I spent this past week out in California. I spoke at Forward Swift, which was my first conference in San Francisco. This week was one of the first times I have ever actually spent time in San Francisco. I can see why so many tech companies require you to relocate to it.
I got pitched by my first venture capitalist, which was crazy to me coming from a rural town in the Midwest. I am going to spend some more time out there this weekend with a friend to try and make the most of the time that I am out here.
There is one thing that I just became aware of that I would like to talk about in this post. I was chatting with some friends about going to work for one of the big tech companies out here. I recently got one of my dogs registered as an emotional support animal and I was pondering if any of them would let me bring her to work with me.
ESAs do not have the same legal rights as full service animals. They can be taken on planes and kept in hotel rooms. Landlords cannot forbid ESAs from staying in apartments and condos, but beyond that they do not have any legal rights. I can’t bring an ESA into a restaurant or a workplace and have it be legally protected. A lot of places are willing to accommodate ESAs if you have proper certification and paperwork, but they’re not legally required to.
When I mentioned having an ESA and wanting to bring it to work, I heard many people say that they had never seen an ESA. In fact, most places they worked at didn’t have any service animals. At all.
This struct me as being kind of worrying. We, as a community, have been talking a lot about wanting to have better diversity. We primary talk about it in terms of having more women in the workplace, but there are lots of shades of diversity.
I am guilty of not seeing outside my own bubble. Earlier today on Twitter I made a generalized comment about how it’s socially okay for men to express anger and my good friend Basel reminded me that it’s only okay for white men to express anger. Black men are not socially allowed to be angry. So I totally get that if you are not personally disabled or do not spend a lot of time around people who are, then you would not really notice the lack of service animals and other accommodations for people with disabilities.
The only explanation that I can come up with is that these companies don’t hire people with disabilities.
It’s possible that people with disabilities don’t even bother applying for those companies. I know that is one thing preventing me from doing so.
In the interest of trying to raise awareness and trying to do advocacy, I would like to share some of the things that I do to try and cover up and cope with my personal limitations in regards to mental health issues.
I suffer from depression and PTSD. I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 16 because I was being stalked and harassed by a fellow student and it was easier to just say I was nuts and put me on medication than to tell him that his behavior was unacceptable.
I spent ten years being told that my version of reality was not accurate and that I couldn’t believe anything that I perceived. My freshman year of college another student handcuffed me to a bed and tried to rape me. A few years later a different one actually did and I now have PTSD as a result of that.
Ten years ago I finally figured out that I was not crazy. My perception of reality was not wrong. I decided to stop letting other people tell me what was real and what wasn’t and life has gone a lot better since then. However, there is still a lot of residual damage from that period of my life.
There was a period of time where I never thought I would be able to hold down a full time job. Being able to write books and travel to conferences and work the amount that I do is astonishing to me. But the only reason I am able to do that is because I have to follow a lot of strict rules based on trial and error about how I personally function.
I hate medication. I was on medication for ten years. It made me gain weight. It had terrible side effects. It would completely destroy my energy levels. It messed with my head. I had far less mental and physical energy to use to actually put towards doing cool things. Not being medicated means I can be a programmer. Being on medication means I can work at Target. I would rather be a programmer.
To cope with my emotional issues, I have pugs. Delia sleeps on me all day and she helps even out any emotional issues I have before they reach a point that they interfere with my ability to work.
A lot of places won’t let you bring dogs to work, which makes sense because you’re there to work and dogs can be a distraction. So I work from home.
I have an office I set up in my home. It is a room that I use only to work. I get up in the morning, I get dressed, I make tea, and I sit down to work. When I reach a point where I feel I can no longer work, usually around 5:00, I close my computer and leave that room and don’t come back until I am going to work again.
Sometimes I have bad days. I have days where I go to sit at my computer and I feel a veil of despair fall over me. Sometimes I feel the urge to harm myself. I know that when I feel those things I need to step away from the computer and take a really long break. Sometimes an hour break works, other times I have to take the whole day.
Because I have gotten better at maintaining my mental health, these days are usually few and far between. They’re basically sick days. I only have a few of them a year when I am able to do all of the things I need to do to maintain my mental health.
I find cooking helps my mental health. I get depressed if I sit in front of a screen for too long. I keep trying to find analog hobbies that keep my brain engaged without having to deal with reading or writing words. I find cooking soothing because I can chop veggies and sauté things with TV on in the background and rest my brain so it doesn’t hurt anymore. One reason I am interested in electronics is because I want to work with something that has no words.
When I worked for Brad Larson on robotics stuff, we had things that we did besides just programming. If I had a day where I simply could not deal with sitting at my computer, I could build a robot. I was doing something to actively contribute to the company when I had days I couldn’t code. It was fantastic to have different kinds of work that could be done so I could take a less mentally demanding task on days where I could not deal with it.
One thing that drives me absolutely crazy about a few jobs I have had is this idea that there is only one task, and that is coding. It isn’t even that things are divided up into easy and hard coding tasks. Everything is hard. If I have days where I can’t deal with code, I either have to tell my boss that I am taking the day off, or they tell me to just try my best and I have to sit in front of my computer and cry. These are the things that lead to more frequent bad days. They wear down my mental and emotional reserves until they are gone and they cause long term damage.
I took several months off this year because I got pushed too far and stripped my reserves and nearly quit programming altogether. I have been going to therapy once or twice a week for the last few months. That is another thing I can do since I work from home. My therapy appointments are on Monday afternoons. As long as work gets done, no one needs to know that I take half a day to go and get therapy so that I can be productive the rest of the week.
Most of the things I do to keep myself productive are things I could not do in most offices at most companies.
Everyone is asked to conform to certain acceptable modes of behavior. Some people can deal with that. Others can’t.
We have accepted burn out as an inevitable thing. I feel a lot of start up want to hire young people who have not burned out yet so they can run them into the ground. Those people leave this community and don’t come back. We’re preventing ourselves from having a deep bench of experienced people for the short term gain of having people write bad code eighty hours a week. Huzzah for technical debt!
By not talking about this and by trying to force everyone to fit into a round hole, we are burning out a lot of really talented, intelligent people who damage themselves trying to fit the mold.
I think it’s incredibly frustrating to talk to people who want to change the world but then they want to exclude anyone who is different. What is the point in changing the world when so many people are excluded from the opportunities we have here?
If we don’t accept people with different backgrounds and abilities and ways of seeing things then we will stagnate. I don’t think being told to either go on medication that affects my ability to think or, god forbid, pretending to be normal, is the best long term strategy for resolving these issues. I think acceptance of how people work best and compassion and understanding are the way forward. They’re not easy, and apparently not visible, but they are important and we can do better.