Disclaimer: This will probably be the most personal of all my blog posts. This post isn’t geared toward web design practices, branding, WordPress-related topics, design thinking or professional development. Nothing in this post is for students, professional constituents or clients to take away ideas that can help further business goals and acumen. Rather it is meant to be a cathartic expression of some ongoing issues I’ve had in my life, and from which I see many others in the industry also suffering. It’s for my colleagues, friends and peers to hopefully understand the toll of depression. My hopes are that we can have an honest discussion about depression and help build empathy and understanding in our industry and among our friends and family.
A Day in the Life
I typically wake up at 6:30 a.m. most days during the week. Mondays and Fridays are usually even earlier, at 3:30 a.m., due to my part-time job at the YMCA. I slothfully wake up in the morning, sit on the side of the bed and let out a deep sigh. At this point, when my mind should be switching on slowly, the flood of thoughts and pressures re-enter my mind, and I sigh. I make my way to the bathroom and stare into the mirror for a moment, leaning in with my hands on the sink. Looking at my reflection, I am not happy. The obvious and easy things, like shaving, combing away my bed head and applying some moisturizer under my eyes, pop into my mind for a moment, but my reflection stares back at me, and the feeling of emptiness begins to make its presence known. I sigh once more, shrug it off and continue on with my morning ritual. A hot shower and the promise of good coffee typically give me something to look forward to, driving away any negative feelings under the surface. My girlfriend and I leave the apartment around the same time most days, otherwise I leave before her.
My morning commute gives me some time to think about the most pressing matters that I’ll need to address when I arrive at the office, allowing me to bury any negative inward feelings I have about myself and focus on being productive and getting shit done. My temper sometimes flares as I deal with traffic and construction, but for the most part, it’s a somewhat relaxing and mindless drive while I listen to music. Throughout the day, I work on various projects. I attend meetings, work solo in my office, collaborate with colleagues when the need arises and use downtime to organize and plan for future events and initiatives with the various groups that I am part of or catch up on emails for freelance work. I head to lunch alone to try to eat what solid food I can due to my gastric band to which I am still getting accustomed. When I head home, I am greeted by my girlfriend, and we talk about our day, make dinner and watch a few TV shows. During this time, I am the happiest because I am spending time with the person I love. I work on my own projects late into the night, but often, I am completely worn out — mentally and physically drained. I’ll get angry with myself for my apathy those nights. I get settled into bed, and because my mind can’t turn off the thoughts and ideas automatically, I’ll lay in bed and distract myself with my phone. I’ll look at posts because I don’t want to be left alone with just my thoughts in the dark. Throughout the night, I suffer from night terrors regularly. I’ll shoot straight up in bed — sometimes hyperventilating — with my eyes darting around the room. I’ll get in a few hours of sleep before doing it all over again the next day.
Life up to Diagnosis
When I was 16, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. I grew up in a stable home environment with great parents who worked very hard and provided a positive home environment for myself and my younger sister and brother. We were a typical middle-class family in the ‘90s — nice house, good neighborhood, private school, involved parents and a metric ton of Legos in my room. I grew up with no friends when I was young though. My sister and I were all we had in our neighborhood and at school. We attended a Catholic elementary school where we both didn’t fit in well with our classmates. I didn’t have any friends to speak of, but I had a few people who were nice to me but would quickly join in on the teasing and taunting if it suited them. School was very lonely for me, and I grew very insular. I tried sports and was involved with Boy Scouts. But sports was never really my thing, and Boy Scouts was an extension of school for me. I grew to love nature more than people, and I was often left to my own devices. Eventually, my sister and I transitioned to public school, and I started to make friends. I felt a whole new world open up for me, but I also had to learn how that world operated. The close-knit and close-minded environment of a private school didn’t have the same spectrum of opportunities and experiences that public school offered — people were much nicer yet much more cruel. At this point in my life, I started to not only dive deeper into depression, but I also started to get angry. My temper and attitude would push people away and legitimately scare adults from interacting with me, let alone most people my own age.
I never talked to anyone about how I felt inside. At an early age, I learned that if I spoke, it could be used against me. I never wanted to show my vulnerability. I didn’t want to be taken advantage of in any situation. I blockaded myself from external harm by building walls around my feelings, and those walls were well armed.
Before high school, I buried my feelings in food. I had an unhealthful penchant for eating my feelings away. It was one of the main reasons I was teased and tormented when I was young — being a tall, heavy kid who was awkward. All throughout freshman year, I worked out and lost 110 pounds inside of 12 months. It was during that time that I built the wall around my feelings. As I was getting physically healthier, I was tearing myself apart mentally. At the beginning of sophomore year, I was accused of being on drugs as the explanation for my drastic weight loss. It made me very angry. I became despondent and would allow a voice in my mind to constantly tear myself down and reinforce all of the negativity that I desperately tried to avoid. I became my own tormentor and convinced myself that I was worthless. When dealing with school, my after-school job and my parents, my attitude was either one of combat or completely sullen. All of this built up to my first mental break where I tried to end my life. I spent a week in the hospital after my suicide attempt, and I began therapy after coming home. This happened when I was 16.
Living with Depression
I’m 30 years old now, and I have lived with depression for almost half of my life. I can honestly say that I have led a very productive and fulfilling life since 16. I’ve travelled abroad many times. I was a drummer for a successful post-hardcore band when it was all the rage in the mid-2000s. I’ve met, hung out and even played with some of my music idols (barring Metallica). I moved to Philadelphia to attend college, voted in as class president and graduated at the top of my class. I have been working in the design industry for the last seven years in various roles, and I have won several awards for my work. With my girlfriend who loves me deeply, I live in an apartment with a beautiful view of the Appalachian Mountains. I have friends who value me for the person I am. I have colleagues and peers in the industry that value my thoughts and contributions. I have had interns I have mentored who have gone on to be successful in their own right. I still have a great relationship with my parents.
And I still suffer.
Since I was 16, I have attempted suicide multiple times. It wasn’t until I was 27, while working at an awesome in-house position (and in of all industries, health care), did I make an appointment with a psychiatrist once again. I was re-diagnosed as having Bipolar II disorder. I found out that, due to the complexity of mental illness, many people suffer from more serious issues, like Bipolar II disorder, and do not discover it until going through a thorough and accurate recount of the life of episodes in depression and mania (or what I felt like was a time of being a happy, “normal” functioning individual of society) and revisiting your original diagnosis. Needless to say, the diagnosis didn’t make me happy, but it did make sense. I learned that the constant depressive states I experienced, punctuated with the times of genuine optimism and energy, were indicative of Bipolar II disorder. My hyper-manic episodes were never detrimental to my life, in fact, it made it hard to diagnose. I had always been reticent toward medication because, in my mind, it was the full admission of a real problem within me. With the new diagnosis though, it was inevitable.
When I finally came to terms with my depression, being Bipolar and my general outlook toward people and life, I was at the proverbial crossroads we’ve all heard of before. I could do something or nothing about it. I would be a liar if I said I was a valiant crusader in the fight against the darkness that clouded my mind and personality, because I was not. There have been many times when I knew I should have done the right thing, namely keeping up with my medication and talking with people in my life, but I didn’t. I would go through moods of complete depression to only resurface for air briefly in a sense of normalcy. My life started to turn once I committed to treatment and therapy.
Being a Creative
Fairly early on in my life, the urge to create was ever-present. I was always drawing, building with Legos and dreaming up fantasies that would rival Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings or Star Trek. It’s fairly common place in the creative realm to be a “bit off” or “moody.”. It’s safe to say that creative individuals understand a level of emotion beyond the surface that is needed to be innovative and expressive. Regardless of what type of creative professional you are, there is a strong undercurrent of emotion that courses through us in our process. Emotion and experience coupled with information and data are the wells from which we draw in order to create. This is where designers, illustrators, developers, painters and photographers are all alike. We don’t create just for ourselves, we create for others. Our end goals are all different, but our audience is always more than just ourselves. The common stereotype of artists being “moody” or “a little strange” is not because of some inherent flaw or quirk; it is part of our nature to approach problems and to provide solutions that are meaningful and useful to people. Let’s face it, all people are weird — there is no normal, and that’s what makes life fun. What is not fun is being affected by an ever-present feeling of worthlessness and despair. No one wants to feel that but unfortunately many do.
As a designer, it’s very easy to get burned-out. Often, the feelings of burn-out can masquerade a deeper issue, one that might have been there all along. I have suffered burn-out at a few places I have worked. Either I was too close and too involved with a project, my ambitions weren’t in line with how the reality of the situation was really happening or I constantly pushed myself to be a better designer, more well-informed and with more applicable skills. I would even hone my expertise even further without real-world applications for them. Burn-out is a very real state that affects almost all of us in our lives, but depression and other mental illness is a separate, much deeper issue. The emotions of burn-out can worsen the symptoms of depression, and they feed into each other. Burn-out, however, is quite reversible without the need of professional medical help.
The toll that depression has had on my life and my choices of dealing and not dealing with it are varied. During one manic period, I decided to register my business as an LLC instead of a sole proprietorship. In the future, that could be a huge benefit to the eventual future plans of having a full-blown creative agency, but it was a waste of money at the time. During periods of extreme optimism and vigor, I have taken on freelance work to which I should have said no. I have volunteered to head up projects with outside groups that weren’t in line with my own group’s initiatives. I’ve stretched myself thin between too many responsibilities without any thought to my own well-being or sanity. In my mind, the ability to legitimately share my involvement with so many projects, initiatives and groups meant that I was providing meaning in my life. This dangerously led to burn-out, but feelings of worthlessness were present even before the times of high productivity.
During periods of lows, I would become lethargic and ashamed to even answer the phone. Waking was a horrible activity, and all I wanted to do was hide away in bed and not talk to anyone. My outlook and attitude toward life was miserable at best and intensely disturbing at worst. I thought the worst in people and the worst in myself. Any and all communication was an anathema to me. I dreaded voicemails and hid away from my inboxes. Texts were uncomfortable reminders of instant communication. During these times, I wanted nothing more than escapism and oblivion — not death, just oblivion, to not exist at all. I put my friends and family through this. I have lost clients because of this.
Working for myself and dealing with depression is one thing. When you work with others, it adds another layer of complexity. Outside of family, you spend the most time with your co-workers and colleagues. As much as you may want to hide away in a cubicle or office, you know interaction with others is inevitable.
Treatment and Opening Up
Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental illness is still a very real and prevalent issue in society. Design is no different from many other industries in that we have a silent group of professionals who also suffer and feel completely alone. For me, treatment has been an ever-evolving issue. I have let medication lapse for a variety of reasons but mostly because of excuses. Some methods of treatment have been tremendously beneficial. Going to therapy had been a personal stigma when I was younger, but as I became older, I began to understand and extol the benefits of therapy. Either in a group setting, virtual or one-on-one, talking and working through issues with a trained professional has helped me be a much more positive, focused and productive person. Medication, at first, sounded like a crutch, but I learned that my attitude and perception toward medication was incorrect. I’ve found that I am much more clear-minded and level headed with the combination of medication and talk therapy than I am trying to do it on my own.
Don’t get me wrong, I still suffer the personification of my issues that manifest as a mental voice, which wants nothing but to torment me. This part of me is like living with two halves. Even on days, weeks, months and longer periods of no episodes, I have to quell that part of me. I feel much more in control of my life, and that makes me happy.
I mulled over writing this post for over a year because I was honestly afraid of what would come out of it. My cynical and negative self would say that nothing I have to share matters and that all I am doing is hurting an already embattled issue in society. My hopeful side thought, by sharing my experiences and my own personal history, that it would resonate with some individuals and help those out there enduring the same battle feel that they weren’t going through it alone. I wanted to discuss this topic, which I have seen and shied away from in our industry. It’s not a topic that I hear broached much, if at all, in physical settings. The online community skims the discussion in favor of mostly asking if others also have similar issues without opening up into detail about them. The reason why so many of us went into design is because of the passion we have for creating and thinking. Depression and other mental illnesses are the virulent opposition to that passion.
What we can do
As designers, we think very highly of our profession, and we are one of the most introspective and self-critical industries. Our industry and its practitioners are always in a constant state of change and innovation. I find it disheartening that we haven’t had more frank and open discussions about mental health in our field, considering how open and expressive we are with others. The discussion needs to be open and respectful with progress and an attitude that is supportive toward those suffering with mental illness — be it anxiety disorder, depression, mood disorders and many other afflictions.
One thing we all can do is to become more empathic. Empathy toward and understanding our colleagues help to foster a sense that we are more than just our craft, that we are understanding and appreciative of each other.
For myself, I have found that I had friends and colleagues that were open and willing to talk with me about some of my issues. I didn’t expect them to give me solutions, nor did they expect to impart some valuable, life-changing advice, but the simple fact of listening and being there made lasting impressions. The only mandate I ever received was that I go and seek professional help, whatever form that took. I can be extremely private, and sharing issues with others can, naturally, put you in a state of extreme vulnerability. But the right person, or persons, to talk to can help you start making positive steps toward taking back control of your emotions.
For those who are asked to listen, it’s an honor and responsibility to keep the conversation confidential and guide the person to professional help if it is needed. Sometimes, all a person needs is just a friendly ear and a judgment-free zone to let out some thoughts. Other times, you can be drawn into a deep conversation surrounding heavy life issues for which you may not be prepared. Regardless of the discussion, treat it with the utmost respect, confidentiality and concern. Most often, a person suffering will not want to share anything, so the idea of being approached and having a conversation initiated by that person will be rare. If you suspect someone is dealing with personal issues or that they are struggling, the best way to avail yourself without sounding intrusive is condition that person to know that you’re available to talk if needed. I’ve done this with many people. I almost always let people know that I’m always here to talk to, and I say it with sincerity, and I say it often.
Everyone is not going to feel comfortable and ready to talk and listen, but as a whole, we must change perceptions to make these issues in our industry not a taboo subject.
After a long internal struggle, I have come to find acceptance through therapy, medication and striving for balance. Now, I am at a really wonderful point in life. I still have episodes, but I can manage them better now. I can see life turn around for me, and I am excited to continue. I have high goals I want to achieve, relationships that are meaningful and I am part of great groups with initiatives that are meaningful to me as designer and developer. Above all, I have close friends and family who love me. No matter how you define success, if you can have meaningful relationships with others, then you are successful in life.
It wouldn’t be a post unless I shared some resources that can help. I revealed a lot of my back story, and I imagine that some may want to share how they feel — maybe with me, maybe with their loved ones or maybe with someone in their life, whether it be a co-worker, supervisor or friend. Regardless, take the time to talk with someone.
How to Deal with a Mentally Ill Co-worker: It sounds like a harsh title, but this post actually gives a lot of good information on how to approach a potential situation with someone who you think is suffering. It identifies several different types of mental illness, gives an overview of how a person’s behavior is while suffering through them and a lot of good advice on how to broach the subject.
We Need to Talk about Developers and Depression: An insightful post on CreativeBloq from Greg Baugues, a developer who also reveals a fair amount of personal history and his struggle with Bipolar II disorder.
Helping a Depressed Person: An overview of depression and how to help when it’s centered around a loved one or family member. It contains good tips on also helps you stay well while helping someone else.
The Unspoken D Word that Eats You from the Inside: A personal account of getting help and finding a path to managing depression from British designer James Greig.
Burnout: An extremely well-written and in-depth look at burn-out in the design industry written by Scott Boms. This article shines the light on the difference between depression and burnout, while showing how interconnected they can be.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: I personally can vouch for this service. I learned about it years ago from a Take Action Tour compilation CD in 2003. Funds raised from the tour went to support the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and the tour was geared to help against teen suicide in the U.S. (800) 273–8255
Healthsherpa: While I think it could have used a better name, it does the job of healthcare.gov much better in my opinion. In the U.S., enter your zip code, indicate if you’re a smoker and find health insurance plans that can fit your budget.
BlahTherapy: An online chat service where you can talk with a licensed therapist or a stranger who is willing to listen. A licensed therapist has rates of $1.99/minute and up, or you can talk to an unlicensed individual who shares their time to listen for free.
At the end of all of this, you can always email me. I’m not a licensed therapist, but I can talk design, share my experiences and listen. You don’t have to be alone. Something that I know to be true is that the design community can be an incredibly supportive network. We have the ability to have these open discussions and be supportive of our colleagues. You don’t have to let depression get in the way of your passion. Let’s find ways to enable each other to be the best designers we can be through thoughtful critiques, innovative new techniques, time-honored principles and with a healthy mind with which to create.
Originally posted on my site, shared here with love.