On Hackers and Depression

By Christopher Allan Webber on Wed 16 January 2013

Depression is a background but ever-present part of my life. Most people who know me closely know this, but probably most people who know me for the type of work and projects I do do not. I'm not against people knowing, but it isn't something I really talk about because it seems like something that's mostly personal and thus isn't really something that there's reason to talk about.

But recently that's changed; by now, weirdly almost everyone on the internet knows about Aaron Swartz's suicide. I say weirdly because... well I never knew Aaron personally, we never spoke, and he was not my friend. But there was a large overlap in our lives in more ways than I can probably count (affiliation with Creative Commons, various kinds of informational freedom activism, programming language preferences, et cetera), and while I did not know him, many of my friends did. News of Aaron's death did affect me personally, partly for empathy for friends, partly for sadness at losing someone who's kind of a kindred spirit, partly because I lost one of my closest friends to suicide over a year ago, and partly because my own depression is a regular background issue for me. Aaron Swartz's death was not quite like losing a friend to me because he wasn't a friend, but for the reasons above and many others not listed, it did stir up a strong emotional reaction in me. But there has been enough written about Aaron Swartz, his suicide, and a whole crock of issues that have been stirred about it by a good very many people who are far more qualified than I am to write about such things. So I assumed I had nothing to say on the subject that was worth reading. And strictly on the subject of Aaron Swartz, I really don't.

But there was a well written post by Evan Prodromou titled "On hackers and suicide" which echoed a lot of my own thoughts recently, and he seemed to be calling for others to join the conversation, and I feel like I do have quite a bit of thoughts on it, so I should maybe write them down while the moment seems clear.

The first thing I guess to be said has already been said: I have depression, it is a part of my life, and probably will be for the rest of my life. I have been depressed for a long time, since my preteen or early teen years at least. I remember strongly the first times I started thinking about how I might be able to kill myself with a dirty knife on the kitchen counter or a (unlikely to work) strategy of sticking my head under a running faucet and holding it there until I drowned. I haven't had a serious suicide attempt but suicide is something I think of often, almost or maybe even daily. There was only once where I nearly did it... I had been fighting to keep my small college Barat open from being closed by the larger university DePaul which had bought it, had been engaged in a long campaign to keep it open, it closed, and I felt like my world was simply over, there was nothing left for me to do. I went out into the woods to slit my wrists with a pocketknife. When I got into the woods I realized I didn't have the knife on me anyways so I just walked back and felt mostly tired and defeated for awhile. And so I'm still alive to this day, I suppose, due to my absent-mindedness. But aside from that time, depression wavers between being mostly something I know is there but isn't very present to being something in the back of my mind to something tearing at and lacerating my thoughts.

I really don't see how this is something that will change. I remember being in college and thinking that if I could somehow carve out a life for myself where I was doing important work that I believed in, if I was doing things I wanted to do, I wouldn't have reason to be depressed. And I had a hard time understanding why people who I admired so greatly, who did so much, could really continue to be depressed. It didn't seem logical. But here I am... I think I have actually carved out as much of a "I am doing important, ethical work that I believe in and that I enjoy as is actually possible at all ever" situation as I will ever be able to... and depression, somehow, has not gone away.

Why? To look at it logically, it doesn't make sense. It's very troubling: I have surrounded myself with a lot of people I really admire who are doing great work, things that I think are important world-changing things, people I couldn't possibly put an ounce more admiration into, and somehow the majority of them seem to have depression also. Not only that, but there's a way higher correlation between the number of people who seem to be doing good things and who I care about and the number of people who have deep, serious depression issues. And most of my community is the free software community. Why do hackers (and I mean that more broadly than programmers, include any participant in these kinds of spaces) seem to have so much trouble with depression?

It's hard to know without being highly self-reflective (and indeed, I've already been more self-reflective in this post than maybe you ever wished to know), so I'm not going to shy away from being self-reflective. Yes, I'm projecting my own life onto you. But I think there are some reasons why I and and other people like me seem to struggle regularly from depression. And here are some of them.

First of all, a lot of hackers and smart people generally I think tend to have had troubled childhoods. There's a nature versus nurture type question that's really not easy to split apart at all that's one of those "do nerds have socially difficult lives because they're nerds or are they nerds because they have socially difficult lives?" I think the answer is probably that it's a mutually compounding thing, but there's a certain personality type that's already very smart but which is having a difficult life that draws them to certain types of intellectual activities as escapism. I didn't have many friends as a kid, I was picked on in school, and that's all very standard narrative for nerds. Sometimes when I read about other nerds, I hear about them having an easy time in school academically, but that wasn't true for me because I had such a strong case of ADD; I nearly failed out of the first two years of high school due to a combination of difficulty keeping my attention under control and because I had absolutely no friends in school (I had friends outside of school, and yes, of course they were nerds), and probably the only thing that saved me was being transferred to a wonderful alternative school called Kradwell where I learned to keep my ADD under control and nobody made fun of you for being a freak because everyone was a freak. And I had some complicated family issues and many other things. And computers were an escape. Computers don't judge you, they don't make fun of you, they don't pressure you for taking too long to figure out a problem, they're just there and they have a world full of interesting problems that you can solve, and if you take the time, you can become good at solving them. (I don't believe I am a "born hacker" in the sense that I have naturally good computer skills... I am just very stubborn and have basically forced my way through with stubborn interest.)

And the more people I talk to, the more that I find that many other people have been like me. Not everyone of course, and this may be changing for the better: increased outreach efforts are reaching groups of people who might not fit all the "hacker prototypes", and that's a good thing. But for a lot of people I know, this is a common pattern. So many hackers are depressed before they are ever hackers, and they don't become hackers because they're depressed, but there's patterns that mean that this is a common thing.

Compounding this is that people who work on free software issues tend to be working on it for ethical reasons. And working on something for ethical reasons is, I think, one of the most important things that you can do with your life. The world does not move forward if we don't have people working on things for ethical reasons. But this can also be emotionally wearing: you're working on these things because you care deeply about them. Becoming personally invested in something, believing in something, takes a lot of emotional resources. It can be very rewarding when things are going well. But you're also up against a lot, and that can also be very wearing. Not to mention that there's a lot of guilt... you will probably not do things 100% right 100% of the time. I remember telling someone when I told someone that I was using a proprietary driver on one of my computers (otherwise, 3d acceleration would not work, and I am a 3d artist): "I do have this proprietary driver installed, but at least I have the dignity to feel terrible about it." (Yes, I do try to get around this also by running a completely free system to the fullest extent I can... though that can be wearing in its own way to try to do.)

This gets even harder if you're not just a user, but a hacker who is trying to build new, challenging things. When you do build things, when they're going well, there's nothing like it. But things can go badly too, and it's very easy to take things personally. I remember when I heard about the suicide of Ilya, one of Diaspora's founders, that frightened me. If I really did leave to do MediaGoblin fulltime (which I now have), what would I do to myself if things did not succeed? (Or even they may not be failing... I don't think Diaspora was failing, but it's easy to feel like they are when you're building something you care about and suffering from depression simultaneously.) Would I be able to handle the feelings of failure emotionally? Worrying that I could not was something that I struggled with when deciding whether this was something I should do (ultimately, I decided it was too important to not do it, not to mention the depression of not doing it would be even worse). But it's still something I've thought and worried about.

And it's very easy to take things people say personally. A number of years ago I used to join in the chorus of "X project sucks! This sucks!" and generally snarking on a lot of things that I thought sucked. My perspective on that has changed. For one thing, as a teenager on slashdot, making comments about a project "sucking" didn't seem like it could be hurting anyone partly because I thought that if I was tossing insults around, I was tossing insults at giants, and such words would just bounce off them like pebbles on their impossibly thick skin. The irony of this is that I thought that these people were like powerful, immortal coders, and thus impervious to any damage I could toss around, so why not vent a little? But now I run a project myself, and I know many of these developers who at one point seemed like mythical figures walking high above my head, and I know the truth: they aren't magical. They were never magical. They are just people. And that means they're just as vulnerable too. And those words can hurt.

Furthermore, snark is fun and easy way to look awesome. It's hard to build things, but it's easy to be an armchair pundit, throwing insults around. And it's not just the armchair pundits either; there's some kind of disturbing trend where plenty of people celebrate the past-time of attacking each other, and this is even encouraged by some of our most high profile community members. Every couple of weeks Linus Torvalds switches desktops and thrashes the other desktop system and everyone throws a party, except for the people who are currently working on that project. I don't know what they do; if I was working on their project, I'd probably go lie down on my bed for a few hours with the lights off and not move for a while.

Early on in announcing MediaGoblin, a friend of mine told me that it was mentioned on a podcast, and that the comments on this podcast said that it'd never work because the name was stupid and it was a GNU project and GNU projects never happen, or some sort of thing like that. My friend said I should really listen to it so I could hear what they were saying. Well, I was never able to listen to the podcast. I probably will some day, but I am afraid to open the file. When my friend told me that, I felt so terrible that I wondered whether or not I should even bother working on anything anymore, especially not MediaGoblin. I'll tell you an embarrassing truth: someone made fun of my project name and I cried about it. Isn't that the dumbest thing you've ever heard? It's like the kind of thing some dumb, dorky kid would do that everyone would make fun of them for on the playground. Except oh wait, I did it, and I'm an adult. (And I guess I was that dumb, dorky kid on the playground anyway.)

But what am I saying? We should never criticize each others' projects? We should just be really fucking, eggshell-steppingly nice all the time? Well, that kind of level of niceness sounds kind of exhausting. And of course, criticism isn't just good, it's critical. We need it to improve things. But I guess, just realize that it's real human beings who are running those projects. They're probably more vulnerable than you know. Would you say the same things you're saying about this project to the face of someone you know? Sometimes we say things on the internet that we would never say in real life. That sometimes makes it a bit easier to shake things off... but not always, and often not really. The person who's reading your comments might be the person who runs that project, and they probably run it because they care and believe in it. And they have feelings.

At PyCon a few years ago my friend Ian Bicking gave a wonderful and whimsical talk called simply Topics of Interest (or maybe it was his DjangoCon keynote, I don't really remember, it was at one of those talks; I'm intentionally not watching so I can rephrase it in the way that it struck me, even if that's wrong). At the time, everyone seemed to be bitching about the state of Python's packaging, and picking on the people who were working on it (I am guilty of this). I remember something that Ian said really hit me, which was something along the lines of: "When people work on hard problems, that's really difficult to do right, and it's easy to pick on those people for doing things wrong. But if you make fun of people who work on hard problems, then they go away. And then nobody works on those problems." I was really struck by that.

It's also true that in the optimal world, where everything is going well, chronic depression doesn't just go away anyway. It's always there, though a life that is going well is one where dealing depression is much easier. Even when it doesn't make sense though, even when you've carved out the ideal world for yourself, once you've burned the paths in your mind where depression and suicide can become their own escapes, it's very easy to fall back on them. Sometimes little things can trigger them. Sometimes a general buildup of anxiety. Sometimes it's hard to know why. But it's easy to fall back on those paths. It's hard not to.

That said, having chronic depression as something that doesn't go away isn't the same as "well, you have depression, it doesn't go away, so there's not really anything to do." I think people really are affected by what's happening in their life. I think that Aaron Swartz's suicide wasn't just "he had depression, so ultimately he'd eventually take his life anyway". If I had been bullied to the extent that Aaron had I think that I would not have been able to take it either. That could drive anyone to depression... and even worse, anyone with depression, I think it would throw them over the edge. So it's not just a simple thing of "it's depression's fault" or "it's the situation's fault". Depression might not go away, but there are things we can do about it.

But what? I've talked a lot about my own depression here. I hope nobody misreads this as a "feel bad for me" post. I don't want you to feel bad for me, I'm actually doing pretty well right now. But now you know a bit more also. And I've talked about depression, or I've tried to, in the sense of causes. As for solutions, or even action items... that's a much, much harder thing to talk about. I don't know if there are solutions; that sounds too much like a problem that can be wrapped up cleanly. There are things that we can do, I think, and but it's a lot harder to identify them. But here's a short list of things that I think are actionable:

  • Be welcoming of people. If there's someone trying to get involved in a project, that's an intimidating thing. If you're in some sort of position of leadership, remember that it's up to you to set the stage for a welcoming, friendly community. Support people who are being kind, try to help along people who are new, and try to help people who are acting inappropriately to improve the way they communicate to be considerate.
  • Don't participate in a culture of bullying. It's okay, even good, to share criticisms. But try your best to be constructive. It's easy and fun to be a snarky douchebag, but remember, there's someone on the other end of the internet, and they have a face, and they have feelings. Be nice to them. Be considerate. Give criticism, but give it constructively. And don't give bullying or antagonism your support, either.
  • Remember that activism is important, but hard and emotionally draining. We absolutely, positively need people to act ethically, even when the ethical solution isn't the "better" solution. But remember also that when we're asking people to try to stand up for what's right, that often means going against the grain of society, and that can be very wearing and require a lot of patience. So be patient to people also.
  • Be supportive of each other, and seek support when you need it. Remember: if you're depressed, you aren't alone. There are plenty of hackers out there who are depressed, just like you. And that means don't be afraid to find other people who are like you can be a support structure, and help other people when they need their support. A lot of what is really needed for people who are depressed is to have a friend to talk to about their problems. But of course, there's also only so much that people can do as friends: sometimes professional help is really needed. (And as Evan said in his forementioned post, making suicide prevention resources widely available is I think an important step in helping reduce risk.)
  • Remember that you're doing something important, and feel good about that. One problem I've discovered about myself is that I tend to not evaluate myself based on the things I do, but on the things I don't do. I think that's a common pattern, and both a source of drive for people to do better, but also the source of a lot of burnout. Remember that you're trying to do good, and feel good about what you've done and are doing. It's okay to feel good about yourself and what you do! And that means something else too: don't give up on yourself. The world isn't better off without you in it. It wasn't better off without Aaron in it either. If you need help, get help. The world is hard, and that means partly that it needs people in it to do important things to make it better. Do good, and value yourself for it.

Beyond that, I don't know. It's a hard situation to figure out how to improve, but I think it's important that we recognize and talk about this. I'm certainly interested in what others have to say.