This is a talk I delivered at php[tek] 2014 during the Mental Health Summit. It should be noted that my ability to attend this conference and speak on this topic was directly afforded to me through EngineYard’s awesome Prompt program.
This talk was delivered as a monologue. There were no slides, nothing memorized, just a scared kid on a stage with a notebook and a microphone. You can find the video on Vimeo, but I’ve transcribed the talk in its entirety.
Hi everyone, my name’s Paddy. I write software for a great company in New York City. I was asked to come talk to you about depression today, and at first I was at a loss for what to say. I could talk about how it makes my life more challenging, the pain and complexity it introduces. I could talk about the terrible state of treatment for it. But I want to do something else. I want to try to give you a complete picture.
But I can’t limit this to my own experiences. I am extremely fortunate; through no special feats or effort or talents of my own, I manage to function at an unexpectedly normal level. I can pass myself off as health, with only the most attentive catching on. And as lucky as I am, some are more fortunate. Some are less. Depression is a spectrum, and my experiences aren’t enough to give you an accurate representation.
So in my ten minutes, of which I suspect roughly nine remain, I’d like to try to tell you what every variation of depression is like.
I’m going to fail, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that trying things I know I’ll fail at is necessary to move forward.
Before we begin, I need to ask you to close your eyes. And keep them closed.
This is uncomfortable, I know. Closing your eyes in a public place makes you feel vulnerable. If there’s any approximation of depression I can give you, it’s this. This vulnerability.
With that, we’re ready to begin.
It’s eight a.m. Your alarm goes off.
Or it doesn’t. Maybe you didn’t bother to set an alarm, thinking it doesn’t matter when or even if you wake up.
You turn off the alarm and sit up.
Or maybe you don’t. You hit the snooze button and fall back asleep, the hypersomnia of your depression keeping you in bed. Or the thought of facing your day is too overwhelming, so you hide under the covers, like nobody will find you.
Your significant other rolls over and smiles at you, happy to see you.
Or they don’t, because you argued with them last night in a mood you can’t rightly explain, that you knew was silly even as you felt it, and they’re still hurt.
Or they don’t, because you don’t have a significant other, because you can’t believe anyone could love you, so you never open yourself to that possibility.
You shower and leave your apartment or house.
Or you don’t, because the thought of putting on clothes and cleaning yourself up feels exhausting, and it’s cold out, and your bed is right there.
Or you don’t, because stepping outside is an act of faith that there’s something out there you want to experience.
On the subway, you see the other people around you, and you wonder how they manage to function in their normal lives. You wonder what it’s like to have a normal life.
No matter how depression affects you, you can’t help but wonder what it’s like to not be depressed.
When you get to the office, you see your coworkers.
Or you don’t, because you can’t get a job, because nobody will hire you—they think you’re unreliable and sporadic, and you can’t even protest, because you know they’re right. You’ve proven them right too many times.
Or you arrive at the office and look around at all the talented individuals you work with, and feel like a fraud. They’re reliable, they think you’re reliable, but you know it’s only a matter of time before you prove them wrong.
You go through your work day, and you can’t focus, because your brain petulantly refuses to think about the task at hand. It flits from task to task, keeping busy but never really accomplishing much.
Or you can, but your body is reacting badly to your medication, so you can’t do your best work.
Or you do your best work, and are terrified, because you know your best work comes right before the crash, and everything is going to go up in flames soon.
Or maybe, just maybe, doing your work is the only place you feel normal.
You sit in a meeting and feel bad about what you’ve accomplished. You’re always playing catch-up.
Or you’re on top of your game, but you can’t create the interpersonal relationships you need to be effective in a team.
Or everything’s going great, but you can’t help but wonder how much of your success—usually in a creative endeavour—is thanks to the illness you feel is such a handicap. You wonder if you’ll be as effective if that illness is cured. Not for the first time, you wonder whether your mental illness can be cured without fundamentally changing who you are. You wonder if your illness is part of who you are. You wonder if the pills you may or may not be taking, whether or not they’re prescribed, are killing off a part of you.
You wonder if you’re okay with that.
You wonder if this is how self-improvement happens, or if this is how peer-pressure works: forcing anything different to conform.
You wonder if you really trust the people giving you pills that may change who you are.
You get back on the subway to come home. Or maybe you never left. You cook dinner so your significant other can come home to a meal.
Or you don’t, because the knives are kept under lock and key after last time.
Or you lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling, thinking about everything and nothing.
Or you collapse on the couch and fall asleep, worn out, to be woken by your significant other coming home, apologies for falling asleep already spilling out of your mouth.
You sit and talk, or watch TV, and you reflect on your luck for having someone love you and support you.
Or you worry that you’re slipping, and knowing they won’t understand.
Or you see them try so hard to understand, see the pain as they wonder if it’s something they did, some failing of theirs. You don’t know how to reassure them that they’re perfect. That taking responsibility for your happiness is setting themselves up for failure.
Your parents call. They’re worried about you. They check in to make sure you’re okay, with seemingly innocuous questions about work and your weekend and your plans.
Or they really are innocuous. But you can’t help but feel that if they only knew how little you loved yourself sometimes, they’d be devastated. You pretend through the rough spots, when you most need help, to be fine. Because you can’t hurt them like that.
When you go to bed, you lie awake, worrying about everything or nothing or both at once.
Or your insomnia permits you to be tired, but not sleep.
Or you fall asleep immediately, praying you’ll wake up in the morning to do it all over again.
Or if it was a terrible day, you fall asleep immediately, praying you don’t wake up in the morning.
No matter what, you’re not looking forward to tomorrow. That’s what depression means to me: never looking forward to tomorrow.
That’s just one day. One hypothetical day, for a few hypothetical people. There are greater fluctuations. Not everyone lives in a city. Some people live in places where their illness is not recognized, where people ask why they can’t just stop being sad.
Some people are so adept at dealing with it, they don’t even realise they’re ill.
That was also trying to capture an ordinary day. There are good days, where you can’t conceive of being sad, where you go to bed feeling like everything in your life was worth it, for that one day.
There are also terrible days, where you want to blot out the world and everyone in it, where you want to run until nobody can find you.
Where you want to escape.
What makes a day good or bad isn’t necessarily what happened that day.
It’s not something that lends itself to metaphor. It’s not something you can set specific symptoms for, to easily recognise in people whether they want you to or not.
Your mood doesn’t sneeze.
Your brain doesn’t run a fever.
Your emotions don’t get the chills.
If you want to support people with depression, or any mental illness, the best advice I can give you is to have empathy for anyone and everyone.
Be as kind as you can possibly be.
Seek to understand those around you, to see them as they see themselves. To help them be the best versions of themselves by their values, not by yours.
In the best case scenario, you will quite literally save lives.
In the worst case scenario, when nobody around you is suffering—which is unlikely—you’ll have been a fantastic human being for no reason whatsoever.
That’s a pretty good worst case scenario.
Thank you so much for your time. We’re almost done. If you have any questions, feel free to approach me and ask. If you’d rather, feel free to email me.
And if you’re suffering, just know that some stupid software engineer living in Brooklyn loves you, even if you’re having trouble loving yourself right now.
Even if he’s having trouble loving himself right now.
Open your eyes.