How Am I Not Myself?

My second favourite movie is I heart Huckabees (First is Memento). It bills itself as an existential comedy, which you know, fits my genre. It explores some of the absurdities with life, meaning and nihilism. One great line in it is when Lily Thomas’s character asks

“What do you think would happen if you didn’t tell the stories? Are you being yourself?”

I heart Huckabees

And the answer Judd Law’s character gives helped me with a big struggle I had with my mental health.

For many years I worried greatly about how my behaviour changed when taking my meds. I wasn’t as pessimistic, I didn’t ruminate as much, I didn’t spend as much time thinking about how the world is fucked. I struggled with it because there’s an easy trope to fall into and it’s of the tortured genius. It’s easy to point to great thinkers in the past who were tormented.

There’s also a bunch of folks online who think taking meds and “fighting” their mental health struggles makes them sheep. It’s easy to think this. Just think of Brave New World, 1984, and most dystopian books. The thinking is that if you move your focus away from everything that’s broken, if you don’t stay focused on the wrongs on the world, on the flaws of humanity, you can’t solve the problem.

It’s a very appealing theory. It means that all that suffering you’re doing, is not in vain. You’re not wrong to feel this way. It justifies the pain, both the past pain and the present pain. It means all that time I suffered wasn’t my fault for not changing myself, it’s everyone else who is too weak to sit with the darkness.

I’m not even sure who, but I think it was an aunt who, when I was 17-18, gave me a quote from George Bernard Shaw.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself”.

George Bernard Shaw

When Judd law is asked “What do you think would happen if you didn’t tell the stories? Are you being yourself?” he answers

“How am I not myself?”

I Heart Huckabees

Both existential detectives then keep repeating and pondering “How am I not myself?”

And once it sinks in, once you realize the absurdity of saying or even asking if you’re not yourself you in a sense free yourself from all expectations.
You cannot be anything but yourself. That doesn’t mean you’ll always be pleased with yourself. That you can’t improve yourself. Just that there is no need to worry if you’re yourself. Because you can’t be anyone but yourself.

(And yes, this means that, even given the good intentions, I’m not a huge fan of the “not myself” mental health campaign which implies that you can or should be someone different.)

Meta Blogging Thoughts, Memory and Song Lyrics

One thing I struggle with these blog posts is that I have a tendency to ramble on. The post on memory really could of gone in multiple direction. What got me thinking on the topic is actually that I couldn’t find the song with the lyrics I had in my head which were “And I wonder if you think of me too”

I’m figured out that the beat I had in my mind was from:

I think the part I was humming was “I don’t know if you feel the same as I do”. Really there are many parts in the song that are very close and it would easily fit in with the rest of the song.

Regardless, while writing the post on memory I was like… no one gives a shit about me humming the wrong lyrics. I should write something (put on monocle) erudite (a word for smart you’d in academia).

So then I was like, I can link it to the hypocrisy post. Or wait! I can link it about how we create our past selves and we fabricate a past that will justify our actions and somehow slide in that everyone needs to watch Memento. Seriously though, if you haven’t seen it, it’s my favourite movie of all time.

I think part of the problem causing this is that I somehow feel an obligation to have good content here. But I’m not exactly sure why…. For my 30 followers? For the 12 people who read the posts? It’s not like I’m trying to become an influencer or build my mailing list or something. It’s just legit random thoughts…. And yet…

On Memory

Memory is a tricky thing. What we “remember” is often shaped and malleable. And most people recognize or understand this in the abstract. They’ve seen a TED talk about it or something.

But in the moment, in each specific moment, people I talk to are almost always certain that this current memory is accurate, beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Maybe it’s an adaptation. I mean, questioning everything you think and believe all the time is a quick path to stress and mental health issues. I should know since that’s a bit how my generalized anxiety manifests itself. But should we not try to be less certain? Should we not always keep the possibility of being wrong (in terms of memory and in general)?

It’s going to be okay

With my recent post on anxiety many people have reached out and expressed support and, in a sense their concerns. While I really appreciate the support, I think people are used to folks talking publicly about mental health only when everything is on fire.

What people assume when you talk about mental health publicly

Part of the goal of that blog post was to really normalize that ya, things aren’t great and that’s why I’m doing something to make it better.

I think of it as I’m going to the physio. Ya, my shoulder is kinda sore. I’m not sure why, maybe I’m doing some exercises wrong or I can improve my form, or even more likely I need to work on my core strength.

My shoulder isn’t dislocated, it’s nor torn off or anything, but I’m still going to go see someone for help. I shouldn’t wait until I shoulder falls off before getting help for it and I see it as the same for mental health.

All that to say, I appreciate the concerns and the support, but you don’t have to be worried :). Rather let’s just all talk about when we need to go to the physio for our mental health.

(Seriously, I’m going to the physio for my shoulder… Not sure what I’m doing, but it’s not feeling great… I’d of made a blog post about it, but I don’t think people would be that interested)

On Generalized Anxiety

I often talk about my struggles with Generalized Anxiety Disorder as a thing of the past. Something I struggled with, something I developed coping mechanisms and that I now just kinda pass as a normal person.

Recently it’s come back, I’m not sure what’s triggered it, perhaps the combination of a new job and a new relationship. Either way it’s interesting to be reminded how debilitating and kinda ridiculous it can get.

I think I’m still starting from a better spot since I’ve been able to keep things to a day and not spiral into multi-day or multi-week affairs. And even then, compared to some of my past events, these are not as acute.

It doesn’t change the fact that I had a day where I somehow changed my thoughts via a few hours of brooding and negative thought patterns on a topic I was earlier pretty convinced. It kind of threw people for a loop and while talking about it later, Nicole made me realize it was part of a pattern of recent events where I let my anxiety take over and make decisions that I feel help me become in control of the situation.

The work ones are interesting because, it doesn’t seem to have much in terms of evidence to support my anxiety. Everything seems to be going well, I haven’t had any negative feedback and, au contraire, I’ve had many positive feedback. Yet, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’ll be exposed as a mediocre programmer.

I’m going to go see a counselor shortly, something I haven’t done in many years. Recently I just see my psychiatrist once a year since things have been pretty steady. I decided not to go see her first since I feel like this is something I can tackle by changing my thought patterns.

As they say (okay, maybe I’m the only one who says it), perception is everything.

We Need A National Pharmacare plan

I started a new job and was reminded of the costs of my medication. My medication costs about $750 a month. Without my medication I’m pretty much useless to society. If I worked minimum wage, $750 a month would be 30% of my gross pay (before any taxes etc).

I’ve only been able to have great jobs because I had family members who helped pay for my meds when I was going thru tough times financially. Without that, I’d probably be living on the street.

I think we also have a moral imperative to help others. While not just health related I think most people can agree that if we have the means, we shouldn’t let anyone die because they don’t have enough money at that time. This is something that’s fully achievable and actually very affordable (for a country such as Canada).

If you want you can read the full report presented to the House of Commons here. The short version is that people would pay between $2 and $5 per medication with a yearly cap of $100. This would cost approximately 3.5 Billion in the first year phasing up to 15.3 Billion. That being said, after 5 years Canadian as a whole would be saving ~7 billion a year with Pharmacare as opposed to without. Meaning that we would have every Canadian covered for a total of 46 billion instead of spending 51 billion (across public, private and out of pocket).

Even if you don’t care about others and are fully selfish, you probably would rather save 7 billion as a whole, especially if that means having someone be healthy which means they pay taxes that help improve all the services government provides instead of living on the street and being a “nuisance”

Either way, we need a National Pharmacare plan and urge you to support it as well.

Mistakes will be made, but not by me

Note: This post references an event that happened in the past.

In concept I love the idea of failure as a means of growth. It’s how you iterate on products, on what you like, on who you are. I also feel comfortable taking responsibility for those failures. If we’re in a team setting and something goes off the rails, I feel comfortable taking responsibility publicly or outside of the team because I feel confident that the failure is not a reflection of who I am. It’s just a thing that happened.

There’s a different kind of failure. One that goes down to shaking your core belief of who you are as a person, one that breaks your internal narrative. I had a few of those growing up, and they always made me sick to my stomach. I would because physically ill, at times for months at a time when something triggered a memory of what I did. Something that triggered the memory that my internal monologue was a fraud.

I often associated that feeling with my anxiety. They were just overblown reactions to events. Having a better handle on my anxiety now, I thought I was done with those days. Nowadays when something bad happens, I know what I did and I understand my actions and the events that lead to it. Even when making mistakes, which I still regularly make, they don’t make me rethink who I am as a person, they are just mistakes.

Recently I did something that, from a 3rd party perspective, would probably be characterized as being in bad taste. But given the context, one I knew of, and had just not thought about at the time, was devastating to someone else.

I was stuck in my own head, thinking only of how current events impacted me, how I reacted to them, how I felt about them, how I could tell myself a story to make me at ease with the events that happened. A shitty self defense mechanism that jokingly downplayed someone else while up-playing myself. A few things made this even worse that I didn’t realize at the time and didn’t even think of it until it was flagged to me. I then thought it was bad but, perhaps as a self defense mechanism, told myself it wasn’t that bad. I told myself there was a confluence of events, it wasn’t just me, I wasn’t wholly responsible, multiple things came into play for this to happen, you know?

When the realization of the effects of my actions fully dawned on me, I felt that same feeling I felt so long ago. I wasn’t sad or angry…. I was disgusted.

I was disgusted by the juxtaposition of the story I tell myself, that I’m compassionate, that I help others, that I, overall, make the world a better place with the impact of what I said had, and will probably keep having on someone else. I robbed them of their safety, I robbed them of the ability to enjoy a moment, enjoy a memory, by poisoning it. When something like what I did would happen to me, I would ruminate on it for days, weeks, even months. I know the effects of what I did, and it is so diametrically opposed to the story I tell myself that I became ill.

Another part of me feels ashamed and embarrassed to even be thinking of how this impacted me. Just another demonstration of the shitty behavior that lead to this. I want to apologize, I want to fix things, but I don’t know how to convey that in a way that doesn’t focus on what the impact has been on me. Quite the selfish apology wouldn’t you say? I wish I had a time machine to undo what I’ve done.

I felt embarrassed I didn’t even realize what I was doing, that I was cutting in a wound I knew existed. Why had I not considered others when I spoke then? I know a few of the reasons I tell myself, but they are all trivial, they don’t undo anything, they don’t fix anything, they won’t even help ease the pain I caused in others. It’s all just stories I tell myself to minimize my actions. To try to tell myself that this event doesn’t condemn me to be the terrible individual it makes me feel like I am.

Even an apology feels shallow and empty at this point. Just Another selfish act to help ease my pain. To help me rebuild this narrative I tell myself about how, on the whole, I make the world a better place. The problem is, I don’t know of a better solution. Self inflicted pain and torture won’t make it better for them, it’s just more internal narrative fixing. How can one apologize and make amends after this?

I can only see a consistent set of small actions, repeated over an extended period of time, towards them and towards others to try to pay down this debt. To try to help heal as many wounds as I can because I can’t heal the one I inflicted.

Remember the Past to Appreciate the Present

I really loved the Mass Effect video game, the whole trilogy in fact is amazing. One thing I still remember clearly is finishing Mass Effect and having this song come on during the credits:

From the start of the guitar to when the lyrics kick in, the song always spoke to me. While I was perhaps slightly better than in the past in 2008, it was still a pretty big mess. The feeling of longing, nostalgia and what I’ll call hopeful despair that I took from the song really made an impact on me at the time.

I identified with the lyrics, I had always up to that point struggled with being able to be a “full” person on my own. That I shouldn’t need anyone else that I used as a crutch. My happiness, my wisdom, my actions, they shouldn’t rely on there being someone else there with me (in particular as a romantic partner).

And I need you to recover
Because I can’t make it on my own

M4 Lyrics

A few books got me to accept the impossibility of that task. That humans were not built to be that way (by this I mean, being alone, not that the traditional concept of relationship is for everyone).

Once in a while the song comes up in one of my playlists. And it reminds me, in an almost nostalgic way, of the times when I really didn’t have my shit together.

Sometimes it’s good to remember the past to appreciate the present.

Mental Health in the workplace

I got one of the best compliments Yesterday. Someone I worked with previously is interested in starting discussions around mental health at their new workplace because of how much it helped them when we worked together.

I mentioned a bit of what happened (most of this was not done by me, I was just one small part of the events that happened) and I thought it might be helpful to share here.

It first started with someone saying that during one of the company meetups they would have a 1h thing where people can just come and chat about mental health in a random room. There were a few people who showed up. We decided to create a private slack channel where people could just talk openly about mental health. Word of mouth started spreading, especially among people who were like “Well, it’s not really _that_ bad, I don’t have a diagnosis, etc etc”. We welcomed them all.

I (and I’m sure many others) had follow up conversations with folks who were mentioning going thru rough patches. Since I was quite open about it, often mentioning in the #watercooler channel if I was feeling depressed or anxious and taking a break, lots of folks send me DMs just asking me about it and just wanting to chat. Sometimes it was about them, sometimes about a loved one.

I’d ask them all if they wanted to join and convinced them that even if it “wasn’t that bad” they should join. At another team meetup I did a lunch thing where folks could come and eat lunch one day with others and chat about mental health (or just listen).

It was just to see others who were also working thru things. You didn’t need to talk or anything, you could just listen. I did a bit of an intro of why I think it’s important and some of the things I struggle with, a few other people spoke, some didn’t (but they often would send me a private message saying thanks later).

When I left, it’s one of the things people told me they appreciated the most. To have someone who they saw as senior and a leader talk about this. It made them feel like it was “okay” to feel that way sometimes.

I’ve started doing talks in workplaces about this as well, if you (dear reader) think it could be useful for your workplace, I’m always happy to give a talk. I don’t charge anything but I ask that the organization make a donation to Kids Help Phone. For some organizations, donations aren’t possible so I send an invoice and make the donation myself.

I’ve done this talk in workplaces and at conferences such as Confoo and the feedback has always been very positive:

“6/5 Sensitive topic explained simply and with humour”

“Great personal touch”

“Good energy, interesting perspective and personal anecdotes”

“Very good talk. Honest, straighforward, helpful.”

“Important topic presented in a funny manner”

Confoo 2016 feedback

Stéphane’s candid testimonial on mental health issues was truly engaging. With his great sense of humour and genuine presence, Stéphane puts his audience at ease, making participants receptive and open to tackle what can sometimes be a heavy topic. Having “just a regular guy” come in to share his knowledge of mental health, sprinkled with personal anecdotes, made us feel like we were having a conversion with an old friend. We learned lots of great tips and tricks to prevent or deal and were inspired to talk about mental health more openly.

Great talk, Stéphane, thank you!”

Gabrielle Michaud,
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada / Government of Canada

If you or anyone you know wants to chat about mental health, I’m always happy to listen.
Spoiler alert, I’m not a professional and will probably recommend you talk to someone a bit more qualified.