You Are Not Alone.
Mental Health. Lots of people say we need to talk about it, destigmatise it, be aware and sensitive to it in the workplace. Talking about it is hard. If you, or someone close to you, is feeling that life is hard, this is a good place to come to realise that you are not alone.
It is the only talk in the history of Business of Software Conference that has ever had a standing ovation. It was well deserved.
No matter how you feel, this talk is worth a watch. Funny, personal, passionate and insightful. We are indebted to Greg for sharing his story.
PLEASE FEEL FREE TO SHARE THIS WITH FRIENDS & COLLEAGUES.
Greg applied for a Lightning Talk slot to talk about depression and developers. Depression is a topic that many of us have struggled with over the years and we have always thought that there might be more people out there that did than, ‘just us’. We have been looking for someone who could do this subject justice for years and we asked Greg to do a half hour talk instead. Please watch it. If it doesn’t affect you directly, it is almost inconceivable that it doesn’t affect someone close to you.
Over the years, Seth Godin, Geoffrey Moore, Jennifer Aaker, Clayton Christensen, Kathy Sierra and other extraordinary people have taken the stage at BoS. Greg is the first speaker to ever get a standing ovation. Well deserved. This talk is heroic, funny, sad, dark, uplifting, brave, thoughtful, intelligent, inspiring and helpful talk confronting and explaining some of the stigma around mental illness we could ever put in front of the software community. As a result of this talk, a number of very high profile, role models in our community have been given the strength to share their experiences.
It’s not a ‘movement’ yet, but when people you would have NO IDEA about, come up to you and say, ‘Thank you. I need to let people know I suffer from X too’, you can’t help but hope we can do something together to get people talking about it. We need to talk about this. You can’t manage a secret.
For more information and help: www.DevsAndDepression.com
Look after yourself, don’t hesitate to ask for help, look out for your friends and colleagues.
PLEASE SHARE THIS FREELY WITH YOUR FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES.
My name is Greg. And for the last six months, I’ve been travelling around and speaking at tech conferences on the subject of mental health in the tech community. The reason I’ve been doing that is because I have bipolar, and ADHD. And when I started talking about this stuff about six months ago, I had a suspicion that there were others like me, who might not be struggling with bipolar, or ADHD or ADD specifically, but certainly depression and anxiety and other mental health issues. What I’ve been totally blown away by so far, is just how many of us are.
Let me tell you guys my story. When I was 20 years old, in the summer, the summer of my sophomore year in college, a buddy and I started a dot com website called debt for sale.com. It was a marketplace for distressed debt. We sold it about six months later for what was effectively $1,000 and a polo shirt. It was one of those all equity in a company that went to funk thing. But it was just an incredible experience. And it changed my career, it made me know that I was going to spend most of my time at the intersection of the internet and small business. But I still went back to school. And I hated school. I sucked at school, I was just not built to do school. But I was kind of, you know, smart enough, I could fake my way through it, I could show up to the last couple of classes and cram the night before the final. And I get do well enough, you know to get by. And that’s kind of to my detriment, because I slid past on that for a couple years. And then once I finally, you know, caught up to those 300 level math classes and CS classes, that strategy stopped working for me. So I got to my fifth year, my victory lap as they like to call it. But it wasn’t very victorious. For me, I thought life was just really piling up. And it was pretty obvious that I wasn’t going to make it. And I didn’t know how to deal with that. I didn’t know how to deal with the fact that all my friends were graduating. And I wasn’t. I didn’t know how to tell my parents that they just wasted a bunch of money. I got really depressed. I started sleeping about 12 or 16 hours a day. And back then, the best time of my day was when I was unconscious. That was when I didn’t have to deal with the life that was just piling up all around me. I stopped going to class, I stopped going to work. Most of my friends had graduated in four years. So I didn’t have a lot of those around.
But I did have one friend. This guy’s name was Bill and he had noticed that I had stopped coming into work – we work together. And Bill had sent me a couple emails, just saying: Hey, Greg, what’s going on? And I ignored him, because I didn’t know how to tell him. And then one day, about two o’clock or so on a Tuesday, I was still in bed. And my phone rang and it was Bill and I ignored it. And Bill called again and I ignored it again. But unfortunately Bill is kind of persistent. Because a few minutes later I heard a knock on my door. And when you’re forgetful like I am, there’s certain life maintenance tasks you just accept aren’t going to happen. And back then locking my door was one of those, so when I heard my doorknob start to turn, I panicked a bit. And at the time I was sleeping on this really cheap mattress, it was one of those ones on the the metal bed frames, it has the plastic casters on it. And the bed had rolled a few feet away from the wall. There was a gap about this big. I very slowly slid into that gap. I pulled the covers up over my head. And I just held my breath while Bill walked into my apartment. And he poked his head into my bedroom and then into my office. And then he left. That’s what shame feels like.
Moving Back Home.
I failed out of school. I moved back home with my parents. I didn’t know how to tell them so I lied to them. I told them I graduated. I started doing client work, I thought maybe I just wasn’t cut out for school. Maybe if I just did something I’m really into. You know, I loved web development. So I started doing that, but all the same things kept happening to me. I still couldn’t get started on it unless it was 2am, the night before the final, or in this case, the night before I had to talk to the client. So I start dodging calls from the client, I start dodging my parents coming home after I know they’ll be in bed. And I just didn’t get it. You know, I didn’t understand why it kept happening. Every time. I told myself this time is going to be different. But it never was. And I had this friend in college, he said: you know, Greg is one of the smartest people I know. But he’s also the laziest person I know. I believe that shit. I didn’t have any other excuse for it. There’s this verse in the Bible that says: I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I don’t do. But instead that which I hate I do. And I hated what I was doing.
So one night, in desperation I went to the place that you go when you have questions about life that seem to have no answers. And I googled it, I Googled chronic procrastination. And it wasn’t long before I started reading about ADD, or adult attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, most of the terms are used, at least colloquially interchangeably. And I often joke that maybe I have ADD, but I never really meant it. Because ADD is what lazy people have when they don’t want to work hard. And that’s not me. But I started reading a bunch of books about it.
I stumbled across this book by a guy named Tom Hartman. It’s called the Edison Gene. And he helped me reframe ADD into something that was a little more palatable. For me. His contention was that we shouldn’t call it a disorder. It’s just some people’s brains work differently. And he said that the way in which these brains work that we call ADD was a genetic trait or is due to a genetic trait, that inventors and creators and entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison had. He said, it probably went back to 10,000 years ago, when we had hunters, and we had farmers. And he said, hunters need to go out into new territory every day, they need to be able to scan the horizon, they need to be able to switch their attention rapidly from this to that new thing that came into the peripheral vision. Farmers need to be meticulous, they need to do the same thing every single day. You take a farmer, you try to make them hunt, he’s going to be pretty bad at it, you take a hunter trying to make them farm, he’s not going to be very good at it. And he said that the problem is not so much that people with ADHD are broken. It’s just that they should probably be working more in hunting type roles. And so much of our society, especially office culture today looks way more like the the day after day grind of farming.
And so from him, I came to look at my ADD not so much as a disorder or something I should be ashamed of. But it was two things. One, it was a reason why I had such a hard time with school. It let me say: this is why it’s that way. It’s not because I’m a lazy bastard. It’s not because I’m a moral failure. The second thing was it kind of made it feel like they are superpowers. You know, he said that there are things that ADD people are good at, they’re really good under pressure. You take a person who doesn’t have ADD, put them under pressure, they will procrastinate. They have a hard time focusing. But people with ADHD, that’s when they work best.
Diagnosis of ADD and Bipolar.
So it took me about a year but I still finally worked up the courage. And I went to see a therapist. This one is actually a woman named Laurie. And I saw Laurie I saw her once I went through these tests, she has these questionnaires and whatnot. And I came back a couple weeks later she says: you definitely have ADD, you are off the charts. And I was like: yes. She says: but I think you might also have bipolar. And I was like: no, no, I will take the ADD and you can keep the bipolar that’s what crazy people have. I didn’t know what bipolar was at the time. She told me that I have type two bipolar. Type one bipolar is also called manic depression. You cycle rapidly through highs, the mania, and the lows of depression. The cycles can happen very rapidly. You can go through them over the course of a single day.
Type Two bipolar – my bipolar – is more mild, the cycles are more elongated. And the highs aren’t quite as high. War has before been described as long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of intense terror. I would describe my bipolar as long periods, months of lethargy and despair, punctuated by days of intense activity and enthusiasm. I could be really productive for a couple of days, and have all these great ideas. I stay up late and talk really fast, journal. Those are the days when I came up with new ideas for businesses, and I had to start them all tonight. I had to finish them all tonight, partially because I didn’t know on Monday, if I’d have enough emotional energy leftover on Friday, to keep working on stuff.
But I didn’t want to hear that. I didn’t want to think about the bipolar, it took me a year to warm up to the ADD thing. And so I pretty much just live my life for the next two years. Like that wasn’t a thing. You know, I knew I’d gone through depression. But I didn’t want to believe that I was broken inside. So I just blamed everything else around me. I blamed my work, I blamed where I lived. So I thought it was college at one point, then I thought it was living at home. Then I moved to Chicago. I got a good job with a software company. It started off great. And then after a few months, things start getting bad. And after about a year, I was pretty much not functional. It’s like well, maybe I’m just burned out on technology. So I quit that job, I go get a job working real estate showing apartments. I was really good at that. I was doing sales. I was our best performer for a few months, then things start getting bad again.
Starting at Table Xi.
And it was around this time that I met a guy named Josh Golden. He’s the owner of Table Xi, where I still work now. I met Josh playing poker, which I was doing a tonne of at the time. As it turns out, people with bipolar have significantly higher risk tolerances than the general population. And that was where my most consistent stream of income was coming from. Josh and I became pretty good friends. He lived about a block down the street from me. He was running this web consulting company. And he said: when you get tired doing what you’re doing, let me know. And one day I just straight up quit my job. I sent him a text said: hey, if you’re still interested, I’m available. And about six weeks later, I started working on Table Xi.
On the day I started at Table Xi, I had exactly $1 In my pocket and 70 cents in my bank account. I had been totally nonfunctional at my real estate job. And it was 100% Commission. I showed up to work that day. And I didn’t know how I was going to eat lunch. That was the day I found out Table Xi provides lunch for its employees every day. Today we have a chef, he’s going to be on Guy Fieri’s new TV show just came out. I think it’s like a cooking show inside a Supermarket Sweep sort of thing. He’s going to be on that. But back then we just had Josh’s eye on me. He said: Send me your Jimmy John’s order. Got a sandwich and things started getting good.
Just like all the other times, you know, Table Xi was amazing. We had small teams, five or six people. We had this cool loft office. We were working on all these interesting projects. I was doing great work. And then sure enough, a few months later, things start getting bad again. And after about nine months, 12 months, I was right back where I was. I went through weeks when I didn’t show up to the office until two o’clock. I was just dropping the ball every time it was put into my hands. Things finally came to a head one day. I had this project I was working on and it’s due on a Friday. And I had been trying to just start on it all week and I wasn’t able to. And then Thursday night I stayed at the office really late. I left defeated, went home, I set my alarm set to get up early and work on it. I overslept my alarm. And this was the day that Josh was flying to Italy to propose to the woman that’s now his wife. Josh lives a block down the street from me. And I still don’t lock my doors. And so once again, I woke up to someone coming to my apartment in the afternoon saying: hey Greg, are you in here? And this time, there is no hole for me to hide. And you know, I told myself, I don’t know how to control this. So I’m just going to isolate the damage to myself. I’m just gonna keep it here. I’ll make sure no one else gets hurt. What I had to realise was that you can’t do that if you are suffering with mental illness. The people around you, your friends, your loved ones, your co workers, they all suffer with you as well.
I set up an appointment that day with a psychiatrist. I went to see him a few weeks later. I told him my story. He said: You know what you’re really fortunate said, we’ve got these meds called Lamictal, they’re mood stabilisers, they work really well for people who have type two bipolar. He said: very, very few side effects. There’s one side effect, it doesn’t happen very often, very small number of cases, you’ll end up getting a life threatening rash inside your anus.
And I said: Well, you know, I’m pretty sure that if I get a life threatening rash inside my anus, I’m still going to be depressed. That didn’t happen. It’s been about five years. Every time I get an itch though…
I am ridiculously fortunate. I got on the right meds and they worked the first time. I had health insurance because Table Xi didn’t fire me even though they had lots of reasons to. These are my meds I take. Four hours after I set an appointment with the psychiatrist, I met Rachel, who’s sitting right over here. My wife. As Mark said to me on Twitter the other day: the secret to life is to get a great wife. And Rachel came alongside me and she helped pull me out of the hole I was in. Earlier a couple of hours ago we were flipping through this, she’s like: What was that picture? I was like: Don’t worry about it honey, it’s fine. Rachel likes to crochet. She’s a physician’s assistant, come say hi to her and talk to her.
A lot of people who have what I have, they’re not as lucky. It’s estimated about 5% of the population has bipolar. One in three will attempt suicide at some point in their life. And 10 to 20% will die from it. It actually has a higher mortality rate than some forms of cancer. So this begs the question, why am I talking to you about this today? As a show of hands, how many of you know someone, a friend, or a co worker, or a loved one who has struggled with depression? Yeah, that’s been really surprising for me as I’ve been talking to people. And if you’re willing to – no pressure – how many of you have struggled with depression yourself? Thank you so much for saying that.
These are some cherry picked symptoms of type two bipolar and ADD. So hyper focusing? Sure it’s hard to get started on something. But once you do, once you start working on it and you lock, in 12 hours can blur away, you forget to eat, you forget to use the bathroom, racing thoughts. They’re pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Pressured speech is when those racing thoughts try to escape through the small hole of your mouth. Social isolation, irregular sleep patterns, especially onset insomnia, where it’s hard to fall asleep at night. It’s impossible to wake up in the morning. Thoughts of grandiosity, thinking that the rules don’t apply to you, thinking that you can solve problems that have eluded all of mankind.
There’s a good chance that if you’re a kid, if you’re a young adult, you struggle with these symptoms. Finding software, it’s going to feel a lot like coming home to you. You want to stay up all night and work till three in the morning, sleep till noon. That’s fine. You want to not have any friends, you want to not bathe and grow a neck beard, talk to people’s shoes. And thoughts of grandiosity are pretty much a requirement for being in this room here today. We have our heroes shooting out calls to the general population saying: Come join us. In the Apple commercial Steve Jobs says: Here’s to the crazy ones. He says: because while others see crazy, we see genius because the people who are crazy enough to believe that they can change the world are the ones who do.
We had a guy like that come interview with us last year at Table Xi. His name was Caleb Cornman. He came to us after working at four of the best software shops in Chicago. He only spent about a year or less at each one. So that raised some red flags. But he was so bright, he was so eager. And we brought him on. And I got to work with him. I was working as basically a junior web developer, a junior rails dev last year. And he and I worked together on the project, we were rebuilding Rogerebert.com. And I learned so much from him, he was just so bright, he had that rare combination of just being so technically gifted, but being a patient and just brilliant teacher. But a few weeks after he started coming in, he started showing up late, started calling in sick, the excuse was a little different every time. And it just all felt too familiar to me.
Now, what I found is that if you think someone has bipolar, you can’t just walk up to him and say: Hey, I think you have Bipolar, you should see someone. So what I found works is to do basically what I’m doing here, which is just to share your story. And I know some of you might have someone you might want to talk to, and you don’t know how to do that. And maybe you haven’t struggled with depression, or bipolar or whatever. But everybody has something that they’re ashamed of, everyone has something that they probably rather not share. And when you share that with someone, it creates a safe place for them to do the same for you. And that’s what happened with Caleb. And he said: Yeah, you know, I’ve kind of wondered for a while if maybe I might have something like that. But what am I going to do, it’s not like I’m just going to cold call a bunch of psychiatrists from the Yellow Pages. I gave him a couple numbers, he called around, he found someone and set up an appointment for a couple of weeks out. It was his appointment set up for a Friday. The day before his appointment, he sent an email to the team saying: hey, I’m not going to not going to make it in today. And then he sent me this email. He said: I can’t thank you enough for helping to guide me down the path to seek some help with these issues that have been going on in my life for a very long time. Right now I’m struggling with a lot of things in my head and my emotions have kept me up the last two nights and that, in turn, has taken a toll on my mental and physical capacity this morning. I’m scared that if I come into work, I’m going to make a fool of myself with our guests today. I think it’d be better if I just waited it out and just focused on making it to my appointment tomorrow.
I came into the office on Monday and I was excited to ask him how it was but he wasn’t there. And I knew if you miss too many more days at work – we were pretty lenient – it probably wasn’t gonna last much longer. And Josh got in and Josh is like: Greg Can I see you in office? I go and he says: you know I have some terrible news. And I was like: did he no call no show again? And Josh was like: what? I said: nevermind, what do you have to say? He said: Caleb died. We found out later that he had died of an accidental drug overdose. He had had problems with addiction for a while. His friends said: the problem with Caleb was he was just so damn smart. He was really good at making it seem like it wasn’t a very big deal. This is a picture from the memorial we had from up at his favourite brewery up in Chicago.
The thing that pisses me off the most about this is that Caleb died from an overdose on speed. And speed is an amphetamine. The meds that I take to treat my ADD are Dextroamphetamine. My guess is, Caleb started taking amphetamines for the same reason that I did. Because they helped. My guess is that Caleb died self medicating an untreated mental illness.
We have a lot of tragedies like this in our industry. You guys probably recognise Aaron Schwartz, he committed suicide earlier this year, he was the co founder of Reddit. And in 2007, Aaron Schwartz wrote this. He said: I feel ashamed to have an illness. It sounds absurd. But there still is enormous stigma around being sick. I don’t want to use being ill as an excuse. Although, sometimes I wonder how much more productive I’d be if I wasn’t so sick. Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you, or a plan has gone horribly awry. Your face falls, perhaps you cry, you feel worthless, you wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak, the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you, you want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that only it doesn’t come for any reason. And it doesn’t go for any either. You go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one. And you don’t feel any better, only more upset for being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets coloured by the sadness.
Depression affects one in six. Yet sadly, it is not seen as real enough to deserve the investment and awareness of conditions like breast cancer, which affects one in eight, or AIDS, which affects one in 150. And there is of course, the shame.
Shame is what’s killing us. The shame and the stigma around mental illness are the reasons why people like Caleb can suffer with this stuff for their whole lives, working in an industry full of people who are going through the same stuff, and never get help for it. You know, we don’t have a cure for mental illness. We have really good treatments, though. But the reason why people don’t get to those treatments, is because of the stigma. And we have a cure for the stigma. We just talk about it. Simple. We just talk about it. We talk about it and we talk about it. You know, it’s weird. If I stood up here I told you guys that I had cancer. I wouldn’t be afraid that anyone would say: oh, it’s just all in your head. Or if I told you that I took insulin for diabetes. No one would say: Aren’t you afraid you’re going to be dependent on that for the rest of your life? No one will say: aren’t you afraid you’re just using that as a crutch? Those words are kind of weird to me right? “All in my head.” My depression is all in my head in the same way that Lance Armstrong’s testicular cancer was all in his ball.
And crutches are actually pretty helpful. You know, nobody ever says: Hey, did you see Joe broke his leg. Yeah, but I think he’s just using that tall weight bearing padded pole as a crutch. Crutches help injured people go out and live their lives without hurting themselves more. It’s weird that using it as a crutch has become synonymous with being lazy. Because anyone who’s ever actually used a crutch will tell you it’s way easier to stay on the couch.
We have different rules, though, for how we treat illnesses that affect everything that happened below the neck than for everything that happens in our brains. I think this is probably especially true for us here in this room. Because a lot of us have spent all of our life being praised for how well our brain works. We built identities on that, we built careers on that. And considering that our brain might possibly be malfunctioning, that could possibly chip away at the identity, at our own identity and our self worth.
I was reluctant to seek help for this stuff. I didn’t want to see someone, I certainly didn’t want to take meds. I didn’t want to screw with the way my brain worked. I was afraid it would kill my creativity. And if you define creativity, by one’s ability to create, I am an order of magnitude more creative today than I was five years ago. Today I ship. Today the folder of projects on my computer that I have started and finished is way bigger than the project of folders that I started and then abandoned. And I had never been able to see that before. Now I can do a little bit every single day and I know eventually I’m going to get there. Most importantly, I can be reliable. I can do things like show up on time, I can tell friends: I’ll be there. And I’m there. I don’t have to worry that I’m gonna be crippled and lying in bed. Excellent.
Talk to Someone.
If some of this strikes home a little bit too much. I would just encourage you to talk to someone. Maybe you might want to consider seeing a therapist. I know there’s a lot of stigma around seeing a therapist, which is unfortunate. Michael Jordan had a coach. A therapist is an objective third party, their job is basically just to listen to you, talk about the way you live your life and then help point you in the right direction. Maybe you’re not ready to see a therapist, talk to a friend. If you don’t have anyone else to talk to you, talk to me I’m here for the next couple of days. Send me an email – Greg at Table XI – if you want to chat. Earlier I tweeted my email address. Find me on there.
I know that it’s hard to do. We got these name tags right. Last night I picked up my nametag, we went to the reception. My nametag here it says: talk to me about I have bipolar and ADHD. And what did I do as soon as I got my nametag? I turned it around like this. Talking up here in front of a whole bunch of people, that’s fine. But I get it. I’ve been doing this for six months, every time before I talk to someone about this, I have this little voice in the back of my head, it says: don’t do it. Just don’t do it. Don’t burden them with your problems. They will shun you. It’s not true. It’s lying to you. In the last six months I’ve been doing this I’ve been blown away by people’s responses. I encourage you to do the same.
And if there are some of you up there who are feeling quite bleak right now, you’ve been trying and you’ve been trying to change and things have not been getting better. Just know 10 years ago, I was lying in bed and I was praying that God wouldn’t wake me up. Five years ago, the day that I set up the appointment psychiatrist, I had no hot water in my apartment. I didn’t have enough money to turn the gas back on. And today, I’m standing on stage of the Business of Software conference. With my beautiful wife watching over here. Things get better. We need to start talking about it more. Thank you very much.
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Greg Baugues (pronounced ‘bogus’) – aka GreggyB – is a developer and storyteller based in Brooklyn.
He has spent 2023 exploring AI and its applications, sharing his thoughts at Haihai.ai after serving as Director of Developer Relations and the Community Teams at Twilio.
Prior to this he worked in various roles at a software consultancy called Table XI in Chicago. He has Type II Bipolar and ADHD and has been writing and speaking about mental illness in the developer community, ever since he lost a coworker, Caleb Cornman, to untreated mental illness. He moved from Chicago with his wife, daughters and dog, to Brooklyn in 2016.
He has spoken at Business of Software Conference on the topic of mental health and what companies can do to support their employees in difficult times. He is the only person to have ever received a standing ovation for their talk.
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