“Brilliance,” “Pride” and “Genius”: How Tech Culture Hides Mental Illness
I can lie to doctors in order to get out of a frightening psych ward, but I can’t lie to myself anymore.
Trigger warnings: suicide, mental health, and ableism.
Three months before I attempted suicide on June 15th, I compiled a list on my computer called “Pros and Cons to Suicide.” The list has 15 pros and 11 cons.
I rediscovered the list today. I’d completely forgotten about it. In June, a suicide attempt landed me in the ICU. To date it’s the closest I’ve ever come to death. I was so “successful” in almost killing myself that my family stood in a hospital waiting room for most of my time in the hospital, unsure I would make it. I was so “successful” that doctors only released me on the condition that I would stay with family and go on medical leave. I had to speak with countless doctors whose sole purpose was to ascertain how likely I was to hurt myself again.
CC-BY Dirk Duckhorn, filtered.
I wish I could tell you that I told them the truth. I didn’t: I told the doctors exactly what they needed to hear from me in order to get out. I told them I honestly didn’t want to die, that this wasn’t a wish to end my life but a cry for attention. I was overworked and overly stressed, I told nurses, hiccuping through crocodile tears. I told them I wanted to get better, but at that moment, in that stretcher, I was lying through my teeth. It’s manipulative and dishonest, but I couldn’t stand being in the hospital. Not just because of the physical setting: the very idea of being sick repulses me. When I see myself in my mind’s eye, I’m a trendy workaholic coder banging away in front of a computer. Strapped to a hospital bed in a backless dress is frightening to my very sense of being.
While the last few years have been rocky, the murky reality since the suicide attempt has left me unable to lie to myself anymore. I can lie to doctors in order to get out of a frightening psych ward, but I can’t lie to myself anymore.
My suicide attempt in June was not a spontaneous event spurred by rage, frustration, and burning out, as was decided by the psychiatrist who let me leave the hospital. My suicide attempt was the cumulation of about 8 months of haphazard yet steady, quiet planning.
The list I wrote earlier this year serves as a reminder of this. Months before I ever thought I could kill myself, I was internally debating the pros and cons to staying alive. I am suicidally depressed, and have been for as long as I can remember.
My mind is insidious.
Yet that’s not so apparent. It’s definitely not apparent in contrast to the game developer or technology startup community which I work in, which values workaholism and unhealthy practices to begin with. We’re all underpaid, work too many hours, and teeter on the edge of burnout regularly. My willingness to sacrifice my health is prized and valuable when a contract only lasts a few months and a client wants the best value for their money. The standards for mental health are abysmal. Unless one is openly delirious or suicidal, self-destructive behaviour is considered normal, and obfuscates our ability to recognize out-of-control spirals. What has been described as “brilliance”, “pride” and “genius” by members of the technical community, my doctor understands is actually mania, obsession, and self-hatred. My scattered mind pushes me to keep working on broken projects through the night. I’m considered devoted for carelessly throwing myself into projects I don’t realistically have time or energy for. To make the time, I sacrifice my health.
It’s a piece of the puzzle that is mental health: even though I may be arrogant and proud about what I create, my attitude towards myself manifests itself as hatred for my mind and body. I punish myself by withholding sleep, sacrificing good eating habits, and by gorging on caffeine. I pile on responsibilities because an impossible schedule justifies my worldview: everything I’ve ever done is worthless, and there may be greatness ahead if I keep pushing far beyond my own limits. The more I punish myself by overworking, perhaps one day I’ll actually deserve any of the good things that come with critical success.
CC-BY Loozrboy, filtered.
At my place of work, when discussing my well being with my cofounder, I have to whisper because our walls are thin. The other tech entrepreneurs in the startup incubator space can’t learn what happened. The sponsors and investors we’ve gathered are maintained by fragile partnerships, and I know that if I didn’t have a co-founder to step into the public eye in my stead, I would have lost everything by now. I’m unbelievably lucky my cofounder does not differentiate between mental and physical illnesses. In most other situations, I would have been dropped and replaced by the projects I helped create, without a second thought. Nothing to take personally, I’m reminded by many, it’s just business. My own father, whose advice I seek out regularly, tells me it’s just a question of numbers and risk assessment, and that’s just life.
Those who do learn why I disappeared from work without a trace for two weeks sometimes react with abundant kindness, but mostly they react with abundant awkwardness.
People are awkward around the sick. I have no answers on how to make that easier for anyone. I have no answers to reassure those who suddenly need to leave my life as quickly as possible. Since June, I have come to terms with the friendships and work relationships I’ve lost. Some “friends” disappeared in a whirlwind of anger, blaming me for being unstable and unpredictable, for “deceiving them” into believing I could “handle it”. Others vanished without a trace. Truthfully, I don’t blame them. I’m not sure I would have reacted differently in their place.
At moments, I curse being alive. I curse my inability to end my life. The botched suicide falls heavy on everything that I now have to endure. The truth is, until society truly changes, I have hurt my future enormously by surviving a suicide attempt. It’s become a stain I’m constantly worried will soak through everything I’ve ever done. I have hurt my future enormously by trying to commit suicide, and failing. Suicide is the one act I can’t pretend is glamorous, or just a side effect of “genius”. My mental illness has roared. I can’t hide that from myself any more.
Towards Self Awareness
The wizard behind the curtain is a cowardly little madman pulling strings to maintain the permanence of my mental illness. There is no other purpose to my illness. It is not an advantage. When Lana Del Rey, a celebrity of Western culture, idolized Kurt Cobain publicly for the suicide that immortalized his music, I was not shocked. It’s a symptom of production-oriented culture, be it in arts, business, or tech.
And it’s not just our celebrities and leaders that parrot this nonsense. When I see my coworkers tinkering on code well past three in the morning on a weekday, knowing full well that this could jeopardize their entire week, I know that we are not-self aware about our health. The same pretexts that justify “work hard, party harder, and then work even harder” are part of the same social construction that reward unhealthy behaviours in the workplace.
When we spend most of our time working, the people in our workplace become second family. The business and personal becomes entangled. We tease each other over caffeine habits, compare who gets more wasted on the weekend, talk about who stayed up until five in the morning working on the next release. The idea that we’ll work to the bone and enjoy a personal life “later” is toxic. I know so many people my age who live at work and work through the night at home. Maintaining the 80-hour week work ethic on a pedestal communicates to everyone else that they have to be this “strong” to succeed.
CC-BY Richard Masoner, filtered.
Steps to prioritize mental health is suspect in my circles. Mental health is wholly separate from “health”, which people assume is purely physical. It’s quite normal for people to discuss measures they’ve taken to improve their physical health. Most of the cyclists I know are anarchists or work in the tech sector. I know a dozen people who own a Fitbit to work out more and sculpt their appearance. But if I bring up the subject of mental health at work, it’s in whispers. The double standard can be glaring. Taking care of physical health is “improvement”, whereas taking care of mental health is considered “correcting the aberrant”.
The only manner I can see that will change this health doublethink is if we start being honest with each other and ourselves.
My challenge for the coming years is going to be within the confines of my own skull, and my work as a programmer and entrepreneur will probably take a huge hit. But somehow, with some gargantuan force of will I don’t have at all most days, I’ve decided that even though I’m still extremely tired of being alive, it’s not life that’s the problem, it’s my brain.
I’ve hit rock bottom, but I’m alive.