important things: treatment and self-acceptance. Being given a biological explanation for what was going on was important. It helped me accept that my struggles weren’t just a lack of willpower and self-control.
It has taken three months but I’m doing better. When my creativity returned I knew things were going to be okay. There will be some long term interpersonal consequences of my experience but I’ll get through it. I dealt with similar consequences when my chronic physical illness got out of hand.
Why I’m Writing This
I’ve thought a lot about why I wanted to share my struggles. I’ve come up with two reasons. First, I want to apologize. If you’ve seen me speak, relied on me for something, or otherwise interacted with me over the last 12 months I’m sorry. I haven’t been myself. I can and will do better in the future. I’m grateful that Ryan Davis has had my back through all this. I’m thankful for several other friends who’ve picked up the pieces when I was unable to take care of myself. The loyalty of my friends is humbling.
Second, I want to remind everyone that you never know what someone is going through. In the last year, I’ve had a bunch of unpleasant things happen. I left a conference to go to urgent care for an illness. I got on stage immediately after getting the call that someone I loved was not expected to make it through the night. I’ve walked out of a conference session to cry.
Most of you didn’t know any of that. That’s OK. You never really know what someone else is going through. That’s true for co-workers, friends, and even partners. In light of that, I ask you to do your best to create a community where it is okay to not be okay. Communicate that you are someone who won’t judge those who are struggling. Stop trying to fix people so that you don’t feel uncomfortable. But most of all, give folks the benefit of the doubt. A person who snaps at you may have more going on than you know.
Here are some resources I found useful once I started getting better.