00:16 – Welcome to “What is your favorite color?” …we mean, “Greater Than Code!”
01:34 – Superpower Origin Story; Mental Illness in College
10:13 – *Disclaimer* We Are Not Doctors and a Message on Self-Diagnosis
13:03 – Panel Experiences with Mental Illness: Rock Bottom, Shame, Stigma, and Fear
25:54 – How Mental Illness Seems to Uniquely Affect the Tech Community
For sponsorship inquiries: please contact email@example.com
31:06 – Coping Mechanisms
34:17 – Creating an Environment That is Beneficial to People with Mental Health Issues; Work-Life Balance
Sam: Depression can feel like nothing.
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MANDY: Hello everybody and welcome to ‘What is your favorite color?’ My name is Mandy Moore and I’m joining as I guest panelists today. Along with me, I am pleased to be here with my friend, Rein Henrichs.
REIN: Hey Mandy and I think you’ve been doing the show for long enough that you would know that the actual title is ‘What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?’ and I’m here with my friend, Sam.
SAM: Well, what do you mean, an African or European swallow?
REIN: There it is.
SAM: Yeah, all right. Hey everybody, it’s Greater Than Code and we’re here today with Greg Baugues. Greg may perhaps be best known for teaching his dog to text selfies and if that’s not what he’s best known for, then something is very, very wrong with the world. If you’re curious about that, we’ll put a link in the show notes. Among his list of achievements, Greg worked on a developer evangelism team at Twilio for three years. He now leads their developer community team whose mission is to, ‘encourage and amplify developers,’ and I am informed by a reliable source that this is in fact somehow different from developer evangelism.
Anyway, after 11 years in Chicago, Greg and his family moved to Brooklyn last year. That family includes a two and a half year old daughter, Emma and while Greg is very, very much eager to teach her to code, it sounds like they have to work on some typing first. Anyway Greg, hi and welcome to the show.
GREG: Hello, y’all. Thanks so much for having me.
MANDY: I asked you to come on the show because I was at the CodeNewbie conference in New York City and you gave the most awesome talk on Developers and Depression. But before that, we should probably get to the normal question of what is your story, where did you obtain your superpowers?
GREG: I think, in this day and age it’s probably safe to say that being able to write code is a superpower. That might not be hyperbole in this day and age. I was just super fortunate. For some reason, my parents bought a TRS-80 when I was a kid. My dad’s a pastor, my mom’s a nurse so there was not necessarily a professional reason for them to. But back then, the computer would boot into BASIC so to use the TRS-80 was to program. There was magazines, 3-2-1 Contact and this was ’86 or ’87 and you could literally copy BASIC programs from the back of the magazine into the editor there. You could just start coding there and it was like the most instant gratification you could get with a computer before there was an internet. I think the first one we had didn’t even have floppy drives. I had a cassette drive.
I start programming as a kid. I think some kids pick up pen and paper, some kids pick up crayons and start drawing and programming would always has been my creative outlet where you can start with a blank page and type something and then make it do something and type a little more make it do something else. I just kind of stuck with it ever since.
SAM: Just out of curiosity, did you pursue a formal education in computer science or did you do the informal ‘I’ve just been on computers my whole life’ thing that so many people tend to do.
GREG: You know, I pursued a formal education. I went to University of Illinois for computer science but I failed out. This probably kind of plays into the main topic of today but I did five years there. I did the wrong way. I started in ’98 and I left in ’03 so that was right around the time when it started being cool to drop out to start something. I didn’t do that. I had no plan. I did that exact wrong way. I spent five years and still didn’t get a degree and I didn’t do it because there was some awesome opportunity.
In retrospect, I just got really depressed and had ADD and didn’t know it. I had bipolar as it turns out and that tends to come on right around the time in your early 20s for a lot of folks. I was crippled with depression. I didn’t have those words to describe it. I think that my college experience would have been quite a bit different if I just been more aware of what was going on at the time.
I did pursue a CS degree. I was not particularly good at it. I would skip classes in the morning and then just come home and basically just code all night on. I was probably doing PHP mostly at that time. I pursued but did not achieve a formal education, I would say.
SAM: Interesting. That sounds, at least somewhat similar to my first couple of tries at college. I discovered as an adult that I have ADD as well but at that time, I didn’t realize it. When I got to college, I realized that it’s not high school and there aren’t hall monitors here and nobody’s making sure I go to class. Then, I also like you have depression issues as well. All of those made it very difficult to stay focused and I was until to my third time in college that I actually managed to make it stick.
GREG: You did finish, though?
SAM: I did.
GREG: That’s awesome.
SAM: Fortunately, my depression is more or less manageable by medication. My ADD is not so severe that I can’t function at all and it turns out that the way that the colleges that I went to is structured. Everything is on a quarterly system so everything is new every 12 weeks which is just a short enough time span that I could be like, “Okay, I can do this.”
GREG: That’s so brilliant. I have wondered looking back if my experience would have been different. I went to University of Illinois which is a Big 10 university semester system, middle of nowhere. Effectively, the town exist because the college exists in central Illinois, which I wonder if you choose a different university that has quarters where everything is happening faster or if you choose a university or in the middle of a city where there’s a lot more stimulus and you’re not just bound by the collegiate lifestyle, I really think that we probably underestimate the degree to which the educational environment impacts the student success. It does not feel like there’s a lot of opportunity to iterate and pursuing a college education, like you have opportunities to iterate when trying to figure out what you want to do for your career, which jobs are right for your or how is the best way for you to get your work done. That’s really cool that you took several shots at it and kept at it and mixed it up and got it done.
SAM: Yeah, I got really lucky too that I started a community college so when I graduated, I only had $19,000 in debt, which sounds like a lot. In modern college standards, it’s pretty damn low.
GREG: That’s awesome. Well played.
REIN: I tried a semester of college and decided that that was not at all for me so I have never really gone to college. I found out when I was younger that I have a history of bipolar disorder in my family and I have never been diagnosed but I’m pretty sure I have ADD. The reason I’m pretty sure is that when I read the DSM, when it has a checklist, I just checked off nine out of ten boxes.
Then also, there’s a great book called ‘Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder, From Childhood Through Adulthood, which if anyone listening is wondering, “Do I have ADD? What’s it like to have ADD?” Read that book, it was completely mind blowing for me from the very first paragraph through the very last paragraph.
GREG: I had a similar experience with that book. I fell out of school, moved back home with my parents, thought that maybe the problem was school. Maybe if I was doing full time development that my brain would just operate better and things would be better but it wasn’t. All the same problems kept popping up where I couldn’t start on a project until the night before it was due and I started dodging calls with clients and whatnot. When I get started on it, I could just work for 12 hours at a time without stopping.
Finally, one night in desperation, I Googled chronic procrastination and adult ADD popped up. I went to Barnes and Noble the next day and I discovered that book. I just sat down and I think I read the whole thing there that day. Simultaneously, I wanted to jump for joy but also just break down crying because it felt like it was describing my life and having that outside look on the way I was struggling. Feeling sorry for myself wasn’t the right thing but I think it just brought the entirety of what I’ve been going through but also seeing that there were so many other well-intentioned, moral and not lazy people out in the world who are suffering through the same thing, kind of alleviated a lot of the guilt. It gave me a reason for the difficulties that I’ve been having that was something other than just being a lazy bastard who was squandering the opportunities that were given to me.
MANDY: My college career basically consisted of me commuting to and from a school because I, in my early 20s was not at the point where I felt like it would be a good thing for me to go away to school. That was mainly because I was a not so great kid. I was very experimental back in those days and decided that going away would probably make me completely spiral out of control so I spent my time commuting. But I often wonder if I would have stayed on campus if I could have gotten it together enough to have lived the college lifestyle that sometimes I feel like I missed out on. Instead of hanging out with people on campus, I hang out with people around my home community that didn’t go to school or just worked for a living, as the case maybe. I feel like often, if I would have been around, some of the more academic people, my college experience would have been different.
SAM: Before you get too far along, I do want to add a caveat for our listeners about self-diagnosis, especially with regards to ADD. A lot of people when you read the list of symptoms of ADD, pretty much everybody who reads that list is going to go, “Oh, wait. This might be me,” and to some extent, I think that modern and Western culture is so interrupt driven that it will make you feel like you have an ADHD, even if you don’t.
That said, there are diagnostic criteria that it’s not super well-understood. I have a feeling that there are several sub-diagnoses that may come out of it at some point but right now, there’s a big list of a whole bunch of various symptoms and you can have a widely varying combinations of those symptoms. The criteria is something like, “You have X or more number of those things that affect you in two or more different contexts,” like your personal and professional life and they seriously impair your ability to function in those contexts. It’s not like you read the article, you do the Cosmo quiz and you’re like, “Hey Doc, I have ADD, give me meds.”
But it does affect, I think more people than realize they have it. My own experience was that my dad and my brother are classic ADHD cases. They’re hyperactive, they had various issues of substance abuse and really impulsive behavior and I didn’t have the hyperactivity and I wasn’t as impulsive so I thought, “They have it, I don’t. Gosh, I got lucky there.” It turns out later, not so much. I just have a different variation than they do.
MANDY: You should probably add that none of us here are doctors and your experiences with mental illness and depression, anxiety and everything that we’re talking about here is probably unique. We’re just talking about our own experiences and hopefully bring it to the light in the community so that if you are struggling yourself, maybe you should think about going and getting professionally diagnosed because we’re not here to do that for you.
GREG: I’m going to give plus one to that. I mean, the folks who actually are qualified to make the diagnosis of do you have this or this or this, go to school and actually completed school for years. In the case of psychiatrists, they first get an MD and go through all of med school and residency and then they go do more school so they can diagnose stuff of the brain. I think the only thing that any of us here can probably speak with authority on as our own experience and the best case scenario of listening to this, if some of what you hear strikes close to home would be to go set up an appointment with a professional who is qualified to help you through this.
SAM: Yeah and I think that’s what we can do here. We can talk about our own experiences and we can help reduce the stigma that our culture has around talking about mental illness and seeking treatment because, at least in my case, treatment is very effective and it allows me to be functional when I otherwise might not be.
MANDY: Absolutely. I was just diagnosed myself with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and that stems from probably the last 10 years of my life but on the main thing that it triggered everything was this past January when my mother passed away. She’s my rock. We are very, very close and adjusting the living life without her has not been easy. We spoke every day. She was my best friend and I miss her so deeply that it hurts.
The first couple of weeks, I could barely get out of bed and sometimes, I’m still at that point where it’s hard getting out of bed in the morning and going about your day and now that spring is upon us, I don’t want to go out and play and just store the energy so I started seeking help and I’ve been in and out of therapy since my teenage years. I haven’t really ever gotten a lot out of just talking.
My doctor recommended that I do something called DBT therapy. It’s a classroom kind of setting as a small group for 10 people and we go over concepts in the mindfulness, distress tolerance and a personal effectiveness and emotion regulation. It has been super effective. If you don’t know what that is, I highly recommend you check that out because I had never heard of it before and it’s really done wonders for me so far.
GREG: Mandy could you talk a little bit about what was going on that finally made you realize that you needed to seek extra help for this stuff? What was the moment when you do something different here?
MANDY: I am a single mom of a little girl. She will be eight in July and she lost her Mimi too and we both were grieving and it was hard because she was upset and I was upset and she would get home after school and we would just be sitting there. I will be watching TV and she will get her iPad and finally I was like, “This is not okay. We should not be sitting here crying and basically doing nothing.” But yet, I didn’t have the energy and then it all came ahead when I forgot her half-birthday and that’s very important in the life of a child, especially at elementary school age child whose birthday is in the summer so half-birthdays are very important.
She came home from school and she was like, “Mommy, you forgot my half-birthday and we didn’t bake the cupcakes,” and I was like, “Oh, shit,” and I felt like the worst mom ever. It seems a lot of people would be laughing and saying, “Oh, it’s no big deal,” but to me, I felt like I let down her school, her teacher and I was just like, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe I did that,” and it was like the worst thing.
I basically was like, “I got to get it together and I can’t sit here.” I didn’t take a shower for 6 days. I had a friend come over to my house and basically say, “Amanda, you need to go and get a shower. I’m sorry but you smell horrible,” because I just wasn’t taking care of myself and I was doing the basics to take care of my daughter like get her on the school bus, get her dressed in the morning and doing her hair, making sure she had lunch money and then when she would go off to school, I would just lay back down on the couch and normally go back to sleep.
When she would get home from school, I would again do the bare minimum: prepare her dinner or actually order dinner. I’ll be honest, I probably did not cook or do anything in the kitchen for eight weeks after my mom’s death. I’m pretty sure, I single-handedly funded the local pizza shops income by ordering out every night for eight weeks or if I was not hungry, I would heat up a can of soup for her because she just loves soup, or a grilled-cheese sandwich but it was a very, very, very basic stuff. I realized that time, I needed to get it together so I reached out to my doctor and she referred me to my psychiatrist now and like I said this DBT therapy has really changed everything. I go once a week for an hour and it has been very, very helpful.
GREG: Thanks for sharing all of that. That’s not —
MANDY: Yeah, no problem.
GREG: It’s not an easy story to tell.
MANDY: No, it’s not and that’s why I invited you on, Greg because your talk at CodeNewbie was just like that, sharing your own experience and if that story just helped one person go seek out and get help, then I’m so happy that I just popped on a podcast today. With that being said, would you mind Greg, kind of recapping your talk from Codeland because it’s not up [inaudible]?
GREG: Sure. Like I said, I think sometimes I really came out hard during my fifth year in college and it was really tough because going into my fifth year, I had just broken up with my girlfriend. Most of my friends have graduated in four years and I moved in an apartment by myself. I don’t think I want to admit it but it was pretty obvious I wasn’t going to graduate. It’s pretty obvious. I was just biding my time in signing up for classes but there was no real degree in sight. I did not know how to tell my parents that because they pay for most of it. Then I just felt like a piece of shit because I knew I was smart enough to get the work done but I just end up sleeping all day.
When I get depressed, the most obvious symptoms sounds similar to what you went through is that I sleep a lot. I was asleep in 16 hours. Back then, there’s one day I slept 24 hours and really, the best part of my day was when I was unconscious. That’s when I didn’t have to deal with the debt of my life situation that was piling up around me.
GREG: Yeah. I think the hardest part is that when you go through this, you just tend to go through it alone. In a way, you wouldn’t have physical illness. If I was having chest pains, I wouldn’t be ashamed necessarily to tell people about that or if I was having migraines, I wouldn’t feel ashamed but when you’re suffering with this stuff, the inclination is to hide. I even went so far. I had basically like one or two friends on campus and with one of the guys I worked with, I had stopped going to work and he noticed that I was gone and he had hit me up a couple times over e-mail, to checking in and I had ignored those.
Then one day, it was the afternoon at two o’clock, a weekday, I was still in bed and he calls my phone and I ignored it. He calls again and I ignored it again. Then I hear this knock on my door. I still don’t know how Bill got my address but I’m pretty forgetful about things and there’s a lot of like life maintenance tasks that I think I just accepted are not going to happen and back then, locking my doors was one of them. It was far more likely that I was going to lose my keys than someone was going to try to break in my house.
I hear the door knob start to turn and here I am like I’ve been dodging this guy for weeks now. At the time, I was sleeping on this bed, it was one of those cheap metal frames as a casters on it on hardwood floors and it roll just a little bit away from the wall. I just slid into that gap between the bed and the wall and I pulled the covers over my head. I just laid there and I just held my breath and Bill walks into my apartment and he just looks into my bedroom and he looks in my office and then he walks out.
That’s the best single example I can get of what the shame really felt like. I think that process just continued on. I fell out, I lie to my parents, I tell them I graduated. I won’t tell any of my friends what’s going on and basically for a year and a half, I was living at home trying to do freelance work and just failing all over the place there. Finally, like I said I kind of Google in desperation and I found that book. Still even, a year after finding that book, it took me a year to set up an appointment with a therapist because I think really of the stigma. I don’t think anyone really wants to admit that they have ADD because that’s what lazy people have like who don’t want to work hard. That’s what I thought about it at the time. It just seemed like an excuse or a cop out.
Finally though, I was basically about to get fired, I set up an appointment and go through all the tests and she’s like, “Greg, you definitely have ADD but I think you might also have Type II Bipolar,” and my response was basically like, “I will take the ADD and you can keep the bipolar.”
SAM: If you are having problems with the stigma of ADDs, right?
MANDY: It goes bipolar, dun-dun-dun.
GREG: Yes, seriously. In my head at the time, that’s like people running through the streets naked. That’s, I think the media portrayal of bipolar or manic depression. Definitely, I don’t want that one. Type II bipolar is milder so the highs aren’t quite as high. It’s called hypomania instead of mania and the range of these things, every case looks different but my cycles are more elongated so I’ll have four or five days, where I am hypomanic and just have like a lot of ideas and just moving really fast and talking really fast.
I feel like I need to have all these ideas for projects and I’ll start on them and complete them all tonight because in part, I don’t know if I going to have enough energy by the end of the week to do them. The net result is a whole bunch of a folder on my hard drive full of whole bunch of projects that are somewhere between 20% and 60% complete. I don’t want to say that that is a symptom of bipolar but something that’s happening in my life.
SAM: That seems something I deal with ADD as well is over commitment.
GREG: Yeah, I totally agree. Just generally speaking, easier to start things and to finish things. I started taking meds for ADD. They helped me focus a lot but they also, when I was depressed, which was the majority of the time. I feel like I have two or three days of hypomania and then four to six weeks of depression where life just felt like trying to walk through a swimming pool and —
SAM: That does not seem fair.
GREG: You know, when I finally go see the psychiatrist about two years later and he’s describing bipolar and he describes hypomania and I’m like, “Yes, that. How do I get that all the time?” There’s a lot of folks that are bipolar who will not go get treatment because they don’t want to give up the mania because it if feels awesome but the tradeoff is not a fair exchange at all.
I think, I finally just reach the point where like you, Mandy I knew something was wrong for several years and I just convinced myself that I don’t know how to fix it. I’ll just contain the damage to myself. After losing or quitting right before I got fired for several jobs after and then being in a job at this web consultancy called Table XI in Chicago, that was just amazing to me and they kept me around far past when they should have, they show so much compassion and I ended up being there for seven years and just realizing I was letting all of them down. I had to come to grips with the fact that you don’t suffer through these things alone.
If you have depression or anxiety or bipolar, the people in your life go through that with you, rather they know the cause of that or not. Finally, for no other reason, just for the sake of the people around me, I got an appointment. I saw a psychiatrist and I got on these meds called Lamictal. I got super fortunate there. In the vast minority, I think I got on the right meds the first time. The stuff called Lamictal has worked well for me and I’ve taken it for about eight years now and life just kind of gradually got better. It’s a mood stabilizer and I’ve been stable for eight years or so now and life has been really great. Basically, everything after having bipolar is kind of best case scenario for me there.
MANDY: I need to get help because my family didn’t know what to do for me. Rather than deal with me, they kind of started to pull away which made things worse. When I was completely isolated, I was like, “I want my family back. I really want to be with these people,” but they don’t want to be around me right now so I need to do something to get myself better because I don’t like being here right now and the people around you don’t like being around me right now so I need to do something to fix this.
I’ve been in the tech community for about 10 years now and it seems to me that these kind of issues are significantly prevalent in the tech community. Do you have any thoughts on that?
GREG: Yeah. In the general population, depending on what you read, I think all these things are kind of hard to measure but you’ll see numbers anywhere between one in four, struggle with a mental illness to like one in six will deal with depression. I think general population, if far more prevalent than most folks who would think, given the stigma and given the fact that we don’t talk about it in the same way that we talk about other diseases.
But in tech, I don’t know of any studies so what about to say isn’t based on science so don’t take this any more than one man’s opinion. I know that for, at least me — I’m going to spout off some of these cherry pick symptoms of some of the stuff that I deal with — hyperfocusing, which mostly are probably familiar with like you get locked in on something and you just work on it for a long time. There’s irregular sleep patterns, especially onset insomnia where it’s hard to fall asleep at night and it’s impossible wake up in the morning. There’s racing thoughts, which is what it sounds like. There’s pressure speech, which is when the racing thoughts try to escape through the small hole in your mouth. There’s a thought of grandiosity, thinking that you can change the world or thinking that you can solve problems that have alluded everyone else.
If you’re a young adult or an adolescent and you are experiencing these symptoms and say you’re bouncing around sampling different professions, if you happen to land in the software development world, my guess is that you will feel a little bit like coming home, like we will except the socially isolated here. Our workplaces generally accommodate irregular sleep patterns and consistent bursts of productivity in a way that say, my guess is an accountancy does not or a law firm does not.
If you actually want to change the world — back on the superpowers comment — I don’t think that there is a skill that you could have that would more enable you to do that today than knowing how to code. There’s the Apple commercial from a while back that says, “Here’s to the crazy ones because while the rest the world sees crazy, we see genius. Because those were crazy enough to believe they can change the world are the ones who do.”
We really kind of sent out this beacon to the general population for the last 30 years or so saying like, “Come join us if you feel this way,” so my guess is that the rate of occurrence to some of these things are probably higher amongst the tech community for no other reason than our industry is more accommodating to them. We also know that issues like bipolar correlate with increased intelligence and I believe depression does as well. Then I also think on the other side of it, it might possibly be more difficult for folks in our industry to admit and get past the denial, if they’re struggling some of these stuff in part because a lot of folks in this industry have spent a good chunk of their life being the smartest person in the room and being praised for how well their brain works and their livelihood is dependent upon their brain functioning at a high level. Their livelihood is dependent upon their creativity and their identity is often wrapped up in that. I know mine certainly is so starting to admit that maybe your brain is malfunctioning can chip away at that identity and potentially your livelihood. At least for me, I think a great reluctance to seek treatment that could possibly screw with the way that my brain is working.
SAM: Yeah. That jibes with my own personal biases which I’ve long thought that learning to program in particular is an activity that’s selects strongly for ADHD because if you have the ability to hyperfocus, you will plow through a lot of stuff that puts a lot of neurotypical people off of learning to program. The error messages are too hard. It’s too frustrating and the compiler is too picky.
GREG: I agree with that and there’s so much instant gratification in programming.
SAM: Oh, totally. I actually recently went to a group class on ADHD and one of the things that they kept talking about over and over again is that they don’t know a lot officially about ADHD but the really fundamental basic part of it is that people who with ADHD their brains are biased towards two things. They’re biased towards immediate gratification and novelty and both of those things computers provide in spades.
GREG: Yeah, it’s so great.
REIN: It’s almost like programming is my crack. If I am in a manic phase, that’s the way that I get out. That’s what I do when I want to get stuff done. But when I’m depressed, it is in some ways comforting for me to work on programming even though I’m not as productive because I still feel that sort of Pavlovian thing of, ” I made that test pass,” or whatever and it makes me feel like I’m making steady progress.
One thing I want to mention about self-diagnosing is that it’s not so much for me about saying that I have ADD or whatever because I don’t so much care about that. It’s understanding that the possibility is for me to improve the way my brain works, improve my quality of life. They don’t actually require drugs. I have collected an extensive set of what are essentially coping mechanisms that include everything from what I do in bed at night or more importantly, what I don’t do in bed at night, how I wake up, how I organize my day as far as tracking my time, what I do when I’m feeling depressed. I have a lot of things that I do. They are almost rituals for me that help me even though I’m not on prescribed medication. For me, it’s a lot of it is just being aware that there are things you can do to improve the way your brain works.
GREG: Rein, could you share a couple of those?
REIN: Yeah. I don’t use a computer in bed because I have trouble getting to sleep and if I open up a laptop, it’ll be 3 AM instead of 1 AM. In the morning when I wake up, I immediately put my feet on the ground whether I’m awake or not and then the rest of my body seems to follow. I don’t have coffee past three in the afternoon. I have a journaling system on my computer. I specifically use Emacs and any time I’m feeling frustrated or confused while I’m working, I write something there.
MANDY: Does the computer in bed thing includes the phone because I struggle with that?
REIN: Yeah. [inaudible] and what I do is I’ll use an iPad but I only read. But I think the light is still a problem so I’m going to experiment with getting a book light and reading an actual book or maybe the Kindle would be good.
SAM: Yeah, there’s also a feature on iPads now called Night Shift which shifts the spectrum towards the orange and away from blue. There’s still some blue light coming into it.
REIN: For me, the point isn’t so much what specific things I do. It’s you can find things that help you.
SAM: There’s a lot of literature on sleep hygiene. One of the psychiatrists that I saw for a while, he was very clear on sleep hygiene and the way he put it was your bed is for two things: sleeping and you know what the other one is. I think if we get in the habit of reading or puttering around on the computer or watching television while we are in bed, our brains are powerful association machines and it can make it a lot easier for your brain to associate bed with not sleep, which doesn’t help your insomnia in anyway.
REIN: Another big one for me is that time that you want to wake up in the morning and wake up at that time every day seven days a week, no matter what happened the previous night.
SAM: Yeah, I’ll mention also real briefly that I was diagnosed last year with sleep apnea so I have a sleep apnea machine now.
REIN: Yeah, me too. That completely changed my life.
SAM: Yeah, that actually helps a lot with my energy and focus during the day.
REIN: My doctor said, “Your sleep apnea is so severe that you could have died,” so I’m glad I’m not dead and I actually wake up in the morning and I don’t feel like there’s been a weight on my chest pressing me down for eight hours.
GREG: That’s incredible.
SAM: Are there other things in tech that are particularly helpful or challenging for folks with mental illness?
GREG: I think one thing that comes up a lot is how do you talk to your boss about these things, if at all. I think the other is on the flip side is a question that you’ll hear from managers is how do I addressed these things with my employees or how can I serve my employees well who might be struggling with this stuff. There’s a guy named Ed Finkler who’s done a lot of speaking on this. He has an organization called — actually it’s a 501c3 — Open Sourcing Mental Illness and he’s been speaking about this stuff for four or five years now and he’s just fantastic. He is really great at addressing a lot of these issues. They publish a number of hand books on how to serve your employees well.
He also is a big advocate of something called Mental Health First Aid. It’s a course you can take that would certify you in much the same way be certified in traditional first aid that will just help you identify people who might be at risk or symptoms that might indicate someone’s at risk and then how do you go about being ‘first responder’ to that. I think it’s also worth mentioning that for as difficult as it is to recruit and retain developers in today’s economy, addressing one of your employees in mental health is probably the biggest switch you could pull into increase the general productivity of your developer team.
We talked about like the Ten-X Developer as being this mythical thing but if you have someone who’s working on your team, who is suffering through crippling depression and you get them help that helps treat that, their productivity will increase by 10x.
SAM: It helps with retention too.
GREG: Yeah, 100%. I mean, I quit several jobs because I felt depressed and when you aren’t willing to consider that your depression might be due to internal circumstances, you just look to the most prevalent factors in your life which is typically where you work and where you live. Obviously, I’m depressed because this job sucks so I go and try different job and there’s novel for a little so I’m a little bit happier within the same stuff happens so I’m like, “This place sucks too.”
Finally, it was the job where after a year and [inaudible], I was like, “This place by all measures should be awesome and I am still depressed. Something else must be going on,” and I got treated there and I was incredibly grateful and loyal because of the compassion that they showed me and the patience that they showed me. I stayed there for seven years.
I think a couple things that employers can do just to really help out is to have on hand the name of, say two psychiatrist and two therapist, like pick a man and a woman on both sides and who takes your insurance, who is within 10 or 15 minutes of your office. Finding and setting up that first appointment with a therapist or psychiatrist is like the hardest part because the current system sucks. It’s all based on phone. Zocdoc makes it a little bit easier but figuring out who takes your insurance and whatnot is just such a great thing for an employer to be able to say, “If you are struggling with this, you don’t have to go to individuals. You can but just make it broadly known every month just broadcast, if you are struggling with this stuff. Drop an email to this person, they take our insurance, you can take off any time of day you want to go see them. No one’s going to ask any questions, just block off your calendar and say you have a meeting or whatever, like go and take care of this. This is priority number one.” It could just have a huge impact on your workplace and truly save lives.
I’ve lost coworkers to the stuff before and there’s few things that employers can do that could truly change the trajectory of one of their employees lives like pointing them in the right direction and getting them hooked up with the appropriate help for, if they’re struggling with one of these things.
REIN: I’m really, really excited that you’re talking about this stuff because it really doesn’t get talked about enough and anything we can do to just let people know that it’s okay to struggle with these things. Sometimes, it’s normal. It’s a thing that happens to humans. It’s not neurotypical but it doesn’t mean that you’re bad or broken.
MANDY: Exactly. I do want to mention that we do have a Slack channel in our Greater Than Code Slack community for wellness. If people want to join us, to donate a dollar per month to Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode and discuss it in there. It’s a safe place. It’s a really encouraging atmosphere and it’s there. Speaking of which, we should probably call out our $10 level Patreon of the week. That would be Dave Tapley. Thank you Dave for being a part of our community. Again, you can get into our Slack community for pledging as little as a dollar per month to support the show.
SAM: I just want to throw in here that if you, for some reason can’t afford a dollar a month, don’t worry about it. If you know one of us on Twitter, reach out to us. We’ll get you in because this stuff is important.
MANDY: It is.
GREG: I’ve feel like with the folks I chatted with, for the folks who are gone through these things, the turning point in their lives is the moment they can point to where they say that they talked to someone about it, whether that was a friend. I think often it starts there or whether it was in an online community like the Slack channel here.
MANDY: For me, that’s what it was because I did not have supportive people in my life.
GREG: Yeah, that’s awesome. I think that’s just so cool that you have that Slack channel setup and just a place where folks can come in and chat about it. The end game should be seeing a professional. Again, they go to school and they’re professionally trained at diagnosing these things. They do it all they long but if that seems too far, just find someone you can share your struggles with. I think what I found, at least in my life is that verbalizing what you’re going through seems to loosen a little bit of its grip on you.
SAM: Yeah and there’s a lot of incremental progress that you can make. You can talk with a trusted friend, you can go and read a book and that can give you a framework. With a lot of these issues, there’s not a one thing that will fix it. Maybe you get lucky and you hit on a medication that works exactly right for your body and that’s great. But a lot of these things, they reinforce each other so if you can pick apart one thing you can improve, it will give you that much more energy to work on the next thing, then you can snowball and eventually a couple years down the line, you can find yourself reasonably functional.
REIN: Honestly, one of the biggest things for me has just been awareness, has just been being able to say, “I’m feeling depressed right now. That’s normal. It’ll pass.” Just metacognizant, that awareness of the state that my body has in, has been a huge help for me.
SAM: Yeah, I mentioned that meditation is also a really useful tool for a lot of people and meditation can mean as something as simple as five minutes a day.
GREG: Do you have any tips for how to get started on meditation because I’ve heard that so many times from different folks and haven’t been able to pick it up myself? But how did –?
MANDY: I suck at it.
SAM: As the guy with ADD who mentioned meditation, I have started meditating probably 20 or 25 times and I have never been able to stick with it long term. But the nice thing is you can always start again and part of it is realizing that meditation is not probably what you think of it as. It’s not the idea of sitting down and clearing your mind because as it turns out, that’s biologically impossible to do. What meditation is the practice of sitting down and noticing when your mind goes astray and just naming it and sitting with it and being okay with it and bringing your attention back to just being present. There’s lots of ways that you can get to that.
I have a 15-minute playlist on my phone that when I do try to practice meditation, that’s very helpful. People like to sit and use a physical focus like rosary beads. Those are a great thing. There’s all kinds of ways you can do this.
MANDY: What’s with the fidgets spinner craze?
SAM: It turns out you can make them for about a dollar in China. But yes, some sort of physical focus can be very helpful.
GREG: I laughed there only because I go to the playground here and all the kids are using it but if it works, if it buys you three weeks of increased concentration before the novelty wears off, go for it. It’s clearly a fad that’s not going to be at the same height of popularity in two years right but if that works, do that. I think that one of the things, you just keep iterating through different techniques to help get a little bit better today with the realization that, at least for me, the craving of novelty means that what works today quite possibly isn’t going to work in two months and I’ll have to try something new and I’ll give myself grace to say like, “Okay fine. We’ll do something new.”
MANDY: I brought that up not in any way to make fun of it. Right before this podcast, I saw a wonderful article about how they are having an unexpected effect on people’s mental health in a positive way. I will actually link that in the show notes because it was a very good read.
GREG: There’s a couple of folks in the office who have them and they have them in the meetings and said they help a ton.
SAM: Yeah, would you said that I looked down on the one on my desk and I thought of the one that I print it and sent to Jessica last week.
REIN: A friend of mine called them shiny placebos and I said, “I don’t care if it’s a placebo as long as it works.”
SAM: That’s the thing about placebos. They do work 100% of the time.
SAM: Now, do we have anything else that we wanted to head on before we wrap up?
MANDY: Yes, but I don’t think we have time.
REIN: Super-fast reflections and go. Mine is, we’ve been talking about depression a lot and I think if you don’t have depression, you may not get what it means for the people in your life that do. It’s not just feeling sad all the time. There’s a blog post — actually a couple of them — by Allie Brosh who is best known for the clean all the things meme and it’s called Adventures in Depression where she talks about what it actually felt like to go through her life with depression. It’s not being sad. It’s just not wanting to do anything or be around anyone. If you’ve read that and you know people with depression or you yourself suffer from depression, that may help you.
SAM: I will second that. My own experience with depression is that a lot of the times, it just feels like nothing. Nothing is interesting, there’s not really any point in getting up to do anything and I might as well just sit here play solitaire for three hours. In lieu of reflection, I’m going to leave you with that.
MANDY: Yeah, same here. Sometimes, I just feel nothing. When I feel nothing, I just see myself sitting in my office, looking around at all the stuff that reminds me of things and reminds me of my mom. She was the person that I would go to and I guess now, I just don’t have that. I really don’t have any kind of support system in place outside my therapist or anything so I will invite the listeners that if you feel the same way or if you would want to talk to me, I would love it and you can feel free to reach out to me via email: Mandy@GreaterThanCode.com or on Twitter on @TheRubyRep and I would love to talk to anybody who would just want to sit and listen or sit and talk.
GREG: I’ll plus one on that too. I’m GB@Twilio.com or @GreggyB on Twitter. I’m always happy to chat about this stuff. What I think about this conversation, the thing that I will probably remember, given how my memory seems to be fading as I get older here. But I think I’m going to remember six months from now, Mandy is your story and you’re sharing and just being brave enough to share your story with our listeners. To think back over the pivotal moments of my life, it’s typically been someone going first and sharing their story to normalize these things that so many people go through.
I would just encourage anyone who’s listening, who’s suffering through this to find someone to share your story with. I think that not only will it most likely help you but I think that it’s easy to underestimate how helpful that could be to someone else to just to know that there is someone who is suffering in a similar way that you are and that you are not going through this alone and that you’re not weird or abnormal because of these things.
SAM: Or morally deficient.
SAM: We have a strong cultural bias against feeling lazy or appearing lazy.
MANDY: The reason I felt brave enough to share my story was because you were brave enough to do it at Codeland, Greg so same goes for you.
GREG: Well, I think the first time that I gave a talk about this at tech conference, that was pretty hard and I was pretty scared about it. On the second time, I was a little bit less scared. What I found is that I grossly underestimated the developer community’s capacity for compassion and empathy. I have just been blown away by how kind people have been after I give that talk. I still say that it’s very common that there to have a little voice in the back of my head that says, “Don’t do it. Don’t share this. They will shun you. Why would you possibly talk about something so shameful with these people?”
What I’ve just come to realize is that the voice in my head is lying to me. I’m fortunate in having evidence now, or at least a lot of anecdotal evidence to back up the claim that that voice in my head is lying to me. But just know that if you are suffering from mental illness by definition, your brain is malfunctioning a little bit. By definition, it’s taking inputs and running them through a faulty analysis process and spitting out incorrect conclusions. If you do hear that voice and it’s telling you like, “No, you need to go through this alone. You need to keep this locked in.” Just be willing to consider the fact that that voice might be wrong.
SAM: Thank you for coming on, Greg. We appreciate it.
GREG: It’s been awesome. I really appreciate y’all having me on. Thank you so much.
SAM: And thank you, listeners. We’ll be back with you again next week.
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