A sketched picture of James' head

James Smith

Building a better future out of code

Depression Is A Bug, Not A Feature

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Today is apparently World Mental Health Day, which makes it an appropriate time to talk a little about depression. I was thinking of doing this anyway, but today seems a good day to do it.

I’ve suffered from intermittent depression for the last few years. If I’ve been quiet on Twitter or GitHub for the last couple of weeks, it’s because I’m currently recovering from my fourth round; they seem to come on just under every two years, it seems. It’s not a pleasant thing to admit to, but I honestly believe that only by talking about our experiences can we normalise this, and when you’re in the grip of depression, what you really need is to know that you are not alone.

The first time round, I didn’t really understand what was happening. Work was stressful, but not ridiculously so, but I lost the ability to cope with it. I couldn’t make decisions, and I remember times when I would have to run away and actually hide in a darkened room for a while when something tricky came up like, I dunno, triaging the Monday morning bug list. Fortunately I worked for a flight simulation company at the time, so dark rooms were in plentiful supply.

Depression, for someone who works entirely in their mind, as we do as creative programmers, is utterly debilitating. Imagine:

  • Your mind slows down
  • You lose the ability to focus, or think straight about problems
  • You lose the ability to make decisions; even deciding on lunch can be impossible
  • You lose confidence; feel like you’re a fraud, and that you’ll be found out
  • You lose the big picture; you can’t hold it all in your head
  • Anxiety builds, and eventually you find yourself hiding in darkened rooms trying not to panic (and often failing)

Our jobs depend on those exact qualities, and often, for many of us, so does our self-worth. I try to compare it to being a sportsman and having a broken leg; it’s take you out of the game just as surely, and it robs you of your reason for being just as much.

However; it is manageable. I’m still learning, but I am getting better at it. I’m spotting it earlier each time, am getting better at warning my co-workers, and have no qualms now with going to the doctor and getting the help I need once it becomes clear. I’ve had medication the last three times; I’m currently a week and a half in to this round.

The important thing to realise that it’s not a failing, it’s an illness. Your brain is a big bag of chemicals that govern your emotions; there’s no magical soul hiding there, I’m afraid. But sometimes those chemicals go wrong. In the case of depression, it’s apparently a long-term reduction in the amount of Serotonin in the brain that does it. Your synapses hoover up too much, so there’s not enough left in the gaps to conduct the signals effectively. It can be brought on by stress, by exhaustion, by sudden shocks, or even by a more ‘normal’ illness. The brain gets out of kilter, and then just gets stuck in this cycle.

But, as an engineer, I can relate to this. Depression is a bug, not a failure on my part. The medication prevents this serotonin reuptake, and lets your brain recover, and remember how to balance itself. I’ve proved this to myself time and again; a few days into the medication, I’m back. I’m me again. For example, I couldn’t have written this two days ago, but today I’m feeling more… present. I’m not there yet, but it won’t be long now.

The people around you have a huge part to play. You need their understanding, support, and for them to give you time to recover. I wouldn’t have been able to cope with this if not for my family, my colleagues at AMEE and the ODI, and for a great friend of mine who, many years ago, taught me how depression works before I found out for myself.

There are a few links I’d recommend reading about this:

That was a bit long, but the TL;DR is this: If you’re feeling the symptoms above, then talk to your doctor and get help. It’s just a bug, it’s fixable, and you are not a failure. If you know someone who seems to be suffering, then try to help them understand what’s happening, don’t just tell them to “cheer up”.


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