This year has been a big one for my mental health. Early in 2018 I was diagnosed with Bipolar II. The treatment helped, although I still found myself struggling with motivation and concentration. While I could barely look at my taxes for more than a minute without needing to get up and make yet another cup of tea, somehow my brain was fine at learning how to transpile C# code at 2am.
A few months ago I was diagnosed with type II bipolar, and while some of you who know me might feel that was obvious, it was not obvious to me. I want to talk about what the diagnosis means, what it’s like to have Bipolar II, and the effect my medications are having.
Okay, time for another honest conversation about my mental health. For those of you new to my feed, this is something I do from time to time. Partly because it helps me, and partly because it helps de-stigmatise discussions about mental health.
This will be long, rambly, and personal. Imagine you’re on livejournal. There’ll probably be typos.
Okay folks, it’s time to talk about mental health again. Today we’re going to be discussing one of the most common and yet stigma-laden topics of all: loneliness.
Lots of people feel lonely. An estimated 20% of the United States population experiences loneliness, and amongst groups prone to social isolation that can be much, much higher. Loneliness isn’t just unpleasant, either; it’s associated with a mortality risk about equal to that of smoking.
But if there’s one thing we don’t like to admit, it’s that we’re lonely.
In late 2012 I had a depressive episode. This is well documented; I wrote about it on-line, and I even gave a talk at OSCON. My thought processes during that time were broken and cyclical; cognitively I knew that people were great, but emotionally I found myself intensely disliking them. As someone who’s long derived joy and energy from those around me, I seemed to spend all my energy arguing with the emotional part of myself that people were great… and yet it wouldn’t listen. The situation was exhausting, and I didn’t get anywhere.
Eventually, I struck a deal. I would admit that perhaps people aren’t as great as I once thought, and that emotional monkey-brain would quieten down and let me think again. It worked, and I’d joke with my role-playing friends I recovered by taking a point in misanthropy.
One of the most frustrating thing about humans is that we’ll feel a particular way—happy, sad, angry, annoyed—and then we’ll find excuses as to why we’re feeling that way. If we’re feeling sad, it’s really hard to remember times when you were happy. If we’re feeling annoyed, then the most minor things can cause us to lose our cool, even if they’re things we’d hardly notice on better days.
It’s pretty clear that for whatever you’re feeling, that’s what you’ll be good at remembering. If you’re having a great time, you’ll be better at remembering similar happy memories. If you’re hitting a particular difficulty, it’s much too easy to remember all the other times you’ve hit the same difficulty.
You might have encountered the term Impostor Syndrome, where people feel that they’re somehow “faking it”. This is common with programmers, artists, public speakers, and I suspect anyone who is able to see the faults in their own work, despite others judging that work on its merits.
If you’ve ever started a thought with “You may be impressed now, but if you only knew I was just making it up/not doing it the right way/not really that cool/lucky/had good timing/have no idea what I’m doing”, then you may know what impostor syndrome is like. If you’ve been feeling that way a lot—and I know people with years of experience who still don’t consider themselves “a real programmer/artist/performer/badass”—then you might actually have impostor syndrome.
Earlier this year, I gave a presentation at OSCON on both my experiences with and the science of depression. The video of that presentation is above.
This isn’t a video of hope. It’s not a video of “everything is going to be okay”, because there’s no way I can say that. It’s a video discussing what it’s like, and some of the research as to what’s going on in your brain.
It’s a video that says that you are not alone.
I’m currently consuming neuroscience papers like crazy as part of the talk I’m giving at OSCON tomorrow. I’m currently reading an excellent overview on serotonin transporters¹, and in particular looking at knock-out mice that can’t synthesize the serotonin transporter—the molecule which gets serotonin out of the synaptic cleft and back into neurons.
Today is a bad day. I won’t explain why in a public post, and really the reasons don’t matter for what I’m about to say. It’s sufficient for me to mention that my mood is the worst it’s been in a very long time. For those of you not familiar with my history, you might want to start with my open letter here.
I should be sorting accommodation in Seattle this weekend. I should be processing photos. I should be writing talk proposals, and hacking code, and catching up with friends. But right now nothing seems appealing. The least horrible thing feels like going home, laying down, and just trying not to exist for a while. I’m writing this through a fog of psychomotor retardation, and so I’m pretty sure if I wanted to, I could do exactly that.
But I won’t.