Now: “better” doesn’t quite cover it. I feel genuinely good, for the first time in a long while. It’s an unusual feeling.
When I started my break at the end of July, I had planned to take two months off. At the start of September I was feeling some improvements, but the thought of going back to work in October still filled me with weariness and dread, so I asked to take October off as well. My manager Keith immediately approved it. Even though this was unpaid leave, it was still time off during the busiest time of year for our business. I tried not to feel guilty about the request. I tried to persuade myself of the same thing I tell all of my colleagues when they’re sick: don’t come back until you’re well.
It worked. As October progressed, I felt things click back into place. By the time the last week of October rolled around I was looking forward to going back to work, seeing my colleagues again, and letting fly with some of the ideas that shaken loose in my head over the course of my break. When I got back to work in November, the word I used for my time off was transformative.
The big question is: to what do I attribute this turnaround? Was it the time off? The antidepressants? The therapy? All of the above? It’s hard to say because I hit myself with them all at once. I wasn’t trying to experiment with gradual improvements. I had reached a crisis point, and I needed change right away.
If I had to pick one, I’d say it was the time. Time to stop, look around, and make changes to my environment, to my habits, to myself. A bit like Quicksilver running around at hyper-speed in X-Men while everything else appears at a standstill.
So what did I actually do during that time?
First of all, I didn’t try to do anything. I didn’t set out with a grand plan. My initial priority was purely to rest, nothing more. But as I started following my heart, a pattern started to emerge: I was admitting to myself that I’m no longer the person I was five, ten, twenty years ago. What defined me then is not what I’m interested in now. But the mental and physical baggage was weighing me down, and not allowing me to move on. This manifested in a variety of ways:
- I’ve had a subscription to Edge magazine since 2000, and I have a sentimental attachment to the issues from the early 2000s. I also have a physical attachment, because I never got rid of any of them. I have many boxes! I had the idea of scanning them, but I found a chap in New Zealand who has already done just that. His collection wasn’t complete, though, but I was able to fill in a lot of the missing pieces. As a result he now has a complete collection of scans, and I can get rid of a ton of paper safe in the knowledge that the magazines are digitally preserved.
- At Worldcon 2014 in London I dropped a chunk of money on a piece of stained glass made by the late Bob Shaw. I have been collecting Bob Shaw’s books for well over twenty years now, and in a way the stained glass was the pinnacle of the collection. I have copies of almost all english-language editions of all his books, many foreign-language editions, and quite a lot of the magazine issues in which his short stories first appeared. But although I love it, the stained glass piece (titled “Twin Planets”) never sat completely right with me. I bought it at auction, and to do so I had to outbid Justin Ackroyd, the well-known fan and bookseller, who named his actual bookstore (Slow Glass Books) after Shaw’s most famous science-fictional invention. So I contacted him and offered to give him the piece. Doing this felt right: like I was returning it to the person it really belonged to in the first place.
- I ruthlessly pared back the amount of books and junk I keep in my office while I was redecorating it, giving myself more empty space. For a while I thought that a chair would fit in the space nicely, but it was too much, so it migrated downstairs to be closer to our big bookcases.
- I started paying much more attention to my sleep. Basically, sleep more = feel better. It’s not even funny how much sleep matters to me now.
- I finished the work of geo-tagging and archiving our old digital photos going back to 1999. They’re now safely backed up in multiple locations.
- I let go of the glimmer of an idea that I was going to pick up the drums again. I dropped my practice pad, stand, and collection of old drumsticks at the nearby second-hand store, and felt much better. This created space in my head for me to pick up the bass.
- I’m not going to go climbing again any time soon, if ever. I got rid of my climbing shoes.
- I don’t enjoy golf any more. I got rid of my old clubs.
- I stopped regularly checking in on a couple of Slack groups that were a source of and FOMO, but were not contributing to my mental well-being.
- Earlier in the year I got a tattoo of a magpie on my forearm. In September I was playing around with my iPhone, trying to get pictures of the birds in the back garden by setting it up in time-lapse mode, spreading out some peanuts in front of the camera, and hoping to catch them in action. At the start of October I bought a new camera, and joined a photo-a-day challenge with some friends. I ended up taking a lot of pictures of birds in our back garden and on the canals nearby. Spending so much time with them and enjoying their beauty, I found that I could no longer justify coming back home and then eating a chicken for dinner. I couldn’t do it any more. So since October I have stopped eating meat.
- I’ve stopped drinking alcohol as well. Not that I drank much before, but age and IBS have conspired to make the next-day consequences of drinking more than a glass of wine or a single G&T actively unpleasant. And as a single glass isn’t enough to get me feeling tipsy, what’s the point in drinking alcohol at all?
But perhaps the biggest change of all is that I’ve discovered that I really don’t care much about writing code any more. What I really care about is the teamwork, interaction, communication, collaboration, consensus-seeking, and mentoring that goes on around coding activities. You know…leadership and management stuff.
This came as a shock to me. I’ve been working in software for over twenty years now, and during that time I have only ever sought work as a programmer or as a consultant. Writing code was part of my identity. Although I have led teams and managed people, I have never interviewed for a leadership or management role. People around me have often said I would do well in such roles, and as I get older and more senior it’s perhaps seen as an obvious career move.
“Management” has always scared me. Some of that is because it’s unfamiliar. I know how to code, and I (used to) know how to interview for coding jobs. Some of it is because I fear the responsibility. I burned out on teaching secondary school way back in mumblety-aught — a story for a different time — but the experience of how terrifying it is to be in charge of a group of young minds left its marks on me. Some of it is knowing how easy it is for my skills to slip out of date, especially in a field so relentlessly and ridiculously fast-moving as front-end web development. If I dedicated myself to a management position, and found that I didn’t enjoy it, or if I lost my job and had to fall back on coding again, would that even be possible?
But you know what? This is where my head is at right now. The problems I think about and want to be involved with at work are in the areas of human psychology, team dynamics, leadership and management processes. Honestly, this was probably where I’ve been heading for some time now. I just hadn’t admitted it to myself.
At the start of 2017, when Fiona was at the nadir of her illness, I was leading a team at work, but I felt like I had to conserve my emotional energy for home and the family. I took a step “back” to become an individual contributor again. (Charity Majors’ article on the Engineer/Manager Pendulum was a big influence.) This was good for me at the time because it took some pressure off, but it also left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. There was a growing urge inside me to mingle in a different problem domain, and I didn’t acknowledge it. I had convinced myself that what I was doing was also what I wanted. When actually, I wanted something else. Hello, cognitive dissonance.
Most of my healing has therefore been shedding my old, worn-out skin, and learning to be okay with that. I’m incredibly lucky and privileged to have been able to do that without walking out on my job, or blowing up my closest relationships. Looking back, it was a pretty close thing. I find it hard to believe how much I feel like I changed in that time. I joke that I was able to compress my mid-life crisis into the space of three months. Realistically, though, the pressure had been building up for a long time. That was one of the sources of my depression. I needed to change, but I wasn’t letting myself change.
Frantically clinging to a capsized ship, I’d forgotten I could swim.