The Year That Was That Wasn’t

The Year That Was That Wasn’t

Trigger warning: suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety

In the spring of 2019 I was inches and seconds away from jumping off a bridge in New York City. In fact, were it not for Jason Isbell’s “Hope the High Road” playing in my earbuds at a very fortuitous moment, there is a very good chance you would not be reading this post. This is not where the story begins (or ends) but it sets important context for the rest of this post.

“But wherever you are I hope the high road leads you home again…”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Hope the High Road”

There are many negative things about the blurring of the work/life boundary for people that work in technology. That blurring had been building for a while but COVID accelerated it (due to a massive shift towards working at home) and brought with it a mountain of additional stressors as well. If there is one semi-positive thing from all of this, it’s that so many in our industry have been much more open about the mental health struggles they are experiencing. It is in that spirit that I share my experiences in this post.

By most outside measures, I have nothing to be unhappy about. I’ve co-authored two books in the last two years, I’ve been awarded a Microsoft MVP designation five years running, my health is reasonably good, and I occasionally get to drive race cars and live out a childhood dream. I’ve been fortunate to have good jobs I liked with teams I liked and, when those became detrimental to my health due to their pace and hours, I’ve been fortunate to find new jobs (with no interruption) that were better suited to my career goals and personal health yet were still at great companies with people I liked. Despite that, my mental health has been a significant struggle for years. I never made time for understanding or treating it and, as a result, that struggle has grown more intense in the last three years since that night on that bridge.

I started taking meaningful steps to address those struggles in the middle of 2021 by looking for a therapist via my insurance company’s provider portal. This launched a frustrating series of phone calls to offices that didn’t exist, were no longer on that insurance plan, or no longer employed that provider. I eventually found one provider who would take my insurance and was reasonably close to my house but, in those few visits, I learned that not only did he not keep good notes on my situation and the things I was telling him but he was accidentally telling me things about other patients because he thought I was them. The office was dreadfully disorganized. I stopped seeing him but they certainly did not stop sending the bills for the visits. I was back at square one.

That time back at square one was marked by increased depression and continuing (and increasing) anxiety attacks that made it a struggle to even convince myself to get out of bed some days. During many of those I couldn’t summon the strength or calm needed to drive a car (and those with even a cursory knowledge of me publicly know how much I love driving cars) or do basic tasks around the house. I could often successfully suppress this to perform at work (turns out even my topsy-turvy brain thinks getting fired is a pretty bad idea) but had stretches of days where I accomplished nothing outside of my professional obligations because I simply couldn’t will myself to do anything else.

I restarted therapy in late 2021 with a local friend that I have known for years in other contexts. She takes a more holistic approach to identifying triggers, conditioning, and deep-seated beliefs that may manifest in things like depression, anxiety, and other issues. It is one of the best decisions I have ever made and I encourage all my readers to pursue the types of treatments that they feel best suit them, holistic or otherwise, if you are experiencing issues similar to mine. Don’t give up if your initial attempts prove fruitless and frustrating.

I also took to heart Eugene Meidinger’s (b | t) wonderful “How I Deal with Depression” presentation from SQLBits 2022. Among many helpful bits of advice was a discussion of how he uses the app Daylio as a bit of a daily mood tracker that provides data to analyze over the months and years. I haven’t missed a day since downloading it after SQLBits and it’s proved valuable and complementary to the work I’ve been doing with my therapist.

You may be reaching the end of this post and wondering what the title, “The Year That Was That Wasn’t”, means. When I look around parts of my house, it looks like I’m stuck in a time warp. There are projects and gadgets and things that haven’t moved all year because I’ve been struggling with my mental health and taking care of myself. Despite some wonderful professional and personal moments in the last year, in many ways it feels like I’ve done nothing and I’m surrounded by the casualties of my chaotic mind.

But, as my therapist says, I am “still showing up for myself”. I am still here. You’re still here too. That’s not nothing. If you’re reading this and experiencing nothing like what I’ve described, I’m grateful for that. Hopefully you can use this post as motivation to check in on your friends, even the ones who “seem fine”. If you’re reading this and it is resonating with you, feel free to reach out to me and connect. I wish you peace and strength and whatever you need to make each day a little better than the last.

With that, I’m closing the book on 2022 with a renewed commitment to help myself and help others in 2023. Thanks for reading – maybe this year will be better than the last.

11 thoughts on “The Year That Was That Wasn’t

  1. Such a brave decision to write this, even more so to publish it.
    You have been to your rock bottom and come back from it, that’s a helluva achievement and one you should be rightfully proud of.
    I hate to hear how tough finding the right therapist has been, and wish I’d been around when you needed that. All I can do now is to let you know that I am always on the end of a text or email, anytime and for anything.
    Celebrate the New Year with a renewed sense of positivity and keep doing what you’re doing.

  2. Damn man, this post made me cry because I read it hearing the song you described and it’s exacly how I’ve been feeling lately.

    Thank you for the inspiration, time to seek more help.

  3. Jason Isbell’s music and lyrics are a gift and I am so grateful that the right ones reached you at the right time. Thank you for sharing, and best wishes for 2023.

  4. It is somewhat puzzling to see people working in technology, where they have fostered their trouble-shooting skills for years, struggle with analyzing their personal life and finding the root causes of their discomfort/anxiety/suicidal thoughts. There are just a few side-remarks in this blog post hinting to causes: work-life balance and COVID isolation. I am sure there is more.

    Life is a work in progress. Conscious living definitely makes it easier. Here are a few questions whose answers may help clarify how to improve it:

    Does a healthy diet make you feel better? What foods help? What harm?
    Does exercise (started gently, gently built-up) have a positive effect?
    Does a change of environment make you feel better?
    What effect does a conscious walk in nature have?
    Did you get a blood test to detect any deficiencies (which can cause anxiety)?
    How does your social life affect your well-being?
    Does it help to not touch your phone till after noon?
    Does it help to stay away from social media till the work day is over?
    How does helping others affect you?

    ,Pay attention. Take time for yourself.

    1. Daylio really helps you quickly document/journal lots of the questions you mention. It’s a very helpful tool.

  5. Why we have to be brave to discuss depression is, I suppose, a contributing part of the problem: there’s still an element of shame or weakness about depression. I still keep my depression mostly to myself. So thank you for being brave and writing about your experiences, Matt.

    I know I will never be “done” managing depression, though there are days and months and years when it’s easier (or harder). I had a revelation last week when talking to a new friend that “I don’t have a choice” about doing the work to help keep depression from taking over my life — I do that, or I lose myself to it. It’s that simple. I would love to be “done”, but if constant attentiveness and double-checking my thoughts and behavior are the costs to live a better life, that’s worth it! I just had to give up on the idea of “done”. For some reason, that was hard for me.

    Thank you so much for an articulate and honest essay here, Matt. I’m glad you found tools and people to help you help yourself! You have more strength than you know if you can push through what you did.

  6. Well done, and thanks for sharing. I’ve noticed a lot of well known folk in the SQL community opening up about difficulties they face, and it makes a huge difference because as you say to the outside world, you have it made. It also makes it easier to start discussions, and for people to see that maybe there is some light ahead, and that things can get better.

    I checked in with SQL Bits to see if the recording was available and sadly there were issues with the playback, but they are doing more of these type of sessions which is great.

    Amazing that you shared your story and gave tips to others, you are a star!

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