On Coding with Depression
Published on January 12th, 2018
I talk about a lot of technical things on this site, but today I want to touch on some things that aren't technical in nature, but affects the quality of that work. I suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) which I didn't realize I had till a few years ago. I just thought being sad (well more like the lack of any kind of emotion) was a normal thing in the winter. In fact I probably had it at a younger age, but I was bullied (what a nerdy weird kid who would have guessed?!) so I figured that's why I didn't feel "normal" at the time. It wasn't until I came in to contact with more people and learned that my symptoms were indeed those of depression. From there I realized I only suffered them in the winter time making it quite clear I had SAD.
As an adult now this is, unfortunately, an aspect of my life I can't escape. Around winter time it gets darker. I live in the Northeast part of the USA so by the time I get up at for work the sun is only just rising, and by 4pm, more than an hour before I even leave work, it's already pitch black outside. While this may not be a problem for many this means two things for me, I'm lacking Vitamin D from contact with the sun and not enough sunlight to stimulate seratonin production. This might not seem like a big a deal to many. Lots of people go through winter fine, maybe get some "winter blues", but nothing terrible right? For me though that imbalance is greater. By a lot. Over the period of a few months my brain just doesn't make enough seratonin to make me "happy", or at least baseline level so that I can feel any kind of emotion. I hesitate to use happy here since depression is more like you don't feel anything and feeling anything like sad would be a welcome relief. Happy or at least joy over things more so, but it's hard to describe that feeling to someone who hasn't been depressed so it's easier to say either being sad or happy. If you want a more comprehensive look at what it feels like I always point people to Hyperbole and a Half's depression comic part 2 in order to get a feel of what I mean.
The point is that for me my body literally isn't producing what it needs in order to act at a baseline level of functionality and being able to accomplish tasks on a day to day basis. Honestly, it's an odd feeling trying to do something you know you love (for me coding or playing video games or watching anime after work) and feeling no joy in it and having this feeling like you're just doing it to waste time or because it's your job.
This kind of adaptation might have been great during the winter months of our ancestors of yore. Depression means you eat less, you move less, time kind of drifts by, and you sleep a lot (at least for me, those symptoms can be the opposite depending on the person). If anything it's a quasi hibernation allowing you to stretch food sources out and care less that you're just sitting there waiting for winter to pass.
Nowadays though? I still have to pay rent, I have friends to see, work to do, obligations etc. You unfortunately can't just stop participating in life temporarily because you want to sleep more and don't care. It's an insidious thing that saps your will, makes you see the worst in yourself, isolate yourself, and just overall makes the world a gray bleak and lifeless place where you trudge from one destination to the next, not necessarily wanting to die, but you also just don't want to be there either. Worst of all you start to normalize it, because that's what your feelings feel so they must be right, right? You wouldn't feel that way (or not at all) if it wasn't true. At least that's what it says.
I wish I could say here's ten neat tricks to avoid it permanently, because in the end you can minimize it or treat it, but it's never fully gone. It's there waiting for the day you mess up the routine and forget to take something or you have such a terrible day that it knocks you into a depression spiral because the stress was too much.
What I am saying is that this is something as a person, if you do suffer from any kind of mental condition, should strive to minimize by getting the help or things you need. It doesn't go away, but you can do many things to not let it control your life. For a long time I didn't understand that. Being sad in winter was just something that happened to me and that it was normal to feel that way so there's nothing one can do about it.
I was dead wrong. It has ruined relationships for me, ruined my ability to pass coursework, to do actual work, to enjoy parts of my life, and to just be me. None of that is normal. It's a terrible state of being. I can't count how many days I've drifted from bed, to obligations, to home wasting time avoiding responsibilities, then going to bed, only to repeat the cycle.
I think there's this tendency to separate health from our work but they're interconnected. You can't do anything if you're sick. You wouldn't go to work with a 104F fever right? You stay home and treat it. Here though you'll just need to treat it (I wish I could just stay home because reasons), but my point is that it's a sickness just as bad as that fever should be treated as such.
I have a sun lamp at work and at home that helps and I supplement that with St. John's Wort (doesn't help everyone but does for me) and Vitamin D supplements. It helps stave off the worst feelings or lack thereof. Combined with minimizing stress that comes from my environments (relationships with people, workload, etc.) it has helped me maintain a level of productivity that's not terrible and sometimes completely normal. Granted I still have bad weeks. Some days I just don't want to be at work, and others I just can't be bothered to follow through on plans or just take care of my basic needs but this winter has been the least bad so far since I started doing this.
I wish I could say it gets easier, or that there's a clear solution, or that if you try hard enough it'll all work out. It's just not like that. I'll be fighting this battle till the day I die. It's an ingrained part of me that I can't cast off and honestly it sucks. It's already hard enough in this industry where our work is easily compared to others and suffering from imposter syndrome is rampant, but add depression into the mix and it's hard to feel that what you do is meaningful let alone worthy of praise even when people compliment you for it.
It's tough and I have nothing but empathy for other developers and people suffering the same. I wish I could feel "normal", that I could love myself the way others love me, that I could look at my work in the ways others view it, that I could accept the praise as something I'm worthy of, and that one day I would feel worthy of someone loving me for me warts and all and that I can accept that as just being true, regardless of the lies my brain tells me each day.
I think life is important because of those struggles though. I'm still here almost 25 years later despite multiple times of never knowing if I'd make it to the next day let alone the next year`. It's tough dealing with mental illness. It's damn tough. I can't count the number of sleepless nights, the number of days where I've only felt an empty void, the number of times I had dissociated feelings where I just disconnected from my environment, and more. I continue to trudge through, surviving it, then feeling okay for most of the year, then dreading the return to winter knowing that only those feelings await year after year, like a specter that won't stop haunting you. Yet again, here I am. I hope maybe ten to twenty years from now I'll look at this post wondering how I could have thought these things or that my life has improved so much since then. Looking at the facts my life has been improving year by year. To think it'll only get worse is just a lie.
I wish I had the answers for everyone about what they need to do in order to deal with this. I don't, but I do know one thing and that's to seek the help you need in order to improve your life. Those insidious thoughts you might be having right now aren't normal. They're not you, they don't need to rule your life, and that you can get better with the right treatment. They'll never fully go away and the struggle will likely be for your whole life, but I do know that you can minimize their damage and lead a healthy productive life. Get the help you need and start helping yourself. Trust me it feels a lot better than wallowing in that nothingness that feels comfortable. It will destroy your life if you let it consume you. It's done it multiple times to me and I'd rather someone else read this and do something about it rather than letting their life also be messed up because depression feels normal and comfortable. It's not.