The 'D' in Development

Geek Mental Health week exposes the darker side of the creative industry, here I share how I fell into the trap of working myself to the edge of sanity.

With Geek Mental Health week drawing to a close, I thought it would be a good idea to write about my own experiences with mental health and the overall adjustment to working life.

It’s easy to become accustomed to the idea as a Developer that you live in a world populated by one person - you. This is drilled into you after watching the eyes glaze over when friends ask what you did with your day. You soon learn to shut up or if it’s a really exciting project, be brief.

Until recently I had never considered the others in my industry would have the same feelings and suffer the same as myself. The tech world is littered with articles on being more productive with your time, with the latest tools to learn and the business of making things. You learn to learn fast because if you don’t, that article you read last week says you’ll be unemployable in a month.

Keep moving, keep learning. Don’t stop, don’t blink. You find yourself endlessly solving problems both at home and at your desk. The lines blur between sorting the home insurance out, paying the council tax and finding which line of code is triggering an E_ERROR part-way through your script execution. Soon you forget how to stop solving problems and relax with the ones you have solved.

It’s a dizzying rapid industry and you become your harshest task master. Partly, it is borne out of love. I love my job and I love being a developer thus when I do not meet my lofty expectations of myself then I crack the whip over my own back.

Numb & Worthless

Depression likes to make its presence known at times like these, where the feelings of worthlessness and emptiness cripple what little extra time is spare in the day.

Hyperbole and a Half does by far the best job I’ve seen of explaining how depression cripples you from the inside.

It’s at times difficult to write about it. Not through shame or denial but simply the fact that it seems to change your personality so thoroughly it’s almost as if a second person takes control of your limbs for a while and moves you like a puppet. The difficulty is remembering what happened and what it was like when at the current time I cannot even attempt to recreate the feeling.

There were many evenings spent at home unable to get up and be the person I know I am. Frustration builds up at the situation and yourself for not being able to fix this last impossible problem. Remember though - don’t stop. Tomorrow it’s time for work and after that you’ve got to…

Burst the Bubble

During late October this had reached breaking point. It doesn’t matter how much you enjoy what you do, the brain simply cannot handle being abused by lack of sleep, crippling self-judgement and a growing job list.

You would expect that with this pressure building the final snap would be a loud and violent affair. Maybe with some crying, or anger thrown in as many others have done. For me this didn’t happen, instead I slowly slipped down a muddy hill.

One incident whereupon returning home from work I told my girlfriend that I had been angry for 7 consecutive days. People on the street, in queues in shops and on TV were subjected to my scowling face. I no longer saw them as people living their lives but instead cardboard cut-outs that were put in place by some malevolent being to ruin my day. Initially I put this down to being tired, but each day I would wake up the same.

This is one example of my personality slowly changing without me noticing. Each day you become a little bit less of yourself until at the end of it you come to the realisation that you don’t like yourself. The question that follows - am I a bad person?

Paul Boag answered this question. I’m not a bad person, I’m just a person.

You Are Not A Machine. You Are Not Alone. is an article he wrote on learning when to just stop. That the drive to kill yourself through work is unhealthy and shouldn’t be what motivates you.

I realized that I was not a machine able to work 24/7. I realized I had times of insane productivity and then periods where I needed to rest; that I could not expect to churn out high quality work without stepping away from time to time.

I had fallen into the trap of expecting to write fantastic software, very quickly and without mistakes. At the same time I wanted to run my home life like my work life. All the time damaging myself further until there was nothing left.

Ending this post is difficult, there is a great depth to which I can go into on nearly every stage of the past six months but at the same time I can only write so much in one evening. I know that the process for recovery isn’t an instant one and in the case of Depression one that isn’t recoverable at all. The change has to reverse learned behaviour that goes back years and even without a Psychology degree I know that is not an easy route.

The result of inaction has been made clear however. Paul’s article gives a vision of a life I do not want, and the experiences of the past few months have been enough of an introduction into that life that I cannot accept as one.