Working and Living with Depression as a Designer

Disclaimer: This will probably be the most personal of all my blog posts. This post isn’t geared towards web design practices, branding, WordPress related topics, design thinking or professional development. Nothing in this post is for students, professional constituents, or clients to take away ideas that can help further business goals and acumen, rather it is meant to be a cathartic expression of some ongoing issues I’ve had in my life and I foresee many others in the industry also suffering from. It’s for my colleagues, friends and peers to hopefully understand the toll of Depression. My hopes are that we can have an honest discussion about depression and help build empathy and understanding in our industry and among our friends and family.

A Day in the Life

I typically wake up at 6:30am most days during the week. Mondays and Fridays are usually even earlier, at 3:30am, due to my part time job at the YMCA. I slothfully wake up in the morning and sit on the side of the bed and let out a deep sigh. At this point, when my mind should be switching on slowly, the flood of thoughts and pressures re-enter my mind and I sigh. I make my way to the bathroom and stare into the mirror for a moment, while leaning in with my hands on the sink. Looking at my reflection I am not happy. The obvious and easy things like shaving, combing my bed head and applying some moisturizer under my eyes pop into my mind for a minute, but my reflection stares back at me and the feeling of emptiness begins to make its presence known. I sigh once more and slug it off, and continue on my morning ritual. A hot shower and the promise of good coffee typically give me something to look forward to and drive away any negative feelings under the surface. My girlfriend and I leave the apartment around the same time most days, otherwise I leave before her.

My morning commute gives me some time to think about the most pressing matters that I’ll need to address when I arrive at my office, allowing me to bury any negative inward feelings I have about myself and focus on being productive and getting shit done. My temper sometimes flares as I deal with traffic and construction, but for the most part it’s a somewhat relaxing and mindless drive while I listen to music. Throughout the day, I work on various projects. I attend meetings, work solo in my office, collaborate with colleagues when the need arises and use downtime to organize and plan for future events and initiatives with the various groups that I am a part of or catch up on emails for freelance work. I head to lunch alone to try to eat what solid food I can due to my gastric band to which I am still getting used to. When I head home, I am greeted by girlfriend and we talk about our day, make dinner and watch a few TV shows. During this time, I am the happiest because I am spending time with the person I love. I work on my own projects late into the night, but often I am completely worn out, mentally and physically drained. I’ll get angry with myself for my apathy those nights. I get settled into bed and because my mind can’t turn off the thoughts and ideas automatically, I’ll lay in bed and distract myself on my phone. I’ll look at posts because I don’t want to be left alone with just my thoughts in the dark. Throughout the night, I suffer from night terrors regularly. I’ll shoot straight up in bed, sometimes hyperventilating, with my eyes darting around the room. I’ll get in a few hours of sleep before doing it all over again the next day.

Life up to Diagnosis

When I was 16, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. I grew up in a stable home environment with great parents that worked very hard and provided a positive home environment for myself and my younger sister and brother. We were a typical middle class family in the 90’s; nice house, good neighborhood, private school, involved parents, and a metric ton of Legos in my room. I grew up with no friends when I was young though; my sister and I were all we had in our neighborhood and at school. We attended a Catholic elementary school where we both didn’t fit in well with our classmates. I didn’t have any friends to speak of but I had a few people that were nice to me but would quickly join in the teasing and taunting if it suited them. School was very lonely for me and I grew very insular. I tried sports and was involved with Boy Scouts, but sports was never really my thing and Boy Scouts was an extension of school for me. I grew to love nature more than people and I often was left to my own devices. Eventually my sister and I transitioned to public school and I started to make friends. I felt a whole new world open up for me, but I also had to learn how that world operated. The close knit and close minded environment of a private school didn’t have the same spectrum of opportunities and experiences that public school had to offer; people were much nicer or much more cruel. At this point in life, I started to not only dive more into depression, but I also started to get angry. My temper and attitude would push people away from me and legitimately scare adults from interacting with me, let alone most people my own age.

I never talked to anyone about how I felt inside, because from an early age I learned that if I spoke it could be used against me. I never wanted to show my vulnerability. I didn’t want to be taken advantage of in any situation. I blockaded myself from external harm by building walls around my feelings, and those walls were well armed.

Before high school, I buried my feelings in food. I had an unhealthy penchant for eating my feelings away. It was one of the main reasons I was teased and tormented when I was young; being a tall, heavy kid who was awkward. All throughout freshman year, I worked out and lost 110 lbs inside of 12 months it was during that time that I built the wall around my feelings. As I was getting physically healthier, I was tearing myself apart mentally. At the beginning of Sophmore year, I was accused of being on drugs as the explanation for my drastic weight loss. It made me very angry. I became despondent and would allow a voice in my mind constantly tear myself down and reinforce all of the negativity that I desperately tried to avoid. I became my own tormentor and convinced myself that I was worthless. Dealing with school, my after school job, and my parents my attitude was either one of combat or completely sullen. All of this built up to my first mental break where I tried to end my life. I spent a week in the hospital after my suicide attempt, and I began therapy after coming home. This happened when I was 16.

Living with Depression

I’m 30 years old now and I have lived with depression for almost half of my life. I can honestly say that I have led a very productive and fulfilling life since 16. I’ve travelled abroad many times. I was a drummer for a successful post-hardcore band when it was all the rage in the mid-2000’s. I’ve met, hung out, and even played with some of my music idols (barring Metallica). I moved to Philadelphia to attend college, voted in as class president and graduated at the top of my class. I have been working in the design industry for the last seven years in various roles and I have won several awards for my work. I live with my girlfriend who loves me deeply in an apartment with a beautiful view of the Appalachian Mountains. I have friends who value me for the person I am. I have colleagues and peers in the industry that value my thoughts and contributions. I have had interns that I have mentored and have gone on to be successful in their own right. I still have a great relationship with parents.

And I still suffer. Since I was 16, I have attempted suicide multiple times. It wasn’t until I was 27, working at an awesome in-house position (and in of all industries: healthcare) did I make an appointment with a psychiatrist once again and I was re-diagnosed as having Bipolar II disorder. I found out that due to the complexity of mental illness, many people suffer from more serious issues, like Bipolar II disorder, and do not discover it until going through a thorough and accurate recount of the life of episodes in depression and mania (or what I felt like was a time of being a happy, “normal” functioning individual of society) and revisiting your original diagnosis. Needless to say, the diagnosis didn’t make me happy but it did make sense. I learned that the constant depressive states I experienced, punctuated with the times of genuine optimism and energy, were indicative of Bipolar II disorder. My hypomanic episodes were never detrimental to my life, in fact it made it hard to diagnose. I had always been reticent towards medication because in my mind, it was the full admission of a real problem within me. With the new diagnosis though, it was inevitable.

When I finally came to terms with my depression, being Bipolar, and my general outlook towards people and life, I was at the proverbial crossroads we’ve all heard before. I could do something, or nothing, about it. I would be a liar if I said I was a valiant crusader in the fight against the darkness that clouded my mind and personality, because I was not. There have been many times were I knew I should have done the right thing, namely keeping up with my medication and talked with people in my life, but I didn’t. I would go through moods of complete depression to only resurface for air briefly in a sense of normalcy. My life started to turn once I committed to treatment and therapy.

Being a Creative

Fairly early on in my life, the urge to create was ever present. I was always drawing, building with Legos, and dreaming up fantasies would rival Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, or Star Trek. It’s fairly common place in the creative realm that it takes a bit of “being off” or “moody” to be an artist. It’s safe to say that creative individuals understand a level of emotion beyond the surface that is needed to be innovative and expressive. Regardless of what type of creative professional you are, there is a strong undercurrent of emotion that courses through us in our process. Emotion and experience coupled with information and data are the wells we draw from to create. This is where designers, illustrators, developers, painters and photographers are all alike. We don’t create just for ourselves, we create for others. Our end goals are all different, but our audience is always more than just ourselves. The common stereotype of artists being “moody” or “a little strange? It’s not just artists and it’s not because of some inherent flaw or quirk. It is part of our nature to approach problems to provide solutions are meaningful and useful to people. Let’s face it; all people are weird, there is no normal, that’s what makes life fun. What is not fun is being affected by an ever present feeling of worthlessness and despair. No one wants to feel that and unfortunately, many do.

Working

As a designer, it’s very easy to get burnt out. Often, the feelings of burn out can masquerade a deeper issue; one that might have been there all along. I have suffered burn out at a few places I have worked. Either I was too close and too involved with a project, or my ambitions weren’t in line with how the reality of the situation was really happening, or I constantly pushed myself to be a better designer; more well-informed, more applicable skills, or honing my expertise even further without real world applications for them. Burnout is a very real state that affects almost all of us in our lives, but depression and other mental illness is a separate, much deeper issue. The emotions of burnout can worsen the symptoms of depression and they feed into each other. Burn out, however, is quite reversible without the need of professional medical help.

The toll that depression has had on my life, and my choices of dealing and not dealing with it, is varied. During one manic period, I decided to register my business as an LLC instead of a sole proprietorship. In the future, that could be a huge benefit to the eventual future plans of having a full-blown creative agency, but it was a waste of money at the time. During periods of extreme optimism and vigor, I have taken on freelance work that I should have said no to. I have volunteered to head up projects with outside groups that weren’t in line with my own group’s initiatives. I’ve stretched myself thin between too many responsibilities without any thought to my own well-being or sanity. In my mind, the ability to legitimately share my involvement with so many projects, initiatives and groups meant that I was providing meaning in my life. This dangerously led to burnout, but feelings of worthlessness were present even before the times of high productivity.

During period of lows, I would become lethargic and ashamed to even answer the phone. Waking was horrible activity and all I wanted to do is hide away in bed and not talk to anyone. My outlook and attitude towards life was miserable at best and intensely disturbing at worst. I thought the worst in people and the worst in myself. Any and all communication was an anathema to me. I dreaded voicemails and hid away from my inboxes. Texts were uncomfortable reminders of instant communication. During these times, I wanted nothing more than escapism and oblivion. Not death, just oblivion…just to not exist at all. I put my friends and family through this. I have lost clients because of this.

Working for myself and dealing with depression is one thing. When you work with others, it adds another layer of complexity. Outside of family, you spend the most time with your co-workers and colleagues. As much as you may want to hide away in a cubicle or office, you know interaction with others is inevitable.

Treatment and Opening Up

Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental illness is still a very real and prevalent issue in society. Design is no different from many other industries in that we have a silent group of professionals who also suffer and feel completely alone. For me, treatment has been an ever evolving issue. I have let medication lapse for a variety of reasons, but mostly from excuses. Some methods of treatment have been tremendously beneficial. Going to therapy had been a personal stigma when I was younger, but as I became older I began to understand and extol the benefits of therapy. Either in a group setting, virtual or one on one, talking and working through issues with a trained professional has helped me be a much more positive focused and productive person. Medication, at first, sounded like a crutch but I learned that my attitude and perception towards medication was incorrect. I’ve found that I am much more clear-minded and level headed with the combination of medication and talk therapy than I am trying to do it on my own.

Don’t get me wrong, I still suffer the personification of my issues that manifests as a mental voice that wants nothing but to torment me. This part of me is like living with two halves. Even on days, weeks, months and longer periods of no episodes I have to quell that part of me. I feel much more in control of my life…and that makes me happy.

I mulled over writing this post for over a year because I was honestly afraid of what would come out of it. My cynical and negative self would say that nothing I have to share matters and that all I am doing is hurting an already embattled issue in society. My hopeful side thought by sharing my experiences and my own personal history that it would resonate with some individuals and hope they felt that they aren’t going through their battles alone. I wanted to discuss this topic that I have seen and shied away from in our industry. It’s not a topic that I hear broached much if at all in physical settings. The online community skims the discussion in favor of mostly asking if others also have similar issues without opening up into detail about them. The reason why so many of us went into design is because of the passion we have creation and thinking. Depression and other mental illness is the virulent opposition to that passion

What we can do

As designers, we think very highly of our profession and we are one of the most introspective and self-critical of industries. Our industry and its practitioners are always in a constant state of change and innovation. I find it disheartening that we haven’t had more frank and open discussions about mental health in our field considering how open and expressive we are with others. The discussion needs to be open and respectful with progress and an attitude that is supportive towards those suffering with mental illness, be it anxiety disorder, depression, mood disorders and many other afflictions.

One thing we all can do is become more empathic. Empathy and understanding towards our colleagues helps to foster a sense and nature that we are more than just our craft, that we are understanding and appreciative of each other.

For myself, I have found that I had friends and colleagues that were open and willing to talk with me about some of my issues. I didn’t expect them to give me solutions, nor did they expect to impart some valuable, life-changing advice but the simple fact of listening and being there made lasting impressions. The only mandates I ever received was that I go and seek professional help, be whatever form that takes. I can be extremely private and sharing issues with others can, naturally, put you in a state of extreme vulnerability. But the right person, or persons, to talk to can help you start making positive steps towards taking back control of your emotions.

For those who are asked to listen, it’s an honor and responsibility to keep the conversation confidential and guide the person to professional help if it is needed. Sometimes, all a person needs is just a friendly ear and judgement free zone to let out some thoughts. Other times, you can be drawn into a deep conversation surrounding heavy life issues that you may not be prepared for. Regardless of the discussion, treat it with the utmost respect, confidentiality and concern. Most often, a person suffering will not want to share anything so the idea of being approached and having a conversation initiated by that person will be rare. If you suspect someone is dealing with personal issues or they are struggling, the best way to avail yourself without sounding intrusive is condition that person to know that you’re available to talk if needed. I’ve done this with many people in fact. I almost always let people know that “I’m always here to talk to” and I say it with sincerity and I say it often.

Everyone is not going to feel comfortable and ready to talk and listen, but as a whole we must change perceptions to make these issues in our industry not a taboo subject.

Regaining Yourself

After a long internal struggle I have come to find acceptance through therapy, medication and striving for balance. Now, I am at a really wonderful point in life. I still have episodes, but I can manage them better now. I can see life turn around for me and I am excited to continue. I have high goals I want to achieve, relationships that are meaningful, and I am part of great groups with initiatives that are meaningful to me as designer and developer. Above all, I have close friends and family who love me. No matter how you define success, if you can have meaningful relationships with others than you are successful in life.

It wouldn’t be a post unless I shared some resources that can help. I revealed a lot of my backstory and I imagine that some may want to share how they feel; maybe with me, maybe with their loved ones, or maybe with someone in their life from a co-worker, a supervisor or a friend and colleague. Regardless, take the time and talk with someone.

How to deal with a mentally ill co-worker – It sounds like a harsh title, but this post actually gives a lot of good information on how to approach a potential situation with someone you think is suffering. It identifies several different types of mental illness, gives an overview of how a person’s behavior is while suffering through them, and a lot of good advice on how to broach the subject.

We need to talk about developers and depression – an insightful post on CreativeBloq from Greg Baugues, a developer who also reveals a fair amount of personal history and his struggle with Bipolar II disorder.

Helping a depressed person – An overview of depression and how to help when it’s centered around a loved one or family member. It contains good tips to also help you stay well while helping someone else.

The unspoken D word that eats you from the inside – A personal account of getting help and finding a path to managing depression from British designer James Greig.

Burnout – An extremely well-written and in-depth look at burnout in the design industry written by Scott Boms. This article shines the light on the difference between depression and burnout while showing how interconnected they can be.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – This service I personally can vouch for. I learned about it years ago from a Take Action Tour compilation CD in 2003. Funds raised from the tour went to support the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the tour was geared to help against teen suicide in the US. 1.800.273.8255

Healthsherpa – While I think it could have used a better name, it does the job of Healthcare.gov much better in my opinion. In the US, enter your zip code, indicate if you’re a smoker and find health insurance plans that can fit your budget.

BlahTherapy – an online chat service that you can talk with a licensed therapist or a stranger who is willing to listen. A licensed therapist has rates of from $1.99/minute and up or you can talk to an unlicensed individual who shares their time to listen for free.

At the end of all of this, you can always email me. I’m not a licensed therapist, but I can talk design, share my experiences and listen. You don’t have to be alone. Something that I know to be true is that the design community can be an incredibly supportive network. We have the ability to have these open discussions and be supportive of our colleagues. You don’t have to let depression get in the way of your passion. Let’s find ways to enable each other to be best designers we can be through thoughtful critiques, innovative new techniques, time-honored principles and with a healthy mind to create with.

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1 Comment

  1. Just wanted to say thanks for sharing this story and the struggles you deal with. My depression and anxiety keeps me from completing basic tasks and finishing projects I once had great passion for only weeks or days prior. It’s a vicious illness that feeds itself. I always tell myself that the more I push through and finish jobs and keep working the less anxiety and depression I’ll have – but it always seems to take control and I lose weeks or months of progress in my career. Design used to be an escape for me, but unfortunately it’s slowly become one of the main causes of my depression knowing where I should be versus where I am because of the constant health issues caused from anxiety. I really appreciate you sharing your struggles and it helps to know there are other designers who also struggle. I keep fighting every day and I hope to one day get things under control.

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