Depression and Engagement

One of the major issues I have dealt with so far in my short career is lack of engagement on many of my projects. My managers, for whatever reason, are not around to see what I am doing. They are on business trips. They are swamped with entirely too many other responsibilities. The product owner is ambivalent about what they want to do so we’re waiting around for them to make a decision about something. Not poking at anyone in particular, this has been an issue I have seen a lot of places.

As programmers we’re supposed to be self motivated. We’re supposed to be given a problem and we’re supposed to run with it and get it done. We complain about micromanaging and how it’s hampering our ability to get anything done.

When you get left alone on a project, initially it can feel freeing. You can work without being disturbed. But then at a certain point you realize that you have been given no guidance on what is wanted. It’s like creating an app with no auto layout. You kind of know that there are some components that someone wants, but you don’t know how they want them arranged.

This is the point where things start to affect my mental health.

I start to encounter mental friction where I can’t make any decisions because I don’t know what people want. I know that there is one way they want something but they’re not around to tell me what that is or they don’t know to begin with.

This triggers feelings of depression and despair. I start to feel that success is impossible. I try for a while to do my best, but at a certain point I shut down. I am overwhelmed by choice because I don’t know which one is right. I can’t function. Nothing I do is going to result in success, so why bother?

I feel tremendous amounts of failure and self loathing. I think that I can’t hack it. I should give up on programming. I should go back to working at a call center where there is a script and no decisions to be made. There is no pressure from coworkers trying to sabotage you or pretending like they know more than you do because no one gives a shit and they’re just there to collect a paycheck. You don’t have to pretend like you care about anything other than not getting fired. It’s soothing and restful.

I have had this happen often enough that I can see it coming. I try to engage but so far that has never been successful.

What I need to pull me out of this state is to have something I can solve or get engaged in. I have noticed I will be on the verge of a complete shut down when something will catch my attention. A small light will appear in the darkness and my deprived attention will fixate on trying to solve it. Then my brain comes alive again and I wake up and everything is okay again if only for a little while.

I want to talk about mental self defense here.

I have learned to find things I can do that will pull me out of this state. Usually it’s working on a tutorial. It’s a set of directions with an end goal. You feel like you’re getting something done. It will engage my tired and exhausted brain and lead it like a trail of breadcrumbs back home. It’s not open ended so I don’t get overwhelmed trying to get something working from scratch. I know other people can do that and I can too sometimes, but not when I am engulfed in mental darkness.

Managers don’t want you doing stuff like this. I have tried to talk to them about what I can do to pull me out of this state. I can’t work on the current project. It is causing me to shut down. Is there anything else I can work on so I can mentally recover?

They will purse their lips and say they really need me to keep working on the current project. It doesn’t matter that I am unable to make any real progress on it or that anything I write is going to be buggy as fuck, they want the illusion that I am working on their project.

If you’re working with a manager who isn’t giving you enough constraints to figure out what a successful end condition is, don’t mentally collapse. Try to recognize when you’re starting to shut down. Find things that can pull you out of it.

I know it’s hard to do. You feel yourself getting further and further behind. You’re in a mental terror that you’re going to be fired for not finishing your project. You need to calm down. You need to prevent yourself from going under at all costs. If you break yourself your project is not going to get done. You’re no good to anyone if you can’t function.

If you do break, it will take a while to recover. I see a Reiki therapist who helps me recover from my breaks, but she always tells me to take it easy after she helps me.

I have gotten better at going back to my “analog” hobbies to get away from a computer screen when I feel myself going under. Cooking and doing cross stitch are tactile and engaging and give me a project that I can see progress on so that I don’t go completely insane. It can feel like doing projects is a dodge or a waste of time, but it’s vital time that I need to help my brain recover so I can keep working.

I never think that I am going to feel better. I think that there is no point in trying to do a tutorial because I should just give up and accept that I am a failure. Sometimes I am too broken to work on it, but when I have had a chance to rest, I come back and I feel my brain slowly wake back up and I feel better.

The biggest reason I wrote this is to try and give hope to anyone who feels consumed by mental darkness. I have felt that a lot over the last few years. When you’re in the middle of it you feel there is no hope. You feel you can never do anything great ever again. You feel broken, like everything has been stripped from you and it can be hard to try and engage in something because you’re convinced you will fail.

Please know there is hope. Rest mentally and take baby steps. If you can’t engage in anything, then you’re burned out. Sleep, rest, hike, whatever. Then come back and pick up something structured and engaging.

Engagement is so important to what we do. We mentally need to feel a sense of accomplishment. We need to have tasks that we can complete and see progress in the work we are doing. Creating those meaningful milestones and discrete tasks takes time and mental energy, but it’s necessary to maintain mental health and stability.

A developer career is a marathon and not a sprint. If you injure yourself you need to rest and work your way back up to training again. You don’t want to force yourself over the finish line and wind up in a wheel chair.

Know that you’re not alone. There is a way out of the darkness. It’s not just you.