On Burnout, Mental Health, And Not Being Okay

This blog did so many hits last week that the host platform experienced timeouts. I've been invited onto podcasts, and offered both small technical projects and journalism work, of all things. It was a crazy time. But the internet moves on, as it always does, and I am left, as we all always are, to figure out what to write about next.

The thread that runs through the emails I get is, surprisingly, one about mental health, though I didn't recognize it as such at first. Consider:

I found your blog today and, Jesus Christ, reading it made me feel sane.

The first few times I received emails like this, I thought of them purely as commentary on how out of place people feel when they're surrounded by the strange dysfunction that descends upon most organizations. But then other people write in to tell me that they're burned out after going through the above for long enough, which gives the whole thing a much more concerning overtone. One meeting too many and now they can't work — they feel terrible because office work is so much easier than manual labour, but brain.exe has stopped responding. Students write in to talk about how they're terrified of what happens after university, which is obviously somewhat comical to those of us who have graduated and realized that only a tiny fraction of the population cares about university performance1, but probably doesn't feel so fun for the student. Trans people talk about struggles with homelessness and unemployment. For some people, a good start is "I don't feel like dying today".

That's just the people that write in. With a million hits last week, someone that laughed at my dumb rant is fighting cancer.

There has been a point in my life where I ended every day in the dark, staring at a wall for an hour or two straight, trying to figure out why everything felt awful.

So what I want to write about, perhaps to the disappointment of the crowd that might want another rant, is that everyone at some point in their life will be Not Okay. It will be you, your parents, your partner, your friends. Any and all of them. There is a day, in the past, future, or present, where you will be Not Okay to a degree that is unfathomable. And, from personal experience, no matter how it feels at this very second, three things are true:

  1. You might get better no matter how hopeless it seems
  2. There's nothing to be ashamed of
  3. It's Okay to be Not Okay.


I'm going to share my experience, because I can't tell people not to be ashamed of what they're going through if I don't do it first. Remember: I am not anonymous, I am not independently wealthy, and people I know at real workplaces read this blog now. Some of them are industry leaders2 who will be understandably upset that I have suggested that LLM obsession and talking about Agile all day are signs of incompetence, and they have real power over me.

I've had three run-ins with burnout and serious mental health issues.

The first time I was studying my fourth year of psychology at an Australian university. The research facility I was at had a policy of assigning unpaid students to 11PM to 5AM shifts, presumably because we were meant to really participate in the research process, but it was probably because they were trying to avoid paying technicians penalty rates for working at night. Some people are motherfuckers, what can I say?

On the surface, I was a phenomenal student. I made work look easy enough to make other students jealous, professors were ecstatic I was at their lab, and my grades were solid.

In reality, there was nothing to be jealous about. I shouldn't have pretended to be okay, and made my peers feel inferior in a bid to prop up my failing health with an ego boost. Between the stress of writing a minor thesis, intense sleep deprivation, and the self-esteem of a 20 year old that grew up in Southeast Asia, I was a shell of a person by the end of that year. Within the first three months, it was not uncommon for me to undergo extreme mood swings, reduced to weeping for upwards of an hour in the evenings for no reason that I could discern. At the time it really felt like I might die from sadness — it was unfathomable to believe that a person could feel that terrible indefinitely without something vital breaking — and there really seemed to be no cause. I didn't know how to get treatment, coming from a country where therapy is for "crazy" people, so I just kept quiet about it for the whole year. I only sought a psychologist in the last two weeks so that I could get an extension on my thesis, which I could no longer even look at without panicking.

Shortly after getting my thesis through the door, and starting to get sleep again, I reached some semblance of normalcy.

The second time happened a few years later, in early 2019. It was quite severe. I was nearing the end of my Masters thesis in data science, and feeling extremely overwhelmed. Coming from a social science background, I was extremely underconfident when it came to both my mathematical skill and programming, a situation not helped by somehow landing the most technical minor theses out of my whole cohort — I had a book titled Statistical and Inductive Inference by Minimum Message Length open for a lot of the year. Again, my previous qualification dedicated a whole week to the fact that you can make dogs drool on command. I was not having a good time.

My stress crept up a little bit, day by day, until one day I just didn't eat without noticing. I have no idea what happened, because I really felt mostly fine the day before. Overnight, everything fell apart. I would awaken with this deep core of dread, so intense it was physically uncomfortable, and no amount of adjusting pillows can help with something that is entirely endogenous. I was possessed by a deep-seated feeling that nothing would be okay ever again, and there was just no point to anything. I'd try to sleep for as long as possible, because waking up meant going back to the real world.

By that weekend, I was staying with family, completely unable to care for myself. It took three days to go from a top-performer to being unsure if I'd have wasted away without help. I found a psychologist who was superior to the first, but was still barely able to help me with anything more than a few breathing exercises. Every day, my aunt would convince me to get out of bed, blessedly nag me until I ate something, and I would watch Brooklyn 99 all day because it tuned out the worst feelings until I was allowed to sleep again.

One day I noticed that I felt a little bit better around 9PM. And the next day it was 8:40PM. Then 8:20PM, like clockwork. Maybe it was some weird circadian thing, but I'll never know. Each day I just held on desperately, trying to grind out a measly hundred words of my thesis per day, wanting to die, praying that I would feel normal again. And I kept getting better, until one day I woke up at 8AM, felt bad until 8:10AM, finished my thesis, and binged Pathfinder: Kingmaker to celebrate being human again. Neutral Good Human Ranger, and trash fantasy has never felt so good.

Things were pretty good for a while after that.

And finally, the third and worst time — the one that eventually resulted in this blog and changing my life entirely. It started around the beginning of Covid, but it has been festering for a while. I was still working at my first Australian job, but a few things didn't feel quite right — I clued in very quickly to the fact that it was largely cosplaying at responsibility. Management was constantly embarrassing themselves with confident opinions on things they clearly had no experience with, doing their best to win status games, and otherwise forcing me to spend a lot of time on work that shouldn't exist, like figuring out why our team's database had fields labelled primary key but no actual primary keys. For the non-technicians out there, I can only compare this to a hospital having a hundred bottles labelled morphine that are, in point of fact, filled with water, and no one knew for years until I checked.

Nonetheless, I cruised for a bit, enjoying a first world salary before little issues cropped up. Management let my contract lapse for two weeks, and renewed it on the condition I agree to do a web development project I was totally unqualified for. I like honesty, but I also love not being deported and not being extorted, so I agree, then leave as soon as I can. At this point I'm already not feeling great, and had to pair this all with navigating Australia's extortionate immigration process. Plus the organization had laid off the only engineer helping me, mostly because he quietly did his job instead of talking to management.

I grabbed another job as quickly as possible to avoid my contract lapsing again, but management is a whole other level of toxic. Each day, I was locked into a tiny grey box in a dreary office, which runs way too hot 24/7 because there's a massive computer in there that we used for building neural networks. I undergo the events described in Flexible Schemas Are The Mindkiller. Management says they won't renew my visa unless I pinky promise to stay for years, so I make the promise, then of course I leave for my mental health. The millionaire CEO calls me to personally threaten me, at a point in my life where I couldn't tell if I had just ruined my career or if he was blustering. And to top it all off, I was locked indoors for a year.

It was at this point that it started to fall apart more catastrophically than ever. I was very, very lucky to have the money to afford a good psychologist, and to randomly blunder into someone I believe to be one of the best therapists in the state.

Every day I'd wake up with that same pit of despair that life was pointless, certainly partially informed by the stresses of immigration and workplaces that didn't align with my values, but some of it was just awful brain chemistry striking from nowhere. It only got worse when I solved the immigration problem, because I realized everything was still mostly the same and now I had no reason to believe things would change as soon as my permanent residency cleared. Though this sounds stupid now, I really felt that the only thing the future had in store for me was commuting, staring blankly at a screen, cramming in two hours of "fun" knowing that I'd have to do it all again until I retired. I hated everything about my lifestyle, even how I chose to spend my time off work. It was almost all entirely irrational, but it got worse and worse.

On several nights, the only thing that would make me feel even a bit better would be to turn all the lights off in my room, sit on the floor, and stare at a wall in the dark, in silence, sometimes for an hour straight. I'd wake up at 3AM with nightmares on many nights, and would sometimes wander my suburb at 5AM in a call with a friend. I could barely enjoy walks in daylight because even tossing a stranger an offhanded smile felt like I was expending all of my "lie that things are okay" budget for the day. I had to start working three days a week because pretending to care about weekly status updates was so taxing. At several points, I experienced suicidal ideation, meaning that I was genuinely in such dire straits that I started to think that dying would be better than struggling on with no end in sight, though I thankfully never made any plans to this effect.

My memory of all of this is quite hazy, as if it happened to someone else. The only real window I have left into this period of my life is The Book.

The_Book (Small).jpg

On a particularly bad day, I was seized by the urge to get the feelings out of my head, and I figured that onto a page might be okay. So I bought the nicest journal that I could find on the off-chance that'd make me feel a shred better, and I started to write every day. Frequently multiple times a day.

I haven't opened The Book in years until today, because there is nothing between those covers but something verging on madness. The little leather string is always drawn taut, because it makes me feel like whatever is in there will not leak out. I will not share the any contents verbatim because they are too personal. Within a single day, I would swing from feeling better, to self-flagellating over not practicing the piano, to thinking that there was no point to life, to appreciating a conversation with a friend, to obsessing over my diet. It reads like a raging current of insanity from a disturbed mind. Within two months, I had run two pens dry.

Suffice it to say I was not well. I kept a few pages blank at the very end, symbolically, because one day I will be unwell again, either due to bad luck, or grieving, or regular physical illness.

When I was at my worst, I told my brother that things had been going badly. Well, I tried to. I believe I knocked on his door, got as far as "I thought I should tell you that things have been —" and then choked up. He's had his own struggles, worse than mine, so he hugged me and said "It's Okay to be Not Okay".

I think that's the exact moment that I started to get better.

II. Getting Better

They will tell you you can't sleep alone in a strange place
Then they'll tell you can't sleep with somebody else
Ah but sooner or later you sleep in your own space
Either way it's O.K. you wake up with yourself

Everyone gets better in their own way, and at the risk of being trite, goes through their own journey. And I was lucky enough to have a problem that disappeared with enough therapy and lifestyle change — not everyone does. That journey may look like more madness at some points, and indeed, may be more madness. A friend of mine who is going through an awful breakup recently texted me that the secret to their current incredible physique is that they, quote, "no longer allow myself to take any pleasure in food", which I understand because I did the same thing but holy shit that looks horrifying from the fortunate perspective of my newfound health. But maybe that's just part of our path back to happiness. Which I cannot emphasize enough, does not mean that you should strive to make it your path to happiness, because that is a fucked up thing to say and I can't believe I ever endorsed it.

The first few times I was ill, it just went away on its own. The last time, the most serious, I threw everything I had at it, because I knew it was that or a life that was worse than death. Something about the direness of the situation unlocked a capacity that I didn't know I had. I figured if I was going to be clinically depressed, I should at least try everything so that I knew it was justified — and after all, if I was going to wallow then I didn't want to feel like I hadn't earned it.

I got into the best shape of my life, hitting the gym almost every morning. I ate exactly 1,200 calories per day, comprised of nothing more than chicken breast and salad basically every meal. It was disgusting and concerned my therapist greatly, but it didn't bother me at all since I was experiencing total anhedonia anyway. There was certainly an overtone of engaging in societally acceptable self-harm. I'd lift weights listening to the most furious music I could, leaving me with the permanent damage of enjoying D12 to this day. I'd be in the gym at 5:30AM some days to avoid looking too much like a man in crisis near other humans. I went from 84 kilograms and in dreadful shape to 68 kilograms squatting something like 1.3x my body weight, though there wasn't a shred of pleasure in it.

I signed up for music classes, purely because it was something I hadn't tried before, and I figured I might as well check it off the list before my heart gave out from despair. I found that playing scales made me feel slightly better, so I'd sometimes sit at my window hitting random keys for indeterminate periods of time, no doubt looking like a madman to everyone that passed by my window.

I signed up for improvised theater classes despite never doing anything like that in my life because fuck it, why not? If I'm going to be miserable at home, why not be miserable and embarrassed in public?

I reached out to every friend I had, not because I wanted to, but because that's what you're supposed to do. I either had an hour long call with someone or met up in-person every single day.

I summoned reserves that I never imagined I had access to in a million years, and despite that, to this day the only things that I know had an impact were pure wretched stubbornness and therapy. And I cannot emphasize this enough, if that sounds at all admirable, it was not. There is nothing dignified or gratifying in that kind of suffering — I would occasionally leave a gym session so livid that I probably would have started a fight if I got hassled in public, which is a deeply ugly thing to harbor in your personality. I throw out hyperbolic threats in rants so easily precisely because anyone who knows me in real life knows that I don't aspire to physical violence. Only communicative violence, where I slowly build up the political reserves to end the careers of individual grifters one at a time, like the Punisher but he kills people with Tweets.

Think about how sick I must have been. The thing I am most looking forward to in this world is ordering Cosmic Encounter and Cosmic Alliance from my local board game store so that I can run a full-day game with my improvised theater group, who will be working on an improvised musical with me this semester. Read that sentence then try and tell me I'm qualified for street fights.

The only ray of hope throughout the whole ordeal was the knowledge that, despite the fact I really felt things were totally hopeless, I was obviously mad and thus in no position to judge whether things were hopeless.

I just kept grinding, and each day I became a little bit more human, and now I have the capacity to take care of other people again.

Whatever fixes it in the end, it's going to be different for you. There are more qualified people than me to talk about how to get better. I'll just give the boring, obvious, effective advice, and hope that anyone who needs it has the ability and the reserves to action at least some of it.

  1. It does help to get out of bed no matter how much that sounds awful
  2. Exercise, even a little bit
  3. Read and watch uplifting things
  4. Find a good therapist, and accept that you may have to try several — the median therapist is as bad as the median programmer or real estate agent, and this is too important to add fifty caveats about how they're doing their best so that dipshits on Reddit don't get angry. Be prepared to ditch them within two sessions if you aren't making progress, but be more conservative if you're someone with strong "therapy is bullshit" feelings going in
  5. When you find a therapist, don't hold back. They can't help you if you do — a shocking number of my friends don't risk vulnerability in sessions then complain it isn't working
  6. If your friend has a good therapist that is unavailable, ask that therapist who their most competent friends in the field are
  7. Reach out to people and spend time with them — let them know you are Not Okay

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, in terms of "this advice doesn't get given enough", but sometimes you have to make big lifestyle changes. Huge ones. The default advice is not to take risks, not because it's generally good advice, but largely because they don't want to be responsible for you quitting a job and ending up homeless which is a real thing that can happen. But they'll happily tell you to hedge yourself to death. Some people genuinely have no choice about their current circumstances, but a shocking number of people become suicidal about situations that they can just leave if only their perspective wasn't so skewed by illness.

Do you know how many readers reach out to me to complain about workplace-induced depression, then reveal that they've almost started looking for new work? Almost starting isn't going to make you feel better, mon ami.

III. It Happens To Everyone

Many students have reached out to me in the past week, asking for career advice. I think they were expecting Python books3. Sorry kids, you're getting this instead, and one day I hope you'll understand that this is the best career advice I can possibly give you.

Here's the thing about a million people — they have one million problems. One million people sums to approximately a million instances of chemotherapy, divorces, bullying, funerals, layoffs, depression, anxiety, gender dysphoria, trauma, and PowerPoints that are due by Thursday. Someone who reads this blog doesn't know if they're going to live long enough to finish A Song of Ice and Fire. Someone who reads this blog thinks they will, but they will not. No one gets through life unscathed. Them's the breaks.

I might obviously have a lot of disdain for people that make the world worse with the lack of care in their work, but I still appreciate that they're going through something. Almost everyone that was a dickhead to me during the immigration process is presumably a reasonable parent to their children. The worst workplace bully I've ever seen struggles with crippling self-esteem issues. Some of the most clueless executives I've ever met take care of their families and have to deal with their parents passing away. I get it. No one gets a pass to an easy life, so everyone gets some baseline empathy.4

My first manager in Australia, now leading a huge team and working for big piles of money, told me that they ended up in some dark places in their late 20s. The senior administrator on my first team has been on stress-related leave for almost three years. Every single person at my own company has had either depression or anxiety, and supported me through my own, though it isn't my place to tell their stories for them. When I interviewed Simon Swords on my podcast, a literal millionaire who could easily pass himself off as a lifelong success story, he admitted that he had days where he just played video games and ate pizza while his wife tried to help pick up the pieces.

Someone approached me after a talk once, when I was still at university, and sincerely said they wished they could be me because of their crippling stage fright, and the fact that I seemed like I had it all under control. Some years after that, I went to a tiny conference in Adelaide and swept literally all the undergraduate research awards available away from the other four students who were presenting. What those students didn't know is that I was in the midst of that sleep-deprivation crisis. Before speaking, I had locked myself in the bathroom for ten minutes and cried until I couldn't anymore. It was gross too, not at all like a cool movie scene where the tortured performer presumably shows you the depths of his anguish before revealing his brilliance. There was a lot of shaking hands, snot, and retching.

I've seen a fencer that clearly had some intense stuff going on break down crying after getting eliminated from a huge competition, and at that same competition I saw a woman win the finals, weeping openly, because she was informed that her long-suffering father had passed away quietly in hospital while she waited to start the round. Life can be great and it can also be a carnival of misery, and we all have free tickets.

It is going to happen. It just is. There's no getting around it, and there's nothing to be ashamed of. Some days you will lose and cry as if it's the end of the world. Some days you will win a fencing competition and still be down a father. Some days you will not be able to get out of bed for longer than it takes to pick up the trash you just ordered on UberEats. Some days, hopefully, things will be pretty all right. I work with an engineer who was once homeless and exposed to what they once called fear-cold-hunger, but they're safe now. Either way, it's Okay to be Not Okay.

IV. Caring

Ooh, each morning I get up I die a little
Can barely stand on my feet
Take a look at yourself in the mirror and cry
Lord, what you're doing to me?
I have spent all my years in believin' you
But I just can't get no relief, Lord

Somebody (Somebody)
Ooh, somebody (Somebody)
Can anybody find me
Somebody to love?

I'm here today because people cared enough to get me through everything.

I've been better than fine for two years now, and the only thing that has consistently worked in the long-term has been taking care of myself and caring about things. I started writing because I actually cared that my work was being thrown away by complicit rogues, even though that made me sadder in the short-term than not caring. I kept writing because I felt some things needed saying, and I responded to every email (until now when it's basically impossible due to volume) because I cared that people were bothering to write in. I started a business because no one would pay me to do work with care built in as an employee, only to do work good enough to get someone a promotion. I make my girlfriend breakfast every morning because I care that being a veterinary surgeon is harder than my job, and I buy five types of greens for my rabbit every week because I care about him too.

I should be bee-lining for Thought Leader status, but I'm spending more time studying than capitalizing on the temporary fame because I care about representing our profession well. I care so much at times that it's probably a little bit demented. I mean, obviously, or I'd just accept an exorbitant software engineering salary and keep my mouth shut.

(Also, sometimes I don't care just because I need a break. No amount of admonishment or money will make me fiddle with another PowerBI dashboard and I'm not keeping up with politics, okay? I've got life going on.)

Caring sometimes means making drastic changes to bring you closer to things to care about. I gave up a huge amount of my income to have more free time. I have a friend that flew to Spain on almost no notice to spend a year and all of his money recovering. Another that fled the city entirely so that he can spend most of his time rock climbing.

Take as much caring as you can get. It's fine. Pay it forward when you can. Try to give more than you take in the long-run, but it's okay if you don't. It's okay to be angry, or sad, or to feel nothing at all even when you think you should. Take it from someone that expresses all of that and has to deal with the internet being the internet. Just help one person at a time, as unscalable as that approach is, even when that one person is you. I certainly can't do it all myself, but collectively we can make a dent, one problem at a time.

You would be really, really surprised what things end up getting people through their worst days. When I still fenced at the university, we had one fifteen year old student, and I'd hang around after class to keep them company until their mother could pick them up at 10 PM. Last year, their mother told me that this had been an extra kindness that helped them juggle two kids as a single mother, one of whom was transitioning. I had no idea, I just lived across the road and liked their company. I got through the worst depression of my life watching a YouTuber do challenge runs of Runescape, which the author no doubt thought was just a stupid thing he was doing in his free time, but it genuinely alleviated the most extreme suffering of my life better than any SSRI in existence could.

Someone, somewhere, has made my life better by choosing not to write terrible code that I had to debug in my darkest moments, and I'll never even know about it. But you know, thanks for the little things.

I suppose that's all I have to say for now. We'll get back to our regularly scheduled programming soon, but it didn't seem quite right to follow the last posts with something that made any concessions at all to popularity. I just hope it helped someone feel a little bit better.5

I'll end on a quote from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who went through some very serious loss but stuck by this sentiment, even though it took him many years to get back there.

And so we ride on and on, down through Ukiah, and Hopland, and Cloverdale, down into the wine country. The freeway miles seem so easy now. The engine which has carried us halfway across a continent drones on and on in its continuing oblivion to everything but its own internal forces. We pass through Asti and Santa Rosa, and Petaluma and Novato, on the freeway that grows wider and fuller now, swelling with cars and trucks and busses full of people, and soon by the road are houses and boats and the water of the Bay.

Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We've won it. It's going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.

  1. And those people are fucking dweebs for the most part. 

  2. The kind that accept panel invitations to talk about technology despite not actually knowing what Python is

  3. Okay, fine Fluent Python by Luciano Ramalho, but you'd better read the rest of this, and don't ever say I never did nuthin' for ya. 

  4. This is why I threaten to kill people quickly when they grift. 

  5. And if you're in a place where optimism is infuriating, I'd like to apologize, I've been there too.