Ed Finkler on anxiety, depression and attention disorders

This article was originally published as part of Geek Mental Help Week 2014.

My name is Ed Finkler. I've been a web developer for nearly 20 years, and I've been writing code for web applications for about 15. I'm a father, and I'm a husband. I am on a local school board. I founded an open source discussion group in my city. I also have something called Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. I have also dealt with extended bouts of depression for the last 26 years.

There are a lot of people who have disorders like mine. Together they are called 'mental disorders', and in the United States one in five people deal with a mental disorder every year. The most common are anxiety disorders, like mine.

Every day, I take a combination of medications that help me cope with my condition. I also see a therapist every couple weeks. This combination of psychotherapy and medicine gives me more control over my anxiety and attention disorders. They are always there, but they don't have the same debilitating impact they would if I didn't get help.

My anxiety disorder has manifested in numerous ways:

  • Between the ages of 20 and 30, I suffered from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and was so afraid of being away from a bathroom that I rarely spent more than 15 minutes in a car. I was terrified to travel anywhere, even an hour drive to visit family. The anxiety made the IBS worse, and the IBS made my anxiety worse, ad infinitum.
  • I'm very scared to go places where I don't know the 'rules' or social etiquette. I'm terrified to get on public transportation because I think I will not understand how to pay or where to get off. I am scared to walk into unfamiliar bars or pubs, even if I know friends are waiting for me, for similar reasons.
  • When I have a lot of things going on, I often feel overwhelmed; and I become extremely irritable. I will yell at friends and family. I want to break things and scream and tell everyone I know and love to go to hell. It will make everyone I see an enemy, and everything I enjoy useless and empty. When I get like this, I often have to spend an extended period alone until the emotions pass for fear of lashing out at the people I love.
  • I construct elaborate negative outcomes quickly, often to benign triggers. If my boss writes me an email and says he needs to talk to me about something on Monday, I am apt to spend the entire weekend obsessing over the meaning, unable to enjoy anything, and convinced that I'm getting fired and will lose our house.

Attention Deficit Disorder

My Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) was diagnosed when I was an adult, but I'm quite certain I had it as a child.

I had lots of problems staying focused on tasks that didn't interest me and would become frustrated extremely quickly with schoolwork that wasn't immediately obvious. In my high school class, I had one of the lowest GPAs and one of the highest SAT scores. And throughout college I struggled to balance multiple subjects.

I have spent entire weeks not accomplishing anything at work because I didn't want to do some semi-tedious tasks. I have hated myself for it because I knew I was capable of doing the work, but I could not make myself to do it. I've often felt that I could accomplish so much more if I could just make myself do what I know I should. This is incredibly frustrating and demoralising.

Feeling broken

The worst part of all was feeling that no one else was like me. For many, many years – throughout high school and college and well into my 30s – I was convinced that I was broken. That I would never be right.

I believed that I was not capable of coping with life, because things always seemed to go wrong. I always screwed it up.

Happiness never lasted. It would always be ruined, and it would always die. This was the pit of depression I would find myself in – where I could be in a room full of people but feel completely alone, because no one understood. No one was like me. There was no hope.

You are not alone

Turns out, I was not alone. There are a lot of people like me, dealing with anxiety disorders or depression or substance abuse or other kinds of mental disorders. Twenty percent of Americans have one in any given year. As measured by years lost to disease (YLD), mental disorders are the most important cause of disability worldwide, accounting for a third of YLD in adults.

But most of us are scared to talk about it. Only 41 per cent of people with a mental disorder get professional help. Help is available; but because we aren't talking about mental health openly, and we don't put the time in to educate ourselves about resources, people don't get what they need. So they stay sick and suffer unnecessarily.

In the workplace, those with mental disorders fear the consequences of speaking about their conditions with supervisors. They're scared of being misunderstood, feared, or labeled as lazy or difficult to work with. Right now, there are members of your team dealing with a mental disorder. They're probably afraid to talk about it, and they probably don't know how to get help.

Speaking out

As developers, we need to change the culture of our workplace. We need to speak openly about mental health. We need to learn what resources are available for ourselves and our coworkers, and we need to know how to help each other.

"I learned tons of new stuff in this course and realised several mistakes I was making"

"I learned tons of new stuff in this course and realised several mistakes I was making"

This is especially important for supervisors and team leads. I was lucky to have understanding managers I could trust to talk about my mental health problems. They worked with me to help me feel safe and accommodate me, and it has had a major positive impact on my ability to work and my quality of life. The power those in supervisory roles have to help their employees and establish a culture of empathy and understanding is massive; so is their responsibility.

That's why I strongly advocate taking a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course. I've did it. Here in Indiana, it took eight hours and cost me $50. While I've been dealing with mental illness for over 25 years, I learned tons of new stuff in this course and realised several mistakes I was making when helping someone having a mental health related crisis.

Take a day

At your next team meeting, bring up MHFA. Explain what it's about. Ask your manager if it's OK to take a day and get certified. After you take your course, take 10 minutes to tell the team what you learned, and explain that they can talk to you if they need help. Someone will want to talk to you. You will be able to help them.

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Ed, also known as Funkatron, does frontend and server-side work in PHP, JavaScript, and Python. Along with Chris Hartjes, Ed is co-host of the Development Hell podcast. His current passion is raising mental health awareness in the tech community with his Open Sourcing Mental Illness speaking campaign.