July 10 2020
For the majority of my life, I’ve dealt with depression. It’s a subject that is not easy to talk about, as no one wants to be treated differently or have their opinions discounted because of it. I apologize now for speaking in generalities that may not apply to everyone, as I’m speaking anecdotally about my experiences and what I’ve seen of others. I believe many my age are dealing with depression, but it still doesn’t feel like a subject that we openly discuss, especially in the tech world. My purpose in writing this post is twofold: the first, to be more open about myself; and second, to help normalize mental health problems. Just to be clear, this is not by any means a call for help. I am actually doing much better these days.
I feel like many people have the wrong idea about how depression actually manifests itself. Sure, there are instances of intense sadness or hopelessness. More often, though, I just feel plain empty, like an intense boredom where I don’t appreciate any pleasure. It can often be challenging to relate to genuinely nice people or enjoy uplifting content, as it all seems disingenuous when I can’t relate. Instead, I find it easy to focus in on just the irritating, the dull and the repetitive, and embrace jaded or defeatist attitudes. This makes it hard to focus on whatever tasks are at hand.
Perhaps the best way I can describe how I see myself is that I have two selves: one inner and one outer. One is the me that I know, and the other is whom the outside world knows. My outer persona has always been a goofball, often unable to be serious, but lacks much expression of emotions. This helped me to hide my problems, while still talking about them through dark humor. It had always been paramount that I hid my depression as best possible. I feel that this hindered me getting close to people, though, as they never saw my true self, and they didn’t believe that I could be genuine.
The day-to-day of depression is really dull. I’ve found myself horribly addicted to my phone; the first thing I do when I wake up and the last thing before bed is to exhaust all of my social media feeds, even on days when I am doing well. I repeatedly check my feeds throughout the day, too, but never post. Instead, I perpetually observe the world rather than interacting with it. It’s both a form of escapism and a shallow substitute for my lack of social interactions. When I am really down, binging Netflix or YouTube helps to fill the time, and escape from reality for a while as well. On these days it can be a real challenge to find a good reason to get out of bed, get dressed or take care of myself. Depression is really just about waiting for things to get back to okay again.
Depression has made my life difficult, but I’ve decided that it’s time that I stop that—hence this post. This illness has frequently destroyed my motivation to work, and damaged my personal relationships and social life. In school, I would often have to do my work at the absolute last minute, as the stress of failure was the only strong enough motivation to defeat procrastination. I’ve attended high school two days in a row without sleep, multiple times, and once fell asleep for a split-second at a stoplight driving home (I pulled over after). I found it hard to get myself to and through lectures in college, so I would have to catch up with slides after the fact. I would regularly fail to meet my longer-term personal deadlines and goals, as I had to prioritize all of my effort to get whatever work done that was needed in the moment. This culminated in me applying for and failing to get into any PhD programs, and being unsure of what I actually wanted out of life in the years after. In my social life, I would often avoid or minimally participate in events because of the effort of social interactions. This made it incredibly hard to build new relationships, which only made me feel more isolated. I have certainly lost friendships and hurt people because of depression, too. I failed to maintain most of my relationships out of a lack of energy and an irrational fear of bothering others.
I think we in the tech industry are particularly prone to depression. Our work can often be done in isolation, and we work much of the day indoors with limited physical activity. Many of our common outside-of-work activities involve spending our evenings and weekends on a computer, too. That’s not to say that these hobbies are anti-social, but for me they can’t replace in-person interactions. However, I suspect our culture is the largest contributor to our mental health challenges. Many of our identities, myself definitely included, are based around quantitative successes—be it grades, awards, jobs or other similar metrics. These may be intellectually-satisfying status symbols, but they alone can’t provide emotional fulfillment. I don’t know if we end up in tech because we like to quantify things, or vice versa, but it certainly feels like it is a common disposition among us to prefer the quantifiable over the qualitative. It’s more comfortable to express hard reasoning than soft emotions, but depression can’t be defeated by logic.
Treating depression is difficult. The trope is that everyone will tell you to just improve your diet, exercise and get outside. In my experience these things are absolutely worth it if I have the energy, but they don’t make a huge difference in the short term. Meditation is great to clear your head, though, and you can even do it from your own bed. I subscribe to the idea that depression is a symptom of one’s current environment, be it social, physical, et cetera; some people are just genetically more likely to become depressed under the same stressful circumstances. This is the diathesis-stress model. Even so, while I could sit here and blame my problems on factors entirely outside of my control, be it my upbringing, or my genetics, or something similar, I don’t believe this is productive. In general, it’s better to keep moving forward, and let the past be the past (outside of a therapist’s office).
The standard treatment for depression is antidepressants and therapy. The medication makes getting through day-to-day easier, while therapy helps you restructure yourself and your environment to reduce or eliminate your stressors. The two work best when used together, but it is much easier to start with just the medication alone. I went on and off a couple of different antidepressants over the years to find one that worked reasonably well, starting from sophomore year of high school. The first one I tried made me feel weird and act in ways that I didn’t like, and swore me off another try for a few years. This antidepressant roulette is a hard part of getting treated, as you cannot predict which ones will work, and it takes weeks to start seeing effects. For me, medication acts as a neutralizing force, enabling me to not dwell on the negatives in my environment. However, they also allow me to care less about fixing my situation, and leave me feeling somewhat emotionally flattened. In retrospect, I see that I didn’t make real progress until I started seeing and being genuinely open with a therapist.
It feels difficult to say that things will get better when the outside world is itself, frankly, depressing. The funny part about the current shelter-in-place, though, is that it actually feels familiar to those days where I couldn’t get myself to leave my room in college, in a weirdly comforting way. However, I want to end on a positive note. I have struggled with depression for a very long time, but things did eventually get better. While I will always deal with depression in some way, it is no longer the major issue it once was; I’ve accepted it and taken back control.