Where I've Been, and Where We Are Going

NC Art Museum

The past two years have been the most difficult of my adult life.

In the Spring of 2017, thing were going very well, I felt. Open Sourcing Mental Illness was growing and doing many new things. We had just completed a our largest fundraiser ever. We had a team of talened volunteers eager to help. I was working as CTO for a small, promising startup. My son had started at a new school and seemed to be doing well.

Within a month, my son was in a terrible crisis, and I was let go from my job.

I tried hard to push through. I had often felt my time was split between OSMI and dev work, and after a little bit of consideration, I decided I’d give a run at doing OSMI full-time.

This didn’t work. OSMI paid me a salary, but one well below what I had been making. I tried to supplement that income with some consulting, and I took out a second mortgage to give me some money to work with.

All the while, my son’s crisis dragged on. It was incredibly anxiety-inducing, with weeks and months waiting on information and next steps. His mother and I were stuck in limbo, worried about our only son, with nothing to do but wait. Expenses mounted in thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.

We struggled and did our best. The fear and anxiety and crushing weight of the unknown slowly pushed me further and further into darkness.

Travel to conferences, something that had been enjoyable for me in the past (I’d done it at least 60 times), became more and more fraught with anxiety. I found myself wracked with fear, laying in the hotel room beds. I changed flights to come home early (thankfully without needing to cost OSMI any more money – Delta was accommodating to this Silver Medallion traveller). It was painful being away from home. But, I had speaking commitments, so I pushed through and did the best I could.

I still believed in what I was doing, and so I tried. I tried my best.

I hid and suffered and cried, alone, because there was little else to do. My relationship to my partner of 13 years, who had been a second mother to my son, was falling apart.

Somewhere along the way I gave a talk about graph databases at a conference. I no longer worked at a company who used this technology, but I made a commitment, and I did it. Months later a version of this talk would be uploaded and posted on popular developer forums, well after my time in the graph DB world had passed. It was amusing, but also bit sad. I wished things had gone a different way. But, that’s the nature of life.

In September of 2017, I eventually felt I had to take a full-time job someplace. I found a good, supportive environment that allowed me to work from home. I spent a week on-location, living in a nearby hotel. Everyone I worked with was kind and accommodating.

I was terrified every single second, and wished desperately that I was not there. I had no confidence in my abilities as a developer, despite two decades of experience. I felt stupid and hopeless and utterly alone.

As I left to return home, I made a stupid driving error and got into an accident. They always tell you not to admit fault, but this was 100% mine. Thankfully my car was driveable, and I resumed the 4-hour drive home.

The nature of my anxiety is that as it worsens, it reshapes itself into to the hopelessness of depression. The unceasing pain of anxiety eats and eats and eats until in consumes all of my hope, all of my ability to see a future that holds anything but suffering.

As I drove, I imagined crashing my car into an overpass support or the start of a guard rail.

When I got home, I went to bed. I did not know what tomorrow would bring. I wished I would not wake up.

The next day I had am appointment with my primary care physician. It was a regular checkup on my health, and had bneen scheduled for many months in advance. When the nurse asked how I was, I told her I was very anxious and depressed. She asked some questions about that, and then passed me on to the doctor.

The doctor, who is also a family friend, was kind and straightforward. He was very concerned, and suggested to go to a local behavioral health facility and speak with them. He asked if I needed someone to take me, or I would go there on my own. I told him I would go on my own.

So, that’s how I spent six days in inpatient care in the middle of September, 2017.1

It helped in some ways, and in some ways it was frustrating. It was not the most pleasant environment, and towards the end of my stay I was advocating strongly for leaving (without going against doctor’s advice. My attending pyschiatrist was not helpful in many regards, and gave me bad advice about this).

I think the way it helped the most was that I stopped everything. Career, OSMI, friends, family, all of my responsibilities. It all just… stopped. I had nothing to do but take care of myself. I was allowed to do that.

That was the only thing that would save me.

When I left the hospital, I took a couple more days, but I quit the job I had just started. I was just not able to handle work at that time.

My partners at OSMI knew what was going on, and said to do whatever I needed to get better.

I started a outpatient group therapy at the same facility. This was, I think, more purely theraputic than inpatient care, and the group leader was excellent. Kind, but straightfoward and honest with everyone.

I also talked to a couple more places about jobs. I needed to make money, as much as I wished I could coast more. So I pushed myself to a few interviews, and I had discussions with a local software development company I’d known for a few years. I was still very scared, but I did my best.

That local software company, DelMar Software Development, seemed like the best choice. and so on the first monday in December, 2017, I started there.

I was so, so scared.

I had lost all confidence in my ability as a developer. I was wracked with self-doubt. I was scared every single moment of every single hour of every single day. I would wake at 4am every morning, try to sleep more, and finally get up at 6:30am. I was often the first one to work. I would busy myself with learning things and given tasks and trying my best. I would leave and make a short drive home and go to bed almost immediately. I was never awake past 8pm. I was so tired, so quickly.

Early in 2018 my partner and I separated. I lived alone. I had not lived alone for any extended period since 2004, when I cared for my son on my own for a few months when his mother and I split.

I went to work, I came home, and I slept. I made myself simple meals and ate them, the same thing for breakfast and the same thing for dinner. I took walks around the building at work because I often didn’t know what else to do, because I couldn’t sit, afraid, forever.

I did what I had to do to survive. I did what I could, and it was all that I could do.

And slowly, very slowly, I healed.

I would get a task done at work. I would learn to trust those I worked with. I came to realize they were not constantly judging me. I learned more abou them, and in some private conversations I revealed some of what was going on with me. I learned I could trust my colleagues. I didn’t reveal everything to all of them, but those who needed to know, did, and they were supportive and kind. I think I made the right choice about where to work.

Gradually I learned to live on my own. I had my routines, and I stuck to them. They made me feel safer. I bought the same groceries and ate the same things and watched movies and TV and talked to friends online. After a couple months I started meeting friends again for lunch on Thursdays.

My son’s crisis had resolved, mostly. We were still in a holding pattern for a long time, but the outcome was not as bad as it could have been. He lived with his mother now, and visited me on the weekends. We would go to movies and watch movies at home and it worked okay. I tried my best to not let my anxiety about his situation get the better of me. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it did not.

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Oh, I was not entirely alone. I lived with two cats, named Commander Anyanka Shepherd and Special Agent Dale Cooper, Federal Bureau of Investigation. They are the greatest cats alive and they are still my best friends. Thinking of them and being with them kept me going when it seemed like nothing else would.

Finally, in November of 2018, my son and his mother and I were released from our ordeal of uncertainty. He, and we, could move forward with a “normal” life… as much as it ever has been.

In those many months I met someone, and began a supportive, caring, understanding relationship. It was not expected, and I wasn’t sure I was ready, but it has been good. I think we help each other.

Like the relationship, I gradually added new things to my life. Reading about developer stuff. Playing video games. Eating something that wasn’t a sandwich. That last part was tougher than you’d imagine. I am a creature of habit.

I started logging into the OSMI Slack again. I read what people were doing. Joe Ferguson had taken on the responsibilities of directing OSMI activity since I had stepped away, and was doing an amazing job. More speakers, more outreach… lots of great work was done.

A couple months ago, I started actually posting in the OSMI Slack. Answering a question or two. Making a suggestion. It felt okay.

Then I talked with Joe. He was burned out. He had a day job, and other resposibilities, and OSMI had consumed him. It wasn’t working. He had to step back.

So, we had a board meeting on January 31st, 2019. The four of us talked about where we were, what we were capable of doing, and asked some very basic questions:

  1. Why does OSMI exist?
  2. What should it do?

We never had asked those questions so directly. OSMI was my vision for years, and then when I stepped away, Joe continued it as best he could. But we lacked clarity of vision, one that would help us develop a roadmap for what we would do, what it should not do, and how to accomplish this.

OSMI’s purpose we decided, is to raise awareness of the importance of mental health in the tech community.

We will serve this purpose in the following ways:

  • Find and fund speakers at conferences and orgs
  • Run the OSMI Forums
  • Conduct our annual survey
  • Keep our handbooks up to date
  • Refer requests to outside consultants for services outside of our scope

Some of this is a change from our work in the past, particularly in scope. We have tried podcasts, posted videos of talks, shared our survey data, acted as consultants ourselves, and taken on more and more activities and volunteers.

We simply cannot do this. We are all volunteers, and we all have day jobs. We have responsibilities to families and friends, and most of all to ourselves. OSMI will die if we keep doing things the way it has been done.

We of course welcome allies, supporters, and volunteers. But any activity we take on must be sustainable. We will be saying “that not something we can do” to lots of things – even things with funding attached. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to be asked, and it doesn’t mean we will help you find assistance – we just can only do what we can do.

I, for one, gave over 70 talks in the past five years and attended even more conferences representing OSMI. Some have asked if I will start giving talks again, or appear at upcoming conferences. I will not. I have no desire, nor do I have the ability, to do this anymore. Others are more than capable, and we will support them as part of our function at OSMI.

After all of the events of the past two years, I’ve proven something to myself that I spoke of many times volunteering for and serving on the board of of my son’s school:

Organizations need champions. They often get heroes.

Champions believe in a cause, fight for the cause, and provide the resources and inspiration needed to keep an organization moving.

Heroes sacrifice themselves for the cause, and in doing so, they more often than not hurt the cause.

Alex Payne wrote about heroes in the workplace far more elequently than I could:

If you’re carrying the rest of your team through heroism, though, it’s time for a change. Ultimately, by playing the hero, you’re shortchanging yourself, your coworkers, and your customers

This isn’t just a workplace phenomenon. Every project, every nonprofit, every organization has champions, and it has heroes. OSMI has had many champions, like Larry Masters. We’ve had heroes too, and we have all learned these hard lessons.

Sometimes there are sprints, but most of the important work we do means walking. Slow and careful and arm in arm together. Helping each other along as we stumble.

I stumbled, and I fell hard, but I am walking again. I am scarred and injured, but I am walking again. I am not the same, but I am walking again.

  1. Note that I don’t reveal this without some concern. I have already had multiple insurance companies turn me down for disability coverage because I told them of this. One said that they would never take me on as a customer for the rest of my life.