Category Archives: Written Reflections

tears in rain | Wil Wheaton

I walked out of the loading dock, through a cloud of rotting garbage, and into the alleyway behind the theater. A curtain of rain fell between me and my destination, a little over a block away.

“Do you want to wait here, while I get you an umbrella?” Liz, the producer from Wizards of the Coast, asked me.

“No,” I said, stepping into the rain, extending my arms outward and turning my palms and face to the sky, “it’s been so long since I felt rain fall on my body, I’m not going to let this opportunity pass me by.”

I walked down the sidewalk, surrounded by other PAX attendees. Some were not bothered by the rain, while others held up programs and newspapers and other things to keep it away. A man walked his dog next to me. The dog was unperturbed by the weather. We got to the corner and waited for the light to change. The rain intensified and it was glorious.

“Are you sure this is okay?” She said.

“Oh yes, this is so much more than okay,” I answered, “this is perfect.”


I’ve been feeling pretty much the opposite of awesome for several weeks, now, and actually getting to sit down, face to face, in a semi-quiet few moments with real people who wanted to be there with me was … restorative, I guess is the best word. One player told me, “Thank you for everything you do. From Tabletop to Titansgrave — which is the best thing I’ve ever seen — to talking so openly about anxiety and depression.”


Read Wil’s entire post at

One geek’s guide to clinical depression

Guest post by John Dalton.

One of the many events I attended during the week of 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 – 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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I have depression—an open letter by Paul Fenwick

Dear Everyone,

I have depression.

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.

I know this news will surprise some of you. To many people reading this letter, I’m the guy who’s always happy. I’m the guy who’s always having a good time, and getting out there and doing incredible things. However for the last few months, I haven’t been having a good time.

One of the defining symptoms of major depression is anhedonia— an inability to feel pleasure or enjoyment. You’ve probably experienced this yourself to some degree at various times; everything just seems a little more dull and plain and nothing really seems fun. With major depression, *nothing* can seem enjoyable. It can kill your motivation and your friendships, it can ruin your career, and it can cause you to give up on your megaprojects in Minecraft. It’s the anhedonia that removes one of the defining *good* features of the human condition: the ability to enjoy things.

I have a lot of dear friends who have struggled, and still struggle, with depression. Some of them have been dealing with it their entire lives. I can only say that I have a new appreciation of their situation, and renewed respect for their determination and bravery.

So why am I writing about this publicly? Why am I not I just keeping this to myself and my close friends? Firstly, it’s for my own mental health. I don’t want to hide that I’m depressed; I don’t want to pretend that I’m okay when I’m not. Pretending is *exhausting*, I’ve been doing it for too long, and right now I need all the energy I can get.

But also, I don’t want anyone to have some sort of idea in their head that mental illness only affects certain types of people. I think the more of us who come out with our experiences, the more mental illness will be accepted.

I do want to be clear that I would like to raise the acceptance of mental illness in general. I have friends with bipolar, borderline personality, schizophrenia, anxiety, and a whole slew of other conditions. And you know what? They’re doing amazing things. I’m proud to have them as my friends.

For those of you that wish to know about the nuts and bolts of depression from a neurobiological standpoint, I highly recommend Robert Sapolsky’s lecture presented at Stanford University. Dr Sapolsky puts forward a convincing case that major depression has a strong biological basis, and that telling someone to “get over it” makes about as much sense as telling a diabetic they should get over that silly insulin business.

I also wish to draw attention to two initiatives in particular: Beyond Blue in Australia, who work tirelessly on providing resources and awareness of mental health, and, which specifically caters to people working in technology. Special mention also goes to LifeLine who provide crisis support services services, and are always in need of volunteers and support.

Finally, for all of you who have been helping to carry me through this: thank you. I know that I’m not always good at accepting it, but I appreciate your continuing support and patience more than I can say.


Seasonal Consideration

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.

Consider this

  • 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)

A Day Inside my Head

(preamble: generally I think about posts here for a while and so it is with this one – however, it turned out more topical for me now and thus this post is pretty much “real time”. Just so you know…)

Good morning, and welcome to this tour of my head today. Feel free to ask any questions. It’s a bit of a mess right now, I am aware (I try not to fuss too much over that as it’d just be an added stress – just step over).

Jittery? Ehm yes that too – the body that’s attached to this head definitely is jittery this morning as it has been for some days; it’s had (give or take) about 0 hours of sleep last night and that takes its toll. Some nights are better than others.

Any medication that might help? Yep on it, since last week and for the first time in about four years. Went back to the doctor because I don’t regard crying in a corner as not a normal way of spending even part of a day. Cause? Dunno, there are triggers but other than that it just appears to be chemical imbalance (SSRI). Now it might take up to a few weeks (or even months if the dose needs to be tweaked) to hopefully settle things again.

Oops mind those thoughts whizzing past – you’re quite right most of them you’ve seen before recently and in a bit they’ll come around again. Persistent buggers they are, they’ve been thought about and/or dealt with, yet they keep popping back up, bloody useless really. It’ll be great when that just goes away – yep the meds should help with that. The thoughts themselves are of the harmless variety, no fear there. I just prefer to have new thoughts rather than recycling old used ones, you know?

So where were we… ahyes, sleeplessness. Of course those pesky thoughts don’t help but relaxation exercises assist; and in part it can be a temporary side effect of the meds, difficult to tell really with so many factors. I do get up every morning, have breakfast or go for morning walk with an apple to get daylight and exercise as well and try not to have naps during the day – yep all the right things, it’s really good to have those habits mostly in place while things are ok then it’s so much easier to keep them up.

So how do I feel, am I ok? Ehm, obviously not ok really, and how I feel differs per hour (pretty irregular waveform, for the geeks). Can I cope with life, daughter, the world outside and run my business? Luckily, yes. With running my own business, having others work for/with me and not doing emergency type stuff at all, that’s flexible enough to remain manageable. When I started the business four years ago some people were very concerned about the timing (and I’m not disagreeing) but it’s worked out well and reaping its benefits now.

I can joke and laugh and enjoy myself, as I realise it’s not me but just a malfunctioning part of me. I refuse to let that take over. I’m decent company (and that’s not just my own opinion). I do have some bad moments, say akin to a nasty stomach cramp (general feeling of dread), and those are more frequent right now than when things were going ok. It used to just be there every once in a while which was managable, it’s more annoying in its current state; hope that subsides soon. Last time I lost a lot of weight in a very short time, this time it seems stable and as I mentioned a light breakfast is generally doable and other meals are mostly fine.

Judgement? Ah, that’s a bit tricky. It’s not quite right and I’ve experienced examples of this over recent months before I figured out what was going on, so I need to be careful. Ability to observe yourself and often recognise cannot always prevent trouble, because clearly some of the logic applied is affected by the problem and thus currently borked. Self-awareness is good but not a complete solution here. Technical matters = usually ok, personal matters = potentially tricky, emotional matters = quagmire. Being tired I obviously need to take care to not grump or snap, not fair to take things out on other people and it doesn’t help anyone. The immediate nasty symptoms required action. Now that that’s happening… Overall, I’m functional. Of course, more sleep would be excellent!

I mentioned triggers earlier. The other day while on my morning walk I had quite a reaction to seeing a couple walk hand in hand, which is usually just regard as cute. Surprising, but there’s context. First of all and just to be clear, this is not the only type of trigger observed. Second, I know that close companionship has a very stabilising effect on my state and since I’m not currently in a relationship I can’t benefit from that. Bummer. I’m telling this because it may help others. If you have a partner (who understands), you’re likely to be in much better shape. Obviously, initiating a new relationship would be messy to say the least (not impossible though, if you’re both well aware of what’s going on), and even when already/just dating someone (which I am) tossing this stuff into the mix is a rather serious burden. That said, if you want to continue seeing the person you’re going to have to talk about it, as it’s not an optional part of who you are and they need to understand why you are and behave/react the way you do and might be a tad volatile. Oh and if you’re with someone who “doesn’t believe in it” (depression, that is) – seriously get out right now as they’re toxic to you and you’re better off without them.

When I did the little talk 3 years ago that ended up starting BlueHackers, I’d dealt with my own troubles – it was just good therapy for me and potentially useful for others to speak out, make things more open and ensure people didn’t feel alone. I didn’t think I’d find myself “back here” – still, I know I’m not alone!

It’s very annoying when part of your head doesn’t “behave” the way you want and is affecting your life for some period of time. I am able to just disregard the occasional “what am I doing this for” as I know those thoughts/doubts only pop up when that part misbehaves and it’ll disappear when things settle. That’s a relief (and probably comforting to you, the reader, too 😉 but still a nuisance in the mean time.

I’m now using these scribbles here as therapy. I don’t need pity (does anyone?) but empathy is good. I don’t want to have to pretend that everything is alright, because it bloody clearly isn’t and it costs a lot of energy which I need for getting better. I am open with the people around me too, for the same reasons: nice to still get invitations for dinner and doing stuff together with friends even when I’m somehow exuding this odd vibe that might otherwise scare people away.

Thanks for visiting – and now, out of my head. It’s mess enough without so many extra visitors 😉

Presuppositions and Passive Agressives

I was just abused, by someone I care about and they live approx 16000 km away. I now have a headache and a nasty stressed feeling. I’m scribbling about it here as a bit of self-therapy to diffuse my anger at this (which in part is being angry at myself for letting me get so affected at a distance), particularly because confronting the person would not be effective. Also, you may recognise this type of incident and find the post of use. Comments are most welcome.

First, let me clarify what a presupposition is. Consider the sentence “Even Fred could pass that exam.” Those proficient in English will note additional information that is conveyed as there are two presuppositions in there:

  1. Fred gets classified as not being particularly bright/competent
  2. The exam is classified as easy, not challenging

Consequentially, the sentence is actually quite nasty in particular towards Fred, but also conveys a clear negative opinion about the exam.

Passive-aggressiveness is obviously a coping mechanism. It’s frustrating for others, and confronting it in whatever way tends to (at least in my experience) be a waste of time as it just triggers more of the same behaviour. Since it’s just an observable symptom of something else, it’s up to the person themselves to hopefully figure it out over time and deal with the actual issues. Unfortunately and again very frustrating, you can’t fix other people or their problems, you can only affect your own behaviour or responses.

Did the person phrasing a sentence such as the above actually say something nasty, or can they validly claim innocence? I’ve come to regard being offended as a selfish act, as the person triggering the offense tends to not have spent specific effort on offending you. Makes sense? But even with that in mind, I don’t believe sentences with nasty presuppositions are innocent. If you say stuff like that, you should take responsibility for what it means as well as for what it literally says.

Now, back to my own experience. The email I received went something like this: “Since I haven’t heard from you about the gift package, I’m presuming it didn’t arrive and thus will not send any more gift packages in the future, which is a great pity for X.”

It’s astonishing how many snakes are in there, there’s absolutely nothing I can say or do. If indeed the package hasn’t arrived, future consequences have already been decided, to someone else’s detriment (that tosses a guilt-trip on me, I’m now guilty for X not getting gifts). If the package has arrived, then it’s clearly my fault also (disregarding other circumstances) to not have communicated in the preferred manner (essentially a quick email would not do, a phone call is required taking time zones and other factors in to account). If I object to the message, I’m causing trouble. It’s a complete no winner.

Possibly you see another way to respond or handle this, and I’m quite happy to see suggestions – of course the sentence was simplified, and there are many other aspects as well as a long history in play and it’s not suitable to post all that here.

If you’d like to read more about this type of verbal nasties, see Suzette Haden Elgin’s
Verbal Self Defense
home page. Her books are excellent, specifically “The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense” which while a few decades old now is still very usable. It doesn’t teach so-called put-downs, it really teaches understanding and skills to diffuse and avoid triggering problems.

The just get on/deal with it fallacy

I was recently told this – it’s quite common to hear it generically and it ranks high on the list of “very unhelpful things to say to a person with depression”, but I hadn’t had it tossed at me personally in recent times.

The reason it’s utterly unhelpful is that it presumes that a person can just “snap out of it”, “stop whinging” or whatever, and that completely disregards the medical background of the situation. It’s just not how it works. To put it bluntly, it’s essentially denying the existence of depression as a medical condition. And while individuals are entitled to their own opinions, I reckon there’s been enough medical research and experience amassed to safely conclude that depression exists – so I prefer to not get drawn into discussions on that baseline, or be put in a situation where that gets questioned.

I consider myself quite lucky. I’ve always been able to get up in the morning. I don’t necessarily feel so good and my ability to do things during the day may be affected, but I get up. I know that others don’t. Because they just can’t. While that may be very difficult to comprehend for someone who has never been in that situation, a little bit of understanding, compassion and empathy helps.

This is just one example. I’ll soon scribble another post reflecting on what might go on in my head and outside on a day that things are not working so well.

Awareness in the community is important, which is an important reason for BlueHackers’ existence – but those with depression can also take a useful lesson from all this though, because for many of us depression is cyclical – it’s not at the same level all the time, and there are very good periods. There can be obvious negative triggers such as stress, illness, bad diet, lack of sleep (I’ve written about that earlier) some of which you have influence over, and others that we may not know about or can’t directly influence.

If you manage to put things in place during good times, it’ll give you a kind of buffer in bad times. A habit is easier to keep up than it is to get started, that is, change often requires more effort than maintaining the status quo, even though the status quo might be you going for a daily walk. That may seem a bit contradictory at first, but we’re primarily talking about mental energy here, not physical. Now imagine, if you were some able to keep doing that daily walk, that alone may not prevent bad episodes but is quite likely to lower the severity and duration and overall keep you in better shape – in this case literally as well, since it is exercise! But think of a habit of going to bed at a set time, reading a book or doing some relaxation… same applies.

Mind you, I’m not perfect with this – I can be a complete slacker, but every time looking back I can see the results both of doing (some of) this and of not doing it. It makes a big difference for me. So, there we have a possibly useful strategy derived  indirectly from an otherwise useless (or even harmful) comment. Naturally, your milage may vary, everybody is different. But perhaps it’s something you can try, starting at the right time. And if you have experience with it already, perhaps you can write a comment!