Daddy, Why Don't You Ever Laugh?


We were eating dinner last Friday night when my daughter asked me, "Daddy, why don't you ever laugh?" Coincidentally (or perhaps not) I had just finished reading Jesse Noller's post A Lot Happens, in which he said:

You can't be emotionally all in on everything. You can't make another 24 hours appear to be "present" for everything… I stole time and ran my emotional credit card like it was limitless. I stole time from my family, from work, from everything.

In a companion piece written a month later, he showed the price of being "all in" by turning this classic XKCD cartoon:

XKCD: Duty Calls

into this:

Noller: Wrong Answer

It took a lot of courage to be as honest as Jesse was. What follows is my attempt to live up to his example.

I've written before about the depression I struggled with in my twenties and thirties. At the time (early 2011) it had been eight years since I'd had a bad crash. That streak lasted until April of this year, when I had a week of panic attacks and insomnia. I recovered fairly quickly, but had a relapse from late June until early August during which I could barely string three thoughts together. I was OK again until four very bleak days last week while on holiday with family.

I did this to myself. When I left Mozilla last summer I expected things would be difficult, but as a result of me trusting the wrong people, it went even worse than I'd feared–so much so that I wound up working without pay in November and December, and not long after found out that a major funder had blacklisted me because I was "difficult". Things were so bad at one point that I decided I'd better polish my rusty programming skills, just in case I had to get a real job. The last thing I'd worked on was an e-commerce application written in Django, so I started building a forms-based application to manage Software Carpentry workshops.

All of that might have been manageable, but while it was going on my wife and I decided to sell our house to get away from a toxic neighbor. And since we were doing that, it seemed only sensible to go and spend a year in England while our daughter was still young enough to actually want to hang out with her parents. Meanwhile, angered by Gamergate and a bunch of other things, I approached a bunch of people about organizing a two-day workshop for grassroots get-into-tech groups focused on women, minorities, the physically and mentally challenged, people coming out of prison, and everyone else who didn't fit the Silicon Valley mold.

Each of these things was worth doing, but together they were too much. As Jesse said, you can't be all in on everything. All you can do is run dry, and I did. When we discovered that UK visa rules had changed and we'd only be able to spend six months overseas instead of the year we'd hoped for, I had no reserves left. When we had to find a place in England long-distance, pack up a house, and deal with my father's cancer diagnosis, I had nothing to fall back on.

The sensible response would have been to scale back, but I couldn't. I mean that literally: every time I switched off email for a few hours my panic attacks returned. I was hooked on being plugged in every bit as much as my two-packs-a-day father was hooked on cigarettes, and it was every bit as unhealthy. And of course when email withdrawal made me twitchy I started making more mistakes, which meant more things went wrong, which made me feel even more that I had to get online and sort it all out–all of it, whether it was important or not, and my family paid the price.

Programmers never used to talk about stuff like this (at least, none of the ones I knew did when I was around to hear it), but it's more important than programming languages or elevator pitches. No one should be ashamed to say, "That's worth doing but I'm not going to do it." And no one should be ashamed to say that they've hit their limit, or measure what they've done against what they could have done if they were smarter, faster, luckier, and never needed to sleep.

My father never managed to quit smoking. I don't think I'll ever stop wanting to do everything that needs doing, but for my family's sake as well as my own I'm going to try to get it under control. And if you're who I was when I was 25 or 35, please don't wait until you're in your forties or fifties to start talking about this kind of thing. Who knows? Maybe once you get it out there, you'll start laughing once in a while.