Editor’s Note: I had initially scheduled this post for last Thursday. Due to some things that were going on related to depression (not for me, but for a friend), I elected to put off the posting.
Depression is something I’ve noticed that is remarkably common among software developers and other IT folk that I’ve worked with. I’ve had some pretty unpleasant experience with it myself. It’s a strange thing when it comes up. There often seems to be little reason, or what reason is there is vastly overblown. I also don’t have a cure for it, and neither does anybody else. Anybody who tells you otherwise is trying to sell something, and you’ll be solicited for whatever it is in short order.
Now, a matter of definitions. Here are few things that are not depression (although they may lead into it). I have to spell these out, because this is the sort of thing where some halfwit will jump into the comments, usually with a bit of proof-by-anecdote about somebody they know who is supposedly depressed and is really just lazy or bad at life (according to them). I often wonder why those people show up; maybe the people who fight depression on a regular basis should be healthy, and that person should be depressed, since they aren’t doing anything productive anyway.
- Sadness over a life event (or lack thereof). It’s entirely normal to be upset when someone close to you dies. This doesn’t indicate depression. It can lead to it, but the initial experience is not depression, while some longer term experiences certainly are. It’s really more about whether you are able to get past the grief and continue life or not.
- That feeling you get when everyone around you is an asshole is also not depression. It will get you there in short order if you don’t respond to that feeling by setting boundaries and getting clear of those people, but it isn’t that from the beginning.
- Laziness is also not depression. I’ve known some pretty severely depressed people. I’ve also known lazy people. The sets intersect, but it isn’t the same thing. I’ve seen a man who was suicidal do more than 60 hours of very difficult programming work in a week (in fact, that was part of his issue).
- Isolation is also not depression, but it can lead to it. Most software developers are pretty lonely in their jobs. It’s just not a career path for you if you are a people person (or at least, it isn’t in a lot of places).
Honestly, when it hits me, it comes out of nowhere (and often disappears the same way). It’s like a sudden gray fog over all of life and you have to try and work a way through it. It sucks and it’s pretty horrible, especially when it shows up during times that everything is going really well. I don’t have a cure, but I have noticed a few things though that have helped me a little. It’s best to help yourself as much as you can – leaning on others can mean falling when they don’t do their part (as well as resentment), so you have to start with your own mental state and work outward. This, then, is my list of stuff that helps me (I don’t claim to be a shrink, just a guy with a bit of experience and a few ideas). None of these things cure it; they aren’t intended to. Instead, they are intended to make it survivable and hopefully blunt the effects enough that you can continue with life until you feel better. Also, do take into consideration that these are things which have worked for me. Try them yourself and if they work for you, then they are your things. If not, find things that do.
- Get some sunlight. Vitamin D helps a lot, as does the change of scenery. Getting out in nature tends to help a lot, especially if you can go somewhere where you don’t see any concrete for a couple of days.
- Move around. Run or walk around outside while you get the aforementioned vitamin D.
- Lift heavy things. Done properly and frequently enough, the boost in testosterone seems to seriously decrease the frequency of depression. I’ll eventually write some more posts, but I suggest weightlifting for programmers for any number of reasons, including this one.
- Cut the jerks and various abusive personalities out of your life as much as possible. This won’t get rid of depression, but neither will marinating in suffering.
- Take time for your priorities, whatever they are. I have a tendency to give to other people more than I should, to my own detriment. You might have the same. Be sure and take time for yourself, whether it is to read a book or just chill out and do nothing of consequence.
- Eat better. This doesn’t mean diet food. Rather, it means real food. Meat and vegetables as much as possible and as little processed stuff as you can get away with. I find that mine improves when I stay slightly hungry most of the time, but I have no idea why that is. Avoiding alcohol and desserts is a really good idea as well.
- Cut down on responsibilities where you can. If something can slide without creating a big mess, you might want to consider allowing it, especially if it can’t be dealt with without a huge amount of time and effort. Just don’t do that with stuff that becomes a larger problem if you wait.
- Get enough sleep at night. Don’t nap during the day, but get your sleep at the time your ancestors mostly got theirs. Napping during the day usually doesn’t help and can get you into some screwed up sleep patterns that will exacerbate the problem. Cut out your screen time completely an hour or more before bed, including your TV and cell phone screen.
- Handle basic hygiene and maintenance tasks. Even if life sucks and you don’t have to get up, do it anyway. Once you are up, take a shower, shave, wash your clothes, take the trash out, and cook yourself some breakfast. The power of routine is tremendous and things you do every day don’t seem to get significantly harder when depression hits (but the motivation to do them takes a nosedive). Also, having a minimum safe routine that keeps bigger problems away will reduce anxiety and might help with avoiding unfavorable future situations (in other words, change your oil, even if you are depressed).
- Find something to do that has enough difficulty to be interesting, but that you can succeed at doing. Small victories are distracting and distraction can help. Besides, most of the folks I know who fight depression periodically seem to also be at their most creative when they are down (I am). One of the big problems that friends who’ve been on medications have reported is that they simply have no creative drive after starting medication.
Now, none of the above fixes depression. It hits me a couple times a year (usually once in spring and once right around Thanksgiving or so). I suspect the source of it is biochemical in nature, although at least some of it is simply due to things that go on at particular times of the year. For instance, in the spring, I’m usually sleeping pretty poorly due to allergies, irritated because of the amount of money I see head out towards taxes (or anxious about how much it will cost this year), and trying to scramble around and complete milestones in whatever projects started at the first of the year. Usually the bout of it in the fall is because the days are finally short enough that I don’t get much sunlight, the weather nasty enough that I don’t get around outside, and there are few real breaks around the holidays where you aren’t expected to be social (it isn’t a break if I have to drive somewhere and don’t get control over my time). Pay attention to when your mood seems to be down, and you might notice similar trends – it’s been this way for me for the better part of the last two decades, but really only became noticeable towards the tail end of college. The items I listed above make it less miserable when it kicks in, but it still happens every year.
And now, to the other bit of the discussion. How to deal with a colleague, friend, spouse, or family member who is being crushed by depression. For starters, don’t ask them dumb crap like “have you tried not being depressed?” (although I do someday want to write some commentary on that one, because I think there is a grain of truth there, but people that ask that question don’t possess it). Most importantly, don’t be a caretaker. You still have to handle your own life, for one, and it’s very easy when you are emotionally drained and bottomed out to feel like even more of a loser when you aren’t even taking care of things you should be doing. You’re not doing them any favors. This doesn’t mean that you should be a jerk, or overly demanding, but I can tell you that some of the worst depression I’ve ever had occurred when there were people around me hell-bent on helping. What constitutes “enabling” depends on how badly depression is hurting somebody and it’s hard to figure out. It sucks and whatever answer you pick initially is almost guaranteed to be at least half wrong.
You’ll notice some things about my list. I didn’t tell anyone to get on medications. Partially, that’s because I’m not a doctor. Partially it’s because the side effects of the medications are often rather nasty. Sleep disruption, weight gain, sexual problems, destruction of the creative impulse, etc., are all very real side-effects of a lot of those medications. My personal assessment is that they simply aren’t worth it for me and probably most other people. That anti-depressants often cause symptoms that might drive someone to depression seems akin to a medicine for baldness causing hair loss. I suspect that for some part of the population they are needed, but I’m not sold on their utility for most people that fight this stuff (I’m also not a doctor, and strongly hoping that anybody reading this taking my advice with a big grain of salt and then checking with a medical professional if needed).
Honestly, if I had to come up with a rule for what to avoid in order to avoid depression, I would say that avoiding things (to the degree possible) that were not in our ancestral environment probably goes further than nearly anything else I’ve experienced. We didn’t evolve to dwell in cubicles, nor did we evolve to be sleep-deprived and eat at McDonald’s four times a week in between sitting still and looking at screens indoors. I’m not saying that living like a cave man (who largely didn’t live in caves, by the way) will cure depression, only that maybe shifting a little in the direction of that lifestyle might just take the edge off of it. And that’s a pretty tall order for someone who stays indoors in front of computer screens, typing and thinking. At the end, we have a very unnatural lifestyle that is mostly impractical for most of us to leave, even if we wanted to.