Strength through Vulnerability

Posted by Thomas Gideon on 31 May 2015
Used under a CC-BY license thanks to Flickr user alachuacounty.

I have mentioned a few times how hard the last year and a half have been, personally and professionally. From the portion of that hardship that I feel was self inflicted, I have been trying to learn, grow and improve. One lesson I have been dwelling on is how showing vulnerability may actually be a strength. I am only now starting to feel my mental well being coming back. By not finding healthy ways to reveal my vulnerability, I think I did as much to delay my recovery as anything I went through that caused me pain in the first place.

When I was a kid, my parents gave me the nickname Rule the World. They didn't think I was some world dominating evil genius, that would come later. I don't remember feeling or thinking this but when I must have been around six years old, they said I clearly got upset when the people around me didn't get along. I would step in, trying to encourage compromise or discussion, to ease any conflict. I still try to be a peacemaker; that is how I often approach conflict as an adult. When I am feeling courageous, I throw myself bodily in to help resolve conflict and arrive at an agreeable compromise or at least an understanding. Often I feel anxious and avoid confrontation for fear of being unable to make peace. I am often paralyzed from the anticipation of trying, arising both from the stress of the attempt and from the fear of failing.

A little over a year ago, at my last job, I faced one of the most challenging confrontations I have ever faced. The organization was in crisis, clearly needing a change in leadership, away from its founder. The program had grown at a breakneck pace, more than doubling every year since I got there. The growth had placed a colossal strain on us all, not in the least due to the challenges in raising ever more money with each passing quarter. There was an emerging consensus among the rest of the leadership that different skills, expertise and experience were now required to lead us through these challenges. The founder wasn't convinced that the change was needed. Once he realized the rest of us would not be dissuaded, we all pretty much immediately found ourselves on a very adversarial footing.

In the past, I avoided situations like these. I recognized my limitations, that I would feel a good deal of pain and was never certain I could ensure a good outcome. For some reason, perhaps the story I had been telling myself about how the purpose of the work was more important than any past job, I chose to stay. The first test was over a budget decision. The founder had one view of how what moneys we had secured should be spent, we had another. I prepared for the showdown with the founder along with my colleagues. We were agreed on our case, how we would press it, and we were resolute.

When the moment came, I prevaricated. After a few tense moments of rehashing the same arguments, I caved. The reasoned argument had failed to persuade the founder. I was deeply uncomfortable. I knew I made a mistake the instant I capitulated. As the senior most manager among my peers I was expected to be the most resolute. Realizing how I had let my colleagues, my friends, down, I dug deep. I found some well of courage that saw me better able to stay the course in every subsequent conflict. The whole transition didn't get any easier. I had to set aside my desire to see everyone happy through some considered compromise. I had to push for what I knew was right, despite the tension and strain. Even harder, all of this had to be kept discrete. The staff still had work to do, they couldn't help the situation one way or another. Battling this out openly might have jeopardized our ability to meet key funded commitments.

The organization survived the change. I like to think it was due to some measure of courage and leadership I exercised. While mostly everyone else ended up in a good or better place, I lost something. I didn't realize it at first, though perhaps I should have. Despite new leadership and closer bonds forged with my direct peers as a consequence, I flailed in that post transition period. Maybe I had been pushing so hard I was caught off balance and wheeling my arms. I was definitely burned out but I didn't know how to cope with that. Worse, despite our efforts overall to keep each other sane and support each other through this time of hardship, I let relationships suffer. How I chose to try to cope with the stress ended up causing more lasting damage, wounds the extent of which would not become clear to me for some time, even after I left that job.

Within days of deciding to leave my job, my immediate family was touched drastically by mental illness.Two days after telling my boss about my decision, I was on a video conference from home, trying to keep my emotions in check, as I told all of my co-workers I was moving on. I tried to put the best, brightest face on for them but inside I felt like I was breaking. While I worked on my transition, I continued to keep from most of them what had happened, keeping up that facade of calm and positivity. I worried that admitting to the majority of them what I and my family were going through would result in a reaction of pity that I didn’t feel I could handle. Thinking more about the few people I did tell before I left, I think that in worrying so much about pity I closed myself off from compassion and strength as well that I certainly could have used.

I want to make clear that my family is OK, or at least as OK as we can be. We've gotten help and are adjusting to how we all lives our lives now, a day at a time, coping with the singular event back in September and everything that has unfolded since. I finally feel able to share this essay regardless of how readers may react. I hope that it invites serious, constructive discussion and healthy sharing.

I don’t think what I went through was unique, including my decision to share very little. In the last several years I have read more and more articles about how technology leaders and innovators have suffered with mental health issues. There are the most extreme examples with which most people are no doubt familiar, the tragedies like Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the young co-founder of Diaspora, and the loss of the incredible activist, Aaron Swartz. Those are staggering losses and as a silver lining have encouraged some discussion along with the grief. I have stories shared by technologists like myself, just working in the trenches, that are not sensational or centered on known characters, just some people choosing to open up. These stories generally share a theme of struggle on two fronts, with mental health itself and with the stigma it bears. You would think that a space like technology that is generally more accepting of peculiar characters would be more receptive to mature discussion of these matters. Maybe it is but only by a matter of a few degrees compared to the mainstream. More optimistically, because more and more people have started sharing, even if only a handful at a time, mature and thoughtful discussion seems to be expanding and accelerating.

I agree with people like Mitch Altman who have been trying to raise consciousness and to circulate a call to action, to have even more open dialogue about depression, mental health, and the risk of suicide. I wanted to talk about this subject sooner, to add something constructive and positive. The time never seemed right, I didn't feel like until now I had something to add, to help. I didn't think I would experience these things first hand. I suppose no one ever does until they do.

I wish I could say that my recent experiences have granted me some kernel of wisdom to share. I don't think life works like that. My family is still learning to cope, I am still learning a lot about myself, my loved ones, and where we have found ourselves. To be honest, there isn't a lot of positives I can share. As a society, we still stigmatize mental illness. I wish this was just exhibited through social norms. I've found that it has led consistently to differences in the kinds of resources available to families affected by mental illness as compared with more socially accepted yet profoundly similar conditions like cancer, diabetes, or just about any other lifelong, chronic physical ailment. We are incredibly lucky that I earn enough for comprehensive health benefits and an income that puts us squarely in the upper end of middle class for our area. Despite that privilege, we are still scraping by in terms of covering out-of-network fees and finding enough professional help, whether our insurance covers it all or not. I can only imagine what those less fortunate must be going through when struggling with any form of chronic mental illness.

The one ray of hope I can try to offer is this, conversations that run something like this:

Them: "You seem really stressed. Is everything all right?"

Me: "...No but I don't know how to tell you so I'll just say it." Followed by a disclosure of more particulars than I am comfortable sharing here.

Them: "I am so sorry. You know, my uncle/sister/cousin/loved one went through something very similar. I understand and if you need someone to talk to, I'm here."

When I have chosen to share the specifics of our situation, I have been surprised at how understanding and supportive people are. The upside of what may well be epidemic numbers of sufferers of mental illness is that most people I talk to already have a frame of reference. They have some direct experience, either their own or of a loved one, that informs compassion and empathy.

The trick seems to be exercising sufficient intuition to understand when and how to be vulnerable. The attempt can often be seen as self pitying. There are days where my own exhaustion no doubt makes that worse. Talking one-on-one has helped me make clear that I am sharing from a place of trust, matter of factly, not to elicit any specific reaction but to explain what I have been going through, why I may seem preoccupied or stressed at times. The strength I have received through unlooked for compassion and support has surprised me a great deal. I expected shock, a lack of understanding, silence but humans are resilient. I have to believe that we are also inherently compassionate, leading us to find common experience or sentiment that bolsters empathy, reinforcing common bonds.

I am convinced that we who work in and with technology need to find appropriate and constructive ways to be more vulnerable as a community. There are many things that may be inhibiting honest sharing and candid discussion. I struggle out of worry that talking about my own experiences will be seen as only seeking pity. It is worse on the bad days but I think I have to try, in order to learn how to use intuition and discretion to share without oversharing, to make clear that while I want support and compassion, I am also doing my best to keep from wallowing in pity. I think part of the key is to go beyond intent, to think as much about how we share personal struggles as why. Keeping humility in mind, trying to figure out what is appropriate and responsible, and doing my best to establish a concrete context helps invite the best kinds of responses that both increase general understanding as well as helping me move forward and genuinely feel at least some small measure better for the sharing.

It is clear to me that a lot of people are suffering. Fear of open discussion isn't helping, worse I think it is unjustified and irrational. We need to take care that we open up in healthy and appropriate ways, but when we do, I am optimistic we'll have a lot to share and discuss. I am convinced a mature dialogue can do more good than harm. I think the drastic stakes warrant risking some discomfort as we feel our way forward. Sharing our burdens will make them feel lighter. We can stem the tide of tragedy, at least encouraging those who choose to suffer in silence to let those around them know how they are hurting. I believe when they do, the response will broadly be one of compassion.