Guest post by John Dalton.
One of the many events I attended during the week of Linux.conf.au this year was a BoF session (“Birds of a Feather” – an informal discussion group) for BlueHackers, an organisation dedicated to raising awareness of depression within the geek community.
I think the event was very successful, with around 50 geeks in attendance. I spoke to the group, along with many others – here’s (roughly) what I had to say:
I think of myself as being a pretty bubbly, happy guy.
I have “been depressed” – I’ve had bouts of depression – but I don’t consider myself to be someone who “has depression”. This is a distinction which people who haven’t experienced clinical depression may have difficulty understanding.
I didn’t recognise the difference until I met a girl with clinical depression. This was something I knew, something she’d told me and which we’d discussed – but it took some time for me to realise I didn’t really understand.
My impulse when someone tells me about a problem is to try to solve it. We would talk about how she felt – I’d listen, and I’d try to suggest things she could do to feel better, actions she could take to improve various circumstances. I’d try to explain to her that things weren’t as bad as she thought, and that things would improve.
Her behaviour was erratic. Sometimes it would seem that after talking things over we’d solved all the problems, that things were on the way up. Then we’d talk again shortly after and I’d find out that things were just as bad as they’d always been.
Sometimes I would tell her that things would get better, and she would agree – she could explain how everything was going to improve, but I could see in her eyes that she just couldn’t bring herself to believe it.
The point at which I really knew for the first time that I didn’t understand what was going on was when she called me one night in tears, and told me she’d tried to kill herself.
To cut a long story slightly shorter, this event resulted in her being committed for a short stay in the psych ward at the hospital.
The girl I’m talking about later became my wife, and a couple of weeks ago we had our 11th wedding anniversary.
This episode early in our relationship taught us both a lot. For my part, I finally learned just what it means to be clinically depressed. I learned that this wasn’t something that was ever going to go away – that things could get better, but that it would take hard work and vigilance on both our parts – and that there’d be more bad times ahead to go with the good.
* * *
I think that our community is getting better at talking about depression, but that we might have a disadvantage when it comes to understanding it.
I think that people in our community are more likely than usual to take a hyper-rational, deconstructive approach to problem solving. This approach makes it more difficult for people to understand clinical depression without having experienced it themselves, and I suspect it makes people less likely to recognise it when it happens to them.
I’ve seen the pain in someone’s eyes, and heard the helplessness in their voice, when they’re confronted with situations and emotions they can’t think their way out of. When they look at the problem, figure out an approach to help deal with it, but then realise that they know – they just know with some part of themselves – that nothing they do will fix it.
I want to tell those people that they’re wrong, but the difficulty there is that if we leave it too late, that’s not a message that can get through.
The most important function of BlueHackers in my opinion, and in fact any organisation which deals with depression, is education. Learning is hardware hacking for your brain. I want everyone to do an include, to load a module, whichever metaphor you like – I want everyone to know now, when they can absorb the information, that you need to ask for help before you hit the bottom.
Recently I had a phone call from another friend of mine, from someone who had hit the bottom. My only wish is that they’d called me earlier, but luckily that person is still with us. I had told them to call me if they needed to – I’m so glad they did – and they said to me later that simply telling them to call me if they needed help was enough that, when they were convinced noone would care or help, they were pre-armed with that knowledge, those instructions – I care, and I will help.
I want you all to talk to your friends, your family, your colleagues, to strangers in this room – and let them know that you care. I want you to hack their brains, to perform a knowledge injection rather than an SQL injection – to try to innoculate them against the belief that noone cares, so that when it happens, they might remember that someone does.
I’m not a professional counsellor, I have no training in this area, and if you were to call me I would tell you that you need professional help – and I would try to help you get it. But I will also remind you that you are not alone, and that someone cares.
This is an open source conference, but we are an open source community. I think it’s important that we – as a community – talk about depression in its many forms, and that we’re there to help each other no matter what kind of depression someone might be going through.
I want to thank Arjen for his work on BlueHackers, for being brave enough to start something that needed to be done – and I hope that we can all reach the point where admitting that you’re depressed and that you need help is no longer an act of bravery.
I want you all to do two things:
– if you’re depressed, tell someone.
– if you know someone who’s depressed, talk to them and tell them you care.
It’s not enough, but it’s a start – and you could literally save a life.
Originally published on my blog as “One geek’s guide to clinical depression.“
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Mitch Altman and others spoke at a panel session on Geeks & Depression at 28c3 (the 28th congress of the Chaos Computer Club in Germany) in 2011 after the passing of Ilya Zhitomirskiy (co-founder of the Diaspora project). I think the video (40 minutes) is worth watching, the speakers touch on a lot of important points.
Jacinta wrote this awesome post and allowed me to reprint (most of) it for you as I think this very relevant on BlueHackers. What you read here is people’s own personal experience, and ideas. We know from feedback that this is appreciated and found helpful. But it is very important to remember that what works for one person may not be what another person needs – for whatever reason. So what you pick up here is possible ideas, not “the right way”. Ok, on to Jacinta’s post.
Sometimes people write or talk about their health issues. You get a tiny snapshot into what’s going on, and […] that’s probably not going to be enough for you to know what they’ve tried, rejected, talked with their doctors about etc.
Here are some articles writing by the amazing S E Smith about cure evangelism.
“You may, in fact, have tried a variety of treatments. Perhaps you tried several different medications for your depression. You tried acupuncture and meditation and herbs. You made some dietary adjustments. You found, ultimately, that some of these things worked for you and some of them did not. You made a conscious choice about which treatments you wanted to continue, and which ones you did not, and you’re managing your depression in a way that works for you, that suits your needs, that allows you to function.
“And then someone feels the need to come along and say ‘oh, you have [condition]? Have you tried…’”
also the original piece: http://meloukhia.net/2010/06/on_cure_evangelism.html
Please don’t cure evangelise. […] There’s some ideas in the articles on how (and when) you can share your experiences but in general, if you respect the person you’re talking to, respect that they’re already making the best health choices they can.
Ask “do you have this under control?” or “Do you want a recommendation for a <medical professional>?” Not “You should see <doctor>“.
Try saying “If none of that works, let me know, because I have some ideas that might be helpful” rather than “Have you tried X, Y, or Z? No? You should!“.
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The time of Christmas and New Year can be troublesome. I’ll provide a couple of examples, and offer some ideas on what you can do to make this a good time for people around you!
Certainly, some people don’t care for it at all and are fine doing stuff on their own. If they get time off work during the period, those people will be the ones going on a nice cycling or hiking holiday. Awesome. But that’s not everybody.
- There are lots of social activities. Some people don’t want to partake in big events, but would be fine with something small.
Invite a friend (yes, an individual one) over for dinner or another explicitly small activity. This means you’re specifically making time for them: it shows real care.
- Many social events have costs (gifts, food at a restaurant, drinks in a cafe) and it all adds up – for many this is a significant burden, and it becomes a toss up between feeling left out, or potentially overextending financially. You can imagine how the choice alone makes for stress and anxiety.
If you do a potluck style event, people can bring something small or home made, or do something else to contribute. When going out, there are also ways to be inclusive without creating awkwardness.
- Around Christmas, “everybody” tends to be busy with their family. But what if you don’t have nearby family? You can be on-your-own throughout the year, but that’s not the same as being-alone while you know “everybody else” is having fun. It’s fairly crap. This is of course relevant whether or not you care about Christmas as an institution.
Of course it’s not always suitable to have a “stranger” partake in say a family dinner, but hey with some families that works perfectly – please do it then!
Perhaps you can do a more general event on another day, and invite a few extra friends.
- A single parent can find it difficult to participate in adult-only events (who will be available to mind the smurfs?), and some activities you’d normally undertake with other parents tend to not happen at this time because they’re busy or away. If you’re one of those other parents, perhaps you can find time to do those things together anyway, and suggest some playdates and sleepovers! It’s fun for you and the kids, but it’s so easy to forget with lots of things going on.
People regard it as a time of caring, but restrict it to a very restricted subset. I do understand why that occurs, the time can be ridiculously demanding and overwhelming. Expectations…
Tweak “the rules”!
- Stuff the complaining retailers, you don’t have to buy everything that’s advertised. And, home made gifts are extra awesome.
- If you don’t like spending time with your relations, don’t!
You pick your own friends, organise something! You can always pretend you got that special invite from one of the others, providing you with an excellent excuse to pike out of the family event “for once”.
- Look around you, add to your own family as you see fit.
You will know people around you for whom these things can make all the difference – with a few thoughts and actions you can make extra awesomeness this year!
(comments and extra suggestions welcome, as always)
My introductory post today is not necessarily directly for the Blue Hacker that finds themselves visiting today but rather to those who support a Blue Hacker as a mate, partner, or other support person. Off the usual post trend, I simply bring an aspect of my story that I am prompted to share. It comes with a message that in essence that just being there for someone who facing depression can make a difference.
Before I start this story though, I clearly state that I am not an expert of any kind when it comes to depression. I, myself, have only dealt with depression on a reactive basis to what life has thrown at me, albeit at times on a cyclical basis as for many years I was held back by chronic illness that had me a hostage in my own house. Beyond that, my experience with long-term depression, bi-polar disorder (manic depression) and also obsessive compulsive disorder are all from supporting family members each with their own conditions to be managed.
As a support person to members of my family I, at first, found the call overwhelming because I did not know what I could do, what I should do and moreso, what limits I should put on myself in terms of the support I offered so that I too did not start to drown. So, today I write about that first real step of just being there.
My father was diagnosed with depression just before I turned fifteen. With the events to follow, including the divorce of my parents, I was estranged from my father by both distance and his inability to sustain or rebuild relationship with me as he we went through years of being on and off medication for his condition.
Many years later, married with two children and in the midst of exams I got a phone call from an uncle. My father had been admitted to hospital and they were concerned that he did not value his life sufficiently to want to make it out again. After barely speaking to my father for over a decade my uncle simply stated, “It’s up to you what you do but I thought you should know.”
Life, to me, is worth far more than is exhibited in the way we treat our bodies these days so there was no question that I needed to do something. I also would have been denying a strong burden on my heart to know my father as a person if I did not. So, between Monday and Thursday exams, I found my way to a photo processor and printed two digital photos each one featuring my boys at that time. They are still today the only digital photos I have ever had processed. I put them into a couple of frames, packed our bags and drove myself and my children over 600km to where my father was hospitalised.
During just one of those mid-exam days we saw my father. He, for the first time, saw my second son and spent time playing with both of my children under two. He marvelled to the nurses about the frames with his grandsons in them in a vocal tone I have only ever heard from a person who is enduring deep depression. Along with the Soduku book and pencil I grabbed his entire perspective changed over the course of the days that followed not only as a result of our visit but also the assurance that we would continue to be in contact after we had returned safely home.
Now, I cannot say that being there for someone will change their ability to manage their depression because it most likely will not – especially in the long term which requires intrinsic motivation. Managing depression is a step by step process that needs to be initiated and journeyed by the individual. However, simply being a part of their lives can assist them to feel ‘connected’. Connectedness allows a person to see a purpose outside of themselves for seeing through each day.
Connectedness is something that seems to be becoming something that is harder to find as we become so heavily network oriented as a global society. John Taylor Gatto in his book ‘Dumbing us Down’ written over 10 years ago speaks quite clearly on how networks force us to segment ourselves to our interests or quests for information and it can bring us to a point where we do not know who we are as a whole and therefore cannot determine the purpose we hold in this life.
Networks, including social and interest-based clubs are great, but being a support person is more than that – it is taking an interest as the person as a whole. No, it does not mean that you should take on their struggles, but it means that when you are there for them by your sheer physical presence you are saying that are there for them in each step of their journey to finding wholeness and purpose – no matter how long the journey may be – simply because that is what friends are for.
Being there to support a person through depresssion is sometimes a difficult task and I am not going to say ‘just be there and everything will be okay’ because often it is not. However, just being there is a great first step as you learn for yourself about the nature of what depression is and how, as a support person, you too need to find personal strategies for managing it’s presence in your life.