There’s a dance that I’ve come to recognize. One person says to another, “How did you get into programming?” Outside of interviews, I rarely hear these answers go linearly, like “I did undergrad in computer science and really fell in love with Python”.
Instead, I hear cagey, stylized origin stories. “Actually I began programming as a teenager”, people will tell me. “I got my first Pi when I was 16”, or “NeoPets!” or some other story to legitimize ourselves by sounding like we all always knew this was what we wanted out of life.
It’s a silly exercise, but I can understand the caginess. I’m one of the people narrating my own story this way. The gatekeepers are constantly on the lookout for the “real programmers”, they are ready to pounce on the tiniest weakness. So we pose and posture. For those that did a bootcamp like I did, many of us fret and conspire about how quickly we can manage to get it off our resume, and shift it into the camouflage of “legitimate” industry experience.
The truth is, any and all programming you are doing is legitimate experience, but that’s a rant (mostly) for another day.
(Says the girl 3/4 of the way through a software engineering degree, because she’s tired of having to explain herself to anyone.)
I’m a pretty private person, except on here. For starters, I don’t think anyone really reads this blog so who cares :p. I pride myself in almost having a chameleon ability to talk to someone all day, have them leave thinking “She’s so likable!” and not realize that I didn’t tell them one meaningful personal thing about me. That’s deliberate. Not to sound too cynical, but letting people know things about you gives them power. Knowing things about other people gives you power. And that’s what I’ve believed for a long time.
But I guess I’m finally ready to give some power away.
I’m a good enough engineer at this point that I actually think my origin story is kind of cool. It tells you a lot about me, and its probably the proudest arc I have in my entire life. So I’m going to talk about it. Let’s go.
I’ve mentioned on here, sometimes more obliquely than others, that my dad passing away was the catalyst for me getting into the field. That’s the truth, but only part of the truth.
The truth is, the whole first half of my twenties was kind of a train wreck. My dad first became ill when I was twenty, and had a string of ailments thereafter. Cardiac events, which is the word for a small heart attack. Regular old heart attacks. Had part of a lung removed. Had multiple strokes.
The strokes actually changed his personality to become aggressive and hostile. People don’t talk much about that with stroke victims – it is usually a question of, can they speak? Can they see? My dad did lose some vision from strokes, but the personality change was by far the hardest on me. It was sometimes like living with a feral animal. He was permanently disabled, and I shuffled working part time to get him to doctor’s appointments in the most critical days. I made very little money during that time. Dropped out of college. Lost a lot of friends. My former best friend wanted to go out and meet boys, and couldn’t understand why I’d “changed”.
I absolutely had changed. That’s for sure.
I was the person most responsible for my dad. I had medication lists memorized. His doctors didn’t always do the job you would hope. It felt like I was constantly wrestling with death, to stall it by a handful of days or a week at a time.
After his discharge from one hospital stay driving him home, as soon as we pulled up in our driveway I looked over at him and saw he was unable to undo his seatbelt. His hands were flopping uselessly and I had to turn right around and go back to the hospital. It turned out he’d had a stroke that the hospital hadn’t even caught, they just released him. You can’t make this up.
Another time we were literally sitting in the cardiologists office when I noticed he had become completely jaundiced. I rushed him to the ER. I can’t even remember now what wound up being the problem that time, but it meant another lengthy hospital stay. I couldn’t trust the people that were supposedly taking care of him. The authority figures, doctors, were not trustworthy.
During this whole time, there I was twenty, twenty-one, then twenty-two. Trying to keep his house together. Mowing the lawn, taking care of his two dogs and two cats, and spending many weekends shop-vaccing the basement which kept flooding.
You may be wondering, is this relevant to how I got into programming? Bear with me. Yes, it is.
On a delayed reaction, a year or so into the illnesses and me taking care of my dad, I was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder. The panic attacks came a few times a week. A couple times I was driving and would have to turn into an urgent care place thinking I was having a heart attack. My hands shook and I’d be unable to draw breath.
Each time it felt like hurtling towards a point of no return physically – like I would croak, or explode, or vomit, or go up in a cartoonish puff of smoke once the terrible feeling finally coalesced into some resolution. The panic attacks I started getting were coming a few times a week though. All said and done, I lived with them for about five years.
I’m a very logical person, but that panic attacks felt like heart attacks was very triggering for me – my dad had this messed up heart, and with him when there was smoke there was almost ALWAYS fire. He was constantly almost dying. So even being in good physical health, the sensation of fear around my panic attacks put me into this really high alert reactionary zone.
Eventually around the time I was twenty four my dad’s health stabilized – in terms of blood thinners, heart medication, vision. By this point, had moved from part time work around his doctors appointments to a full time job, and I moved out of his house. I didn’t make very much money but got a small place in Baltimore, and lobbied to get myself a security clearance through my work, seeing it as a ticket towards a more middle class life.
I threw myself into work because my home life was still a constant source of stress and pain. The personality change from the stroke really turned my dad into a different person his last few years. At one point, he called my work belligerently because he was mad at me over something, and the fury I felt at him jeopardizing my career was explosive. I stopped talking to him.
The story gets worse before it gets better. Estranged from my dad, I moved through a string of high powered jobs at dysfunctional places in DC, I finalized my security clearance, I snuck in with the network guys at Ft. Meade at my work to get some technical certifications, I started doing code academy on my phone. I started making more money. I gained a reputation for being tech savvy, I started taking a Coursera course on the programming language Scratch invented by MIT.
One thing I haven’t mentioned at this point about my work is, I was actually a technical recruiter. When I say I’m cagey about my origin story, maybe now you understand why. Recruiting is among the most hated professions alive, especially by tech people. I tried very hard to be different. It used to be the highlight of my day when people would tell me “Wow, you’re really knowledgeable. Recruiters usually don’t know any of this stuff.”
In 2015, inevitably, the call I’d been waiting for for five years came. I could hear it in the first syllable out of my sister’s mouth before she said a word, my dad had finally died. My dad and I were out of touch for about a year at that point. Over him calling my work enraged, and another time him getting mad at me and smashing a bunch of my belongings. My dad was a really gentle person and my best friend growing up, so I don’t know if you can imagine what his personality change was like for me. We were estranged almost a year to the date of his death.
To say it nearly destroyed me is an understatement. The first week, was just shock. I was the only recruiter at my firm with the other on maternity leave, so if you can believe it I actually wound up having to schedule fifty informational interviews for a Department of Energy contract in Colorado in the day immediately after my dad died. I blearily trudged through it somehow before taking some bereavement leave.
My anxiety which was already a huge problem became completely unmanageable. I had insomnia, and no appetite, so I lost weight rapidly. My work, realizing I would be requesting time off, put me on a performance improvement plan – a PIP – it was obvious they were trying to squeeze me out, realizing I’d need time off to deal with my dad’s estate.
I will never in a million years forget what that felt like. I was not surprised at all when an expose came out on Amazon a while back, alleging that they did similar things, putting employees with cancer or dealing with sick parents on PIPs to squeeze them out. It is the dark underbelly of technology. The money at stake makes humans inhuman.
I became labelled disabled because of the chronic intensity of my mental state in the aftermath of all this. All of the suspended anxiety of waiting for the other foot to drop through my dads illnesses all those years became somehow worse after his death. Everything I lost, all that misery, all that effort, and for nothing – he still died. It felt like five years for nothing, nothing I’d done had mattered. For the better part of a year, it destroyed me.
There are a few slack communities I draw a lot of strength from, and some of them have mental health channels. Someone the other day in one was describing lying on the floor. That really hit home. In my period of disability, you could find me laying on the floor, unmoving, for hours at a time. I think I would have been a bigger mess, but maybe as self preservation I got a puppy, which forced me to have some type of sleep pattern and to leave the house. This is her – named Dani, after my dad Dan:
I felt deeply uncomfortable both with my disability status, not having a direction to my day, and the feeling of not working for the first time in my adult life. I found out the workplace that I thought was trying to squeeze me out had leaked my mental health status to my manager, instead of simply saying I was on disability leave. I felt so betrayed and humiliated that I wound up resigning from the job altogether.
I felt guilty about not working, and tried taking a different job. But within three months it was clear to me that I was still a wreck. Panic attacks and insomnia, rinse and repeat. I couldn’t do it. I left on disability leave again for a month, and eventually just resigned. My limbs worked and I had very mixed feelings about being on disability leave for something all in my head.
Part of it was the depth of my feeling in the moment, but I just couldn’t do it anymore. All my strength had been drained. I couldn’t sit in an office and act normal, I couldn’t control my panic attacks, I was slurry and unfocused from the multiple months of insomnia. I was on a rotating bevy of antidepressants and anxiety meds, none of which was making any dent. Dani actually saved me, because I narrowly just gave up on living.
Never thought I’d identify with this character, but there is a line Voldemort says in one of the Harry Potter books that goes something about being “less than spirit, less than the meanest ghost … but still, [..] alive.” That was me. I remember at various low points feeling like the echo of a soundless scream, indelible but invisible. I remember wanting to disappear from the face of the earth. Not die, specifically, but be closed like the book of a story concluded.
But — and this is where this very intense story finally gets more positive — at a certain point, I began to round a corner.
At some point, my shame over not working and feeling of guilt over my new lack of ambition or drive subsided. What was a terrifying lack of investment in my own future became a feeling of freeing abandon. I started thinking about leaving it all behind, becoming a dog walker, or living like a hermit in a cabin in the woods.
I started cooking, which I’ve always hated, to relax myself, and began to gain some weight back. Dani who was a tiny puppy forced me to express some physicality to keep her tired out and get her potty trained and all that jazz.
A while ago I found a somewhat manic looking drawing I made from that time on a notebook that says something like “If I’m going to go crazy, I’m going to do it right.” I stand by that characterization of that time in my life. I did the damn thing, lol.
Somehow I managed, slowly, to pivot out of deep hopelessness. This manifested in weird, specific fixations, blowing hot and cold on no particular schedule. One span of weeks it was puppies, the next it was antique books, the next I would be looking for jobs that would make me do physical activity or have to be outdoors. Somehow the idea entered my head that I could – actually – become a technician like my dad. Before he became an engineer, he went around going up in bucket trucks for Verizon. He had some hilarious stories about battling with squirrels that preceded him up the telephone pole.
I thought about going to cable college with Cox, the internet provider where I lived. I thought about learning to do tech support. I don’t know how all these ideas became related to each other in my jumbled brain, I was on some type of sleep deprived and addled mission to get away from how badly I felt, which seemed to loosely translate into turning into a different person than the one I was.
I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence that a lot of my career preoccupations during that time would have had me following my dad’s footsteps. I don’t remember the exact way I stumbled onto the idea of bootcamps, but I’m pretty sure it came up somewhere along the lines of me googling “cable college career change”.
Although cable college or becoming a nomadic dog walker were real contenders, my old ambition at some point won out, and the compromise reached was that I would enter a bootcamp to become a coder, and live in North Carolina simply, away from the stress and pretension of DC. The idea of a bootcamp was somehow completely insane in my condition, but it had a smack of self preservation too. I couldn’t handle working and I couldn’t handle not working, so what other options were there for me? One of my fixations was on the idea that if I tired out my mind and body I could temper the crushing anxiety through exhaustion. In retrospect, it was not one of my worst ideas.
Bootcamps are intense, and I was especially poorly prepared for mine. I was out of shape discipline wise, after months of reading and lying on the floor and trying my best not to think about anything. My varying obsessions – getting a dog, moving to North Carolina, becoming a dog walker – were whimsical and without any logistical planning around them. The bootcamp was probably worst off in terms of practicality or feasibility, even among my other crazy ideas during that time.
I didn’t do any of the bootcamp pre-work, and entered it singularly unprepared. I moved 300 miles to North Carolina in the middle of the first week of it. No longer on disability leave my insurance lapsed, and so did my access to any antidepressants or anxiety medications. I was on my own, cold turkey.
Unbeknownst to me, I also needed glasses this whole time, so early into my bootcamp I realized I would have to stop working way sooner at night than everyone else or get awful headaches. With no insurance and no income, going to the eye doctor didn’t enter my head as a realistic option.
I loved my bootcamp, even though I really sucked at first. It honestly saved me from the worst point of my entire life, and I will never stop being proud that at my darkest moment, even at the point of considering ending it all – that’s how I wound up dealing with myself, and my pain, out of all the things I could have done. It is something I’m genuinely proud of.
Maybe this is a sentimental take, but it also makes this work mean something to me that I don’t think it means for other people. I can’t tell you the power and calm I felt coming out of a haze of grief, to be able to do something constructive and build things. It was like all the mental energy that had been turned inwards, driving me to distraction, had an outlet finally.
Bringing it back to origin stories, this one is mine. In terms of why I haven’t shared it, with people I work with or a lot of my peers in the field, its complicated. If I ran into you, a random other person in tech, I might say that I started messing with MySpace layouts and CSS when I was 15 (this is true). I could tell you about how I would spend hours in front of the primitive design software KidPix as a kid making graphics, or how my dad the engineer would bring home wires that me and my siblings would play with. All of that stuff is true, but it is also partially window dressing.
There’s a stigma about mental health, and as you can imagine the workplace that I felt was trying to squeeze me out and then shared my condition improperly left a huge mark on me, and it makes me cautious to this day.
In terms of why I’m talking about it now, I have the advantage of hindsight because I can tell you that for the past few years as a programmer, I have been delightfully and robustly sane. When I look back on that time…yes, I was consumed by chronic mental distress, but I think it was also a perfectly reasonable reaction to my surroundings. My dad kept almost dying for five long years. When he did die, as a primary caregiver for a lot of those years it destroyed my sense of self, and I felt special conflict and pain over the fact that we weren’t talking when he died. I don’t feel ashamed of myself during that time, if anything I just wish I could reach back through time and be kind to me. I was in no position to be making those kind of decisions at twenty years old, and I did the best I could.
My story isn’t probably all that unique, or all that unique to tech. But I guess I finally want to talk about it because I don’t know that people understand or appreciate how many people around them may be pushing through panic attacks to meet deadlines, or worrying about a family members deteriorating health, or their own deteriorating mental health in reaction to things they can’t control.
Programming is also a field that can be somewhat terrifying in terms of the machismo around it, and unwillingness to see technical people as whole humans. We are ninjas, or rockstars, or 10xers. I recall one programmer I know who had a client tutorial displayed proudly on his portfolio site saying “YOU ARE A MACHINE!!!”. To me, it is totally unrealistic and sad that we spend our times making ourselves less human, thinking that it makes us better programmers.
I am a programmer, and a good programmer, because of how human I am.
In terms of why I’m talking about it now, I like my real origin story better than my sneaky, cagey constructed version. My name’s Joy, and my dad died and I got all fucked up and then went to a bootcamp. I’m proud of my reasons, all of them, and how I got here. I think these messy, heartbreaking, real origin stories are better and I’m sharing mine so maybe other people will feel ok sharing theirs too.