October 19, 2022
min read

Coding and Mental Illness. A Survival Guide

Benedikt Bischof
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Content warning: this article includes subjects like anxiety, depression, alcoholism, eating disorders, ADHD and suicide.

About the speaker:
Chris started coding life as a full-stack developer and moved between all sorts of weird and wonderful disciplines and industries before he settled on Android.
In addition to coding life, he's been an elected official in the UK, had a key role in legalising same-sex marriage in the UK through his LobbyALord app, and has addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on atrocities against LGBT+ people abroad.
Diagnosed with depression, anxiety and ADHD, he taglines himself as Very Mentally Ill(TM) and writes/speaks about his experience of being diagnosed very late in life and how he deals with the unique challenges ADHD brings to an individual working in tech.

More and more people started talking about mental health in recent years. At first glance that’s a wonderful development. The problem is that although the intentions are good when addressing such a topic, many of these discussions are superficial and performative. People tend to talk about the good and the bad but leave out the ugly parts of mental illnesses. For evidence one only needs to take a look at some of those cutesy memes: “It’s OK to not be OK.” While that’s well-intended let’s be honest – it isn’t OK. We still live in a world that’s very hostile to not being OK. So, saying it’s OK to not be OK is like saying everything is fine and we don’t need to talk about it. Another example of avoiding tackling the real problem is this quote: “It’s not you that’s broken, it’s society.” Chris assures the audience that that’s not true at all – as he is very much broken.

This approach to mental health by suppressing and camouflaging the real ugly parts of the illness with positivity and wellness language reinforces the false view that people who are sick aren't really that sick. The reason Chris refers to himself as being ill or having a condition or disability is that he is, and he does, and it nearly killed him on several occasions. The only thing that really helped him was medication. But what would have supported him is a societal understanding of mental illness does not mean we are one yoga session away from being better. Compared to a wounded leg, both need essentially three things: a diagnosis, treatment, and time.

So, what kind of conditions Chris suffers from exactly? Let’s have a look at his scorecard (as he jokingly refers to his medical record).

- Clinical Anxiety: Have you thought that something might go wrong? In a way that’s very unlikely to happen but your mind picks at it, dwells on it and falls into imagining the worst-case scenario. Combine that with the feeling that absolutely nothing solves it, not even the realization that the problem isn’t a problem at all.
According to Chris an anxiety episode is comparable to blades turning up in your stomach – a feeling of a life-threatening situation, but you get it when you open a letter from the energy company. We all get anxious – the difference with mental illness is the intensity and the inability to control it.

- Depression: Likewise, to anxiety, we all get depressed from time to time. The difference in the clinical condition to “just feeling down” is that it moves on to a point of complete paralysis and things that normally would lift you up have zero effect.

- Alcoholism: For Chris, this combination of anxiety and depression often needed to be medicated and (from a young age on) he found alcohol to do the job. Having such anxiety spirals he drank every night. Not “just” a beer or two but rather two to three bottles of wine. A night. Every night.

It took Chris a long time to admit to himself that he is an alcoholic. But after this first, very important step he recovered and as of the time of his talk he is 1505 days sober.

- Eating Disorder: When it comes to this condition we have to distinguish between many types. Chris describes his one as going to the shop and instead of buying just the one thing he really needed going home with a lot of stuff and after arriving not only eating a few but rather consuming some 5000 calories in one sitting. People should be as large as they want – no fat shaming from my or Chris’s side. But in his case, his overweight came from an impulse he couldn’t control rather than a good life or a love for food.

- Suicidal Episodes: As unpleasant as it is to talk about this point as important it is. When someone gets physically sick and passes on, we talk about what killed them. But when another person dies from mental illness we don’t. That’s still a societal problem as the causes of death were the same – a sickness.
Everybody's experiences are different. When Chris had his suicidal episodes, which were a product of his anxiety, he never really wanted to die. When one is in pain, she or he is at risk of doing irrational things to make that pain stop. That’s one key point why it’s so important for people to understand mental illness better. Because the sooner society accepts mortality like a physical illness and begins to deal with that, the sooner we minimize the number of humans that don’t get better.

- ADHD: A few years ago, a friend of Chris got in touch with him and explained that his anxiety and depression were misdiagnosed and the condition he is really dealing with is ADHD. This made him think and when Chris went through a list with the symptoms it read like a biography of him.
It’s an intensely misunderstood condition. For example, Chris never even considered he might have it, nor anybody at his school did. So contrary to general belief, ADHD isn’t that thing that disruptive kids in your class have. In fact, correlating mental illness with academic failure is one of the many reasons this condition is so misunderstood and sadly children that were diagnosed with it were often written off by their teachers.
Most of the symptoms of ADHD reflect a wrong interpretation of the sick person to the public. Here is an example from Chris’s own experience:
He is easily distracted and not very attentive as he pays too much attention. That may sound irritating at first, but he explains further: once a friend of his said he wants to have a cat but his flat isn’t big enough and Chris responded by stating how much he loves the Irish president. This might seem like he ignored his friend, but it was actually the opposite. It reminded Chris of his situation as he has a cat, but he also wants a dog but can’t as his flat is also too small. And that reminded him of a dog that used to lovingly nibble his hand which made Chris think of Michael Higgins giving a speech whilst his dog was nibbling on his hand, and he loves him for letting the dog proceed. So, it is related – just six steps removed. Not a lack of attention – too much of it.

So how do you survive having ADHD as a coder? Chris managed it for years and shares three essential points on how to achieve this:

1. Gamify your life. Find a todo-list app, set a daily target, add every single task you do in a day and go through them. There are a lot of apps for your smartphone to help you with creating the list and breaking down the tasks into smaller ones. For each of these tasks appoint yourself with points as a reward.

2. Get diagnosed. Get treatment. Be persistent in doing so. Gather a list together of all your symptoms, ranked from severe to mild. Email them to the psychiatrist before your appointment. Do not downplay your symptoms.

3. Don’t do it because you have to. Do it because you can. For many of us, the pressure of expectation or urgency is the source of paralysis. Remind yourself that this task is completable not because you need to do it, but because you can do it.

Thank you for reading this article. If you are interested in hearing Chris himself you can do so by following this link and joining our platform:

Coding and Mental Illness. A Survival Guide

October 19, 2022
min read

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