Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It gets better (geek version)

I recently learned of the tragic passing of Ilya Zhitomirskiy, one of the cofounders of Diaspora, apparently by his own hand. The news really hit me hard for three reasons. First, I was really rooting for Diaspora to succeed. Facebook is evil (there, I said it) and something needs to come along and replace it. Second, it's just generally tragic when someone dies in their prime, and when it's someone as talented as Ilya was that makes it doubly tragic. He might have made the world a better place. Now we'll never know.

But the third and main reason the news really rocked me was my sense that this should and could have been prevented. I think one of the reasons that Ilya Zhitomirskiy is dead is that we have a culture that discourages seeking help for depression and other mental illness because of the stigma attached. If it becomes known that you've succumbed to feeling blue then in the cutthroat world of entrepreneurialism you are damaged goods. You can't hack it. And so young kids keep it bottled up inside. And sometimes they die.

That has to stop.

But, alas, it's a very thorny problem. Because people's reluctance to seek help is deeply rooted in cultural norms it's not just a matter of setting up a hotline, or putting up a blog post saying, "If you're feeling depressed, call." For one thing, depression can be a sign of an underlying mental illness that an untrained person might not be equipped to deal with. Suicidal depression is serious shit, and if you meddle without knowing what you're doing you can easily make things worse, to say nothing of creating serious problems for yourself. (As an obvious example, even just holding yourself out as someone to talk to is a Really Bad Idea. If someone calls and you're not available that could easily push them over the edge. Crisis hotlines have to be manned 24 by 7.)

One possibility is to follow the lead of the LGBT community and start an It Gets Better campaign for geeks. But that's problematic too because the stigma attached to depression is nowadays much more serious than that attached to homosexuality. On the other hand, the fact that depression, unlike homosexuality, actually is a mental disorder means that (again, unlike homosexuality) you can, if not cure it, at least ameliorate it, and that this is uncontroversially a good thing.

What if those of us who have faced suicidal depression and lived to tell the tale spoke up? Maybe if enough time has passed we can admit to it without having to risk ostracism. And maybe if we did it could save a life. That sounds to me like a risk worth taking. So here goes.

If you are a geek contemplating suicide, I say to you from personal experience that no matter how bleak things look right now, they will get better. I know this because I've been where you are. When I was in graduate school I was suicidally depressed. But I got past it, not because I'm any better at dealing with depression than the next person, but because I got help. In my case, help consisted of professional counseling.

I know what you're thinking: no therapist can possibly help you. You're so much smarter than any therapist. You've thought this through, and you haven't been able to figure out the answer, so a therapist won't be able to either.

You're wrong. Here's why. You're a geek, so you're used to thinking about every challenge as a problem with (at least potentially) a solution. Depression isn't like that. It's not a problem with a solution, it's something that happens to you that you need to learn how to manage. You can't fix depression any more than you can fix getting sleepy or having to go to the bathroom. What you can do is learn how to deal with it. And a good therapist can help you with that. It's not an easy process, but it's well worth the effort. You'll still get depressed, but it will hurt less.

Even if you're not willing to bear the pain for yourself, do it for others. Again, I know you feel alone and worthless and like nobody cares. You're wrong about that too. That's the depression talking. (One of the techniques for dealing with depression is to think of it as an external entity that causes you pain. If you had a knife stuck in your arm it would hurt. Depression is like having a knife stuck in your brain, except the knife isn't a physical thing so you can't just reach in and pull it out.) No matter what your circumstance, unless you're a psychopathic serial killer, somewhere out there is another human being whose life will be better if you're around. You may not have even met this person yet, but I promise you they are there. If you're not willing to stick around for yourself, do it for them.

Do it for Ilya.


Anonymous said...

Nice post, I hope it does some good.

I wonder how much depression the intense startup culture is generating, and if that's relevant in this case. I think it's all too easy to work yourself ragged and then get suicidally depressed when you haven't made your first billion before age 25, or whatever.

When I was a youngster I worked crazy hours, but I did it because I wanted to, not because of any hope of financial reward. Of course now I'm poor and feel like a dope, but at least I didn't drive myself over the edge.

mystery yoga/biker woman said...

WAY TO GO BRO! You have always had my respect (well, okay, maybe not when we were kids and you tortured your little sis- lol) but this was a BRAVE post and I commend you!
Now as a Clinical Psychologist and trained to treat and spot depression I can say that it is such a complex problem. And one that I've seen get worse and worse these days. It runs rampant among my college students and colleagues! And I too have had bouts of it (it seems to run in our family here and there).
And the stigma continues as you stated- if you get help you are "weak".
Depression may be due to BIOLOGICAL reasons and even if not - there are REASONS and one needs to seek help if it persists, especially to the point of thinking about ending your life!
Maybe I'll do a guest blog on this sometime - it's such an important topic- thanks for raising awareness. And I'm GLAD you never acted on your feelings- I am so grateful to have you in my life!

Anonymous said...

I received help through my mom, who made me understand this:


I still go back to it when I feel the blues. I have realized completely this is just the most wonderful practical guide to life EVER.

Now, I am in a happy space. Yes, I am a Lisp programmer. (For X reasons, I keep my identity closed).

mystery yoga/biker woman said...

would you possibly do a blog explaining diaspora - I went on the web page but it is hard and confusing to navigate- so it would be nice to have some explanation for those of us "non-techno" folks who follow your blog.

And a HAPPY (early- it's Friday so soon anyway) BIRTHDAY!!! What are you - about 22 now ;-)

Ron said...

Diaspora is (was?) an attempt to build a social-networky sort of thing kind of like Facebook, but that was not controlled by any one company or organization. The fact that non-technical people like you have a hard time figuring that out is one of Diaspora's main problems.