Category: Depression

Throwing Impostor Syndrome a Bone

What I do

I am a member of a Customer Advisory Team (CAT) at Microsoft. CATs at Microsoft are branches of product engineering teams that focus on making sure large enterprises can achieve their goals using the product we focus on. We also help to make sure our colleagues who work directly on the product itself understand the goals and priorities of these large enterprise customers. Basically, think of some of the largest companies in the world… yeah. We help them.

How I tend to do it

The quality of my work tends to be high. Even just in the past few weeks, I have received four emails in which someone was praising the quality of my work and the leadership I show while getting that work done. People who shirk responsibilities and perform poorly don’t get to where I am. I say this not to put myself on a pedestal, but rather, so that when I tell you my brain decided on Friday that I was on the verge of being fired, you will understand my full meaning.

[Morgan Freeman narrator voiceover]: Mark was not on the verge of being fired. Not even close.

Not this time

On Friday, I received some negative feedback on my performance of one of the projects I was working on. Basically, I did not do a great job in confirming my understanding of the scope of the project. The result is that the work I have already done falls short of what was expected. And this will cause delay in my being able to deliver the output.

With my new understanding of the scope, there is no way to get it done on the original timeline my manager and I agreed upon. My manager had checked in with me several times offering clarity, etc., and each time I was so certain I knew what needed to be done I always said No Thanks. In short, I had several chances to proactively prevent this delay and didn’t take advantage of them. Instead, I let my assumptions wear the disguise of certainty instead of actually seeking that certainty.

Fuuuuuuuuck

Fuuuuuuuuck.

Enter Impostor Syndrome

This is when my Depression decided to call its cousin, Impostor Syndrome, to come and kick me in the junk. The fact that my work is consistently excellent didn’t matter. All that mattered was that one negative bit of feedback and the knowledge that I had let my manager down by failing to properly communicate. I had failed. And I was going to be fired because my manager would finally see through my disguise and learn the awful truth that I didn’t belong on the team… and never did. Impostor Syndrome was right all along.

[Morgan Freeman narrator voiceover]: The Impostor Syndrome was not right. Mark just had a great learning experience.

What I really want to share with this post is how I dealt with this bout of Impostor Syndrome. And it is only because of the therapy “work” I have done in the past few years that I was able to deal with it so effectively. I’m not saying it was easy, but it was feasible. The much healthier relationship I have with emotion (more on that in a future post) was essential in my rising to the challenge.

Friday evening, I worked late trying to do at least a part of this project in the way that my manager had originally expected. But I was still feeling the panic of the Impostor Syndrome telling me I had to make sure to get it right or I was going to have to sell a kidney to pay the mortgage. What do kidneys go for nowadays? The quality of my work was still not where it needed to be. So, I stopped working on it.

A bone

I decided that I would give my Impostor Syndrome some time to do its thing. It was like it had created a surge of energy, and that energy had to go somewhere. I could work really hard to suppress it, possibly causing a nice ulcer or something, or I could let it vent. I went with option B: letting it vent. It is similar to elementary school children needing recess.

I gave Impostor Syndrome Saturday. On Saturday, I did no work on this at all. I just let my Impostor Syndrome run free for a bit. I ran some errands, watched some TV with my wife and otherwise relaxed. I had decided that I would start in on Sunday to have my plan for how I would move forward with the project with the appropriate expectations on mind. I gave it one day. Then I would take the feedback as a learning experience: Own it. Learn from it. Move on.

It worked

It is Sunday afternoon as I write this. This morning, I did just as I said I would. I put Impostor Syndrome away and got some quality work done on this project that I am happy to show my manager tomorrow. I am in a much better place with all of this and excited to keep working on this project with this fresh clarity of what is expected. And my manager’s vision for this project is so much cooler than the one I was executing on.

I want to close that I am super fortunate to have a manager that was able to clearly communicate how I had fallen short of expectations. And, in good faith, gave me time to come up with the plan for getting it right. Sure. I will need to set a new deadline, but my manager approached this situation more as a mentor. And that was huge.

Huzzah!

Impostor Syndrome is not easy to deal with. But at least for me, particularly in this one experience, giving into it a little bit, throwing it a bone, really help me to overcome it. While this means of overcoming Impostor Syndrome when I screw up is still hard, it is not complicated: Own it. Learn from it. Move on.

A Bully and a Hero: Depression and My Paladin

Reading Assignment

Back in 2017, I posted on my professional blog about my oldest daughter, Paige, and some of her experiences with depression. That post is entitled A Bully and a Hero: Depression and My Daughter. While it focused mostly on her, it was also the first time I shared publicly that I had lived with depression as well. This post here is a direct reference to that one from 2017 and builds on some of those themes.

Before going much further here, I would recommend reading that post. I believe it will be worth your time; and it will make your reading of this one even more transcendent.

A Brief History of Mental Illness

OK. Now that we’re on the same page (this was not a planned play on words, but I like it)….

I dealt with depression a tiny bit in high school and had another obvious, but relatively brief, bout of it about ten years ago or so. But Depression was not really something that was clearly a chronic condition for me; I never had medication and only had very brief experiences with therapy until the past few years. I dealt with two different therapists/psychologists in my teen years. Both experiences were terrible.

My first psychologist experience was when I was in 7th or 8th grade. She was not my therapist, but I was required to see her. This is related to stuff/trauma I do not plan to share, so hopefully you can keep going without more detail. If not, then perhaps a nice cat video would be better for you.

This psychologist was adamant that I was supposed to be angry with a particular person in my life. She could not let herself consider that I was not. Nothing I said or did could convince her otherwise. Since her textbook said I should be angry, and I said I was not, the ONLY possibility was that I was lying to her.

I was not angry with the person she insisted I should have been angry with, but she herself inspired plenty of anger. Fuck off, lady.

My second experience was someone I went to see in high school a few times during my first diagnosed bout of Depression. He didn’t think I was really depressed so he treated me like I was just an ass hole wasting his time. You, sir, can also fuck right off.

Anger character from Disney Pixar movie Inside Out

My Bully: Depression

In 2018, or so, my Depression stopped fucking around. Paige was seeing an awesome young therapist named Corrin. She is bright, perceptive, and super helpful. I would bring Paige to her weekly sessions with Corrin, and would join them for the final few minutes. I was open about my history with Depression in the hopes it might help Corrin help Paige.

When I was starting to have trouble focusing, having bouts of crying completely out of nowhere, I thought it may be depression knocking on the door again. I shared my terrible experiences with psychologists in the past with Corrin and asked her if she would see me for 1 session, just so I could perhaps learn a coping skill or two. She agreed.

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For that one session with Corrin, I spent most of the time sharing my background, my family history with depression (my mom was Bipolar and she had suspected her father was as well) and childhood experiences. Plenty of my trauma stems from my mom; I will have posts on that in the future. As I shared all this, Corrin’s face got steadily more and more astounded and concerned.

Getting Help

When I was done, she closed here eyes, took a few breaths, then delivered a couple bombshells for me. What follows is somewhat paraphrased, but is pretty close to what Corrin actually said.

OK...

First, it sounds to me like you have been living with depression for decades and doing it without any type of support at all. I have no idea how you have been able to accomplish that, but stop it.

Second, I would strongly recommend you see a therapist that specializes in trauma. You have a massive amount of trauma to deal with and a generalist like me may not have the tools to give you the help you need.

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That first point hit me really hard for a moment. But then when I looked back at everything I had shared with Corrin for 40 minutes of near constant talking, it made perfect sense. I had been living with depression all this time. There were some periods when I handled this better than other periods. But there were clear times when my cup runneth over and it kicked my ass. I was not getting any kind of help for it. None. It was pretty clear that my solo career was coming to an end.

Corrin’s second point had even more impact. I had not heard the term “trauma” applied to my experiences before. I had only ever heard it on medical shows and war movies related to physical injury, etc. None of my “traumatic” experiences really related to physical harm to my body.

But some events we experience, like a car accident, an assault, combat, will trigger our fight or flight response. Then, later, events or even the perception of events that may remind us of that initial trauma, even in tiny ways, can trigger that fight or flight all over again. Which SUPER sucks.

You can read more here about the most common form of this, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). My traumas were a combination of several point-in-time events as well as environmental stressors over the course of years. Fun. Again, more on that in later posts.

What Is Your Quest?

I took Corrin’s advice and started seeing a therapist she had recommend, named Ashley. I also went to my primary care provider to see if medication would be a good idea. It was. I plan to write at least one post on medication, so I won’t go into it very much here.

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In my first session with Ashley, I went through my background, etc, just like I had with Corrin. Ashley’s responses were much like Corrin’s, with the exception of being a good fit to help me. I will cover more of my experiences with Ashley, including EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, discussed on the NAMI page I linked above) in future posts. I need to bring this post on home and I haven’t mentioned any paladins, yet.

My Hero: My Paladin

File:Diablo II characters.jpg
The playable characters in Blizzard Entertainment‘s Diablo II, my favorite computer game of all time. The Paladin is on the right, kneeling.

You can find paladins in the realms of Fantasy, like Dungeons & Dragons and other members of that sword and sorcery genre. A Paladin is a holy warrior, using the blessings and abilities granted them by their deity to fight for those who cannot and to smite evil wherever it may be found. Think of your ultimate “knight in shining armor” trope and add in a generous helping of faith and zeal. In a very real sense, a paladin’s powers and abilities are earned through their actions, boons granted by a proud god/goddess in appreciation for their efforts.

Ashley and I talked for a few minutes about my unexplained, decades-long, experience of keeping Depression at bay with no outside intervention (divine of otherwise) at all. “What do you think it was?” she asked. I had already been picturing a sea of pitch darkness with one tiny globe of light in the center, like a single spotlight on a massive, but otherwise empty stage. Moving closer to that globe, with some encouragement from Ashley, I could see, at its center, was a champion, fending of attack after attack from the darkness and all it contained.

HOLY SHIT! It’s a paladin!

Ashley, well versed in Fantasy and general nerdery (we had geeked out on Diablo more than once) gave a laugh of absolute delight, “I LOVE it!” She totally got it. More on that in a moment.

Seal of Approval

These experiences with Corrin and Ashley provide two fantastic examples of good therapists, and two points that I want to close with.

  1. A good therapist knows when they are not the best therapist for YOU and is honest about it.
  2. Finding a therapist who understands the context you come with, the point of view from which you perceive the world, etc, is immensely important.
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Corrin was able to determine from that one session that she was not in the best position to provide me the kind of support and help that I needed. She was up-front about it and pointed me to someone who would be a better fit. It is not hyperbole to say that 1 hour with Corrin changed my life. It serves as a boundary between epochs of my timeline: before Corrin and after Corrin are two very different lives.

My experience with Ashley highlights the importance of finding the right therapist; someone who will “get” you. Having the added burden of having to explain references to your therapist just makes the work of therapy that much harder. When I told Ashley that the thing that kept me safe against Depression for all those years was a paladin, I knew I didn’t have to explain what a paladin was. I knew she would instantly understand. Our shared understanding felt like a weight being lifted off my shoulders.

I Cannot Be Your Paladin

I have learned that this need for finding the right therapist is often an especially challenging one for people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. There are a lot of straight, white folks who are therapists. But someone who is Caucasian cannot fully grasp the lived experience of being a person of color. Someone who is heterosexual cannot fully grasp the lived experience of NOT being heterosexual. Someone with what we might call a binary (Male or Female) gender identity cannot fully grasp the lived experience of NOT having a binary gender identity. No amount of education can change any of these.

I feel strongly that it is crucial that I acknowledge the advantages I was born with. My life is not made harder by the color of my skin. My life is not made harder by who I love. My life is not made harder by who I pray to (or not). My life is not made harder by my socio-economic status. My life is not made harder by the country I was born in.

But I Can Let You Use Mine

My life is most definitely made harder by mental illness. I have that lived experience. I work hard to be the kind of person that can brighten someone’s day. Or help them carry their burden (as long as it isn’t too heavy; I have back issues). While I cannot fully understand lived experiences that are different from my own, I move through live with a decent amount of empathy. I sincerely hope that my blog can help anyone who chooses to read it.

From Can’t Juggle But Did It Anyway To Just Can’t

X All The Y Meme | CAN'T; ALL THE THINGS | image tagged in memes,x all the y | made w/ Imgflip meme maker

What’s this blog about?

When I was thinking about starting a personal blog about my experiences with mental illness, namely, Depression and Anxiety, I wracked my brain for something interesting to call it. I wanted it to be memorable. I wanted it to be short. I wanted it to imply that there would be some humor thrown in. And I wanted it to have some meaning for me, preferably on more than one level. I’m pretty happy with where this landed. “Cant’ Juggle” accomplishes every one of those goals. Besides, Hippopotamus was taken. In this inaugural post, I will share the story behind the title; and hopefully give you a preview of the content you will find here if you choose to stick around.

Years ago, when I started working as a data professional, I got to attend a lot of conferences. Almost always, I was a speaker as well. I loved standing on a stage and teaching people about various tools and technologies and making them laugh while I did it. Some of these events would have community zone areas for just hanging out that were strewn with beanbag chairs. It was a great place to spend time between sessions, on meal brakes, etc. I met great people here and made friends.

Can’t juggle

At one particular event, I was in a community zone with several other folks, but it was largely empty. Many of the beanbag chairs were unoccupied. I decided to see if I could juggle them. Why? Was anyone else juggling these vacant beanbag chairs? Of course not. What moron would even think of such a thing? It certainly wasn’t because I could juggle. I could not. Maybe I figured the attempt would be fun and might even garner a few laughs.

So I thought, fuck it. Without a word, I walked over to a group of chairs, grabbed three, and moved to an open area away from anyone. Then I went for it, trying to figure out the mechanics of juggling as I went. The first bag I threw sailed about twelve feet away and hit the ground. I went and grabbed it and tried again. And again. And again.

Wow! Mark’s an AMAZING juggler! Just top notch!
~ No one. Ever.

It was hysterically bad. I never even came close. I spent far more time wandering about picking up the chairs I threw beyond my reach than anything else. But it was indeed fun and it did indeed garner some laughs, including from me. Then it became a mission. Whenever I was not in a session or when the community zone was sparsely populated (so my colossal failures didn’t hurt anyone), I could be found tossing beanbag chairs around like an imbecile.

Nothing personal, but….
Fuck this guy and his stoopid juggling.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

But did it anyway

Then it happened. With two chairs in my left hand, I threw one up. While it was coming down, I threw up the one in my right hand just before catching the chair that was already airborne. Then I did the same with my left hand and so on. Once. One full revolution, before it all went to shit. A few seconds of outright victory that tasted so sweet. Kind of like Fortune Bubble Gum from the 1980s. Wonderful for a few seconds and then death. I wasn’t aware of how racist the packaging, etc., was at the time. I was just a kid. But since I do now, I chose to just link to it instead of putting an image in here. Growth.

Did I stop there, having conquered a small corner of the beanbag chair juggling world? Did I end on a high note like when John Elway won the Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos in 1999 and then retired? Of course not. I kept at it. In all my attempts at subsequent conferences, I never succeeded again. I never successfully juggled anything else either.

This is not a cautionary tale about juggling beanbags or any other barely jugglable objects. This is not really a cautionary tale at all. But it does establish the kind of outgoing, fun-loving person that I was. I loved making people laugh. And sometimes I would try ridiculous things to make people laugh. And I loved it. I was presenting at conferences, and emceeing company meetings at the consulting firm I worked for, and being told (more than once) that I should hire myself out just to attend parties and functions because I brought so much energy and fun and humor with me wherever I went.

Just can’t

X All The Y Meme |  CAN'T; ALL THE THINGS | image tagged in memes,x all the y | made w/ Imgflip meme maker

So, when I tell you that I have spent a substantial portion of the past 3 years afraid to leave my house; afraid to leave my basement office; afraid to be near people; near ANYONE; I want you to understand my full meaning.

I started having such soul-crushing fatigue from Depression that I actually didn’t know if I could keep breathing; actually despairing, “FUCK. I have to breath again in a few seconds…. How am I going to do that?”; or being perfectly still and getting so exhausted from it that I thought if I could just lay down, it would be better, only to realize I was already laying down; I was already doing NOTHING and it was too much (by a LOT). I was too exhausted to move, just from EXISTING. Too terrified of EVERYTHING to be near my family. From Can’t Juggle But Did It Anyway to just Can’t.

Where do we go from here?

In subsequent posts, I will walk through this descent in more detail, including some of the childhood trauma that had a major impact on me, even if it took a while to bubble over. I will also share how I came back from the mouth of the abyss. I’m back to work now, and have been for quite a while. I still have bad days, but fewer of them, and the ones I have are less bad.

I think that’s enough for this first post. I dug the foundation that future posts will be based on. Gave an inkling of the kinds of experiences I plan to share. I hope you will stick around for it. I’ll keep writing anyway. But if I can have this energy expenditure pay off by helping people, then so much the better.

One last thing. I have never heard of anyone else ever juggling beanbag chairs. So, I have to entertain the possibility that I may be the greatest beanbag chair juggler of all time. Just… you know. Just saying.

Addendum

My good friend, Doug Lane (blog|twitter) not only witnessed many of my beanbag chair juggling exploits, but even recorded some back in November of 2012 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, WA. You can now see videos of my beanbag chair juggling, including my one an only success on my new page The Tiniest Bit of Juggling.