Scott Francis

World Mental Health Day 2019

I can remember exactly where I was on World Mental Health Day in 2018: nervously pacing in my apartment, waiting to hear back test results from a psychologist.

I'd spent 2018 out of work on effectively an enforced sabbatical. After yet another layoff and fifteen years in a seemingly stable software career, I could no longer work up the energy for the meat-grinder of job-hunting in a major city. At the time it felt natural, since I had just finally been freed up after several years of life-changes and family events.

For most of the year I buried myself in personal research projects, nature walks, and unpacking the boxes my life had been stored in for several years. I was convinced I would finally have the time for all of the projects and research I'd hastily scribbled notes on for the past decade. But I kept jumping between research, note-taking, quick experiments, and then forgetting I'd done anything at all.

While I was employed I had the typical USA-based developer's fear of having anything even hinting of psychological issues on public record. The ongoing sense of dread, anxiety, and fear that I had deep-rooted issues was hitting a peak in 2017, right before my layoff. At the height of those stressful days it was all I could do to stop myself wiki-walking across various personality disorder pages right before bed.

The dread seemed to fade once I had a few months away from the stressors. But the isolation and worry persisted and I wasn't getting anything done. In September 2018 my mother gave me a call: while cleaning out one of the family storage units, she'd found a mislabeled box of paper files and I should come over to read some of them.

The box contained my schooling records up until college. That history I knew. But in 1994, as I was entering high school after traumatic experiences in junior-high, the school had recommended that I be evaluated for ADHD since my grades were not up to par. That history I did not remember at all save for vague recollections of testing machines, that were usually denied by my parents.

The report stated that, in addition to what looked suspiciously like PTSD from junior-high, there were clear signs of ADHD and a recommendation of trialing stimulant medication. This I had never known, as my parents had apparently vetoed any drugs when my family doctor brought it up and the report was then lost in the family's files. College followed shortly and everyone forgot about it.

Mom let me read the report in silence and then noted that the psychologist who had evaluated me was still practicing. I had an appointment within the week and completed a full neuropsych evaluation within the next two. And that was where I was in October 2018.

The report was completed a week later. As before, it stated there were clear signs of ADHD. But there were two things I didn't expect.

The first was that the ADHD type was "partial inattentiveness", which was not a term I had ever heard. The stereotype of ADHD/ADD had always been "the kid who can't sit still" or "the kid selling his Ritalin to other students" which I wasn't. But I was the daydreamer and never quite good at staying on task with deadlines.

The second was a clear diagnosis of dyscalculia.

From Wikipedia: "difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic, such as difficulty in understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers, performing mathematical calculations and learning facts in mathematics." For someone who's been a professional software developer for fifteen years, that's a bit of a gut punch.

It's estimated that ADHD affects 2.5 to 5% of adults. Dyscalculia affects another 3-6%. Combined ADHD and dyscalculia in adults is 11%. Lucky me.

I count on my fingers for small sums as an unconscious habit, even after memorizing counting tricks. I have to have pen and paper to take down phone numbers from voicemail. Most psychology books I could find in the 90's said that continuing to count on fingers after childhood indicated "serious problems". Imagine having that at the back of your mind during college and constantly pushing off the nagging feeling that you're not capable. After all, you're normal, so why are you having so many problems with this?

On occasion I have described my computer science degree from a state school as "hilariously abusive". For every professor who explained pointers so well that I remember the epiphany years later, there were three who stated "the best way to get a good grade in this class is to fail it and keep retaking it" right after throwing us the McCarthy Lisp notes and a Standard ML book.

I did horrible under timed tests, with math in particular. I had a full-fledged panic attack during my Calculus 1 final. My test scores would be compensated by good grades on papers but they would take all night to write: 2 hours for the draft and 4 hours to convince my brain to focus on the task. It was the early days of the Web and even before Google there was plenty of mental fodder to waste time on.

Impostor syndrome is more increasingly acknowledged these days, but it was my life for most of those fifteen years. I graduated college and started working in the early 2000s in the hiring wasteland of the dot-bombs and 9/11. I saw that first job as just a lucky break, since it didn't start out as a programming job.

After a bad hire at my first employer slipped through interviewing and nearly destroyed the Subversion repository, management announced the hiring rules would now be much tighter. Trying a few online algorithm quizzes convinced me that I could no longer qualify for my junior position. I spent the next two years quietly going to pieces while remaining absolutely silent. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

Having then moved to a rural town to work with a college friend, I stayed there for six years. Partially due to already being this side of broke as the Great Recession came around, and partially due to being convinced I couldn't get any other job. It was at least 3 hours of travel time to any other major city for an interview, with no guarantee that I wouldn't flame out spectacularly. Never mind that I single-handedly designed and built a Rails-based newspaper CMS while also wearing a devops hat(before it was called that), I was Stuck There.

I have always been told "you just haven't interviewed enough! Do more of them and you'll get better at them." That is effectively a lie for me with modern-day software developer interviews. I can handle stressful situations. I can even converse and have been through enough of them to know on a social level what interviewers want. But I have never, ever, been even adequate at quizzes involving math and algorithms.

I opened a leetcode account, only to find the initial problem marked "Easy": "from this array, return indices of the two numbers such that they add up to a specific target". I can brute-force a solution that steps through the array for O(n^2), but the O(n) solution of "multiply ALL the numbers in the array together, then divide it by each entry" does not come to me. I can be told it afterwards, haltingly step through it in my head, and hesitatingly accept it. But it will never come natural. Please don't ask about converting integers to Roman numerals.

During my career I have never had the slightest interest in working through Project Euler questions, even after I understood it could help with jobs. I could not fathom why people would torture themselves just for better runtime on math algorithms. After all, it took me twice as long to complete my algorithm homework, and I was normal, so what could possibly be the reason?

I didn't become truly confident in my developer skills until my thirties, on a firmware project for a Major Company. There's still a mocking voice that whispers "but all you did was the build system, you didn't do the Hard Work". Despite that the factory-test code I wrote is forever burned into physical products sold in major department stores, that voice will still come up in unguarded moments.

It is extremely lucky that I grew up with access to health care, specialists, and well-meaning family. My parents may not have always made the best choices, but everything they did was attempting to do the right thing. I still have access to a level of healthcare while unemployed: only four months of arguing with the insurance company to be reimbursed for a fraction of the cost. I shudder to think of trying to get this evaluation without even the minimum level of health insurance I have, or being without access to understanding healthcare providers.

I write these words with no desire to curse my history or to demand 35 years of back-interest on sympathy. I write these words because more people need to hear them from their peers. From people that were "normal" up until a year ago. There should be no shame in speaking out, and in a perfect world there shouldn't be consequences for simply disclosing one's mental spectrum.

But due to our industry's mentality, and especially with the USA's labor laws and broken healthcare system, there is a deeply-rooted fear of giving management any possible reason for termination. And that fear is killing people. Has killed people. And will probably keep killing people if issues like these are never discussed or keep being swept under the rug.

To those who loudly want to dismiss issues like this, are you speaking out of anger? Ignorance? Or out of fear?

To those who want to discuss it more, I welcome you kindly.

And to those myriad more who quietly recognize anything in the history I have written: please keep going. It's never an easy time. But it's ours.