Like many people, there are times when I’ve experienced anxiety and depression, and recently this reached a point where I needed to take some time off work. It feels very strange to be putting this information out there publicly, but I feel like it needs to be done. My timing is a bit off - I’ve just missed Geek Mental Help Week, but I want to jump on that bandwagon by talking about how my mental health has been affected by work and open source contribution.
No matter what people might say about the changing perception of mental health issues, and however supportive you think your friends, family, and employer might be, it is difficult letting people know the reason why you don’t feel able to work. It’s difficult enough going to the doctor to begin with.
Is it some kind of shame? The idea of being tainted by the stain of insanity? A fear of sadness becoming medicalised and turned into a permanent affliction? An unwillingness to admit fragility? All of the above?
We should be able to tell people that we’re feeling unwell. But mental health problems are different from physical health problems, because they’re harder to understand than a lot of other ailments. A doctor can say that a broken bone is likely to heal in so many weeks, but it’s much more difficult to know how long it will take to recover from something like depression, and harder to know the best way to aid recovery. I suppose a big part of that is that people’s minds are more complex than their other organs, and they vary much more from one person to the next.
When I’m well, I’m a big fan of to-do lists. The trouble is that my self-esteem is unhealthily tied up with how many items I’m able to cross off my to-do lists. Recently I found myself in a position where I couldn’t tick any boxes, couldn’t mark any tasks as done. I was having trouble sleeping, which further hampered my ability to feel capable. Combined with some other contributing factors, I went into a downward spiral of self-doubt and negative self-talk, questioning my own competence.
I needed to step away, take some time off work.
But after a couple of days at home, the to-do lists started beckoning again. Another reminder that I’m not very good at relaxing. On a day that I’d intended to read self-help books and meditate, I found myself working for no pay on tasks that nobody else might care about. I was using open source development as a procrastination method, the way a student might spend hours creating an intricate colour-coded revision timetable, rather than actually studying.
It felt good to be contributing to a community. It’s not exactly volunteering at a soup kitchen, but at a point where I didn’t want to be around people, I liked the idea that I was doing something to help.
But feeling a duty to contribute might not be helpful. There are always bugs that can be fixed, or improvements that can be made. You’ll never fix everything, and you’re not responsible for fixing everything. If what you need to do is slow down and take stock of your life, then expending your limited energy on issue queues might not be the best idea. Facebook, Twitter, RSS fead readers, issue queues - they’re all great sources of distraction, ideal opportunities for the mind to flit around and keep the attention span short, to stay in what mindfulness practitioners would call doing mode, rather than being mode.
Having said that, part of the reason for me taking time off work was a crisis of self-confidence, and so I told myself that maybe it would be therapeutic to be able to feel like I’d solved some problems. Besides, it’s good to tinker with things - that’s part of what the Men’s Shed movement is about.
Sometimes it can be comforting to be able to feel like you’re making progress. Something along the lines of ‘fake it till you make it’ - if you’ve achieved something, that can quieten the inner voice that tells you what a useless failure you are.
In a way I’m lucky - my problems haven’t been that bad. In my darker moments that has sometimes been a further sting. I would beat myself up for wasting people’s time - I’d tell myself that doctors and counsellors should be helping people in a worse condition than me. But it’s OK to admit that things are difficult sometimes. It’s OK to ask for help in life.
I should remind myself that I have been lucky. When I asked for help, people listened. My employers have been supportive, and have helped me with access to counsellors and other resources. I’ve been able to spend time at home and learn about other people experiencing similar difficulties. It’s amazing the difference it makes to realise that you’re not alone, you’re not a special snowflake, and more importantly, you’re not a freak. Plenty of people go through difficult times and come out the other side.
Mike Bell’s recent talk on Mental Health and Open Source really resonated with me. I was tearing myself apart worrying about a whole load of “what if” - getting anxious imagining the worst. When your mind is churning around and around, it’s difficult to get clarity, but it’s important to remember that failure isn’t that bad. Especially if it’s only failure by your own unrealistically high standards. More to the point, failing at something doesn’t mean that you should be defined as a failure.
Another piece of luck for me was that after I called in sick and got on the train home, my podcast playlist presented me with Alain de Botton talking to Tim Ferriss about Seneca and the stoics, and the power of pessimism. It’s worth listening to that podcast, and worth bearing in mind that “Stoicism is not grim resolve”, and that it can be helpful to think clearly (but not ruminate) on the question “what’s the worst that could happen”.
The other thing that has been a big help for me has been talking. Talking to people when you’re having problems, but also talking openly and honestly about how things are going, whether they’re going well or badly. For all I might pour scorn on the corporate world of 360° feedback, it is enormously valuable to have an opportunity to let people know how you think they’re doing, and perhaps just as importantly, to think about how you’re doing yourself. In my recent period of negativity, reading positive feedback from colleagues was really helpful.
Time and again, I’m reminded of the importance of talking, especially when you work in an industry with more than its fair share of introverts. We shouldn’t be embarrassed to say nice things to each other, whether that be giving each other karma in chatrooms, speaking up in a thanksgiving section of a retrospective, or taking the time to have a proper one-to-one conversation. As Albert Camus almost put it, we can save lives by paying attention to our friends.
I’m not really sure why I’m writing this. It’s partly to help clarify my own feelings, and partly to “come out” as a person who has struggled with depression. Coming out feels like a helpful analogy - in both situations, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s difficult for a lot of people to talk about.
Reading other people’s accounts of their feelings has really helped me to make sense of my own, and I hope that other people might be helped by reading this. Writing it has certainly helped me. Isn’t that a big part of what open source is about? People helping others by doing things for themselves.
I suppose the point is simply that I want to add my voice to the chorus of people saying that it’s OK to talk about mental health problems. It isn’t just OK to talk - it’s vital. For me, in this recent bout of negativity, things didn’t start to get better until I talked to someone about it, and just as importantly, until I felt like someone listened to me. Once I acknowledged the issue and put a name to it, its hold over me was less powerful. As Eve Ensler puts it, “freedom begins with naming things. Humanity is preserved by it”. It’s no coincidence that the first step of addiction recovery is admitting that you have a problem and that you need help.
Depression and anxiety aren’t contagious, and exposure to them won’t put you at risk. In fact the risks are more likely to come from lack of exposure, from people feeling unable to talk about their worries.
So I’d like to issue a plea for anyone who’s suffering to try to gather the strength to talk, and for everyone to be ready to listen without judgement.