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On Mental Health

This post has been a while in the writing, I suppose waiting for the perfect time to publish it. The two things that happened today to make me finally commit it to electrons were the news about Robin Williams, and reading Robert Bloch’s That Hell-Bound Train. Explaining the story’s relevance would spoil it, but it’s relevant. And short.

I didn’t leave Big Nerd Ranch because I disliked the job. I loved it. I loved working with clever people, and teaching clever people, and building things with clever people, and dicking around on Campfire posting meme images with clever people, and alternately sweating and freezing in Atlanta with clever people, and speaking stilted Dutch with clever people.

I left because I spent whole days staring at Xcode without doing anything. Because I knew that if I wrote code and pushed it, what I would do would be found lacking, and they’d realise that I only play a programmer on TV, even though I also knew that they were friendly, kind, supportive people who would never be judgemental.

When I left I was open and honest with my colleagues and my manager, and asked them to be open and honest with each other. I felt like I was letting them down, and wanted to do the least possible burning of bridges. I finished working on the same day that I voiced my problems, then I went to bed and had a big cry.

Which sounds bad, but was actually a release of sorts. I don’t remember the previous time I’d cried, or really done anything that expresses emotion. I think it may have been whenever British Mac podcast episode 35 was on, playing the final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth. Which apparently was back in 2006.

Anyway, I then took a couple of months away from any sort of work. On the first day post-Ranch I made an appointment to see a doctor, who happened to have available time that same day. He listened to a story much like the above, and to a description of myself much like the below, and diagnosed depression.

You may have seen that demo of Microsoft’s hyper-lapse videos where you know that there’s loads going on and tons of motion things to react to, but the image is eerily calm and stable. Yup. There’s lots going on, but in here everything’s muffled and has no effect.

It’s not like coasting, though. It’s like revving the engine with the clutch disengaged. I never stop thinking. That can get in the way of thinking about things that I actually want to think about, because I’m already thinking about something else. It means getting distracted in conversations, because I’m already thinking about something else. It means not getting to sleep until I stop thinking.

It also means writing a lot. You may have got rid of a song stuck in your head (an earworm) by playing that song through, or by singing it to yourself. I get rid of brainworms by writing them down. I use anything: from a Moleskine notebook and fountain pen on an Edwardian writing slope to Evernote on a phone.

Now, you may be thinking—or you may not. It may just be that I think you’re thinking it. While I’m still extraverted, I’m also keen to avoid being in situations where I think other people might be judging me, because I’ll do it on their behalves. It’s likely that I’m making this up—that it’s a bit weird that I keep telling jokes if I’m supposed to be emotionally disengaged. Jokes are easy: you just need to think of two things and invent a connection between them. Or tell the truth, but in a more obvious way than the truth usually lets on. You have to think about what somebody else is thinking, and make them think something else. Thinking about thinking has become a bit of a specialty.

Having diagnosed me, the doctor presented two choices: either antidepressant medication, or cognitive behavioural therapy. I chose the latter. It feels pretty weird, like you’re out to second-guess yourself. Every time you have a bad (they say “toxic”, which seems apt: I have a clear mental image of a sort of blue-black inky goop in the folds of my brain that stops it working) thought you’re supposed to write it down, write down the problems with the reasoning that led to it, and write down a better interpretation of the same events. It feels like what it is—to psychology what the census is to anthropology. Complex science distilled into a form anyone can fill in at home.

This post has been significantly more introspective than most of this blog, which is usually about us programmers collectively. Honestly I don’t know what the message to readers is, here. It’s not good as awareness; you probably all know that this problem exists. It’s not good as education; I’m hardly the expert here and don’t know what I’m talking about. I think I just wanted to talk about this so that we all know that we can talk about this. Or maybe to say that programmers should be careful about describing settings as crazy or text as insane because they don’t know who they’re talking to. Maybe it was just to stop thinking about it.