This post is different from normal Hackaday fare. I don’t want to presume anything about you, but I’m pretty sure the story I’m about to share resonates with at least some of you.
I’ve been having a tough time, exacerbated by this age of social distancing. This all crept up on me at first, but as I began to look back on my behavior and moods, I began noticing patterns that I hadn’t noticed before. This is certainly a relevant issue in this community, so let’s talk about mental health, beginning with my own journey.
Discovering the Problem
I am a prolific maker. I always have projects that I’m working on, projects that I’m thinking about working on, and projects that I’m getting paid to work on. I have an idea about how long the projects should take, and I get stressed and frustrated and beat myself up when they take longer than I think they should. I can’t admit defeat, so I continue the project until it is complete, but all of the joy is gone because it was stressful more than fun while I was working on it. Even at completion it’s difficult to enjoy the product because I’m already behind on starting the next thing in my queue (you may remember my earlier article on dealing with time debt). Further, I haven’t documented the project enough for my own satisfaction, so I’m uncomfortable sharing it to the public. It’s a perpetual problem, leading to perpetual grump.
I see other people on Hackaday and YouTube who are also prolific makers, but they have millions of subscribers, do much cooler projects, and put them out at a frequency I could only dream of. Imposter syndrome creeps in. I work harder on my projects, spending more and more time on them; the family makes fun of the fact that I’m the “basement troll” whose primary line is “I have to work on my projects.” Weekends are spent primarily watching YouTube and scrolling Reddit (but not contributing) and beating myself up for not working harder and getting on top of my pile of things to fix or improve around the house.
I have no social life to speak of. I had a plan, but the pandemic trashed that, and I still haven’t discovered a solution. People assume that I’m super busy and don’t have time to socialize, but the reality is that working on projects is a default for me, but not a preference, and it’s a thing I can do alone, so it’s easy to fall into.
The inner voice is loud, constant, and extremely critical. It tells me my work isn’t good enough, I’m not fast enough, I’m not interesting enough to have friends. Just to put something out there is a huge risk, and anyone who reads Hackaday regularly knows that the commenters are really good at identifying the slightest mistakes, meaning I agonize about every sentence far longer than I should.
This has been getting worse for years, though I didn’t notice and it wasn’t until someone pointed it out that I even realized it. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that’s difficult to discover, and really difficult to get out of, especially with the inner voice. This is more than just being too busy, depression and anxiety have crept into the picture for me and these are not issues that should be ignored. So I got some help and started working through the problem.
Dealing with the problem
The hardest part about depression and anxiety is getting started. The voice is telling you you can’t, and that even if you could, life sucks and there’s nothing to look forward to. Enter one of the most important scenes in movie history.
The movie magic of The Matrix reduces the difficult part for learning incredible skills to an eye flutter, but the point is not to say “I can’t” and give up; it’s to say “not YET”, and then learn the skills you need to do the thing.
One of the most important steps in getting out of the rut for me has been to silence the critic. With the bully crushing me constantly, I didn’t have a chance of getting out. Therapy was helping, but it wasn’t enough. What helped a lot was prescribed antidepressants. Antidepressants are not an easy thing to take. Most people have to try a few different medications before finding one that works, and then adjust the dose to get it right. The side effects are no joke, either, and sometimes make things worse than they were before. And they can take weeks to start to become effective. It’s tempting to give up on them, or endure the side effects of a misfit longer than you should.
In my case I started one at the direction of my doctor, had headaches and migraines and extreme exhaustion for a little more than a week, and stopped, waited two weeks to return to a baseline, then started a new medication. After a couple weeks of that, with few side effects but not much positive benefit, we increased the dose a little. A week later the inner critic was gone, I was no longer irrationally irritable, and while the exhaustion hasn’t gone away, it was eased somewhat by switching to nighttime for taking the med. I still have off days where I feel like I did before the meds, but they are rare and recognizable.
I also reached out on social media to friends and family, and explained what I was going through, and that I needed more social interaction. This was a huge success, and I spent weeks catching up with people I hadn’t talked to in decades. One of the biggest lessons here was that it’s ok to absolve yourself of the guilt of not keeping in constant contact with people, and that it’s ok to say “we haven’t talked in a long time. What’s your life like?”
Solving the Problem
For many, pharmaceuticals are the solution. They are content to silence the inner voice so they can resume their day-to-day. I hope that for me they will just be a crutch on my way to healing; a temporary measure that will allow me to change the underlying cause of the injury to my mental health. Maybe my brain is broken and not capable of producing the right chemicals, and antidepressants will be a permanent solution. I hope not, and here are the more permanent mental fitness goals that research has shown are likely to be successful.
- Therapy – It’s important to find a good therapist whose methods agree with your goals. My first attempt wanted to meet more frequently than I was comfortable and talk about my broken home as a child, and ignored my pleas to deal with my current problems and find tools to get through until I had resolved my childhood. My current therapist is far better, and listens and suggests tools that make sense. Consider something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
- Exercise – The statistics are solid here. Most of us aren’t getting enough exercise now anyway, which just makes the problem worse. One of the reasons I develop hardware and not just software is I like to do things with my hands and see physical progress and point to something I built. That’s hard when working on mental health, but if you also work on your physical health, you’ll have demonstrable results you can point to.
- Gratitude journaling – This one also has lots of science behind it. The idea is to regularly write down things for which you are grateful. Short lists are fine. The point is to get in the habit of thinking about good things in your life. It’s really difficult to start, and for a while I was criticizing myself because most of my entries were spins on things that I didn’t like “I like that I have the skills to fix the house when it breaks.” Then I realized that was actually exactly the point of the exercise; that instead of focusing on all the terrible things like the house falling apart all the time, I should be appreciating and celebrating the good things more, like the satisfaction of looking around the room at all the things I’ve done to improve it. Eventually this becomes a habit and the gratitude journal becomes ingrained in the brain.
- Social interaction – This is hard, but extremely important right now. When nobody reached out to me for months I was miserable, but I realized I wasn’t reaching out to anybody, either. After an experiment I discovered that the things I feared about reaching out pretty much never happen. It feels good to interact with people and have friends. You feel more important and seen.
- Giving – There are a lot of people struggling right now. Not more than you; this isn’t a contest. But struggling in ways that you can offer help. Find causes that you believe in, and offer to help in whatever ways you can contribute. Feeling needed is important, feeling like you are valued and that you’ve made someone’s life better is a good thing.
- Putting more out there – I recently presented a project at my local makerspace’s monthly meeting (now held over zoom). It wasn’t a finished project, but I did it anyway. There were so many details in the work I had done that deserved attention that it didn’t matter that it wasn’t yet complete. You’re not going to be just like Colin Furze and Mark Rober and Adam Savage and all the others combined; that’s not your day job (unless you are Colin or Mark or Adam, in which case I’m honored that you are reading this, and please don’t have imposter syndrome comparing yourself to yourself). But you can put out something and some people will see it and they will be more supportive than nobody.
- Fake it until you make it – Your inner critic is a lying jerk, and you know it’s a lying jerk, but you can’t ignore it. Well, you can pretend you are ignoring it. This was the actual advice of my therapist. He’s pretty cool. Objectively, you know the science is behind doing the things you want to do but just can’t. You know the science says you should exercise and eat right and be more social, and yet your inner critic tells you that you can’t. If you can ignore that critic just long enough to get started (and many people require antidepressants to help them get started with this), then you can discover that your inner critic was wrong all along and it becomes easier to ignore it.
- Listen to your inner critic, then do what they say – I had this revelation on my own, and it was completely counter to the previous point, but it was oddly successful. One day I was beating myself up a lot, and I decided to just give in to my inner critic. I wasn’t giving enough; so I researched a few charities and donated. I wasn’t exercising enough; so I went for a run. I wasn’t doing enough social things; so I reached out to three friends. Every time my voice criticized me I acknowledged it, agreed with it, and did something about it. It worked really well, and felt empowering because I was dealing with everything my critic was throwing at me. Maybe I didn’t give enough or exercise enough, but I did what I could do at the time, and the voice couldn’t make me feel guilty about that more than I felt good about doing something.
While an article can have a hasty conclusion, depression and anxiety usually don’t. This is likely something many of us are dealing with, now more than ever, and it’s likely to stick around for a while. It affects a lot of people, and you don’t often know who, so please be gentle to others, including yourself. I’ll end with a video I recently discovered, which illustrates that the problems persist at all levels, and we probably all have some work to do.