I’ve been trying to write this post since 2014. I’d seen a Tweet from Andy Clarke about Geek Mental Help Week. It’s week-long event that features articles, podcasts, and events addressing topics related to mental health issues in the tech industry. Long story short, I got scared and chickened out.
In 2015 I was introduced to the “Iceberg of Life” by Cory Miller. I was inspired that someone I admired was so transparent about their struggles. I thought I might be ready, but I was looking for a job, and was afraid that the stigma surrounding mental health would limit my opportunities. I chickened out again.
Since then I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how silence contributes to the stigma. I don’t want to contribute to that any more. So after two years of fear and silence, I’m finally ready. No more chickening out.
Ten years ago it looked like I had an amazing life.
I had a freelance business working in an industry I was wildly passionate about. Every day my clients paid me to paint, take photos, craft type, write, and teach. If I’d been looking in from the outside at someone else living my life I would have been green with envy. Under the surface it was a different story.
Half of my life I was swimming through Jello.
I didn’t feel anything but tired. I even moved slowly—I couldn’t muster the energy to go faster. Everything overwhelmed me. Some days the only thing I could do was watch bad daytime tv in my jammies. Others I’d cry for four or five hours.
The other half I needed a “High-Voltage” warning sign.
Everything was a fight or flight situation. Panic attacks lasted for hours. I’d fly into rages over minor irritations. Leaving the house meant at least an hour checking locks and stove burners while I thought about every horrible thing that could happen if I didn’t.
No matter what kind of day I was having, I couldn’t focus.
On Jello days I couldn’t muster the energy to do much of anything. On high-voltage days I couldn’t focus on any task long enough to get anything accomplished. No matter how I felt, the end result was that I just couldn’t function.
I was failing at work.
One day I flew into a rage over an unpaid $10,000 invoice and let the my client know (in the most vulgar terms possible) that she wasn’t getting her files until I got a check. I got my check the next day. I also got fired from my dream job.
After getting fired I needed to find new freelance clients, but my web skills were out of date. I’d been doing print work while the web transitioned from tables and font tags to CSS. For the first time in my career I missed deadlines. Even when I *could* concentrate enough to work, it had slowed to a trickle. That meant the burden was on my wife to support the both of us.
I felt so much shame it was unbearable.
I’d always thought of myself as a strong person who overcame challenges with stubborn determination. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t get my shit together. I hated myself for not being able to suck it up and get back to my regularly scheduled life.
I didn’t want to give my wife even more to worry about.
I felt weak because I couldn’t crawl out of the hole I was in. Every day I woke up thinking “This is the day I’ll get it together.” It never was. So I faked it. I’d take a shower an hour before my wife came home from work. I’d act like I’d had a normal, productive day. I’d put on a happy face, pretending everything was ok.
I wasn’t as slick as I thought.
My wife confronted me one day, and said if I didn’t get help she was going to find a way to *make* me get help. I made an appointment to see a doctor. I didn’t have much hope, but I went because I love her and she was scared.
I was tired of faking it.
When I went in for my appointment it was a swimming through Jello day. I didn’t care enough to put a happy face on things. I just sat there, spilling my guts in a monotone voice. The doctor really took the time to listen to me. And at the end of our conversation, she changed my life.
The diagnosis scared the crap out of me.
She told me that, based on the symptoms I’d described, I was bipolar. I was seriously freaked out. Depression or anxiety I could handle, but this…I didn’t want it to be true. I mean, she wanted to prescribe Lithium!
I remember being horrified, thinking “That’s like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest territory!” I was terrified. What kind of life could I live? What if people found out? But I figured my life was already a nightmare. I didn’t have anything else to lose.
I left with a referral, a prescription, and sliver of hope.
After discovering I was allergic to Lithium, my doctor prescribed Lamictal. It’s worked for 8 years. I found a great therapist who taught me coping skills. I discovered meditation. I found that a schedule, eating well, and exercise helps manage the worst of my symptoms. Not a day goes by that I don’t realize how lucky I am able to manage my symptoms on most days.
I still struggle with bipolar disorder, but I don’t suffer from it.
Eight years ago I feared I’d never feel like myself again. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do the work I love again. I couldn’t imagine enjoying time with my wife, friends and family like I used to. I’m so relieved that I was wrong.
I’ve accomplished things I never dreamed I’d be capable of.
I’ve rebuilt my freelance business and worked at one of the best WordPress agencies in the industry. I’ve traveled with my wife and made wonderful memories with my family. Most days I’m happy. I’m excited about my future.
Some days I still swim through Jello.
Other days I’m buzzing with high-voltage. I’m not cured, and I still have daily challenges. The difference between then and now is I have the skills and support group to get me through the rough patches. I don’t have to do it on my own.
Maybe you’re suffering now.
Maybe you’re wondering why you can’t just suck it up and get over being sad. Maybe you’re beating yourself up because you can’t stop being anxious about everything. Maybe you feel alone and scared.
You are not alone.
There’s a saying that “You’re only as sick as your secrets”. The worst part of those two horrible years was hiding what was going on. Keeping up the facade was exhausting. If you’re hiding, I want you to know that you’re not alone. It’s ok to ask for help. It’s ok to admit you can’t get through it by yourself. There is hope.
Other people are going through what you’re going through.
People you never expected. People who look like they have it together. People who have learned that with medication and dedication they can live (and even thrive) with their mental health challenges. People who are just as scared as you are that if they are honest about their struggles they’ll be discriminated against at work, or ostracized by their friends, or called weak.
Having people like Andy Clarke and Cory Miller be courageous and vulnerable enough to share their struggles inspires me. Reading about their struggles gives me hope that I can get through mine. It’s why I wanted to stop chickening out and finally share my story.
It gives me hope that by talking openly we can reduce the stigma.
The more people who share their struggles, the harder it is to ignore. When it’s your friend, your boss, your co-worker, or someone you admire, it’s harder to ignore or minimize the problem of mental health in technology. If we can minimize the stigma, it’s not as scary to admit you’re struggling.
There are still two days left in Geek Mental Help Week.
If you’ve got a story to share, I’d like to encourage you to do so. You can submit your story via GitHub (it is *Geek* Mental Help week, after all). Or you can follow @geekmentalhelp on Twitter. If you’re inspired to share your story, tag it with #geekmentalhelp. You never know what your words might mean to someone who feels as alone and frightened as you.