This is the first part of a series of posts reflecting on my experiences with my career as a programmer, anxiety, depression, drugs, and learning to live with bipolar type 2.

Early days

When you’re young everything you encounter is fresh and new. When I look back at my really early years I feel like the majority of my decisions were simply reactions to external stimuli. I think this is true for the majority of people. You encounter different opinions and experiences and with what little expertise you have at the time; you react. It’s not a deliberate and well planned response, you simply don’t have enough exposure and past experiences to make well informed decisions.

Environment

My environment constantly changed growing up. I attended 5 different schools, in 4 different countries. The majority of environmental changes happened when I was 4 to 13 years old. Every move we made I reacted to the new environment and adjusted to what the new normal was.

I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the variety of people and culture I was exposed to. I understood the basics though; Malaysia had monkeys, Texas was very religious, Rio de Janeiro had a huge gap between the rich and poor, and Melbourne is where the family was. That’s about as deep as my understanding of the world at the time was.

Learned behaviour

When everything around you changes so often at that age, you develop coping mechanisms. When every childhood friendship only lasts about 2 years you tend not to invest so much time and effort. Not to say I didn’t have friends, but the majority of friendships I had were shallow. Every move was the same. First you’re a newcomer, then you find people that you can relate to, then you move on.

I have 2 younger brothers. My youngest brother, 5 years younger than me, was too early in development for any of these learned behaviours to become cemented. My other brother was only a year younger than me, so he also developed his own strategies.

While I accepted the short lifecycle of friendships, he simply chose not to get involved. He made a couple friends, but was always more interested in reading. It was his escape, something that insulated him from the constant environment churn. Everything else in life at the time was temporary, but the tales of fantasy contained in those pages were for forever.

Adjusting to consistency

Eventually we stopped moving. We settled back in my parents hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Suddenly those learn behaviours we developed over the past 9 years didn’t quite fit.

I’m not going to say I didn’t handle it at all. I did what I did in every other environment change, I got a small amount of friends and started to learn what was considered normal behaviour in that culture.

I wasn’t prepared for the long run though. Years went by and I still had the same small group of friends. The lineup changed a bit, but the number stayed around the 3–4 mark. I watched as everyone else started to build a larger network of friends. I didn’t understand how they did it. Those old learned behaviours were hard to shake; why should I spend time investing in relationships that I couldn’t see lasting more than a couple years?

At least I think that’s how I rationalised it. Looking back now I think it all scared me. I had spent the majority of my youth trying to fit in; I was a social chameleon, but I could only continue the charade for so long. I grew close to the few friends I had, but opening up to others seemed insurmountable and pointless.

Growth and warning signs

I filled my time with other, more self focused, tasks. I took a special interest in programming after I found a great mentor who taught me the basics. It fascinated me, I loved the feeling of creativity through logic. I often found myself deeply invested pet projects that almost always blew out in scope. I often sabotaged myself by biting off more than I had the skills for. I would then scrap the project and start again on some other grand idea. This cycle rarely produced anything of value, but it forced me to rapidly improve my own abilities.

I was around 16 years old when I started to feel different. I felt a great disconnect between my ambitions to succeed as a programmer and an inexplicable feeling of emptiness. Those projects that I obsessed over seemed pointless. I found myself overwhelmed with all the other things in life that I had ignored while thoroughly engrossed in the last project. I had thoughts about dying. They were hypothetical; not something I had concrete plans for. More like a morbid curiosity. How would I do it? How would others react? Maybe this was a better option than the feeling of constant and unwavering state of either not feeling anything, or feeling like I failed.

It wouldn’t be long until the next project would come along. I would dive head first into it again. The feeling of progress was intoxicating. I was the best programmer in my school! I had the best ideas! I’m going to become someone great! School work could wait. My high school girlfriend could wait. I just needed enough time to finally finish my project…