In March of this year I had a nervous breakdown. While I can’t go into specifics of the particular precipitate of this reaction, I can at least speak to what it did to me and what I did with it. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” Marcellus says to Horatio, after Hamlet, desperate and grieving, has chased after the glimmer of a ghost of his father. “Something is rotten in the state of California,” I said to myself, lying awake at 4 am in my expensive Silicon Valley apartment, eyes wide and unblinking, staring up into the ceiling, heart palpitating through the narrow skin of my chest. For the first time I understood how people in their 20s and 30s could have heart attacks.
Much has been written about being a first-generation immigrant in America. We came to the US from Taiwan when I was 3. My father was, and still is, an engineer. He and my mother had left the relative safety of all their friends and family and a culture that they understood to come to a place where so much was alien and needed to be learned- and all in the days before Internet put knowledge within easy access. We actually roasted chestnuts on an open fire because it was in a famous Christmas carol, so it had to be the kind of thing those wacky Americans did.
What might surprise people is how happy my childhood was. There were no tiger parents in our family. My siblings and I were all driven by strong internal compasses to excel academically and professionally. We graduated from Stanford, Harvard, and UC Berkeley to become, respectively, a marketing executive, a doctor, and me- the art director who had managed to scrabble up to a coveted program management role in a coveted tech company. These were hard-won victories that felt like hiking up a mountain to realize that the peak would never come. And there I was, nearly 10 years into entering the work force, unable to eat, unable to sleep, a 31-year old weeping over the phone to my parents about how I’d managed to fail at my own life.
The truth was, I hadn’t failed.
But there I was, completely terrified and certain that I was going to be fired (I wasn’t), that I’d have to give back a sizable hiring bonus that had not been spent but nonetheless represented some measure of financial safety, that I’d be humiliated and unable to find anything new before my funds ran out. I’d be run out into the street, I’d be homeless, I’d have squandered all the opportunities that had been given to me when we’d come to this country. To make things worse, I had just moved to an apartment with a rent significantly higher than what I’d paid before, to cut my 3 hour a day commute down to 20 minutes at most each way. This, in addition to a truly abusive and incompetent manager, uncaring management above her, and a host of other small failure and injustices had managed to percolate into the kind of chemical bodily reaction that could make anyone fall apart.
The problem with the tech industry in Silicon Valley, and particularly in the company I work, is that it takes the creme de la creme of overachievers and consistently makes them feel worthless to push more out of them.
I have worked nights and weekends. I have been berated and torn down by my manager for mistakes she, not I, had made. I once flew home for Mother’s Day to spend time with my mother and instead spent the entire trip in my parent’s living room, frantically working and texting the whole weekend away. All of these things are not good enough. I knew I had reached the low point when my manager told me, passive-aggressively, that she was “concerned” that I felt I didn’t have any work-life balance. I pointed out that she worked all the time, and every employee takes cues from their boss. “Oh,” she said, “well, I just happen to LOVE my job! I GENUINELY love it. That’s why I work all the time- because I just enjoy it.” The implication being here, that there was something wrong with me- I must not love my job to not want to work 16 hour days and weekends. The only way to survive Silicon Valley, it sometimes feels like, is to become a sociopath.
This is endemic of any successful company in the tech industry.
I sometimes wonder if historians will look back on this period in the same way we look back with horror to children working factories in the Industrial Age. How is any of this sustainable? And in March, suddenly, it wasn’t: my body completely collapsed. The only meal a day I’d manage to choke down was a very light lunch with coworkers so that no one would realize anything was wrong with me. I’d sometimes throw up when I got home. I felt too raw to even consider chewing and swallowing anything- and I had been an accomplished foodie before. I went from barely getting any sleep at night to no sleep at all. Every day everything hurt- literally, physically hurt. My heartbeat became irregular. Sometimes it was entirely too fast: sometimes, entirely too slow. And quite frequently, my heart actually ached. I could no longer breathe properly. I was convinced something was wrong with my lungs- I could no longer take a full breath and often found myself hyperventilating. I started having dark recurring fantasies about how much easier it would all be if I wasn’t alive anymore- no active suicidal thoughts, just ideation of no longer existing. I was at war constantly with myself: the part of myself that was too tired to care or do anything about it, and the part of myself that was urgently telling myself “SOMETHING IS WRONG HERE. WE NEED HELP. PLEASE, GET HELP.”
After two consecutive weeks where things had gotten so bad that I couldn’t bring myself t0 ingest anything other than water- and had gotten no sleep to the point where I was certain I was starting to hallucinate- I finally got myself to a doctor. First, she ran a battery of tests- blood tests, measurements, and even several tests for my lungs to determine if I had asthma or any other serious problem. These all came back normal. So in the end, what we did was medication. Xanax to tide me over whenever I felt the panic rising thick and black and bitter in my throat. An SSRI to get me through the next 6 months and allow my brain to create a normal level of seratonin again. Going on medication felt like another small failure to me- that I wasn’t in control of my life or emotions or even my brain chemistry any more. But I’m sure 20 years from now, I might look back on it as having saved my life.
What I want to convey here through this excessively confessional space is the hope that I’ll reach others who have been here too. I was there. I got through it. I’m still getting through it. As Winston Churchill said, when you’re in hell, keep going. Medication was taking care of my body chemistry, but it was, and still is, a band-aid in a place I needed surgery. I still needed something to mend over all the rips and tears 10 years in the tech industry had done to my emotional state, my self-worth, and my mental well-being. I’ll be addressing the two things that have helped get me back closer to normal in subsequent posts.
What I hope to get through sharing my experiences here is to help others prevent getting to that point of complete collapse.
I am not sure if my health will ever truly fully recover. I would never wish what happened on me to anyone else- but I’m completely certain so many of us out there are going through this kind of thing- thinking we aren’t good enough, that we’ve fucked up, that we’ve completely failed- when the truth is, we’re stuck in a system that has fundamentally failed us as human beings. This is also something I’d like to go into later, but for now, it is still too raw and still hurts to the touch. Recently one of my team members quit without a back-up plan- the second to do so in a matter of just weeks. For the first time, we had a completely open conversation about all the things that are wrong about our org and the place we work. “I realized I was getting the point where I didn’t recognize myself anymore, and I didn’t like who I was becoming,” she said to me- and I realized, I was there too. I still don’t recognize myself. I still feel troubled about the kind of person this environment forces me to become to survive.
But I do believe that there’s still a way out.
I look forward to the day I wake up and look in the mirror, and finally recognize myself in the mirror again. I’ll get there. You will too.