A summary of my life with depression

This may not seem like a technical post but if you cross-reference to this talk it should be clear this is a problem that developers should really be aware of. I mean, not my personal issues, but the topic of mental illness in the developer world. So in the spirit of openness and sharing with others, I present my own story.

I’m not sure when depression began; I think it was kind of a slow progression over years. I’m 41 years old and I’ve always been kind of a negative person, always looking for flaws in things and worrying about what could go wrong. I liked to think this made me a better engineer. Somewhere along the way it became a state of mind where I could only see the negative.

I started to realize I was in trouble when it became clear that I didn’t really enjoy anything any more. It’s called anhedonia. It turns out you can function for quite a while being motivated only by negatives (fear of failure, fear of letting down your family/coworkers, etc.) and through sheer determination, but it’s a really miserable way to live. It’s hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it, so it’s not much use explaining it. Without anything that drives me to say “yes!” life seems pretty damn pointless. I was frustrated and angry all the time.

My wife encouraged me to get clinical help and eventually I did. Apparently sometime around September 2015, though I don’t really remember. I remember describing my depression not so much as “stuck in a pit” as “life in a dense fog”. The next year and few months my psychiatrist had me trying out various medications and tweaking dosages and such. Sometimes something would seem to be helping a little, but nothing really seemed to stick or make a big difference. It was discouraging to say the least. I was doing counseling, too, though I have yet to find a counselor who helps much.

In the summer of 2016 my mother was diagnosed with incurable cancer. In September 2016 my wife and I separated and I started shuttling our kids between us. Then in late November her health took a nosedive and I was left taking care of the kids alone, in addition to working full time with depression. I had always been able to deal with everything myself before, but something finally gave out in me. My job at Red Hat, which before had always been a refuge in turbulent times, became unbearable. I would spend all day staring at my screen and moving the mouse occasionally when it started to go dark because I hadn’t done anything for so long. I felt crushing guilt and shame that the one thing I had always been good at and enjoyed was now a joyless burden and I was letting everyone down.

I went on disability leave in early December. I didn’t even know you could go on disability for depression, but it was definitely disabling me, so it makes sense. My psychiatrist suggested trying a new course of treatment called TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation). In short, it uses an electromagnet to stimulate your brain, in daily treatments over the course of 6-8 weeks. I was expecting to get started with it ASAP, but it turned out I couldn’t start until January 4th.

I thought disability leave would be a relief, and it certainly was in the sense that I no longer had to feel guilty about the work I wasn’t doing (well, less guilty anyway – getting paid to do nothing really rubs me the wrong way). The downside is that it gave me a lot more time to brood over how useless I was and how I was going to lose everything and end up still depressed but in a homeless shelter, with my kids in foster care. I can look at things objectively and say that actually my situation is not that bad, and quite recoverable if I can just kick this depression thing, and there’s a good chance I can. And I’m so grateful for being able to take disability, and for my health insurance that covers all this pretty well, and for having my health otherwise. But the thing about being depressed is that you still feel hopeless, regardless of the reality of the situation.

I’m two weeks into TMS now. If anything, I feel worse because I’m starting to develop anxiety and having more trouble sleeping. My psychiatrist said her patients often saw improvement within a week (which made me more anxious when that week passed that I might be among the 20% or so that don’t benefit), but the TMS folks said actually to expect more like four weeks so I’m trying to be patient. If it doesn’t work out, I can do genetic testing to see if that helps pinpoint a medication that will actually help. I’m trying meditation, working on gratitude, connecting with people (something I never put much effort into before), contradicting my negative thoughts, and other random things in case they might help. And exercising, that seems to help. And just keeping busy to distract myself from feeling hopeless. I don’t have a happy ending yet, but everyone tells me things will get better if I just keep trying.

I guess if there’s a silver lining, it’s that people have come out of the woodwork to tell me they understand what I’m going through because they have been there. This is so common, there should be no reason to feel shame or to avoid treatment like I did for so long. It’s made me realize that in my fierce self-sufficiency I’ve never been open to being helped, or for that matter to helping others. But it turns out that nearly everybody needs some help sometimes, and I hope that out of this experience I’ll learn to be a more decent human being than I have been so far.