A Non-Graceful Shutdown
Three months ago, today, I woke in a hospital bed feeling exhausted, disorientated and ashamed. The day before I had tried to kill myself.
I touched on this in my first post, fsck, when I talked about having ‘A Non-Graceful Shutdown’. I’ve been working on a longer post on this – this post – for what seems like an eternity now. It’s been extremely difficult.
It’s very hard to write about this and share it, it feels like I’m opening up the deepest recesses of my soul and laying everything bare, but I think it’s important we share this as a community. Since starting tentatively to write about these issues here, I’ve had many conversations about this; sharing with others, others sharing with me. I’ve been surprised to discover how many people are suffering similarly, thinking that they’re alone. They’re not.
I suffer from depression. I frequently suffer debilitating passages in my life, where I inexplicably find myself in the darkest of places, at the lowest of lows. No matter how much I, or anyone else, tries to convince me otherwise, I feel utterly worthless. My achievements, which are clear to me when I’m feeling well, feel empty. At best they feel fraudulent.
Three months ago I was in this place.
Due to an insane schedule of teaching, writing, speaking, designing and just generally trying to ‘keep up’, I reached a point where my buffers completely overflowed. I was working so hard on so many things that I was struggling to maintain control. I was living life on fast forward and my grasp on everything was slowly slipping.
My life was bouncing back and forth between the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. One moment I’d be intensely proud of my achievements, the next I’d find myself questioning those achievements. Perhaps I was fortunate? Perhaps I was at the right place at the right time? Perhaps it was all just the intersections of luck?
A psychological phenomenon in which sufferers are unable to internalise their accomplishments, Impostor Syndrome is far more widespread than you’d imagine. In The Impostor Syndrome – Why Do So Many Successful Entrepreneurs Feel Like Fakes? Leigh Buchanan, writing for Inc., states:
Impostor Syndrome [is a] term coined in the 70s to describe the fear that one is not as smart or capable as others think. People who feel like fakes chalk up their accomplishments to external factors such as luck and timing, or worry they are coasting on charm and personality rather than on talent.
You’d be surprised how many people feel this way. Valerie Young, author of a book on Impostor Syndrome, lists, amongst others: Meryl Streep, Maya Angelou, and Mike Myers… All incredibly talented people, all filled with crippling self-doubt. At the bottom, this was all I could see.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to speak all over the world. I’ve spoken at, and run workshops at, some wonderful conferences, including Build, New Adventures and Industry Conference. I’ve also had the honour of writing for publishers that I hugely admire, including Five Simple Steps, The Manual, 8 Faces, 24 Ways and .net.
Rationally, I see these as considerable achievements, they can’t all be the result of coincidence or concerted fraud. When I find myself in the grips of depression, however, these ‘achievements’ feel like an elaborate house of cards I’ve built, constructed on very dubious foundations. I’m convinced everything I’ve created will come crashing down and I’ll be discovered as the fraud I've convinced myself that I am.
Reaching the End
Three months ago, these feelings of worthlessness, coupled with a schedule that – when I look back on it – was completely unmanageable, took me on a downwards spiral. Like a plane in a tailspin I found myself plunging uncontrollably into the abyss.
I was struggling to keep up and I was struggling to cope, but outwardly I was doing my best to maintain a mask of happiness. My life, however, had begun to completely dissolve. I was living life in the fast lane, travelling at such a speed I knew something, inevitably, was going to give.
I knew I had to do something about the situation I’d found myself in. I knew I needed to reach out for a lifebelt to stop myself from slowly sinking. I scheduled an appointment with my doctor, in an effort to head the situation off at the pass, but by then it was too little, too late.
I returned from the doctor’s mid-morning and, exhausted, I surrendered. I can’t really describe that moment, I’m still grappling with it. All I know is that I couldn’t take it any more; I opened a bottle of wine and I just gave up….
I very nearly died.
I have two wonderful children and a very loving, and long-suffering, wife. I love them more than I can describe (though it doesn’t always perhaps show). At that moment all I could see was helplessness, all I was looking for was a way out.
After taking an enormous concoction of pills washed down with a great deal of alcohol, I blacked out and sank deep, disappearing into the void. I didn't care any more, I just needed to escape the pressure I’d created for myself. The only thoughts I had were that I needed to find a way out, and that this was it.
Living Life on Fast Forward
I’m very fortunate to have survived. I was admitted to hospital, taken there, unconscious, in an ambulance. On waking, I felt overwhelmed with shame, and overcome with remorse, but I was resolved to grasp the situation and address it. The experience has forced me to confront a great deal of issues in my life. Some of these issues will take time to address, others I can work on more readily.
I believe, looking back on this, that the underlying problems behind what happened were a combination of self-imposed goals, that were often unrealistically high (often unattainably so), and a need to try and ‘keep up’ and stay at the edge of the curve in an industry that never stops.
There are few industries that progress at the pace that interactive design progresses. As I wrote in my very first post, fsck:
I believe, as an industry, we focus all too often on the headlong excitement of endlessly moving forward. That’s fine, but there’s a flip side. Relentless progress brings with it relentless pressure. It can be difficult to keep up, and the pressure to stay on top of everything can at times prove debilitating.
I think it’s important that we, as an industry, face up to the pressures that do, sometimes, get on top of us. I think it’s also important to highlight the challenges that our industry poses, not least its relentless pace of change.
I think we need to share a little more about the innermost, hidden fears that cripple us. The thoughts we dare not share for fear of being ridiculed. Sharing this has taken weeks and weeks of thinking and hours and hours of writing. I hope it proves useful for others. Let’s start a dialogue about the problems we face, we might be surprised to discover that we’re not alone, and that others – too – face these very same pressures.
Confronting this problem collectively, like we do so many other problems in our industry, we might find better solutions. I, for one, certainly hope that we do.