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
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
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.
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.
This isn’t the sort of sadness that sticks around for a week and then goes
away. It’s not the sort of thing that even has a good reason, although there
might have been one originally. It’s the sort of thing that can stick with you
for months or even years, is a recognised illness, and is one of the worst
possible states a human can experience.