One geek’s guide to clinical depression

I’m at this week, and one of the many events I’ve attended was a BoF session (“Birds of a Feather” – an informal discussion group) for BlueHackers, an organisation dedicated to raising awareness of depression within the geek community.

I think the event was very successful, with around 50 geeks in attendance. I spoke to the group, along with many others – here’s (roughly) what I had to say:

I think of myself as being a pretty bubbly, happy guy.

I have “been depressed” – I’ve had bouts of depression – but I don’t consider myself to be someone who “has depression”. This is a distinction which people who haven’t experienced clinical depression may have difficulty understanding.

I didn’t recognise the difference until I met a girl with clinical depression. This was something I knew, something she’d told me and which we’d discussed – but it took some time for me to realise I didn’t really understand.

My impulse when someone tells me about a problem is to try to solve it. We would talk about how she felt – I’d listen, and I’d try to suggest things she could do to feel better, actions she could take to improve various circumstances. I’d try to explain to her that things weren’t as bad as she thought, and that things would improve.

Her behaviour was erratic. Sometimes it would seem that after talking things over we’d solved all the problems, that things were on the way up. Then we’d talk again shortly after and I’d find out that things were just as bad as they’d always been.

Sometimes I would tell her that things would get better, and she would agree – she could explain how everything was going to improve, but I could see in her eyes that she just couldn’t bring herself to believe it.

The point at which I really knew for the first time that I didn’t understand what was going on was when she called me one night in tears, and told me she’d tried to kill herself.

To cut a long story slightly shorter, this event resulted in her being committed for a short stay in the psych ward at the hospital.

The girl I’m talking about later became my wife, and a couple of weeks ago we had our 11th wedding anniversary.

This episode early in our relationship taught us both a lot. For my part, I finally learned just what it means to be clinically depressed. I learned that this wasn’t something that was ever going to go away – that things could get better, but that it would take hard work and vigilance on both our parts – and that there’d be more bad times ahead to go with the good.

* * *

I think that our community is getting better at talking about depression, but that we might have a disadvantage when it comes to understanding it.

I think that people in our community are more likely than usual to take a hyper-rational, decontructive approach to problem solving. This approach makes it more difficult for people to understand clinical depression without having experienced it themselves, and I suspect it makes people less likely to recognise it when it happens to them.

I’ve seen the pain in someone’s eyes, and heard the helplessness in their voice, when they’re confronted with situations and emotions they can’t think their way out of. When they look at the problem, figure out an approach to help deal with it, but then realise that they know – they just know with some part of themselves – that nothing they do will fix it.

I want to tell those people that they’re wrong, but the difficulty there is that if we leave it too late, that’s not a message that can get through.

The most important function of BlueHackers in my opinion, and in fact any organisation which deals with depression, is education. Learning is hardware hacking for your brain. I want everyone to do an include, to load a module, whichever metaphor you like – I want everyone to know now, when they can absorb the information, that you need to ask for help before you hit the bottom.

Recently I had a phone call from another friend of mine, from someone who had hit the bottom. My only wish is that they’d called me earlier, but luckily that person is still with us. I had told them to call me if they needed to – I’m so glad they did – and they said to me later that simply telling them to call me if they needed help was enough that, when they were convinced noone would care or help, they were pre-armed with that knowledge, those instructions – I care, and I will help.

I want you all to talk to your friends, your family, your colleagues, to strangers in this room – and let them know that you care. I want you to hack their brains, to perform a knowledge injection rather than an SQL injection – to try to innoculate them against the belief that noone cares, so that when it happens, they might remember that someone does.

I’m not a professional counsellor, I have no training in this area, and if you were to call me I would tell you that you need professional help – and I would try to help you get it. But I will also remind you that you are not alone, and that someone cares.

This is an open source conference, but we are an open source community. I think it’s important that we – as a community – talk about depression in its many forms, and that we’re there to help each other no matter what kind of depression someone might be going through.

I want to thank Arjen for his work on BlueHackers, for being brave enough to start something that needed to be done – and I hope that we can all reach the point where admitting that you’re depressed and that you need help is no longer an act of bravery.

I want you all to do two things:

– if you’re depressed, tell someone.
– if you know someone who’s depressed, talk to them and tell them you care.

It’s not enough, but it’s a start – and you could literally save a life.

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Thoughts while airborne

When skies are grey I love to board a plane

There’s always sunshine up above the clouds.

To raise my head above the pouring rain

And raise my feet above the madding crowds.


In clear skies let me rise up in the air

and feel myself expand into the blue.

To float above the world without a care

And see it all laid out in eagle’s view.


When storm clouds loom and thunder rolls above

A plane’s the place to help you know your size.

Kilometers below awaits your love

Who seeks the fickle mercy of the skies.


As I write this the ISS flies past

The vanguard riding through a sky more vast.


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This is my blog. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

I used to have a blog. I had a blog before blogging was cool, and when many of us were still holding out against the term “blog” as a horrid neologism that contributed nothing new to the world. I gave up and eventually embraced the word – I even blogged about it.

I wrote my own blogging software. I modified it and gave it to a few other people for use on their own sites. One day I got sick of having to add features whenever I wanted to do something new, so I switched to LiveJournal. Some time later I switched again, this time to WordPress.

I blogged everything about my life all in the one place. I changed my mind and split out my personal and professional lives, maintaining two blogs at the same time. I considered merging them back.

I considered lots of things, but somehow just stopped writing about them. I stopped maintaining my WordPress installs, and got sick of fighting comment spam. I stopped blogging altogether. My hosting disappeared and I didn’t bother rehosting the blogs elsewhere.

I discovered twitter – eventually, after holding out for a while due to a failure to understand why anyone would bother – and that gave me just enough of an outlet that I felt no need for anything more. On the rare occasions that I felt unable to express myself (trimming a thought to fit within 140 characters is a challenge I actually enjoy) I didn’t feel sufficiently motivated to start up a new blog for the purpose of writing a single post.

What’s changed? Nothing really. Well, that’s clearly not true, because here we are. Perhaps the occasional impulses to write something longer have been building up, and suddenly crossed some threshold. Perhaps it’s because I’m planning to embark on a writing project, and feel like I should try to get something moving again. Perhaps it’s because I visited MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art – yesterday, and feel a (desperate) need to get some thoughts down somewhere about that experience. Perhaps it’s because I should be doing something else, and have turned procrastination into an art form.

Will I keep it up? Who knows. Going by past experience I’d have to say yes – but only intermittently, and not indefinitely. Someone tweeted yesterday a quote which the internet seems to think should be attributed to Dorothy Parker – “I hate writing; I love having written.” I couldn’t agree more.

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Hello world!

Welcome to This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!

(I’m leaving this here as a timestamp. I created this account on May 31st, 2010. I posted my first entry on Feb 10th, 2011. Let’s see if I can increase the posting frequency a little. Don’t get your hopes up too much.)

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