From Within

I hope that writing about this will help someone dealing with similar issues.

I have generalized anxiety disorder, but I often struggle with depression. The pattern in recent years for depressive episodes is that they are triggered by a series of high-stress situations that lead me to feeling hopeless, often because of guilt about how I have handled them (I have problems with reacting aggressively when I feel overwhelmed with anxiety). The anxiety, then, slides into hopelessness. I feel completely drained of positive energy. I feel no joy in things that typically excite or please me. I see no reason to be optimistic. Failure is an inevitability.

I know this is not true, but I see no way to escape this state. I have knowledge and evidence to the contrary, but I simply cannot believe it. My mind won’t let me find any solace in it.

I push myself because others rely on me, but what I want to do is call in sick to work and hide forever. I want to cry and cry in hopes that this black shit that’s spread throught me drains through my tears, but doing that in the middle of a coworking studio seems… uncouth.

I don’t have good coping skills for when I feel like this, and that cripples me. I feel stuck here with no clue how to escape.

I have suicideal ideation. Flashes of attempts invading my thoughts. When you feel worthless and hopeless, it’s difficult not to imagine this as your only release. I know it is bullshit, but my mind is stuck in this state.

Just 24 hours ago I was excited and happy. Why can’t I feel that way again?

I guess I wrote this for myself too. Maybe I’ll see a light and follow it out of here. I hope so.

It's So Easy To Be A Dick

A group of men watching two men fencing

Originally posted on The Pastry Box

Twitter is a fabulous medium for tossing out random thoughts. Great for people with ADD like me – much easier than blogging. 71k+ posts in a little less than 8 years will tell you I’m a fan. In general I think it’s been a positive thing, but there are… some issues.

There’s this thing with interacting only via text where I believe we tend to worry less about how our words may affect others. Maybe it’s because we don’t have to see a confused or pained expression on the reader’s face. This is exacerbated on an intentionally curt medium like Twitter, where expressing a nuanced, complex idea is particularly problematic. The writer can’t easily anticipate potential confusion and address it when they have 140 characters1.

So on the reader’s side, you strip out nuance and language that makes it easier to judge intent. Pair that with the tendency I have, and I think many others do, to take written communication in the most negative way possible, and things can get really nasty, really fast.

This often has come up in the context of software or tools I’ve made. When I was working on Spaz, I often read rather curt messages from users about the open source software I gave away for free. A couple choice quotes:

twhirl sucks. So does spaz. Hello feedalizer. You might just be my new friend
spaz sucks. testing tweetdeck now
Spaz sucks, Tweetdeck wins

I did an impromptu presentation one time entitled “Users Are Assholes” just for this reason. Thing is, they’re not assholes: they’re just being insensitive, because they’re not thinking that a human being just like them worked hard on this. I am pretty sure they wouldn’t like anyone saying that the project they had put hundreds of hours into and given away for free “sucks.” Not many people wouldn’t take that personally. I definitely lost my temper plenty of times over stuff like that.

I’m not going to just excuse the sometimes-fucked-up stuff I wrote or did when I was triggered, though. I have to take responsibility for my actions, even in the light of a trigger like that. Yes, it can be difficult not to, but to quote Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj:

Whatever happens, happens to you, by you, through you; you are the creator, enjoyer and destroyer of all you perceive.

I am responsible for how the expressions of others affect me, and being a slave to them is a terribly unpleasant state of being. I know, because I’ve struggled with it for nearly 40 years.

The other thing I found is that if you avoid responding in kind, but instead offer an empathetic response, you often can immediately change the tone of the conversation. If, however, I respond negatively, I almost always have reinforced the existing negative perception that existed, or I found that the person didn’t intend something so negative as I took it, and now they’re wondering why I’m being such a dick.

I also find it helpful to suggest moving the medium to one which is less prone to mistaken inference. If it’s possible to get the conversation off of a text medium, that’s great (although potentially creepy). If not, something more verbose like e-mail or SMS or IM or whatever the kids use these days is probably a lot better and less likely to turn into a shitstorm.

As Dalton says in Road House:

If somebody gets in your face and calls you a cocksucker, I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you, and you’ll both be nice. I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.

So, to sum up:

  1. Human beings read what you write.
  2. Try to be cool to them, and make it less likely they will be upset about what you write.
  3. When someone writes something you don’t like, yelling back rarely helps, and is still not okay.
  4. Avoid responding in kind to a perceived negatives. Offer empathy in response to negativity/hostility.
  5. Try to change the medium if the current one isn’t working.

1 One might say “so don’t write about that stuff on Twitter then.” Yeah, but it’s so easy

Save Lives With Mental Health First Aid

Image from page 211 of "American national Red cross text-book on first aid and relief columns; a manual of instruction; how to prevent accidents and what to do for injuries and emergencies" (1908)

This was originally published on The Pastry Box Project on June 6, 2014.

If we want to make tech companies safe places for those struggling with mental health issues, I believe it is essential that our leads, managers and C-level executives become certified in Mental Health First Aid (International Programs).

I’m someone who has dealt with my own depression and anxiety disorders for the last 25 years. I was certified in an 8-hour course just a few weeks ago, and it is one of the most important things I’ve done to increase my ability to empathize with and help those who struggle with mental health issues. I've learned techniques to assess and aid people in crisis and non-crisis situations.

From the MHFA site:

I’ve taken regular first aid, and I’ve used both, but certainly the opportunities to use Mental Health First Aid are much more abundant. - Nathan Krause, Pastor

If you are a team lead, a project manager, a C-level executive, or similar, it is in your power to make your workplace a safe environment for your coworkers. You can empower them to seek help, free of stigma and shame. Your willingness to get certified will make their quality of life better, and will save lives.

Please stand with me now. Make a commitment to get certified in Mental Health First Aid

If you want help bringing this program to your workplace, or have any other questions, I will help you. Contact me at

Your Home Town Needs You

[Sylvia Sweets Tea Room, corner of School and Main streets, Brockton, Mass.]  (LOC)

This was originally published on The Pastry Box Project on April 6, 2014.

The time-honored tale of the web developer has the young, white male making web sites as a kid, taking computer science courses in college (maybe releasing a couple mobile apps in school), and moving to the Bay Area as soon as he graduates. He gets a job at a medium sized startup or, if he’s lucky, a Big Name like Google or Twitter or Facebook as a junior dev. He might get to work on something people have heard of. And it’s all very exciting with the nerf guns and the Friday evening keg parties and the Hacker News comments and pounding out code well past 5pm. He is, by traditional definitions, a success. This is what he should be.

I’m white and male. I’m not young anymore, for sure. And I’m really glad my story isn’t at all like the above.

For a number of reasons — mostly anxiety — moving away after college to work at a big Silicon Valley company had no appeal to me. I liked living where I did in the midwest. It wasn’t perfect, but I liked my community. I was good at what I did, and I liked being able to help people with the knowledge I had.

When I did move, I moved all of two hours away. Same very red state, another college town. It’s not perfect, but I liked it. I worked at the university for 9 years, and liked what I did, because I was good at it and I could help people with the knowledge I had.

After 9 years I started to itch a bit for something new, and I got an offer to leave that I couldn’t turn down. I cried when I left because I wasn’t going to see my friends every day anymore. It was hard. This was my place. It treated me well. But, I was going to work remotely, so my new startup wouldn’t take me to a new town. I was happy about that.

While I was working at the University I started attending a couple tech conferences a year. Eventually I was lucky enugh to speak at some. I loved doing this, because I got to meet a lot of people who loved doing the same things I did. But then I’d go home, and I was bummed because it seemed like there weren’t many people near me who were into those things.

That startup didn’t last long, but I still stayed in town and got another remote gig. I worked at a local coffee shop every day, coding most of the time, and sometimes helping the owner with his email or fixing the settings in the WiFi router. I met a lot of people, some of whom studied or worked at the university, and a lot who didn’t. I learned a lot about this community I had been in for a decade, but didn’t really know a lot about, because I spent all my time in the university.

Universities are weird in that there are lots of very smart, interesting people who often don’t know what’s going on in the building next to them. There are lots of kids learning interesting stuff who get offers to work at Microsoft or Google even before they graduate. People live here, but they never really learn what’s going on around them.

Turns out, there were a lot of smart, cool people who are doing cool stuff right around me. Some of them were into the same things I was. Some of them were not. But I knew I could learn things from them, and they could learn things from me. And the things we both didn’t like about our community, we could work together and change.

So I started going to a local tech meetup. I gave a couple talks there. I started my own open source group because there wasn’t already one in town. I got to know people who were doing work like me, and shared ideas. Gradually I started to make my own community a little more like the tech conferences I liked attending so much. I knew what I dug, and I met a few other people who dug it too, so we made it happen in our own community.

Right now I’m in a brand new coworking space that’s opened up in our downtown. I wasn’t deeply involved in it, but I talked to the organizers a little while they were planning, and I signed up to be a member as soon as I could. Already we’ve had meetings in the first couple weeks about how we can help K-12 schools in the area with the knowledge we have. I was able to help out the team building new web sites for the local catholic schools org get the hosting support they needed. In two weeks the open source group I started is hosting a talk by GitHub engineers to introduce people to using git. Here. In this small college town.

I also joined the school board for my son’s non-profit public charter school. It’s hard work and it takes a lot of my time, but I know that I’m doing something that has enormous impact on the lives of the kids who go there and their families. I have skills and knowledge that can make a difference here. So I do what I can.

Sometimes you need to leave. You need to learn about yourself. You need to change your environment to know what you can do. That’s totally fine and okay. You need to figure out what you want to do and where you want to be.

But there’s a decent chance that Silicon Valley and Brooklyn don’t need another you. There are plenty of people willing to go there to be part of whatever they’re selling. But your home town isn’t so lucky. They need you. What you have really can make a difference. You can do something for them that no one else can. You can change their lives. You can make your community a better place. You can make it the place you want it to be.

Success is not what other people tell you it is. It’s what you decide it to be.

The Mental Health In Tech Survey

Image from page 390 of "Peking : a social survey conducted under auspices of the Princeton University Center in China and the Peking Young Men's Christian Association" (1921)

Yesterday I released the Mental Health in Tech Survey. My intent is to get an idea of how mental health is treated in the tech workplace. With this information, we should be better able to identify areas of need and address them. I’m particularly interested in the workplace, because I believe that making the workplace a safe place to discuss mental health issues will have the most impact on the tech/developer community.

In just the first day we had nearly 700 responses. This is pretty amazing, and I’m really excited about the information we can gather from this.

When things settle down a bit, I will try to make some pretty graphs and draw some conclusions about what tech companies can do to make their workplaces safe to discuss mental health. I’ll probably use much of it in my talks, and will release all data under a CC license.

I would like to strongly encourage everyone to share this survey with your colleagues. Send it to your team lead, your CTO, your CEO, and ask them to share it with everyone. Every response makes a difference. I want everyone’s experiences to be represented.

I am already aware that the survey doesn’t address self-employed folks well, and the questions are US-centric, because health coverage is typically tied to employment in the US. Please don’t let that dissuade you from taking the survey. You will not skew results or otherwise mess things up – I will account for these issues in the analysis.

Please take the survey now, and share it!

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