The story of my year

CW: mental illness, psychosis, depression

There are a lot of technical-ish topics I’ve been meaning to write about. For example, I’ve been thinking recently about scaling engineering teams and why it often goes poorly. Or, I want to write about an excellent book on relational database performance that I picked up. But it’s December 31; it’s the last day of this horrible, no good, very rotten year. So instead, I’m going to reflect on that, and what I learned.

I’m grateful that this year is over. Even if it is an arbitrary marker, it feels like an accomplishment to be working again in a position that I’m thrilled about with some wonderful folks. That said, it’s been a tough way to end the year here in Colorado. At least 1,000 homes burned down yesterday, cementing the fact that we no longer have a fire “season”. On Monday, 5 people were killed in a murder spree that spanned across Denver. The details coming out after the fact are even darker than I could’ve imagined. It’s reminding us all that angry, radicalized white men continue to be a persistent threat, and provides us the worst possible bookend to January 6.

Lesson 1: I’m not as strong as I thought I was

I have a general distaste for hubris. It frustrates me so much in other people that I tend to overcorrect, often to my own detriment. That said, I always knew I could take care of myself. I’m not easily overwhelmed or flustered. Whatever bullshit life throws my way, I’ve always been confident that I’ll still be standing afterwards. I came up in the city of big shoulders after all.

It turns out, in all humility, I was wrong about that. I have my limits, and I’m not able to catch my fall when I’m pushed past them. I saw it coming, too. For months, I thought to myself “I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this,” and would immediately realize that I don’t have a choice. There was no alternative. I sought help. I started seeing a therapist, I met with my psychiatrist more frequently. I started antidepressants, I went to support groups, I don’t know what else I could’ve done. Things were out of my control. All I felt for weeks on end was helplessness and desperation and there was no end in sight. Those few months were without hesitation the most difficult of my life so far.

Over time, I could feel myself becoming emotionally blunted. Shit still sucked, but it just didn’t get me quite as much as it had been. That’s an amazing thing about humans, we adjust to our situations remarkably well, at least in the short term. The problem is that those short term coping mechanisms aren’t a gift, they’re a loan from our brain, and the brain charges an unreasonable interest rate. Before I knew it, I was barely registering anything at all, and I was content enough sleeping through the daily morning standup every day. After I didn’t show up to work for 2 weeks or so, I lost my job, naturally. I knew I should’ve been upset about that, but it just seemed fine. I’d already seen hell, why would I care about a job?

The situation that started me down this road has started to improve. Without that fight or flight urge occupying every corner of my consciousness, I saw more clearly what I had become - just a big depressed puddle who struggles much more than I used to with processing emotions. So, what’s the lesson here? I didn’t think there was one. I’ve been going to great lengths to avoid thinking about it. Anything I can put in front of my face to keep the horror tucked in the back of my mind will do. But now, sitting here reflecting on the year after everything that happened, I don’t think I’ve been doing myself any favors. There has to be something of value there, some personal growth that came out of it. I can’t let go of it until something’s there. So, that brings me to:

Lesson 2: None of us have any control

When you see someone you love suffering, you try to help. Most of the time that works out pretty well. Your spouse having a bad day, so you listen to them, maybe you make them their favorite meal, and everyone goes to bed a little happier than they otherwise would have. But what do you do if you can’t console them? They’re furious that Greg in accounting told everyone that they’re the reason the project is behind, and try as you might, you just can’t comfort them. At some point, you just have to throw your arms up and give up. We relinquish control all the time, it’s just usually in pretty low risk situations.

When the stakes are higher, though, the situation becomes more difficult. Imagine if instead of being annoyed with a coworker, your spouse is experiencing psychosis. What if they’re having conversations with people that aren’t there, and they think you’re not actually you but an impostor who’s trying to hurt them? What if they barricade themself inside of the house when you leave because they’re convinced you work for the government? What if the days turn into weeks, and the weeks turn into months and things continue to deteriorate? And the paramedics can’t help because your spouse can hold it together just enough when they’re around? And the social worker who said that he’ll stop by every few days just doesn’t? You call him a few times, but he never returns your calls. So, the mental health care system is fucked, which is only vaguely interesting, because it doesn’t help you at all in this situation. Apparently you’re the only one that even cares enough to even try to help. And you know it’s not fair to yourself, but they’d be living on the streets at this point had you not been around to help out. This is the person you love, the person you chose to spend the rest of your life with, and the thought of them wandering the street scared and confused is a nonstarter.

I think you ought to let go and accept that you can’t help, just like you let go when they were annoyed with a coworker. Trying to hang on to the illusion that you have even modicum of influence over the situation is the very definition of anguish. I have no idea what the practical application of that advice looks like, though, to “let go and accept that you can’t help.” I do know that the more I tried to help and take control of the situation, the more exhausted, hopeless, and just generally unable to interact with the world I was. I think everyone involved would’ve been better served if I accepted that powerlessness earlier on.

This is a lesson a lot of us have learned over the past two years. I think a lot of people felt the pain of being suddenly powerless over what’s happening to them. I have a strong suspiction this is part of what led to the rise of Qanon, for example. But we weren’t really ever in control, we’re all just one weird neurochemical imbalance away from helplessness. It may not be the feeling of the loss of control that’s difficult, but the desperate thrashing to retake it.

Lesson 3: Recognizing early symptoms of acute mental illness is important

There were so many signs early on that she was not well. I didn’t know what I was looking for, or even that I should be looking for it. I think about how much pain could’ve been spared if I had, though, and it’s hard not to be disappointed in myself. I will never again be the person who makes excuses for unusual behavior. For example, this is not something I would’ve done a year ago.

A year ago, I would’ve just thought to myself “oh, that guys probably just having a bad day and wants to be alone”.

If anybody reads this, please go over some of the general early symptoms of mental illness. I promise you, it’s so much better to do something and be wrong than the other way around. Everyone’s struggling right now, we all have to do what we can to take care of each other.

Good riddance, 2021. Here’s to hoping for brighter days ahead. Happy new year, folks.