Mental health has a profound impact on work performance (not to say on life in general), and yet it does not get a lot of attention in software engineering circles. I think that this is partly due to a combination of the anxiety of being misunderstood, shame of even having had a problem, or fear of reprimand at work. I felt like this from 2016 to 2018, when I suffered from depression, and at the time only a handful of people knew. This post is a reflection on how I felt, and with some thoughts about what I learned along the way. As well as this, and probably more importantly, I want to set an example for others that it is okay to talk about mental health, even if, as it is in this case, it happened a while ago. If this post helps even one person to understand that depression is an illness that can be coped with, alongside providing them with some ideas of how to cope, then this post has served its purpose.
The written form only allows one type of structure, so while the sections are separate please think of them as overlapping and in some cases simultaneous.
I cannot identify a specific point in time when the onset happened. It must have been slow and related to constant tiredness from work. However, with hindsight, I can identify what I will define as ’the plunge’ and what I learned from it. In early 2017 I quit a job at a company that I had worked at for 5 years and had enough savings to do a three month sabbatical. I went into this thinking that: (a) I would get some rest and get ‘better’; (b) my skillset was in demand and I wouldn’t have a problem getting back into the market.
Part (a) came to fruition and I did get some rest, but all the benefits were negated by (b), the subsequent job search. Contrary to my expectations, I could not get interviews or past the first interviews. Very quickly it started to feel like I was some sort of broken good and this was ’the plunge’. Those were the darkest days. I had to go through each interview process as presentable, smiley, and friendly, but after the call I would put my hoodie on, draw the curtains, turn off the lights, and lie in the darkness with my mind buzzing and echoing all the mistakes I must have made. Until the next interview, it felt like I was lying to the whole world about who I was because I was putting on a face when really I felt terrible.
To increase my chances I started to apply for more junior positions where I would have had to learn a new programming language from scratch. In one instance after submitting my homework, using a new language, I was invited for a follow-up interview with the CTO of a very popular startup in London at the time. My excitement quickly turned to a floundering, as the CTO used half an hour to point out every single problem with the homework solution, of which there were more than enough. My solution worked, but it was not written idiomatically. Needless to say I did not progress to the next stage. I was devastated and in tears.
Although it was the most grueling interview I had experienced it helped me to realize something about myself. A lot of my identity, who I thought I was, had blended with my professional work. I saw myself as a successful, experienced, and self-confident developer who had some funky hobbies on the side. I had been programming since the age of three on my dad’s lap, and followed that passion into adulthood. When I struggled to find a job, rejection after rejection did not just upset me, it pierced the core of my being. I thought I knew who I was, and yet my perception was that the whole world was telling me that I was not.
It sounds trivial in hindsight, but at the time it was one of my biggest steps to healing. In a world where it seemed to me that everyone was told to follow their passion, it was extremely helpful to realize that passion is a powerful emotion, and that it is also often short-lived. Cal Newport does an excellent job explaining how to think about it in the book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”.
Lesson: You are not your work. Work does not have to define you. There is a lot more to you.
Everyone experiences depression in slightly different ways, in my case it was apathy and a buzz of negative thoughts. It is exceptionally difficult to explain how it feels, but I will try. During every spare moment a wave of thoughts would flood through me, taunting me with things I had done badly (both recently and in the distant past). Pointing out mistakes, turning all the ambiguous statements that someone said into an insult, reminding me of all my personal and professional failures.
As the onset is gradual, at first I just brushed these thoughts away, but over time there was more and more. Eventually, unless I was focused intently on something, I would hear these constant echoes. Keeping focus takes effort and is exhausting. At times, even looking sociable and friendly requires focus and insurmountable effort. Putting on a face is like gasping for air, afterwards the mind submerges itself back into the monologue of self-torture.
This cycle became the new normal. Firstly putting on a face in the fake “at peace” moment, then moving back into the negative thoughts. Everything is okay, as long as I don’t care, don’t make any sudden moves to be happy, I can bear it. This leads to apathy and acceptance of this way of being. But unlike breathing under the water, there are moments where you have to go up and gasp for air. I was not doing this so this is what I will name The Drowning. The Drowning does not lead to life. In a final gasp it leads to one or the other, and, as sad as it is to admit, back in 2017 I reached a stage where I researched both options with indifference about the result. Two key things helped me get out of this situation; an exercise from a book and medication.
The book was called “Brain-Switch: Out Of Depression” by Arline Curtiss. I read a Lithuanian translation, and it may be that that is why I found the book so dry, boring, and exceptionally repetitive that I did not even finish reading it. Not a great review, I admit, but there was one principle repeated over and over again: whenever a fit of negative thoughts comes, drown it out by shouting something else louder inside your thoughts.
The book recommends repeating a phrase in your thoughts (it can be anything, e.g. “green turtle, green turtle, green turtle, …. and on and on.” or “nice sun, nice sun, nice sun, ….”). Admittedly, this sounds silly, but trust me, it works. I do not understand the neurological or psychological principle at hand, but I guess it works in a similar way to calming breathing. Mindfulness is an important tool on your belt that can help with this too, although I have less experience with this.
Lesson: Be aware of your thoughts, and don’t be afraid to consciously think of something, even if it sounds silly.
There were moments during The Drowning when I was seeking powerful emotions to get through the apathy, to feel like a normal human being for a moment. I therefore decided to walk the Great Glen Way - a well-known 125km multi-day hike across Scotland. As it turned out, my hard walking shoes were too small, and lead to blistered and bloody feet from day two. I had a choice to go back, or to try and finish it. The walk was slow, the pain was excruciating and on multiple occasions passers-by stopped to ask if I needed help. Yet in some strange way I felt alive as I had not felt in a long time. Reaching the finish line was anticlimactic with no sudden uplift or celebration, I just lay down on the grass until I got cold and then limped away looking for my hostel.
While the wave of negative thoughts taunted me for my failure to prepare for the trip, I also realized that I was stronger, psychologically and physically, than I thought I was. I walked alone in nature for 9 days, carrying everything on my back, in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Herein surfaced a lesson. I am capable of much more than I was giving myself credit for. Two years later, with shoes that fit me, I planned and completed the West Highland Way, and it was a brilliant adventure.
Another realization from The Drowning is that it is not the pain that the brain seeks, but excitement. There are probably multiple ways, both good and bad, to excite the brain. In my case, at the time I found myself interested in close-up magic and illusions. Circumstances allowed me to go to The Magic Circle for their Monday socials, where professional magicians would share their knowledge and show off new tricks, trying to fool their peers. Similarly, the International Magic Shop near my office was my lunch break hide-away. For what a lot of people consider a child’s play, I found a hobby of depth, breadth, and skill that excited my mind. I also enjoyed the illusions others showed me, and kept focused while learning the skills myself. I have never told these people, but they really kept me afloat during this dark period.
Beware the easy path and take the harder one. It will be more challenging, but it keeps the mind busy. Where previously I had to forcefully repeat gibberish to drown out bad thoughts, a good hobby reduced the amount of effort required to keep me focused. Plus I can still do a few fun tricks for friends and family, which is good fun.
Lesson: You are much stronger than you think you are and the brain seeks excitement. Avoid the easy path and go with the positive.
I looked at medication as a surrender or defeat, a final confirmation that something was wrong with me when all I wanted was to be a ’normal’ human being. This partly came down to the fact that my mum is a psychiatrist and I was under the impression that only someone with serious mental illness came to her to get medication. I was never going to admit to myself that I reached that stage.
And yet when the apathy of The Drowning came, I knew that there were only two ways out of this misery, and I wasn’t going to leave without trying everything I could. I had to get over my unfounded principles, face my embarrassment, and take anti-anxiety and anti-depressant pills every day. I did not expect to feel the effects immediately and I was told it may take at least a month before I noticed anything.
And it did help. Gradually. There was less of the buzz and more of the happiness; less effort to pretend to be content, and more real contentedness about who I was.
Lesson: Whatever you may think of medication - it is worth trying. It is completely irrelevant what anyone else thinks about anyone taking medication. Including yourself.
Finally, and I think the most important lesson I have learned. Talking with other people helps.
I did not wear it as a badge, but I remember I met my former manager for drinks and just told him about how I felt and why. It was probably the first time when I decided to tell someone outside the family how I really felt. He did not judge, he did not try to find a silver lining. Instead, he shared something about himself. Where depression may come across as self-centeredness, in reality for the person who is feeling that way, talking is a really powerful antidote. Listening is too.
It seems like common sense, but let’s face it; everyone tries hard to hide the uglier side of life. Talking about it, mentioning things you find hard, and listening and validating the struggle of others helps.
Lesson: Everyone is struggling with something. You are not alone.
I have wanted to share my story to raise awareness for a while, but could not work out how to structure it. This post started as five bullet points I noted down before I went to sleep one night and expanded to include a lot more than I expected. Some of it is slightly uncomfortable and personal, yet I will stick to my original point. It is vitally important to talk about mental health. I got through The Plunge, The Pain, and The Drowning but too many people do not. In particular, too many young people. For me it was through medication, empathy and hobbies - for someone else it may be different. If anything here resonates and you feel similarly to how I felt - reach out. Depression is an illness and that means it can be treated.