The Black Dog

I don’t do a lot of strictly personal blogging on this site, but this is one of those exceptions that I simply have to make.

I spent a lot of this summer fighting off the worst depression I’ve dealt with in several years. I’m not sure what exactly kicked it off: for me, it’s always a combination of factors (money, work, health, assorted flavors of burnout) landing at once rather than any one incident. But what I can now say with absolute certainty is that depression in the tech freelancing world is different. Not in good ways, either.

  • We have a strong tendency (born of the economics of the gig) to work through our sick days and even brag about it. There’s this dumb macho attitude about how many hours you work, how busy you are, how incredibly hard you’re hustling all the damn time.
  • And anyway, if we don’t work, we don’t get paid.
  • A lot of us (in the US) either live without health insurance, or have the crappy catastrophic-only kind where you have to pay full price for the first several thousand dollars of care. That’s certainly better than nothing for an acute illness or a car wreck, but it’s a strong disincentive to seek treatment for something non-deadly that could require years of ongoing treatment. And (as above) if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.1
  • We spend a hell of a lot of time alone. Even if you have a family, you’re probably spending whole days without seeing anyone; if you have dead time between jobs — and you absolutely will, because all those helpful blog posts about how you should be working on marketing every second you’re not coding mean shit once the reality-distortion field descends and your brain starts eating your will from the inside out — you stop having the incredibly loose structure of a project to make you check in with reality every once in a while.

But in the end, I’m still here, and I’m too damned stubborn not to be. I’m doing a lot better than I was a month or so ago; my bouts of depression don’t ever stick around forever. I dropped the ball on a couple of things and I’m still dealing with the aftermath, but I still have a husband and friends and work and a house. And even though I’ve never said it until now, an important part of getting past this latest mess has been all of you, my friends, my community. For pushing me to keep learning all the time, for believing in what I can do, and sometimes just for being around at whatever crazy hour I happen to not be sleeping. As dangerous as the isolation and tenuousness of freelancing can be for depression, the flip side is that the nonstop challenge and the sheer joy of having found my people is the way back out.

I’ve been sitting on this in draft form for a while, and then I was reminded that today is World Suicide Prevention Day, so there’s the excuse I’ve been looking for to dig this out of my saved drafts and finally dig up the guts to hit “publish”. I’m not (and have never been) at serious risk of suicide, but I’m far too familiar with its effects. My mother and grandmother both died by suicide2; both of them had both bipolar disease and addiction and I don’t, which in an incredibly sick way makes me the “lucky” one.

I’m not stronger or better than they were — I think they were incredibly strong to make it as long as they did with comorbidities (not to mention some frankly shitty circumstances). But I am lucky, in part because I’ve known for as long as I can remember to take this stuff seriously, to look for help, to listen to others who need help themselves.

If you’re facing down the black dog, or you know someone who is, please reach out for help. Our community may be spread out all over the place geographically, but there are people who care about you, no matter how hard it may be to believe right now.

  1. At least there’s parity now. It really sucked when even the good kind of insurance could get away with not covering any mental health conditions at all. You’ll just have to trust me on that one.
  2. I really dislike the term “commit suicide”: it casts suicide in the language of crime or at least of weakness, when in fact it’s almost always the end of a serious and progressive episode of mental illness.

3 thoughts on “The Black Dog

  1. An excellent post – thank you for sharing it. I am currently in the grips of a similar episode and I am very fortunate that it will not destroy me financially. Gotta love universal heath care and all that.

    Many years ago, when WordPress was in it’s pre-1point-oh version, I was very active in the community. I helped out in the support forums and together with a few others we twisted Matt’s arm into using a wiki for the Codex. Not long after I entered into a deep depression and at that time it was the worst ever. I completely melted down and wound up leaving many new friends in the WP community. I never recovered that and never came back because I was so humiliated by the whole experience.

    My illness has always caused me to believe that my brain is stuck in neutral. I have never mastered anything really since that major event ten years ago – and while I still have much interest in all things WP, I remain a spectator rather than participant.

    Again, many thanks for sharing your experience – I hope that all is well with you and yours.

    Nuclear Moose

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