Wednesday, 11 October, 2017 UTC


Summary

Are you getting enough physical activity? Are you going on any runs, playing any sports, or lifting any weights? I feel just great after a workout! You'll be happy in no time!
What is with it with people expecting that a quick run will sort out your life?
Like cool, activity releases endorphins and shit, but are endorphins going to pay this credit card bill? They going to patch things over with my friend? They going to find me a job? They going to fix my life?
The fuck is an endorphin anyway? Sounds like something invented by dolphins. Those creepy-ass mammalian fishes in disguise, I always knew those sneaky fucks were up to no good.
The answer, oh perpetually cheery friend of mine who probably couldn’t be able to pick out the definition of depression out of the dictionary if I pointed to it, is that goddamn, depression is hard. How the hell am I supposed to get out of the house to go running a few miles when I practically can’t get out off my couch? I mean, my couch is pretty comfy and shit on a normal day, but it really does sometimes feel like there’s a tremendous weight squishing you down, preventing any air, restricting any movement.
After all, whatever they are telling you today isn’t going to work this time, any more than it did the last time, and the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that…
If I sit here, everyone will ignore me, everyone will forget me, and I’ll just get to drift away into lovely nothingness. Nothing is better than something. I can do nothing. In fact… I’d prefer nothing forever. Doing nothing, accomplishing nothing. It’s not that I don’t want to accomplish anything; it’s just that every fiber of my being is telling me that nothing matters anymore. It all turns shitty anyway. Nothing matters.
Nothing left for living.
Oh.
So I guess I’m suicidal.
Huh.
brains kill
You don’t really want to kill yourself; I mean, the whole premise seemed pretty off-putting in my mind. So many logistics and decisions. Ironically enough, a lot of what pushed suicide further away from me was that I was too depressed to think about it.
But that’s me. Part of what I found interesting, at least now that I’m on the other side of things, is that brains are completely fucking bonkers. We know a few things, but basically everything is still hella confusing and depends a lot on your particular brain chemistry. For me, I was on the far end of melancholic depression, which means a lack of movement in mood: I was always feeling pretty down, always feeling like my feet were cement. I’d go days without really realizing what I had done the previous few days. Even great days, which should have made me feel lovely, would be curtailed to just a dim spot in a dark room. And even then, that dim lightbulb would fade back to darkness quick. This led to the whole, “well, I never feel better afterwards, so everything’s useless anyway”. This dims the bulb further, so when you do light it up again, it isn’t as bright, and it fades even quicker.
All of this was (and continues to be) new to me; I just figured depression just sorta happened to everyone similarly. It was interesting to learn about and to see my own signs in all of this as I grew and learned more. Did you know that 90% of the serotonin, one of the Important Brain Things that we need to Feel Not Shitty, is manufactured in your gut? That also impacts what you eat, how your digestive tract is faring, whether you’re at an increased chance for different bowel and digestive syndromes and diseases….
Damn I knew depression was shitty but didn’t know it was shitty.
Sorry, bad joke. Joking about depression makes me laugh though, from time to time. Haha. Poop.
One of the more shocking things I’ve realized was that, even though I’ve been dealing with a lot of different things in my life the last few years, none of this was really new. I can backtrace the entire route of my depression directly back to high school, if not middle school. It’s been something like 10-15 years… pretty much my entire adult life.
It was a humbling realization. It also explained a lot. It made me realize that I caused a lot of undue stress on my relationships with basically everyone human I had associated with in the past. Which, you know, adds up, when you start thinking about all these old interactions that went sour and realizing that it didn’t have to be that way.
So I threw a wine glass and shattered my bathroom mirror.
breaking points
Same night, but separate incidents, mind you; I was not drinking wine in my bathroom. Just threw a glass down at the floor outside of a bar, and then slammed my mirror closed too hard at home.
Now, I hardly ever get that viscerally enraged when I drink, and that particular night I was drinking with a good friend — nothing that should have been wine-glass-and-broken-mirror levels of ragedom. But I did that night, over some stupid discussions that I don’t even care about now.
That was the beginning of the end, one way or another. Either I probably would have kept making shitty fucking decisions until I killed myself, or I’d start fixing myself.
Here’s a brief aside in this story: this tipping point was really helpful for me, as physically embarrassing it is for me to type about it right now (and believe me, all of this shit is embarrassing to talk about publicly… but here I am. But more on that later.) It was such an uncharacteristic thing for me, and so overtly self-destructive (and mirror-destructive!) that it was a kind of jolt to the system.
Until that point my count was up to three: three times I had actively started seeking out therapy, but didn’t for various reasons (traveling, health insurance problems (yay 🇺🇸, home of the brave, land of the shit health system), and my favorite was when I talked to someone on the phone and he said he doesn’t use the internet, email, or anything technological, and that I’d need to deal with that if he were my doctor. I think the conversation ran another thirty seconds before I hung up, swearing off therapists for what I thought was for good.)
There wouldn’t be a fourth, though; this time I was at the end of my rope, and my email to a somewhat random therapist selection demonstrated it:
I’ve never done therapy before, but I’m more or less at the end of my rope and figured I should give it a shot.
What would the next steps be?
Zach
I forgot I actually said “end of my rope” here too. Maybe I found depression coldly humorous at the time too, or maybe I was too depressed to really give a fuck at that point. Probably the latter.
And that was the start.
to therapy
I went to therapy for the first time a few days later, after talking briefly on the phone.
Dude, therapy’s weird af, especially if you fall into the “I ain’t talkin’ to nobody bout my problems, because shit, I don’t have the problems, EVERYBODY ELSE has the fuckin’ problems!” style of childhood.
I don’t remember a whole lot from that first session. I honestly don’t remember a whole lot from 2015-2016, because part of what really hit me hard during depression was my memory. I forgot a lot of things. It’s all kind of a weird blur. A lot of people worry that depression medication can cause you to float in a misty blur and feel out-of-touch from “the real you”, but goddamn, at least my case it was diametrically the opposite. Medication ain’t hold a candle to how far away from your true self you feel during depression.
The one thing I do remember from the first session is exhaustion. In a good way, of course, but it was a double session, covering my whole history, the things I had problems with, and the things I didn’t. I didn’t start to feel better until probably the second or third session, but I did.
That’s really weird to think about, and one of the major revelations I had with all this. It was that therapy can actually work. It sounds stupid to type it aloud right now — that’s kind of the reason I’m writing this whole damn article for you, because I’m absolutely not alone here — but I always thought therapy was for other people. Fuck, I told many, many other friends to go talk to a therapist for years, because I had seen it work for people and I had hoped it would work for them too. But this motherfucker right here, this Carnegie Mellon graduate, this alleged not-a-complete-idiot programmer type, couldn’t see that such an obvious thing could be relevant for themselves, too.
Depression’s funny like that. Not even depression, really; generally, we’re really good at analyzing other people, but can’t hold the mirror up to inspect ourselves quite as easily.
A huge reason behind that is that we probably already broke that mirror in a drunken rage.
haha.
Anyway, therapy worked fairly well for me. I’m not going to say it was a panacea, because it wasn’t, but it’s sort of like… well, it’s kinda like what Republicans thought about marijuana way back in 1992 (or 2017, depending on who you’re talking about). It’s a gateway drug. Maybe the therapy itself isn’t the answer, but it’s going to open doors for you to the harder stuff: the self-reflection, harder medication (yeah, this drugs metaphor is getting confusing), and leveling your therapy skills up so that therapy itself becomes more valuable to you. And yes, therapy is a skill. It takes courage to open yourself up to a stranger, but it takes fuckin’ courage to open yourself up to yourself.
I did therapy on Thursdays, but honestly, some of my biggest breakthroughs happened Monday to Wednesday. I had had the weekend to think about my previous week and my upcoming week, and I knew that Thursday was coming up quick and that one way or another, I’d be talking about my week with my therapist. So I found myself talking to myself fairly regularly — in the shower, brushing my teeth, sitting on the bus, walking on the street — and thinking about what was bothering me. Therapy basically got me rubber duck debugging myself. Even when I’m not programming I’m fucking programming, I can’t get away from it, ha. But it’s true: the mere notion that I’d have to discuss my life with someone else later meant that I became far better at self-analysis than I ever had been.
That was one of the many neat realizations I had during this whole experience. Therapy tricks you into becoming better at therapy.
✨ drugs ✨
One of the things my therapist told me I think on like, the second session, was that he thought I should see a psychiatrist too, and start on some medication.
I remember being flabbergasted that he would suggest it so nonchalantly. It was right at the end of a session, and I was like, wait, can we slow down and discuss the merits of this decision over the following like, what, one or two decades? I just assumed that drugs were such an extreme thing to do, and could have a crazy impact on what made me, well, me. Besides which, I didn’t even really understand the difference between a psychiatrist and a therapist (of which some still are psychologists- the whole damn thing is fucking confusing, and I think that plays a large part in why some people avoid seeking treatment. Anyway, a psychiatrist can prescribe and discuss medications, therapists do the more the “traditional” therapy you see on TV. Although all of them can kind of be all of the others, or none of the others, or some mixture. It’s confusing. tl;dr if you’re still confused: do what I did and start with a therapist, and he or she will definitely be able to help you out if you need a referral for specialization from there.)
Anyway, drugs. I find it kind of darkly amusing in retrospect that, ahem, some people will snort, chug, or smoke anything put in front of them as long as it’s between the hours of 11pm Friday - 5am Saturday, but when it comes to taking “actual” drugs they start getting cold feet. You’re changing your brain chemistry either way, and depending on the drug, sometimes permanently. So yeah, it’s worth having some concern about, of course, but presumably you’re at the point where you’re looking to make a permanent change anyway. I won’t be as pithy as to trot out the oft-quoted David Foster Wallace passage on suicide and burning buildings, but he has a point. Sometimes it’s easier to jump, even if the change is permanent.
I’m really, really, really lucky. I can’t really stress that enough. Therapy worked well for me, and in combination with the correct medication for me, things started dramatically changing in a matter of a month or three. I know this, because one of my friends was put on the exact same medication almost the exact same day for anxiety and we compared notes daily at first, then weekly, then after a month or two. I had fairly minimal side effects and was mostly seeing upside, but she was seeing all of the side effects that I just hadn’t seen at all. She eventually tapered off it (a process which unfortunately also can be less-than-stellar) and had to try something else.
So yeah, there’s a risk. And for some people, drugs just don’t work for them. Or therapy just doesn’t work for them. Some people are luckier than others and their brain just eats those new chemicals up and things change dramatically.
That was me. After slowly tapering up over a month or so, I hit a good dose for me: still on the low end of a therapeutical dose, so if I needed it I could luckily crank it up higher later on, but still high enough for me to feel a marked improvement.
I started feeling happy.
Things didn’t bother me as much. I become more productive. I did more things. Saw more people. Enjoyed more things.

I get why some people are worried about meds “taking over” and losing your true self, but I also know that the reverse can be true: I don’t think I was actually myself until starting about a year ago, a few months after I started therapy and drugs. Like… literally never, not in my adult life. I was always in a fog, and was always trying to make up for the signals that my brain was misfiring. Life became crisp and clear now. It was like getting your first pair of glasses. I mean, I’m assuming. My eyes are also turning to shit, so I should probably do something about that too sometime.
I went on the medium-level dose for about nine months and slowly started tapering off. I didn’t have many side effects, but the minor ones I had were worth seeing if I could go without. I tapered for something like three months, and took my last tiny dose last week. I’m still getting the occasional “brain shocks” some people get with withdrawal, but should be fairly free and clear in another week or so.
I would have been fine staying on it longer, and indeed I know some people will take medications for years, sometimes their whole life. I’m just giving you one data point here- the important thing to realize that it is one data point, and there’s no right answer. Everyone’s different, and everyone has different tradeoffs and motivations. Literally all that matters is that you’re a happier human, and fuck everything else.
happy?
I’m burying the lede here a bit, but ledes are for real journalists, pffft. The reason why I’m writing about all of this is the same reason I write about anything: this is a very important aspect of my life, and I think it can help others. So I talk about it.
Not depressed? Cool, I’m happy for you; I truly am. But you know someone who is. In fact, you know a lot of people who are. And once you include people coping with mental disorders, you realize that goddamn, there are a lot of people who could be better off if they could get help. Pretty much everyone would see some benefit from seeing a therapist at some point in their lives.
The stigma is real, of course. I’m still a little nervous about hitting the publish button on this one, even though I’ve never shied away from controversial posts in the past. (A post about enjoying JavaScript is probably about the most controversial you can get, after all. I still get hate mail from that one.)
I started a startup this year and, though it’s been going slower than I’d like since it’s a solo venture so far and I’ve been primarily focused on fixing me first, I realize that posting this might make some investors balk at giving me money, if I do ever decide to seek funding. This isn’t necessarily surprising, since the venture capital industry doesn’t have exactly have a sterling track record when it comes to being empathetic. Or even like, acting like a human being. But it’s not just them, of course; people I hire down the line, people I work with, business partners, hell, even some friends might even kind of subconsciously feel funny reading about this stuff and think about me different.
But still, I obviously think it’s worth talking about. People act so weirdly when it comes to this stuff, precisely because we don’t talk about it, even today, in 2017. Fuck flying cars and laser guns, I want transparent discussion of mental problems in society.
One of the weird things I realized throughout this whole process is how different people react with this. Some friends truly get it, and are fantastic resources for you to talk to. Some just don’t. I reached out to some of my closest friends and struck out (“get out of here with this shit, Holman, you’re fine”). I’ve alluded about it to other distant friends (some of which I didn’t previously even think of as a “friend”) and found myself in an immediate boat load of compassionate support. I’ve seen everything in between. Some people get it, some people don’t. (And it turns out that very happy people might really never really understand.) I think a huge part of it is whether they’ve experienced it themselves, or, barring that, if they’ve ever had a close friend or partner go through this. It’s truly night and day between the two extremes, and you don’t always have to seek your best friends out and lean on them for support. Support comes from a lot of people; if you drop the ball, you might be surprised at who helps you pick it back up.
Seek help.
You actually need to do something to get out of the hole that you’re in. Don’t worry; I’m not giving you the “run a mile, you’ll feel great!” advice. If you do something proactive, like seeing a therapist, or trying medication, or making major life changes that avoid things that make you feel shitty, great. If it’s something less proactive, like opening yourself up to a friend who’s interested in helping you make those first steps, then do that too. You can do some of these yourself, and some things you can allow yourself to be selfish and let someone help you. They’re out there. They want to help.
Seek help.
Notice and write down the achievements you actually do achieve. Keep a journal, or at the very least, keep a running todo list where you can check off even the basic things, like “clean my desk”. At the end of the day, you help yourself by seeing what you actually did. Sometimes doing the small things helps you start on doing the big things. My depression always prevented me from starting things, and from seeing what I did. That sucked, and was a self-defeating cycle.
Help others seek help.
I’m writing this primarily for people who are dealing with depression, but secondarily I’m writing it for you, the person who doesn’t have to cope with these feelings on a day-to-day basis, but who doesn’t really know how to help someone. A little bit of context goes a long way. You might feel unprepared to fix a friend’s problems, but you can do the leg work for them. Find a local therapist in their neighborhood that works with their insurance (if they’re an American like me, that is, otherwise just go have a health insurance party if you’re in other countries, you lucky bastards). Or just listen. Listening helps a lot, even if they don’t actually listen to you. Years ago, when I was at one of my worsts, two friends went way out of their way and came to my house to check on me. I didn’t really show them much gratefulness back then, but goddamn, that’s a debt that I still won’t ever be able to repay. The little things count. If not today, then they’ll count tomorrow, I promise you that.
Anyway, I hope I included enough puns and poop jokes in this so that this wall of text isn’t too inaccessible. It’s really weird to write all of this down, in large part because I do feel so much better today. It’s crazy how much better I feel. I’m happy. If Present Zach would have gone back in time and told Past Zach about all this, Past Zach would have told him to fuck right off with that shit, and probably would have thrown a wine glass at Present Zach. I was so far in the hole that getting better just didn’t seem feasible. Not only that, but it seemed so impossible that I stopped even wanting to feel better. Way down in that hole.
Last couple of things now that you’ve made it this far and I can bully you into some stuff:
  • Talk more about this. There’s so much science involved with depression, which is both wild, but also a bit of a relief. You are not a bad person… you’re not even flawed. Your brain just doesn’t have the correct levels of chemicals and shit. You can fix or adjust to that in a lot of different ways, both with meds and without. Your body doesn’t produce enough insulin? Bummer! Go to the doctor and get that shit checked out! No one says, “lol what a fucking weak-ass human because they can’t monitor their insulin levels”. Brain chemistry is the same way. We’re getting better as a society here, but this is something we need to address better and more often.
  • Donate and support. The world’s fucked up right now, but money can help change things. There’s a lot of really great organizations that can help here, but one I specifically want to plug to my primarily tech-oriented audience is Prompt. Prompt’s an organization specifically trying to help improve conversation about mental health in the tech industry. Every industry has its own problems, and tech is definitely no different, particularly when you talk about all-too-common problems in our industry, like burnout, and dealing with specific problems of making a living building internet-facing public products and software.
Very lastly, and most importantly… if this all hits you in a lot of very specific, very visceral ways, but you really don’t know how to even begin tackling all of this… talk to me. I mean that very, very eagerly and seriously. Shoot me an email at [email protected] and I will always get back to you when it comes to this stuff, day or night, local or across the world, we’ll figure it out. If my gender or orientation or race or work background or geographic location isn’t ideal or mesh up with what you’re facing, still feel comfortable in sending me an email. If I can’t help, I definitely can hook you up with someone who can.
Happier days are ahead for you. If you would have told me that, even a year ago… I just wouldn’t have believed you. Everything seemed so permanent.
But if that’s where you’re at, and you can’t bring yourself to believe in it… then I’ll believe in it for you, in the interim. At least until you can come around to that realization yourself. And I promise you can. ❤️
Take care.