Who I Am, and Who I Need To Be

I wrote this on Twitter on September 23, 2015. I thought it would be less ephemeral if I collected the pieces here.

When I started junior high, I switched from public school to the local Catholic school. Parents felt it was a better education + Catholic.

I didn’t know anyone in that school, and I was very scared to switch. I dreaded it every day as summer wound down.

When I started at the school, no one tried to say hi. No one helped me. Teachers or students. I was terrified.

I remember being in a big gymnasium, sitting with all the other students, but by myself. They called people for band.

I played saxophone but was too scared to go. I just sat there. No one told me what to do. I was so afraid of doing the wrong thing.

I remember later following a few kids to class because I didn’t know my way around, & they turned around and told me to stop following them

I still was friends with people at my old public school. I remember inviting 3 or 4 over one night to hang out and stuff. I had lots of fun

It felt really good that they were still my friends. Then a couple weeks later another friend told me they were making fun of me.

They thought I was behaving stupidly when they came over and made fun of me to each other when I wasn’t there.

I don’t think I’ve ever really trusted people since then. I expect to get screwed over. That they’ll betray me behind my back.

In the new school, I had “friends” I guess, but they also turned their backs on me when I became an outcast. No one stood up for me.

No teachers ever intervened. No one did anything. And I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, ever.

And for the rest of my life I’ve believed that there is something wrong with me. I’ve believed that things will always go bad.

That I am, despite everything to the contrary, alone.

This is what I have to conquer to be happy. I have to not be that 13 year old kid, suffering in silence, dreading each day at school.

If I can’t do that, I won’t ever be free of it. And I am so sick of feeling this way. Of how it suffocates my hope and faith in people.

How it tells me I’m worthless and stupid, and leaves me alone and crying in my car, as a 40 year old man.

I have to like myself. And I haven’t liked myself since I was 12.

I wrote all this for myself, to remember what I’m trying to do, but also so other people can hear about it and know they aren’t alone.

So, on the third day of 7th grade, I decided to try out for football. I had played softball for many years and was pretty good at it.

The athletic requirements of football were quite different, though. I started crying because I couldn’t do the pushups and situps.

Then we had to run laps around a big field, and I tried my best, but I was just defeated. I couldn’t do it. I sat down and cried.

One of the kids was able to get me up and I ran in with him, finally. But that was it. I quit. I was incapable of doing it.

Kids were so cruel. Nothing was worse than quitting at athletics. They’d call me pussy and wimp to my face. No one defended me, ever.

Why was I changing my clothes in a locker room full of strangers? What the hell was going on? It was terrifying.

In 8th grade I went out for basketball, and played one preseason game. Had no idea what I was doing. Eventually I was kicked off the team because I started stealing stuff out of other kids’ lockers. I was acting out, doing destructive shit, to fit in. To have some power.

I tried out for wrestling, god help me, later in 8th grade. Again, no idea what I was doing. I was so not in shape for this stuff.

My mom bought me wrestling shoes, and I remember her saying that I couldn’t quit if she bought them for me.

Eventually I told my mom I was kicked off because my grades were too bad. I told the coach my mom wouldn’t let me be on the team bc grades.

I remember being alone at night in the den, and thinking about dropping a piece of exercise equipment on myself to break my leg.

That way I would have an excuse no one could deny to quit.

There was a kid in our class who, Matt K., who was 16 (in 8th grade). Really troubled. Got in a lot of fights.

He and I would talk, and I thought I was his friend. we all kind of thought he was cool in a scary way because he talked about tough stuff

I was so fucked up by all this stuff that I started paying him to beat up people. I would give him a name & some kind of money of video game

Of course, other kids caught on to this quickly and paid him to beat me up. I remember him beating on me in the corner of the blacktop.

It was out of the view of the supervisory types, so nobody did anything. Eventually because I wouldn’t fight back he stopped.

But I kept hearing he was waiting to beat me up when I got off the bus. I didn’t go back to school the next day. Faked being sick for a week

I would stay up as late as I could, watching TV on the couch in the living room, because I didn’t want the next day to come.

Finally I decided I couldn’t go back. I made a plan to run away. I packed a duffel bag with clothes and stuff and a knife in it.

It was early in the morning and I was about to leave, and I heard my parents getting up. I hid behind a big chair in the living room

I could hear them go to my room to wake me up, and then worry in their voice, because they couldn’t find me.

They were starting to look all over the house, becoming more frantic. Finally I came out. I told them what I’d planned to do.

They decided I shouldn’t go to school and we’d try to figure out what to do. They called my therapist, who I’d been seeing a cpl months

She said she thought I should go into an inpatient clinic. We figured out that the closest one was an hour away in Michigan City.

They dropped me off there at 2am. I was there for two months. I never went back to the school. Teachers agreed to just pass me.

Saw a lot of shit in that hospital. Some stuff was good, some was pretty awful. Lots of things I won’t ever forget.

But one thing I’ll say is that for the first time in a couple years (long time for a kid), someone actually stood up for me there.

This 13yo punk rock kid named Dennis. We would talk late at night, and he’d tell me crazy stories about when he did heroin & shit like that

And one time he said “Ed, you’re cool. I mean, you’re a nerd, but you’re cool.” That was the best thing that happened to me that whole time.

Thing is, I need to be able to tell myself that and believe it. I really haven’t, since I was 13 years old. It’s fucked with me for 27 years

I am not that kid anymore. I’m strong and good and not a failure. If I can’t tell myself that & believe it, doesn’t matter what anyone says

I’ve carried this shit around in my gut my whole life, because I thought it was who I was. But I was wrong, and I need to let it go.

If it takes me saying “I am a good person” out loud a million times, I’m doing it, because I’m not going to let it control me anymore.

So You Want To Give A Talk On Mental Health

Fritzi Scheff demonstrating Magnavox for Fifth Liberty Loan in New York City, 1895

This was originally posted on The Pastry Box Project

Since I started giving my Open Sourcing Mental Illness talk in May of 2013, I’ve presented it 17 times. Doing these talks has been one of the most rewarding activites of my entire life, and I feel incredibly lucky to be in a position to do it.

On my own and as part of the Prompt campaign, I’ve had a number of people talk to me about speaking about mental health within the tech community. It’s awesome and exciting to see people willing to share their own stories, because it means things really are changing. At the same time, I’ve often wanted to sit each person down and have a good hour talk with them about what they need to know going in.

When you get up in front of people at a tech conference, you’re presented as some sort of expert. When you’re talking about something like mental health – a topic many of us are afraid to bring up around strangers – you’re viewed as something of a leader. With those expectations comes a lot of responsibility. Here are a few things I’ve learned to do, and not to do.

Don’t pretend to be a mental health professional

You really need to know what you know, and what you don’t know, before you get up there. If you’re not a trained mental health professional, you don’t know much. You know your own experiences, but somebody told me once that using the toilet doesn’t make you a plumber. Your experiences are 100% valid, but only apply to you – you have to be extremely careful about applying them to anyone else. Talk about your experiences, but make it clear that experiences vary dramatically. “This is what it was like for me. It’s not like this for everybody, and it may not be this way for you.”

Don’t tell people how to solve their problems

You’re almost certainly not qualified, and could do enormous harm by endorsing any particular course of treatment. Time and again I’ve seen people urge treatments – or avoidance of treatments – because they personally had success with them, including:

  1. take drug X
  2. never take drug X
  3. never take any medicine
  4. stop eating sugar
  5. drink lots of water
  6. exercise
  7. see a therapist
  8. never see a therapist
  9. move (because it’s your environment that’s affecting you)
  10. pray

Do some of these work for some people? For sure. Some of these things have aided me personally. But I would never suggest to anyone that any single one of these actions would fix them, because 1. the causes of mental illness are confoundingly complex, and 2. because I am not a mental health professional. I have no business telling you what will work for you, personally. I can tell you what’s worked for me, but that may not mean anything to you. Never advocate for a “cure.” It doesn’t work like that.

Encourage seeking help, and explain how to do it

While you shouldn’t advocate for a particular treatment, you absolutely should advocate for getting help from professionals. You also should have ideas of where to start. The Get Help section of MentalHealth.gov is a great place to start for people in the United States, for example. If you’re speaking at a user group or regional conference, try to find resources specific to the area. Note that this may require you to make a telephone call and talk to a human being.

Get your facts straight and sourced

People are going to be listening to you as an authority. If you make assertions beyond your own experiences, you must have them backed up with real data from scienctifically legitimate sources. Be skeptical of what you read, and don’t cherry-pick stuff because it tells the story you want it to tell. Some good places to check out are the World Health Organization, MentalHealth.gov, the National Institute for Mental Health, and Mental Health America.

Tell people ahead of time if you’re going to talk about difficult-to-hear subjects

When I give my talks, it’s not uncommon for me to look into the crowd and see some folks crying. Talking about this stuff is hard, and when you do, you will be connecting with some people’s deepest pain. If you’re going to be talking about particularly tough stuff, such as suicide or self-mutilation, you should let people know ahead of time – either at the beginning of the talk, or in the description. I have at times spoken in detail about my own experiences with suicidal ideation and near-attempts in more detail than I should have – not because the topic should be avoided, but because people in the audience may not have been prepared.

People are going to come talk to you

Every single time I give my talk, multiple people reach out to me. Some do it in person, and some do it electronically, but they always do. They all have different stories and different experiences, but almost all of them are reaching out because they probably have never seen someone speak openly about these issues. Those people who reach out to you will have lots of different things going on. They may tell you about their sister, or their son, or their aunt, or their father. They may tell you about themselves, and they may tell you more than they’ve ever told anyone else – let alone a stranger.

People will come to you with their problems and ask you for help

Many of the people who reach out are going to ask you for advice. They’ll ask you how to find help. They’ll ask how they tell their boss about what they are going through. They’ll ask you how to get convince their sibling to seek treatment. They’ll ask you how to deal with the suicide of a friend.

I have tried to give the best advice I can. I don’t try to solve their problems, but I try to give them options. I tell them they aren’t alone, and there is help out there, and here are some places they could try. I tell them that they can’t control what other people do, and that it’s not their fault.

I don’t always have an answer. Sometimes I have to say “I’m sorry… I don’t know.” Those are the hardest. Those are the ones that stick with you days later.

Learn to listen

I talk a lot. I have learned to listen. It can be really hard to listen, particularly if you’re the kind of person who wants to fix things as fast as possible. I have this tendency myself.

You have to listen. You have to listen with empathy and without judgement. Shame is the most common thing you’ll encounter when talking about mental health. People need to feel safe to talk about it. Help them feel safe by looking at them, and listening, and praticing empathy. It is more important that you listen than try to fix them.

Be prepared to deal with crises

Since I started acting as mental health advocate in the tech community, I have been approached a handful of times by people who are going through a mental health crisis – where they are in a very bad place, and have the potential to do things harmful to themselves (either physically or socially). It is extremely difficult to know what to do and what not to do in these cases.

I believe that by speaking about mental illness, it is far more likely you will encounter a situation like this. You need to be prepared for it. I strongly advocate taking a Mental Health First Aid course before speaking. Not only will it give you lots of great info to pass on in your presentation, but it will prepare you to deal with mental health crises.

If you have other ideas, please share them with me and I’ll add them in later versions of this article.

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 ed@OSMIhelp.org.

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