December 12, 2012

Bipolar - It’s not a bug it’s a feature.

UPDATE: Join the conversation on Hacker News

I am bipolar II. I say it that way because I don’t see bipolar disorder as something you have. To me it is something you are. For people who aren’t familiar with this form of “mental illness” here is a quick excerpt from Wikipedia:

Bipolar disorder or bipolar affective disorder (historically known as manic-depressive disorder) is a psychiatric diagnosis for a mood disorder in which people experience disruptive mood swings. These encompass a frenzied state known as mania (or hypomania) usually alternated with symptoms of depression. Bipolar disorder is defined by the presence of one or more episodes of abnormally elevated energy levels, cognition, and mood with or without one or more depressive episodes.

The people who know me they might think That makes sense. The honest truth is that if you really know me, then you’ve probably seen the negative results either first hand or indirectly. Especially if you knew me 10 years ago. I can’t lie, there have been times things have gotten really bad for me over the years but the truth is that there have been been excessively positive times as well.

I’m expressing this openly on the internet because I think, particularly in the hacker culture, there is very little said about “mental illness”. I can understand why. In an industry where you are judged for your ability to solve intellectually complex problems, being open about a “mental illness” doesn’t inspire confidence most of the time.

I probably won’t change that but I can at least be honest about my life and hope that someone struggling to understand what is going on with their own situation might learn something about themselves from my personal experiences.

The first time I remember feeling it I was 8. I was playing with kids in the school yard, feeling on top of the world. So very excited, screaming, yelling, chasing and then all the sudden it happened. Some kid said something to me about being selfish and my self worth instantly shattered. I spent the rest of the school year sitting on the side lines by myself hoping someone would come, accept who I am and tell me it was ok and life would go on. That never happened.

Time passed and as I turned into a teenager things got a lot more intense. Probably due to the hormones that were thrown into the mix. By this time it was apparent that something was “wrong”. My parents tried taking me to counselling and they determined I had an anxiety disorder. I was prescribed Paxil. This was my first experience with medication.

I started drumming and became interested in computers so for a little while I was able to maintain. Eventually I started “experimenting” with alcohol and pot like most high schoolers do but I started taking it to the extreme. Everything was like that. I couldn’t do anything without trying to do it harder, better and inherently with more risk then those around me.

I started giving up on things that didn’t satisfy my mania and things went off the rails. Looking back I have no idea why but I had gotten it into my head that I needed to prove myself. I felt I needed to prove that I wasn’t dependent on anyone, that at 16 I could move out, live on my own, make my own money and support myself. High school was a write off for many reasons but this was the main reason. I moved to the city lived in a homeless shelter for a while. I came off Paxil because effectively I was a street kid and couldn’t afford it. I don’t wish that on anyone. I can only describe “The Paxil Flu” as what it must feel like to come off of heroin. It was miserable but eventually it passed and I swore off meds. I eventually got a job at a pita joint and rented my first apartment. I had accomplished my goal, now what? I spent a few more months raging out and barely scraping by and then it happened again. The pit of depression. Everything came crashing down just like before.

My best friends mother was diagnosed with cancer and shortly there after died. I don’t know why it affected me the way it did. Albeit she was like a second mother to me and they were both like family, but I don’t think it was that specifically. I think somewhere deep down I realized how selfish I’d been. I saw how it crushed my mother and suddenly I could hear that kid from the school yard again.

I realized how I’d treated my family, how hard they tried to get through to me, and how stubborn I was. I moved back home and spent the next couple years fighting the cycle of my moods. When I was younger the cycles weren’t so rapid but as I started to become of age, the cycles intensified and the extremes became more familiar. Going to school was a joke. I would skip weeks at a time simply because I couldn’t drag myself out of bed. If I did go to school nothing would be accomplished because my energy levels would be too high to focus on anything that didn’t match my stimulus requirements.

More and more I started to turn to computers as an intellectual challenge that would help me fill the stimulus gap that existed from attending a public school system. I was in a band and eventually became interested in one subject. Entrepreneurship. I would skip every other class of the day and just go see Mr Worthylake for this one class. As sort of a class project I started a concert production “company” (used loosely). Things progressed and before I knew it I was booking bands that I would have only ever heard of on TV and I would “guarantee” them hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars to come to my small town to play music for people. This is when things started going really well for me. I was proud for the first time in my young adult life. I was making money and I felt important among my peers. Looking back I realize that I was always bound to be an entrepreneur. I loved the risk involved. Will people show up? Or will I have to fork over the thousands of dollars in expenses from my own pocket? I had probably a 99% success rate and I now realize that it was one of the most satisfying periods of my young life.

After focusing on just that for a few years I decided I needed a change. The risk didn’t quench my thirst any more so I decided to move to Banff Alberta where a lot of my friends were living. I spent a year there working crappy jobs making just enough to snowboard. It was fun for a bit but it turned out to be the same old crap but in a new place. I eventually was fired from my $6.35/hr job for missing work so I decided to move on. I had no idea where I was going, so I spent a month or so in town at the internet cafe using what little money I had left to help my friends build a website for their band. Then it hit me like a truck. I like computers, I like entrepreneurship. I’ll do that.

I moved to Toronto and took some night courses on programming. I didn’t learn anything because the courses were meant for older people with no experience who were aiming at a career change but they at least validated that I was somewhat decent at what I do on computers. I spent the next 6 years or so working for a variety of places as a developer during the day to mitigate the risk, while trying to build “the next big thing” in the evenings. Things were relatively stable. I found myself able to lock into programming tasks that required intense cognition and mental clarity for long periods of time. I solved some pretty awesome problems and the cycles were becoming more and more obvious.

Then one day out of no where my teenage sister sent me a link and said a few words that would changed my life forever…

“Kyle, I think you are bipolar”

I read the article and instantly a light went on. Holy crap. I am bipolar. I started spending as much time as I could learning about bipolar.

I started trying to hack my mood disorder. I looked for triggers. Things that would invoke my mania as well as shut me down, in both cases without reaching the extremes, something I now think of as a safezone. I found that the spark of a new entrepreneurial idea was without fail the best way to invoke mania which would then allow me to focus completely on really complex problems with relatively little distraction. There were times I would sit down at 5pm to work on an idea and before I knew it, the sun would be coming up and I would have almost no memory of the last 12 hours. It felt like a super power, but it was one I would have to train. I spent many of those years coming up with sparks, executing them and working on pulling myself out of the mania without crashing. None of these things were actually good ideas, but that didn’t matter. I was like the karate kid and bipolar was like Mr Miyagee. I was training for the future. This was a feature, not a bug and I planned to use it to my advantage.

Eventually I moved to Vancouver. I met my amazing wife, bought a house and worked some more full time jobs. Real white picket fence type shit. Things briefly went off the rails about a year before we were married but this time I had trained myself to recognize the patterns and adapt. It was a really pivotal time for me. I did not want to lose the woman I would eventually marry so I went to seek help for the first time in 12 years. My wife eventually told me this was the moment she knew she’d marry me because I was strong enough to put my pride aside in an attempt to save our relationship. The doctor turned out to be a world known specialist in this field. Within 5 minutes or so he was 100% sure that I am bipolar. He prescribed me some Lithium and I went on my way.

I spent 8 months or so on Lithium. I’ll be honest. I felt awesome in a lot of ways once it kicked in. The cycles went away entirely. Things were good but something was still wrong. I started gaining weight and I realized something was missing. The skill that I had been training was no longer affective. When I lost the cycles I also lost my mania. I lost the ability to go long times with relatively strong cognitive focus and my work suffered. I tried everything to get it back but it just wasn’t there. So I made a decision. I came off medication and started training it again.

I began working out a few times a week, eating better and watching my sleeping habits on top of the mental training. The last year is by far the best I’ve felt. Shortly after a good idea actually came to me and I pounced on the opportunity to test my training and prove myself once again. This time I would be proving myself in a way that actually mattered. I would be starting a real business and while there would be risk involved I would mitigate that risk in a way that made rationale sense. I started a company called AppLabz and now a year down the road we are bootstrapped and fully profitable. I also find that I have been able to strengthen my resolve and manage my cycles in a way that I never could before. I’ve never been legitimately happier in my life, but something is STILL missing.

I realize now as I write this and reflect on my life that there is something I have never been able to accept about myself. I love risk. I like to put my balls on the table and take chances. I think I’ve forgotten this because so many people I love are very risk adverse. I can understand why they would look at me and think, he should probably avoid risk because he’s bipolar. The truth is, I love it and I need it to feel alive.

I like to take risks and if I ever hope to truly be at one with the best feature I have been given in this life, I have to embrace that. I lost it somewhere along the lines when I decided to grow up. Now I look back at my passion as a teenager running a promotion company and I realize that was when I felt the most alive. The last 8 years or so I’ve been working these full time jobs for other people, trying to come up with something during my “time off” that would be viable. Well it’s time to stop lying to myself about who I really am.

Today I told my boss I’m leaving my full time job to pursue AppLabz. I am going to stop lying to myself. I am bipolar. I am a hacker. I am an entrepreneur and I love risk.

This realization does not mean that I have beaten my “illness” but the entire point is that I don’t need to beat it. I like to think that I’ve been able to use the hacker way to understand it and eventually engineer it so I can succeed at my life in a way that I am proud of. I often wonder if more people in the hacker community haven’t also experienced a similar battle within themselves. I’m not sure the industry standard lends itself to people being open about this type of thing however I do think that it is very likely that some of the things that make up a great hack-trepreneur can also lend themselves to personality defects or mental “illnesses”.

If you have a “mental illness” it is important to remember that it is only a negative thing if you allow it to be. No matter what people think it is up to you to find what works for you. I found that once I began thinking of bipolar as a feature rather then a bug it all became a lot more clear. I also realized in writing this that I still have a lot to learn about myself, but one thing I know for sure is that I’m not sick. At least I don’t think so. I guess it depends on who you ask.

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