Mild-Mannered Canadian Fury

Doug Stephen is Politely Peeved

Expectations


Thu, 04 Apr 2013 «permalink»

I haven’t written anything here for a long, long time. And I never gave much reason for it, I just sort of dropped off the face of the Earth. For that, I’m sorry.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’d say when I did start writing again. Partially to explain myself. Partially to just have something to write about again. Partially to reflect on the state of this site and what it is that I want to get out of it. It’s been 6 months (!!!) since my last post, so that’s a lot of thinking. And of course, I have a lot to say. But this isn’t just an explanation for my absence in and of itself; it’s simply my thoughts and feelings and recapitulations of what’s been on my mind and what’s been keeping me writing, thinly veiled as an attempt to explain myself.

Expectations

I have issues with expectations. I suspect that a lot of people, especially “nerds”, probably have issues with expectations as well. To be more clear, I have issues with expectations that may not be (probably aren’t) real. There are, as near as I can tell, three different sources of expectations:

  1. Expectations of yourself that are clearly communicated to you by other people. I am excluding the social contract insofar as the unwritten portions of it; laws and expectations of decency are explicitly communicated, as are things like terms of employment. For example, your employer probably expects that you will show up to work sober and wearing pants. Neglecting any one of the three of those expectations could lead to a great deal of distress for all parties involved. Caveats for the self-employed unless you’re particular embattled with yourself.
  2. Expectations of yourself, imposed upon yourself by yourself. This subset of expectations is probably a lot smaller than you think, because as I sat here trying to think of some examples I was having a hard time doing so. Your mileage may vary.
  3. Expectations that you impose on yourself by attempting to coerce your brain in to thinking that they are actually expectations that you are being held to by other people without you ever having had these communicated to you explicitly. These expectations are absolute horse shit. Unfortunately, these are the expectations that cause issues, and you may be spending an inordinate amount of time worrying about these expectations. I do.

Inordinate really is the perfect word for it, too. In fact, spending any amount of time on these issues could probably be classifed as “inordinate”, because they aren’t real.

So we have to learn to manage our expectations. We already make an excercise of doing this with other people in our lives, so doing it to ourselves shouldn’t really be an issue. There’s nothing worse than creating artificial expectations for yourself and then falling apart when you can’t live up to them.

Doubt

A few months before I stopped writing here, I was becoming a little conflicted about what I wanted this blog to be. It was conceived, at its start, to be a place for me to write about the things that I loved, with Apple coverage being only one element in the larger scheme of things that I would be writing about. What I had found, though, was a bit of a different beast. I found myself obsessively trawling through RSS feeds and online communities looking for things that I had started to feel like I was “supposed” to link to and write about. Whether or not I actually found them interesting was slowly losing its weight in my decision making process. I had stopped writing to an audience and begun writing for an audience. And that’s never how this was supposed to work.

I found that I had begun censoring myself when I would write about things I felt were too “nerdy” and in turn alienating; some of my favorite (and most trafficked) posts were my short blurbs and tutorials related to programming, but I found myself deigning to write pieces like that because they weren’t mass-appeal articles.

I had imposed an imaginary expectation upon myself, and I was losing sleep over it. I had let a small, intended-to-be-fun aspect of my life become something that was upsetting me. Somewhere, deep down, was a driving force that wanted to be “popular”. On the Internet, for that matter, which is about as meritocratically useful as a butcher working at a vegan restaurant. Then a bunch of stuff on the Internet happened.

Sick

The first thing that happened, and that really made me curl up, was This post from Stephen Hackett, recounting the story of someone in his life who had unexpectedly taken their own life because they were depressed. Hackett himself has written about his own struggles with depression, and the underlying theme comes back to something illuminating; Depression doesn’t look like a big, dark rain cloud. In fact, it often looks like smiles and shields. And then Aaron Swartz took his own life; a high profile incident involving someone who had also chronicled their battles with depression in the past.  Let me start by saying that this isn’t me suddenly realizing and bandwagoning on to the depression train. Far from it, I’ve actually been keenly aware of my mental state for nearly 15 years. I started seeing a therapist when I was 11 years old, and continue to this day. I’m fortunate that I had a supportive and open minded enough mother to see my problems for what they were and to address them early; because of this I’ve never really been in a situation where I had managed to put myself in to a real danger, not have I ever required medication. I have no illusions about the fact that I am lucky and in the minority when it comes to this.

A classic complication of someone with a depressed mind is the fact that they often possess the brilliant ability to climb inside of their own heads and spend an entirely inappropriate amount of time rummaging around through the most useless of thoughts with the sole goal of being counter-productive in every way imaginable. It’s something I’m guilty of and have been guilty of for a long time; in fact it’s been one of the largest challenges in my life. It has impeded my ability to perform well in school; I was suspended from my university twice for low GPA when I was 18 and when I was 20, achieving an impressive 0.9 accumulated average at the end of it because I managed to sink in to a crippling depression in the mid aughts without catching it on the way down. It hurt.

And it still hurts. There are still days where trivium like uncertainty and doubt and imaginary expectations can crush me so hard that I can’t even get out of bed. I deal with this every day; an unexpected bout of impostor syndrome might come a long and absolutely devastate my ability to do my job at the Robot Lab. An unexpectedly low grade in a course can cause me to start skipping classes and avoiding assignments with abandon. But perhapds the most distressing side effect of a depressed mind that has been struck a blow is how much you will suddenly hate everything that you love; food will lose its flavor, blue skies will become dull. Movies simply become empty escapes bereft of their once powerful stories. A place to be that isn’t here, or anywhere else for that matter.

It’s the shocking destruction of one’s very human passions that makes depression so hard to live with for me. Wracked with guilt when I fail to perform at my job, the job that I love; my emotions turn in to nothing more than gestures, going through the motions that let everyone around me know that I am in fact a human and not a golem. Contrary to popular belief, depression isn’t sadness. It’s… emptiness, and apathy, and fatigue, and inexplicability. It’s the never-ending frustration with a situation that makes no sense, because you sleep longer and love harder and consume quicker but nothing makes any of it better. You have to find a way to pull yourself back up when none of your ladders are even corporeal if they’re still there at all.

Depression is soaked in a very real stigma, as well as a horrible amount of misunderstanding. The same way that drowning doesn’t look like drowning, depression doesn’t sound Charlie Brown. Psychotherapy and mental illness are still seen as signs of some sort of weakness or flaw rather than sicknesses in our culture, and it’s distressing. The aversion to science, the ridiculous rhetoric, the shame on the face of someone admitting to being in therapy, the misplaced anger and hostility and derision that falls upon the “monsters” that murder innocents is a symptom of our culture’s dehumanizing and understanding of the mind.

I had become depressed again, months before I stopped writing. And this depression ultimately led me to stop writing in addition to the other aspects of my life that it was hampering.

So, I’m writing again. And working again. And smiling without trying again. I’m sure, in the future, something will happen that will take me back down. It’ll be tough. But I’ll figure it out when it happens. I like to think it’s been happening less and less as I’ve gotten older and accomplished more.

Management

Managing expectations is tough enough, for a well mind. Learning to identify the bullshit ones is important. It’s a skill and an art, and it takes effort. But it’s so god damn important. I know my strengths, and my weaknesses, and the sorts of tricks I can play on myself. And I know the danger of what happens to me, personally, when I let things get out of hand.

Stopping my writing here was the symptom that caught my eye. I’ve been doing great since January, but I made the choice to continue to put off writing just a little while longer, because I’ve been busy. Very busy, and I’ll be sharing some of what I’ve done very soon. I’m about to graduate on the 4th of May, which has been consuming a great deal of my time; I’m a participant in an academic poster, a paper, and an independent research project that I’ll be open sourcing at the beginning of the summer. In addition, the DARPA Robotics Challenge has been in full swing and the lab has been working its ass off. I wanted to get myself grounded and make sure I had my priorities in the right place before everything got too far out ahead of me, and it seems to have worked. I’m ready for this blog to be part of my life again now, too. And I’m ready to keep it under control. There won’t be as much linklog content; there will be some. But the short version is that I just don’t always have a ton to contribute in that space, and I don’t want to add to the noise; I usually agree with most of the stuff that the Old Guard has to say. If I feel I have something to say, I’ll say it. But in the grand scheme of things, post frequency will probably thin out. There will be less posting, but more of it long form. There also probably won’t be a ton during the 9-to-5 hours because I just don’t have the time to devote to scraping news and writing while the DARPA Robotics Challenge is still going on; it’s absolutely a 110% commitment with incredibly high stakes.

But I’m going to keep writing. In fact, this post is a pledge. This post is a pledge to keep writing, and a pledge to keep working, and loving, and smiling, even if it’s tough. To keep doing the best that I can to make the world a better place, even if it’s just for one person. Because what it really is, is a pledge to never let my sickness get so far ahead of me. It’s a pledge to be aware that it’s a sickness and not a blemish, and to do everything in my power to always seek treatment. And it’s a pledge to not let the our culture’s misunderstanding get in the way of doing everything I can to fight the stigma. Talking about this may not be “fashionable” three months after it was all over our section of the Internet here in nerd-land, but that isn’t what it’s about anymore. So now you have my word; and if I’m lucky, maybe after reading this someone out there will be strong enough to give somebody else their word.