Getting By

“I’m convinced that we can shape a different future for this country as it relates to mental health and as it relates to suicide.”

—David Satcher

Almost a year ago, we lost Aaron. Yeah, I’m still going on about that. That hurt. A lot.

I’ve long grown used to my depression and general craziness. After so many years, it just starts to fade into the background, y’know? Like water to a fish, you kind of stop noticing it.

Which is kind of sad, that I’ve gotten so used to being broken, I don’t even notice it anymore.

But there you have it.

This utter nonchalance about my poor mental health has a nice side-effect: I’m always happy to talk about it. And it seems to help people I talk to. So, I thought, I should do more of that.

I kind of hit a low point at the end of last winter. It wasn’t the lowest I’ve sunk by a long shot, but after everything going so well for so long, it was hard to have my sails deflated like that. Like I ran into an iceberg and the ship just capsized and I had forgotten how to respond.

It started affecting my work. My employers started to notice. They were very kind about dealing with it. I started wondering to myself if I was just using my brain as an excuse, if I wasn’t actually sick at all, I just sucked.

I talked to Ed Finkler a bit. He reassured me I wasn’t a fraud, and gave me some ideas for strategies to cope.

I thought about all the people who were in my position, but not fortunate enough to have someone like Ed to help them. How helpful that outside perspective, that insight from someone who has been there and done that, can be.

I put a call out in late May, looking for people in tech with a mental illness.

I got a few responses. I started talking to them about my crazy plan. I wanted to get a bunch of people with mental illnesses to write about their experiences and share their perspectives. The point wasn’t to prove anything or garner sympathy; if I wanted anything, it was awareness about how widespread an issue it is. But the real goal, the real motivation, was to let people who were in my position—unsure about their illness and what it meant, feeling like a fraud—to get more information and get reinforcement from others.

There was some tweaking to my idea, and a lot of support. Then things got busy, and I let the idea gestate for a while.

In August, I put out another call.

This time, I got a huge response. Dozens of people came forward, interested in telling their story and sharing their perspective. I started the long process of emailing them all and obtaining responses that would fit the format I had in mind.

My goal was never to say “you have a mental illness, yours doesn’t count, yours does count.” I’m not an arbiter of worthiness. If you think you have a mental illness, that’s good enough for me. Despite this, pretty much everyone expressed anxiety that they didn’t really have an illness and were impostors. A lot of people thought that their illness wasn’t severe enough to count.

Which seems absurd. Nobody says “yeah, I’m not sick. I mean, I have bronchitis, but some people have cancer, so I don’t really count.” But that’s how mental illnesses work. They’re devious. They cut you off at the knees. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. The greatest trick a mental illness has ever pulled is convincing you you’re just seeking attention or being lazy.

I launched gets by this weekend, with a couple interviews. More interviews gave me permission to publish over the course of the weekend and earlier today, so now we’re sitting pretty at seven interviews, and I have a bunch more queued up, waiting for permission to post.

A lot of people have reached out to tell me how great this project is. Twitter has been really supportive.

I’m so proud of the people that came forward. It’s so hard to talk about this kind of stuff. As I was reading through interviews, I realised how embarrassed I still am, years later, at having been in therapy. That my therapist’s number is still on speed dial.

That I had to admit I needed help.

It feels inherently like a weakness. It feels inherently like everyone else is normal, but I’m so damaged that I need other people to help me function. Which is such bullshit. My brain is injured. It’s sick. It’s not well. If I broke my leg, I’d have no shame about going to physical therapy.

But it hurts to say that I spent an hour a week talking with someone about my feelings.

How stupid is that?

That’s why I’m so proud and humbled by the people that came forward. They put their name and picture on the internet next to a description of their lowest points, a complete list of what they find challenging and what makes them feel weak. They did it selflessly, hoping it would help people. Some of them chose to be anonymous. At first, I was wary of this proposition; I didn’t want to justify the stigma by highlighting people who are ashamed of it, who don’t feel comfortable enough to own it.

Those interviews are now my favourites. The things those people deal with, and are dealing with, are terrifying. Unlike me, those people haven’t become so used to their issues that talking about them no longer hurts. They made the conscious choice to talk about something that caused them pain and anxiety, so much so that they couldn’t bear to own it publicly yet, for no reason other than to help people.

I called the site “Gets By” because then I could use the domain hack “{name}”. Because that’s what we’re doing. We’re getting by. We’re waking up every morning and knowing it will be a fight and doing it anyways. It’s not a pity party, it’s a rallying cry: we’re doing this. We’re winning. One day at a time.

A lot of people have thanked me for doing this.

I did nothing. I wrote a quick deploy script that creates an nginx server, installs Ruby, and installs the Github pages gem. It just syncs a Github repo, uses the Github pages gem to build HTML from the markdown, and runs it behind nginx. It took me an afternoon to set up. Dylan made our beautiful, responsive design.

Everything else was done by the people contributing their experiences. Everything of value came from other people. The credit is theirs, not mine. I’m just the custodian, keeping things running. Second Bit is only involved because I don’t want personal liability. This is totally a community thing.

Speaking of which, if you have a mental illness and are in the tech industry (if you think you do or are, then you do and are) and want to share your experiences, let’s talk.