Geek Mental Help Week

Since it’s Geek Mental Help Week I thought I’d share the most serious mental breakdown I went through in my professional career. When I compare it to the other stories I don’t feel it’s particularly serious — but maybe that sheer common-ness is the reason I’d like to talk about it. Mental health problems are not necessarily about profound traumas and serious disorders; they can also sneak up on people who’re otherwise decently balanced. Also, my story has a happy ending.

The story is pretty simple. I had some serious mental health issues in my early twenties, mostly due to my father’s unexpected death when I was 17. However, I grew out of it, partly because of my wonderful group of friends, and partly because moving on to web development gave me a professional goal. (My earlier goal of becoming a history teacher or possibly scholar had foundered due to a total lack of jobs.)

Anyway, everything went well for the first nine years. I had a brief breakdown when the dot.crash hit in 2001 and I had to fire front-enders (something no one ever prepared me for), but one of our HR people gave me the wonderful advice to just take two weeks off and recover. That helped a lot.

However, near the end of 2007, after five years as a freelancer, I felt spent. I had worked very hard in the last two years, with regular freelance jobs, writing my JavaScript book, the start of my speaking career with its associated travel (I don’t like traveling), and founding Fronteers. In hindsight I had done way too much, but I didn’t see that back then.

Anyway, in December 2007 I had a breakdown. I was working on a project, and suddenly felt the overpowering urge to smash my keyboard through my monitor. The direct cause was a CSS problem that I’d have dealt with easily if I’d been in normal shape, but at that point I just couldn’t do it any more. I was spent. I went for a walk instead, and forgot about working for the rest of the week. During that walk I made some fundamental decisions that seemed weird, but saved my mental health in hindsight.

I cancelled my last job for the year (I had never done that before, and fortunately never since, either), finished my current job rather too quickly, and just crashed. Also, I took the solemn decision not to work on actual production projects any more. I was tired of same-old same-old web development, and spending more time on consultancy, research, and conferences sounded pretty good to me.

At that point I had planned in a Christmas holiday, and I hoped that would get me back onto my feet, just like during the dot.crash. It didn’t. Those two weeks went by in a blur and when I was supposed to restart working I just couldn’t. I stayed in bed instead. For months. As a side-mental-health project I started explaining Dutch politics to foreigners. Why not? I am a historian first and foremost, and I needed something to do that involved some web development, but not too much, and especially no clients.

Still, that period shows how lucky I’ve always been in my career. I was able to stop working on practical projects because one of the things I had also done in 2007 was set up a kind of front-end-dev rental service, where I would select front-end engineers and connect them to front-end jobs in my network, retaining a percentage for myself.

After two months or so I thought I had survived my burn-out. I rose from bed occasionally to deal with some details of my selection/connection business; talking to new front-enders or clients, or doing some administration. Still, every day I noticed that after I had worked for about an hour I just couldn’t go on. I berated myself, hit myself over the head, and told myself to get on with it — to no avail. In hindsight, my problems weren’t over yet, and a fairly brisk conference-and-travel schedule didn’t help.

At the end of 2008 my burn-out returned, and once more I spent two months in bed, continuing to work on Dutch politics. Also, I let my selection/connection business slip, partly because it was too much work and partly because it didn’t feel right to keep part of the money somebody else was earning.

When I recovered from this second bout, in February 2009, I felt a lot better. In hindsight, I had been burned out for over a year because I’d restarted working too early. If I’d stayed in bed for three more months I might have cured myself earlier. At that point in time, though, I was just glad I was on my feet again and could start some serious work.

But what work? I had nothing, and my bank account looked awfully empty. Then I had my final stroke of luck: a mail from Vodafone in Düsseldorf came in. I knew a lot about browsers, right? They had to deal with browsers on mobile phones, and didn’t know where to start. Could I please come over and help them? For a handsome bit of money?

I went there, entered the mobile world about two years before the great mass of web developers, and never looked back.

So that’s it. It was just a burn-out, and in the grand scheme of things that’s not too bad. Still, I urge you to consider that something like this could also happen to you. If you feel strangely detached, and if the mere thought of working fills you with nausea, you may suffer from the same. Take it seriously by taking good care of yourself. Stop working for a while if necessary. Burn-outs are eminently survivable, but you have to acknowledge what’s going on and do something else for a while — or nothing.

So that’s the story of my moderately-serious mental health breakdown.

Oh, and one more somewhat-related point: impostor syndrome is good! Cherish it! It’s the people who don’t have it that are the weirdos. Not to mention dangerous.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, web developer, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter or Mastodon.
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