Encouraging Highs, Crushing Lows

While this could easily be a commitment to a new year, a reboot for my blog (I know it's been awhile), first I have to look back, to write something that's been in my head since September and shares things beyond even 2015. (Spoiler alert: This post is going to be just a word dump and sans technical/code examples.)

Professionally, 2015 was the best year I've ever had, better than any I would have given myself permission to imagine, honestly. I have a great job with an awesome team who I've now worked with for 18 months. We've launched projects I'm proud of, I've learned new things and have contributed my own expertise.

During Baltimore Innovation Week, I was voted Technologist of the Year and our Girl Develop It chapter was named Tech Mission Org of the Year. I also presented a 3-hour intro to Sass workshop and a lightning talk with examples of what I've learned about themeing with Sass that was really well received.

In November, I was awarded a scholarship to attend the amazing SassConf in Austin, Texas, and also spent a weekend in Philadelphia with 86 Girl Develop It leaders from across the country.

Sharing and celebrating all of this, of course, shouldn't have been the cause for any writer's block, certainly not worthy of holding back for months on end. However, as with any accomplishment—our own or someone else's that we admire or even envy—it's important to remember those public victories are only a fragment of the story, that not everything in our lives is visible or easily shared on Twitter or Instagram. Even in 2015's many moments of joy and success, I carried with me a shadow self and the understanding that each of those moments was a gift.

Dial back a few years, before Girl Develop It, before the great job, before I'd even signed my first freelance client or had an inkling of a tech career, and that shadow had real heft and consequence, much like a concrete block pressing down into my chest, keeping my sense of self crushed and generally making it difficult for me to get up and do much of anything. I was underemployed, uninspired and generally felt like shit.

During this time, what I trusted as my logical brain harped on two things:

  1. I couldn't possibly be depressed. The only time I was ever diagnosed with depression was when I was 28; my mother, who was diagnosed with cancer a year earlier, had just been placed into Hospice care and died a week later. I told myself what I was going through was in no way as bad as that, hence I could not be depressed.
  2. Even if I had the gall to be depressed when I didn't have the care and emotional toll of parent dying, I simply couldn't financially afford to be depressed; the combined shabbiness of my income and health insurance would not allow for it.

These so-called "facts," of course, didn't undo the fact that I was severely depressed, they just prevented me from using that word and reaching out for the help I actually needed. People heal and rebound in different ways; for me, I was helped both by having a partner who never lost faith in my best self (who certainly wasn't present in the slouch on the couch) and by scheduling a few sessions with a therapist. If I could have afforded it, I definitely would have considered and likely benefitted from more therapy and some degree of medication.

Getting off the couch and securing my first freelance client didn't put all this behind me, of course. As others have written, you do not overcome depression, you move through it. I still see signals in my life of depression swinging ominously around me, like that concrete block is lingering about, awaiting the right conditions to drop on me again. At various times in 2015, I overcommitted myself, did't treat my body right and had the voices in my head reduce me to tears.

But I also did right by myself: I started exercising regularly. I made better sleep habits a priority, not letting late nights be something to take absurd pride in. I ate better. I was more honest with myself about my emotions and how I was handling things.

But I was also present: I was here to walk across that stage and collect those awards. I reached out to a whole slew of new folks at SassConf, shared laughs and made friends. For twelve whole months, I was here to give and receive encouragement, advice and hugs.

And those moments were gifts. Which, reflecting on 2015, makes my heart swell and makes me hopeful for more good times in the future. And, for me, those good times aren't marked just by what I receive, but also what I give back. Part of what I want to do in this life is help others, to be of use.

…I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
—Marge Piercy, To Be Of Use

Which, of course, is a huge part of what I've enjoyed about being part of Girl Develop It. It's also why I'm always eager to help folks navigating the early stages of their freelance careers by offering up examples of my proposals, contracts, etc. I was sorting all that out while still dragging around the concrete block of my depression on a daily basis, so being offer to make any of that easier for the next person (whether depressed or not, whether they're struggling with imposter syndrome or not) is actually a bit of a relief and joy to me.

And it's why, even months later, it's important to me to write and publish these words. Michael Luchies wrote to encourage others to share their stories for the purpose of bringing courage to those around you, and I've definitely gotten courage from others who've written openly about their struggles with mental health issues (Thank you to Tim McKenna, Mike Monteiro, Shanley Kane, Greg Baugues). My story isn't uncommon among creatives, techies or women, but I still hope it's helpful.

I'm in no position to offer much outstanding advice about how to handle your own mental health issues or how to help a friend or loved one struggling with depression, but I will say the following:

  • I encourage anyone struggling to reach out—to family, to friends, to a hotline—sooner.
  • Don't forget the wise words of Jenny Lawson: Depression lies.
  • You're really not alone. So many folks, including those you think are fabulous, have struggles.

I hope we all have a 2016 that defies our expectations, and we encourage each other to be our best selves. Thanks for reading in 2015 and see you soon.


As always, I encourage you to continue this conversation via Twitter.