I Knew There Was Something Wrong With Me

It was when I raised my hand – my left one, never my right one – to answer a question in fifth grade that I knew there was something wrong with me. In that moment, what had simply been a matter of course turned into a conscious habit. I became aware for the first time that I never answered with my right hand because of the scars covering my knuckles. I was worried the other kids might see and make fun. And in that moment I knew I was different.

You see, for as long as I can remember, I had these raised up scars on the knuckles of my right hand. From a young age – seven? eight years old? – I began compulsively chewing and picking at the skin over my knuckles the same way other people bite their fingernails. It was just something I did. It wasn’t until that moment in fifth grade that I realized I was alone with that particular vice.

Three years later I’m sitting in my eighth grade English class. The pretty girl next to me suddenly says “Why are you doing that?” I don’t know what she’s talking about. “You keep throwing your head backwards. Stop it.”

It was another moment of realization. Sometime during that school year I had developed the habit of knocking my head backwards. It was just something I did. I had no real awareness that I was doing it and that it was an odd thing to do.

Today, twenty years later, I can look back at my childhood and recognize those and countless other ticks and warning signs that would lead to the anxiety, depression, Tourette’s, and obsessive compulsion disorder the kind psychiatrists at Stanford Medicine would eventually diagnose me with. Later, through another doctor, I would also tack on a mild case of narcolepsy, which further explained various behaviors and symptoms throughout my adolescence.

Going through middle school and high school, where sometimes the best thing you can do is blend in, I became acutely aware of how different the scars on my hands made me look – at least to my eyes – and how grossed out I felt about them. And, yet, there was nothing I could do to stop the compulsive habit of chewing on them. It became second nature to gesture with my left hand while keeping my right one by my side. It became a natural position to keep my most scarred hand and fingers folded and hidden from view when seated at a desk or table.

The constant picking at my hands physically hurt. During the colder months the scars would crack and bleed.

And I was still powerless to stop myself.

My dad would chastise me whenever he noticed. My mom mostly ignored it as if not acknowledging it would make the problem go away.

But it wasn’t just about my hands. I had a zoo of other ticks, twitches, and rituals. They were all outlets for what I now recognize as a lifelong battle with severe anxiety. My twitches and ticks were brief moments of rest and relief. They’d come and go like ships passing on an ocean. Some would appear and take hold for a few weeks. Others would stick with me for months or years. I remember for a time when I was eleven or twelve, every night before I took a shower, I’d place my hands on the window ledge in the bathroom and jump up and down seven times. The oddest part was at the time I didn’t see anything odd about what I was doing.

Looking back on my childhood with the knowledge I have now, it’s laughably obvious how perfectly aligned my personality was with my diagnosis of anxiety, Tourette’s, and OCD. The muscles in my shoulders and legs would be painfully sore at the end of the day after a full day’s worth of constant, uncontrollable ticks and twitching. My obsessions with collecting things and memorizing lists went far beyond the bounds of a normal kid’s baseball card collection.

And, yet, there were positive aspects of my disease as well. My intense desire to repeat and obsess over details bestowed upon me an insane ability to memorize facts and figures. My insatiable desire to understand, organize, and learn blossomed into an intense love of programming at a young age. These are traits that I’ve learned to use to my advantage in my career as a developer twenty-two years after first stumbling into GW-BASIC on and old Tandy.

But I haven’t been able to turn everything to my advantage.

As I got older, particularly in my twenties, the OCD gave way to anxiety and depression. I still chew on my knuckles. My scars will never heal or go away without plastic surgery. And the uncontrollable muscle movements and twitches have mostly subsided thanks to some strong medication. But the depression. God, the fucking depression. On my worst days, it swings back and forth between an overwhelming sense of dread that physically weighs on me like a heavy coat soaked in water and a dead-inside feeling of nothingness that makes even the tiniest action require a super-human amount of willpower.

One week in December of 2009 while working at Yahoo!, I simply didn’t go to work. I wasn’t ill. I wasn’t on vacation. I simply laid in bed twenty hours a day for five days and stared at the ceiling unable to will myself to even give my coworkers the courtesy of calling in sick. It was a feeling like I had never experienced before. Unable to move. Unable to think. Unable to do anything except lay there and feel nothing.

But somehow on Friday evening I realized what had transpired over the last five days. With that bit of self-awareness I managed to claw my way out of the emotional sinkhole I found myself in and went into work on Monday. I have no idea why I wasn’t fired.

And that’s the scary thing about depression. Like an economic one, you have no way of knowing you’re in one until you’re already in it. There’s not even a sign post letting you know when you hit bottom. If you’re even self aware enough to wonder if you’re at your lowest point, you won’t know until you start coming up.

That’s what scares me. Not knowing where my low point will be. To my knowledge, I’ve never been suicidal. But suicide does run in my family. I’ve often imagined suicide as a place, far away in the distance that I can see while standing on a mountain. I can see that there’s a path leading from where I am to that place. I have no intention of ever following that path, but I can see the steps it would take to get there if I ever chose to. And that scares the hell out of me. That’s what scared me most about that week in December. I started Monday in a known, safe place. And somehow over the course of five days, I woke up somewhere else entirely, not exactly sure how I managed to sleepwalk my way there.

Since that episode, I’ve learned to watch for warning signs. Consistent lack of motivation to work on the side projects I’m passionate about is a good one. If it’s been a week since I pushed anything to GitHub, I know something’s up. I’ve also learned to listen to my wife. As she can be an excellent barometer for emotions I’m not even aware of.

And yet, perhaps the most frustrating part of this disease is how massively it can effect my work. Software development requires an intense amount of focus. Your best work is done when in the flow, a magical state that all programmers yearn for. When you’re depressed, even the strongest of willpower can be no match for the lack of motivation and focus you’re feeling. I’m scared to even write this for fear of my current employer freaking out, but there will be days when my biggest accomplishment is being able to put up a facade of looking busy. On days like that, no amount of greenfield development or fear of consequences will be enough to get my coding muscles moving. This used to worry me to no end. But I’ve learned to ride out these waves of depression. Thankfully, for every few days of nothingness, there will be days of intense productivity as I swing back to a manic high of focus and flow to balance things out.

For other developers suffering from depression that might be reading this, that’s my best advice. You have to learn how to ride your disease and do what you can with the low days while you take full advantage and kick serious ass on your high days.

I’ve always equated the mind to a powerful computer. I used to think that however infinitely complex it is, with enough study and introspection it could be understood. I’m now realizing that it’s even more complicated than that. The mind is a computer whose code is constantly being rewritten and refactored. It’s a moving target. As you grow older, your brain and its associated characteristics change just like your body. For someone with a mental illness like myself, that means my disease is changing, too. Understanding how it effects me, learning how to battle and overcome its symptoms is as much a part of my continuing education as is staying up to date on the latest technology trends.

If you’re a developer. If you suffer from depression, anxiety or any other mental illness. I’d love to hear about your experiences.

  • noah

    Don’t forget that your brain also starts with a ton of legacy code. Anxiety is a useful feature in life or death, hunter-gatherer scenarios, but was not written with complex social interactions in mind (please forgive the anthropomorphic phrasing.)

  • CdyP

    Thanks for putting yourself out there with this. You’ve articulated so much that I usually feel stupid trying to describe. It hit home when you described staying at home, just laying there. It’s like a total shut down.

    Meanwhile those high days are this double-edge sword where you can work nonstop, but you also end up making promises about how much you will do because in that moment you think you can do everything.

  • corey

    Last weekend, I went hiking with a friend of mine with severe OCD who had just started a bout of depression and was thinking about canceling. I pressed on and said we should do it. My experience is that while nothing can “beat” depression, having an understanding friend can help take the place of your lack of willpower, but you have to tell them that it’s happening. I truly believe that by doing something physical, there is a physiological process that kicks off which counters depression – although for people who have faulty wiring in the brain (like you and my friend), nothing can get rid of it entirely. I figure that even if she sinks right back into it, at least it provides a temporary escape.

    My heart goes out to you, and thank you for posting this.

  • Thank you for writing this. So much of it hit home for me, and I think posts like these are so important. I really appreciate your words.

  • Wow, I’m so glad you shared this. Even though your depression and anxiety are a very real struggle, I have to say that I am inspired by your tenacity with mental illness. You’ve kept fighting and you’re learning how to “ride” it so that you can be great at what you do on days you’re able. I think your level of self-awareness is a huge strength too, because it allows you to learn to adapt to the illness and figure out what you need to get through the roughest of days.

    I want to speak to the point about you feeling scared about your current employer finding out. I think that’s a totally normal feeling to have. I don’t want to try to “fix” that, but I wonder if hearing another perspective might be informative. Obviously every boss is different, but as a dev manager myself (though not one at the moment), I have to say that it could be really helpful for he or she to learn more about you and your needs. Why? It’s the not knowing what’s going on with your employee that’s the hardest. If you have someone that you know is capable of kicking ass, but just isn’t, I think (right or wrong) my first guess was that the person had lost interest in my project, and maybe was thinking of doing something else. Terrible assumption. But in the cases where people would open up and be a tad more vulnerable, I could be a lot more compassionate, and work with the person to help them optimize things. I want to be careful to say that I’m not suggesting anything in particular, but that might be a reason to be less scared.

    • To my employer’s credit, they read this blog post and immediately reached out to me to ask what they can do to help during the hard times.