Sep 29, 2016
I believe people with mental health issues gravitate towards computing because it’s a very cerebral act and you make up your own rules for behavior.
I was diagnosed with ADHD around 5th grade.
I found computers early and started programming on the Commodore 128. I had a very hard time learning the functions of BASIC programming because I had no roadmap for which to follow to make them into a coherent set of commands (all the commands were in alphabetical order). And so I created my own roadmap with my rules.
My ADHD was a symptom of a larger autism disorder, though I didn’t know it at the time.
Joining the Army National Guard, I was given a roadmap and rules for behavior and I fell in line for some time and for all eight years of my service I was a model employee in civilian society eventually working in investigational drugs and the Drug Information Service at the University of Utah. I took a job my predecessor spent two weeks on down to 20 minutes by not believing the prior way was the best way and finding my own rules to finish the work. I was given dBASE IV databases to manage and I worked there for a year before taking that database experience into a career in programming.
And everything was rather hunky dory…until I was 31 and my chiseled life crumbled to dust. My lifestyle choices changed and my roadmap was literally the road as I tried living out of my car by choice. This didn’t last long and I came back but without motivation to better myself. Organizational skills were haphazard with an emphasis on the hazard. Then I was diagnosed bipolar and put on Depakote, which I stopped taking quickly.
Apophenia was the biggest problem, I feel, about being bipolar. In programming it’s a gift to relate the unrelated but when your brain does the relationships without a conscious guide then spits out the results as though your conscious self had gone through them deliberately there is no choice but to believe what your brain is telling you. And here lies my inability to decipher the truth. My internal checksums appear fine to me. And it was then that I recognized the truth: that I could not tell right from wrong anymore. This was proof to me that I was bipolar.
This truism was still four years away from me.
As I lost all my friends I still found work programming but would live out of my car because I’d spend my fair wages poorly. I had no roadmap for my finances or for where I wanted to go in life. This life plan was completely lost on me and I didn’t know a path existed.
There was a bad year then some good years then bad again. I went through all sorts of bizarre thought paths losing my self identity and confusing those who put themselves in my path to help.
There is never a right time to talk about mental illness and in my experience people I broach the subject with don’t have questions about the illness and usually ask if I’m under a doctor’s care. That’s an embarrassing and deeply personal question to me but I share the truth and it works for me.
I’ve been compliant with care for over eight years. The four years I spent without treatment were initially hard to give up and later hard to work though. When you’re having issues you don’t-not remember what you did. You have clear recollection of the wrongs you’ve done and twisted ways you wandered. It’s not like a drunkard’s blackout. And coming to terms with this past was very difficult.
I kept programming throughout the years of untreated bipolar and my first site built in 1999 is still running: db.etree.org. When I programmed 90% of the time I felt clear headed but the way I was building was far outside the norm or README prescribed method.
I feel this is a very strong benefit I get with my bipolar. I just don’t think inside any imaginary box you may be able to draw around a university education. The remnants of and patterns created by apophenia are no longer conscious but they’re easily tapped into when I work. I don’t use debuggers.
When I decided to get better and stay on meds my life turned around. I take lithium for bipolar and fluphenazine, an anti-psychotic. These two worked well enough to get to San Francisco. While there my doctor added quentiapine. These drugs are the reason I perform so well today.
I’ve been able work with some of the top people in my field of PHP programming and I’ve made many submissions to the Open Source community. I’ve followed right along with the development of Zend Framework 2 and contributed much to Apigility.
I took my disease to it’s terminal point. When I decided to get better there was no other option. I have a good life now but it would be better if I had listened to the professionals, friends, and family who care and cared for me early on.
Tom Anderson is Zend Certified PHP and a certified Zend Framework 2 Engineer. He has worked in PHP since 1999 and began programming on the Commodore 128. Tom is an open source contributor. You can learn more about his work and presentations on his website.
Tom kindly shared his story with us in order to help end the stigma of talking about Mental Health in Tech.