Creatives and depression
Jun 29, 2013
12 minute read

About a week ago, I watched this video about devs and depression. I was hesitant to watch it because I expected it either to be cliché and empty, thus a waste of time, or it to hit too close to home and that it would be put me in a vulnerable place. I’m happy to report that the second option was true.

I usually forget about what I read or watch in a matter of hours, but this particular video, all 27 minutes of it, are still resonating in my head. It’s not as easy to shrug it off when it seems the guy in the video is a version of you that decided to get out there and seek professional help.

To this day, I still suspect that what I experience falls into one of the categories of bipolar disorders. I like to think that it is Cyclothymia, from Greek roots kyklos, “circle”, and thymos, “mood, emotion”. It is essentially the softer variant of Bipolar Type II.


Cyclothymia, along with other kinds of bipolar disorders, largely revolve around two types of episodes. The kinda-positive one is called hypomanic (less aggravated than full manic). Symptoms include:

  • Unusually good mood or cheerfulness (euphoria)
  • Extreme optimism, inflated self-esteem
  • Rapid speech, racing thoughts
  • Increased drive, decreased need for sleep

Sounds exactly like me when I’m starting a new project. This is going to be awesome! I’m going to rewrite the whole codebase! I can do it, I have got the experience, look at all I’ve done. Everybody knows that I am top tier. Just look at the mass of work I have amassed.

That’s not all there is to it though. I have left out a few symptoms of the hypomanic episode:

  • Aggressive or hostile behavior
  • Lack of consideration for others
  • Agitation, Risky behavior
  • Spending spree
  • Inability to concentrate

Sounds more like a Linus Torvalds or an Ulrich Drepper, right? Now all the drama in the open-source community is starting to make sense (acknowledging the fact that getting humans to collaborate on anything is a miracle in the first place, not everybody is bipolar, thankfully).

I hear you, everyone who writes articles regularly about how even established programmers have no right to be gigantic assholes. My theory is that it is much less their fault than a casual observer would assume.

Surely, given the choice to be a bully or a decent human being, anyone with good intentions will choose the latter. So why are there well-intentioned bullies? Because they are in a self-destructive, others-harming, coding spree in which choices are between what is right and wrong code-wise, not human relationships wise.

I have lost count of how many people I have hurt while in those episodes. Starting with my parents, nurturers of early-bloomer-hacker-me. And then every friend or lover I have had the honor of meeting since. Even those who were not involved in my projects - just being in my vicinity while I was concentrated on something was a risky bet.

It might be related to pressure. I wrote an article about pressure back in 2011, in which I wrote these words:

Ever had the impression you were talking to a wall? That’s when you’re attempting to reach someone in a different dimension. Functioning in that extreme part of our job is so intense, so different from mundane life that it becomes simply impossible to communicate with the people we have left behind.

Understanding the effects of Pressure

Even though I can remember the circumstances in which I wrote this piece, and considering it has been barely two years, I feel remarkably distant from the Amos of back then.

As far as I can tell, it is partly because I have learned to deal with these episodes, I have learned how easy it is to badly hurt your peers, I am trying very hard, every day, to not be that person again, and sometime I fail, hard. But then I get up again, and am incredibly grateful that even though I have been impossible, some persons have stood by me.

Now onto the darker episode.

Depression / dysthymia

Yesterday, after struggling to get up following a long nap filled with denial, I tried to get some work done. I was reminded that, besides my daily 750 words routine, I had set a goal for the day: to get an ooc + OpenGL program running on my newly-received Ouya console.

After one of my favorite treats, coffee and cigarettes, I set up my desk to be able to see simultaneously what was happening on the Ouya’s TV screen and on my laptop-turned-workstation screen. I started to reproduce yesterday’s results: yep, the APK I compiled a month ago for my phone does not play well on Ouya. It crashes after 234ms. Oh well.

I started to upgrade everything, to try and recompile cleanly, to see if SDL2 hadn’t patched their Android support layer, and all the while I was doing that I was still obsessed by this talk about devs and depression I mentioned in the beginning of this post.

I was excited to have received my Ouya because everyone is skeptical of it, which means there is room for some games on that beast - the market is not yet crowded, or at least not yet crowded with quality games. At the same time, my original plan when going full indie was to go on with The Choice, the PC-only, text programming adventure.

Which, in turn, reminded me I had news to announce that I still haven’t announced yet, because I was waiting on some paperwork related to my move, and also because I hate doing big announcements and prefer to talk one on one.

That reminded me of the last time I had a big talk with someone - just after my final university exam, a week ago, just before watching the talk. I described to a group of amused friends, how I think entertainment has replaced religion as a means to control the masses, how 21st century start-ups are seemingly pointless to me because primary resources have been locked down by a few controlling interests soon after the industrial revolution, and other funny banters you could hear at any bar (my opinion, which cannot be summarized in four hours of intense discussion, can definitely not be summed up in a paragraph.)

And that reminded me that I was originally excited about The Choice, because it is the first game where I try to put some of myself, my vision into it, in which I really try to tell a story. But it also reminded me my outlook was rather somber.

I was reminded that every single time I have talked to one single person long enough about how I see the world, they either discarded my point of view for any number of reasons (which could include discomfort, denial, disinterest, or just a busy schedule), or they were struck by it and took some time to recover.

So, I thought, what, should I just go back to making generic games like Bioboy, or Danger Zone, or Lonely Planet? The kind of games that happen when you have design by committee instead of a single individual going nut. Or just not making games at all. After all, there recently was a very convincing presentation on how games are not the ultimate medium to express yourself.

I also thought, as I often do, that maybe I am not so special. I think I am, from time to time, because some people told me that along the years. But really, for every individual thought I had, there is someone on the Internet calling it a cliché and explaining why it is wrong and misleading in a very persuasive manner.

Or is it not my individual thoughts that are interesting, or valuable, or worthy of creating a narrative around, but the specific combination of them? But even so, is my particular combination unique or remarkable? And, even if it was remarkable, isn’t the way I am feeling right now the very proof that it is intrinsically harmful and that I should hide as deep as possible and just put on a happy face so that the show can go on?

Overwhelmed, I tweeted the only thing I had the mental energy to tweet:

I have no public place left to express myself.

Over the past two years, I have been censoring myself more and more. Invoking the imperative of self-preservation: “I don’t want a potential client or an abusive troll reading about that, it could be used against me”, but also the genuine question of the interest of my thoughts at all. And the fact that seeing the quality of your writing decay before your very eyes is depressing in itself.

I eventually gathered courage and reached out to someone. Then someone else reached out to me. Out of nowhere, I started to cry. I hadn’t cried since May 13. It took me completely by surprise. While putting in words what I had been going through to folks I know only over TCP, my body had this weird thing where it reacted to what was happening in my head and triggered an actual physical token of my internal distress. And as I am writing this paragraph, it is doing it again.

Now you hopefully have a semi-accurate idea of what I went through yesterday. Let’s look together at a list of symptoms for the more vexing part of bipolar, aka the Depressive / dysthymic episode:

  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Problems concentrating
  • Poor memory recall
  • Guilt
  • Self-criticism
  • Low self-esteem
  • Pessimism
  • Self-destructive thinking
  • Constant sadness, apathy
  • Hopelessness, helplessness
  • Social withdrawal, appetite change
  • Self-neglect, fatigue, insomnia

Oh. Okay.

Is it real?

I wish I was making this up. I also wish it would be easy to just discard the observations above as completely normal at that age (I’m turning 23), or in that social context, or in that era of human history. I wish it sounded convincing when I am arguing that self-diagnostic is almost always unreliable, and that it is enough to read the description of a disorder to think that you are affected by it.

But I’m not making it up, and whatever excuse I find, I am not convinced. I have been brought to accept that I am fighting against something that makes life more intense, but also much harder. That makes stress situations really productive, but with terrible side-effects. That makes downtime periods a very vulnerable place to be. That makes all relationships more complex but also perhaps, more genuine.

And the thing is, I am not alone, far from it. It runs in my family. It runs in the start-up world I tried to belong to at some point. It runs among independent creators (including developers) of all ages, all genders and sexual identities, all countries. Among my close friends, too.

Around 2008, I wanted to kill myself, because I had lost what I thought would be my whole life back then. And someone, a friend of a friend, convinced me not to do it, and to give life a second shot. This was not an epiphany, this was the reluctant beginning of a long road to a new life.

It was not until I was lying on the floor of someone’s bathroom, convulsing, in the middle of a, frankly, quite worrying panic attack, biting on a towel to avoid hurting my tongue, trying very hard to think of something, anything, to help me calm me down - while I was witnessing a third party who stood still, visibly unfazed - that I realized it had to change.

It was not until I drove my father’s car into a ditch, completely destroying it in the process and miraculously surviving it, not after having a call with that same person, hearing “I knew you were going to have an accident.” without any perceptible emotion, it was not until then that I realized I had to take my distances from normal people for a while.

So I went and continued what I was always doing, now fully consciously: seeking out damaged people, so that we may share our stories, and support each other. Long ago I used to give out advice. Since then I have largely stopped doing that, but I am a more attentive listener - and open to all sorts of lifestyles that were completely unacceptable, judging by the standards I was taught, and have since forsaken in part.

Which is to say: damaged people attract each other, because they tend to isolate from the rest of society, who doesn’t understand them. How many blogs, tumbles, tweets to this day that complain about the incomprehension that exists around depression alone?

And so, it is not because a seemingly large number of people around you are affected by depression, or bipolar disorders, or any variant thereof, that you are not affected yourself. On the contrary, it would make perfect sense.

What to do?

There are professionals. There is medication. For me, as long as I can cope with it in reasonable ways, as long as I am functional, as long as it doesn’t completely alienate me from the people around me (be it physical proximity, emotional proximity, or intellectual proximity), I will avoid resorting to these.

I have written about insanity before. I think all the creatives out there work differently from the consumer types. It is not a dichotomy, and broad categories are as harmful as they are helpful in constructing organized thoughts, but there are differences - and I don’t think working differently is inherently bad.

In a way, awareness, creativity, laser-sharp focus, seeing the big picture, emotional hypersensitivity, projection, and all these skills are blessings. They are also curses. But you can live with them, if you keep trying to communicate. Keep expressing yourself. Don’t lock your thoughts up. Draw, write, write music, go talk to strangers - in my experience, help always comes from the most unexpected places.

Wherever place you are right now, whatever episode you are going through, or no matter if you consider yourself relatively normal by the standards I have exposed above, please learn to recognize these differences. Learn to appreciate these. Refrain from trying to take advantage of the people affected by them, but rather, treasure them. Be around. Hug your loved ones, and get started on loving the others.

Take care, everyone.