Better Late Than Never

On vacation for the first time since early this year. I’ve had discussions with people telling me that I should have taken more time off a lot earlier, and I think in retrospect they were probably more right than I wanted them to be. There’s a lot that probably could have been avoided if I’d have spent more time looking out for my own mental health. There’s certainly something to be said for being more attentive to how stressed I feel and how I should deal with it. I’ve spent more than my fair share of time stressing out and letting it get the better of me when I clearly could have spent a bit more time stepping away and coming to terms with the ramifications of my condition.

Since starting the Lexapro regimen, I’ve noticed a strong decrease in the severity of my reactions to things. I’m happy with the changes so far. I’ve gotten comments from other people about how my demeanor has changed. I’m less worried about that particular aspect of change with the medication’s introduction now than I was before. I’m certainly feeling the difference.

I’ve noticed that my thoughts have stopped racing like they usually do. I’ll sometimes catch myself moving between trains of thoughts, but for the most part that’s been fading. I’m able to give singular focus to activities I previously wasn’t able to, and I’m noticing that I’m far less critical of myself and others when I participate in them. I’m more supportive and generally anywhere from non-plussed to happy with a lot of what I’m doing. That’s a pretty big difference in the span of two weeks, but I can’t say that it’s bad by any stretch of the imagination.

Overall things seem less dire. I’m able to think about things a lot more objectively and critically. I’m concentrating better and remembering things more easily. I’m able to stop and notice things I previously wasn’t able to appreciate. For example, I can look at the window I have in my room that has a semi-transparent pride flag covering it. It’s casting many colors into the room that I previously would have just covered with a plain blackout curtain. I wouldn’t have noticed anything of the sort or have had the ability to appreciate it a month ago. Goes to show how much depression and trauma can remove the color from the world.

I’ll probably have my weekends back sometime soon, which means that outdoor climbing and hiking season will hopefully be in full-effect. I’m planning on trying to get trips planned with friends and coworkers before I head out to Portland, OR for a month starting in October, but we’ll have to see what happens. I think I’m working on getting to a point where things are more fluid in my life. I’m grateful for it and at the same time annoyed that it took me nearly two decades to get here.

Better late than never, I guess.

Clarity

Oscillation.  That’s been the over-arching theme of late.  Frustration-turned-sadness, happiness-turned-rage, depression-turned-anxiety.  Something had to give.  I had to give.  So I did.

I’ve started on a prescription of 10mg Lexapro.  The immediate placebo effect is interesting in the sense that there’s been a shift in how I see myself and how I see situations and interactions that would normally frustrate me beyond words.  I’m finding that I’m taking things a bit slower.  Responding more slowly, thoughtfully, compassionately.  I’m finding that what my “normal” cadence of speech was before beginning the prescription (usually a steady, rapid-fire stream of anxiety) is now more measured and even.  I feel as though things are less “severe” or “urgent”, if that makes any sense.

The implications of an SSRI alleviating some of the underlying anxiety and depression is still somewhat concerning.  The idea that I’ve basically been operating on a serotonin deficiency for over a decade is striking.  That alone explains a great number of issues that I’ve experienced and casts a very broad shadow.  Discovering that particular aspect has been mortifying.  Now that I feel less anxiety in general, I realize how skewed my behavior may have come across to others.  It presents for me a very deep sense of discomfort and shame.  What’s also interesting about it is that I am able to catch myself earlier when I feel the onset of frustration or unhappiness.  Taking the position of the passive observer and seeing where things come from and how I can address them is illuminating.

I’ve been reading a lot more the last couple of weeks.  I just finished reading Contact by Carl Sagan and A Queer History of the United States (ReVisioning American History) by Michael Bronsky.  I have to say that A Queer History definitely caught me flat-footed in the sense that I didn’t know how much of U.S. history was influenced by not just queer activism, but quiet acts of self-determination and defiance.  Women, men, and everything in-between living their lives in as complete a truth as they were willing or able to endure, giving truth to an aphorism of the same.  Upon matters of faith, love, society, and life were reliefs impressed and carved by queer life in early America.  I’m happier now for knowing more history.  I feel even more indebted to those who came before.

I’m close to selling the adventure truck.  The last two weeks have been a tangled mess of sending paper mail, faxes, emails, phone calls, and apologetic text messages in an effort to get my title cleared-up.  Should finally be on the last step of squaring that away.

The experiment in living without a car begins soon.  I’ve managed to pick up water-resistant cycling pants and shoe covers, so at least that’ll help in the event that I need to bike somewhere in the rain.  Since I also have a work backpack that has a rain jacket, I think I’ve got most things handled.  The only thing I’m on the lookout for is a water-proof or water-resistant backpack that I can carry my climbing gear in.  I figure if I’m going to be cycling a lot, then I’ll need to be prepared to get wet when I’m cycling around town.

Which I guess brings me to a difficult topic: motivation to climb hard is difficult to find.  I’ve been so stuck in my head the last two months and I feel like I’ve been watching my strength dwindle-away.  I’ve been feeling really discouraged after coming away from a hard bouldering session feeling like I’ve accomplished nothing.  I’m not sure if it’s due to me just having a hard time of things emotionally and not being able to really appreciate the process or if it’s just an extension of the results-driven mindset that’s been the primary driver of a lot of issues.

In retrospect, maybe it’s not even a results-driven mindset, maybe it’s just expectation meeting reality.  When the proverbial rubber meets the road.  I’ll have to think on this some more.

The universe is in flux.  It’s the modus operandi of life.  Moments of lucid retrospection and introspection have been few and far between.  I don’t want to step back from my efforts, but I want to find a happy medium where I can apply effort and not burn myself out.  Maybe that’s part of this particular process.  Getting help to set things back to an even keel.  Maybe things will change for the better.  For the first time in a while, I think I’m optimistic about my life.

What a difference clarity can make.

Getting up to speed

It’s been a rough couple of months.  Let’s start with the stuff that happened at the end of May.

I decided that the living arrangement in Somerville, MA wasn’t really a good fit anymore and looked around for somewhere that would be less expensive.  After a bit of searching, I found out that the house I’d lived in about three years ago had another room opening up at half the rent I was paying at the time.  I decided to make the jump, put the money down, and got down to the work of minimizing more “stuff”.  Got that all sorted out, got the room, got packed and moved.

On the final run out from Somerville to the room in Brighton, I got into an accident.  I was unable to react fast enough to a pair of vehicles that were stopped for a pedestrian in a pedestrian crossing and ended-up rear-ending a car that rear-ended the car in front of it.  Thankfully there were no injuries, but my truck’s bumper incurred some damage and my airbags deployed.  After a quick flip of the fuel-shutoff in the cab and an inspection at a body-shop, I discovered that the frame was okay but the repairs to the truck were estimated at four thousand dollars.  Money I didn’t (and still don’t) have.  The only silver lining out of all of this is that I had my truck inspected earlier in May, so I at least had a sticker that would last me until May of 2017.

Which brings me to the next problem: figuring out what to do with my truck.  The truck’s repair costs basically out-strip it’s overall worth as a daily-driver, but as a project vehicle or adventure vehicle it’s a great platform for someone else to build off of.  Idle adventuring, hucking gear for hauling, or just plain tooling around; it does it all with equal aplomb.  The problem being that the four-thousand dollar up-front repair cost kind of puts it out of the reach of anybody but the most dedicated (or crazy) enthusiast.  Figuring out whether or not to get a replacement vehicle is also a big consideration.  Potentially adding another five-hundred-plus dollars per month to my monthly expenses when I’m so close to debt-zero would potentially be a huge step backward.  That being said, not having a vehicle in inclement weather is a poor situation to be in as well.  I’m still on the fence about what to do, but I’m considering all of my options.

So.  The move.  I’m in Brighton, MA (again).  It’s certainly frustrating in some respects, but there’s I think plenty to be happy with.  It’s a compact life, but it’s a life that I am becoming more accustomed to as time goes on.  The seven-by-thirteen foot room was described as “monastic” by a close friend when I showed him pictures of the space.

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The digital battle-station.
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The place where the magic happens (not really).

As time has gone on, I’ve found that I actually need less “stuff” in my life.  I’m moving toward a more intentional life.  The detritus is being slowly cleared away.

Throughout all of this, I’ve also been fighting down anxiety attacks, depression, and PTSD symptoms.  I haven’t been as successful at doing all of these things as I would like.  There have been times in the last few weeks where I’ve been close to breaking down in tears.  The thought there being “things were going so well, and then things went completely pear-shaped”.

Trying to sit with the anxiety more lately.  I’m finding it hard to observe it without engaging it.  It’s so deeply-rooted it literally feels as if it’s a part of me.  It sometimes takes everything I have to get through a day.  I’m trying to reign it in and get a handle on things, but I win some and I lose some.

Hopefully will have a buyer for the pickup before the end of this month, and then I’ll be able to figure out what to do next.  I’m eyeing moving to Portland, OR at the end of the year, but I’ll have to run some numbers and see where things stand at the end of August.

I didn’t get it

For a long time, I never understood.  There wasn’t context or explanation about why organizations like PFLAG and ACT UP and so many others were necessary.  I didn’t know what they were fighting for.  I didn’t have any context as to why pride parades mattered or why living out-loud and proud was necessary.  “Just stay quiet, inconspicuous, and out-of-the-way and nobody will care or know the difference.”

Or so I thought.  I hid behind a toxic, stoic strain of masculinity.  I laughed at and actively avoided effeminate men.  I spent the majority of my time drinking and smoking, and buried myself in work.  I avoided any real introspection that would have yielded substantive change.  I kept dodging what might have helped me come to terms with reality: that I am primarily a gay man living in a straight world dominated by narrow-minded and oft-violent ideas about how the world should work.  I spent the better part of my teenage years and early twenties alternating between binge-drinking at gay bars and crying myself to sleep at night alone.

I’d like to say I’ve done a lot of work since then.  I don’t drink nearly as much anymore.  I don’t see myself in the same ways as I did in my earlier years.  What’s more, I don’t see other people the same way either.  I see others’ beauty and innate positive traits and desires more often than I see them through a lens of fear.

There was, and still is, a part of that picture missing: the fact that I never “grew up queer”.  I never had the history or the context to be able to see things the same ways as my aging peers in the community experienced it.  I never “got it”.  I never fully-understood pride parades, bars and nightclubs, or any of the other kitschy things that dotted the cultural landscape of the gay community.  I just didn’t understand.  I didn’t get it.

And then Orlando happened.

49 dead.  53 wounded.  All in the span of a few hours.

I never got it… until Monday afternoon.  It finally smashed me square in the face and got me to stare at the fucking thing until I couldn’t stop crying.  The reason why so many of my peers were dead wasn’t just homophobia, xenophobia, or religious intolerance… it was, and still is systemic.  Printed in the damn preamble on the social contract that people signed upon entering some level or definition of adulthood.

Don’t trust the Other.  “They” are bad.  “They” prey on children.  “They” are degenerates.  “They” are all going to Hell and it’s okay to kill them because they’re not people anyway.  “They” get AIDS and die.  Violence is divine punishment.

And so it continues.

Pride parades exist as a symbol and a beacon: you are one of us.  We are many, and we are just as weird, flawed, and beautiful as you are.  Life is hard, but we want you to come as you are.  Come with us!  Don’t let the world bury you or turn you against yourself.  You aren’t alone; you never were and never will be again.

I’ve heard it more than once from well-meaning people that “straight pride parades don’t exist”.  It’s fucking asinine.  Straight men have never had to have parades because they’ve rarely, if ever, had to live in fear for something that should be so trivial to other people.  They’ve never had to wrap their arms around themselves at night, trembling at the edge of terror and despair.  They’ve never had to identify ingress and egress points or look over their shoulder for who might be following them in the doorway.  They’ve never had to consider the ramifications of being seen entering or leaving a bar, club, bath-house, or anything other kind of facility.  They’ve never had to carry a knife 24/7 because they never know who’s going to jump them because they decided to hold their partner’s hand.

All of these things never occurred to me growing up.  I always thought I’d be able to avoid the fight; that people much louder, braver, and smarter than myself would finish it.  This wasn’t supposed to be my fight.  This was supposed to have been fought by the people who survived Stonewall, who lived through the spectre-of-Death AIDS terror of the 80’s and 90’s, who were loud and colorful and everything I wasn’t.  Marriage rights, adoption rights, employment protections, social progress… all of this would end it.

My naiveté was just that.  Naieveté.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  49 people, most of which were barely approaching their mid-20’s, had their lives cut short by someone whose motives we are still grappling with as a society.  I imagine the community will continue to do so for years to come, and society writ-large will move on in a few weeks.  Profile photos will be changed, prayers and condolences doled-out like candy, token visibility offered to the system in exchange for illusory change.  But we know this song-and-dance.  In the wake of gun violence, and more specifically violence against the LGBTQ community, nothing will really change unless there remains a continuous flame, a rekindling of that spirit captured so carefully in the biopic “Milk”.

I know now why Sunday hit me so hard.  This was our Stonewall.  This was our galvanizing event.  This was our fight, whether we wanted it or not.  I was born into a fight–a damn war that I never signed-up for.  The fact that I continue to draw breath is testament to the idea that every breath is a tiny rebellion; that the continuation of my existence as a person is a fracture in the otherwise seamless homogeneity of Western, Abrahamic culture.  By virtue of existence and truthful living, I am rebelling.  To continue, and most of all to dance in the maelstrom that we call life, is to prove that love informs more of life than hate ever will.

The questions I find myself grappling with in the wake of the attacks go beyond simple survival, though that ranks high among the points that concern me the most.  Just how vocal should I be now as a gay man?  Do I start taking extra steps to protect myself?  Avoid public places?  Stop being visible and heard?  Stop advocating for the rights of my community?  Is it even my community at all?

I think the aftermath of this event presents us a choice.  To quote the late, great Bill Hicks:

The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your door, buy bigger guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one.

That’s what I see when I look at people now.  I still see stereotypes trying to cloud my vision and confuse what a person is versus what they actually aspire to be.  I still have a lot of fear to shed and a lot of ground to cover.  I will fuck things up.  I am just like the large portion of the gay community: I still hide behind “masc” and white, urban, affluent male privilege.  I want to take steps to eliminate that privilege and to give the microphone to people that really need it and deserve it.  I don’t want to be scared anymore.

The shooting shook more than a community, it shook my own faith in the world around me and it made me reconsider who I am and what I am actually capable of–really, what we are capable of.  We’re capable of rising above this kind of violence and seeing each other for what we truly are.

We will bounce back.  We will be able to move past this.  We will address the issues, both individually and as a community.  And I am no longer content in complacency.  It’s no longer “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”.  Instead, I’d rather say “I’m here, I’m queer, I’m human.  Let’s make things right”.  Even in that simple sentiment, there isn’t a clear way to make anything right.  How do we as a culture make it right for the thousands impacted by AIDS or homophobic violence?  How do we heal the wounds of thousands of lives that have been forever altered by family, faculty, and peers whose intolerance could not be countered?  What do we do to increase visibility and encourage dialogue and better understanding?

Faustian

It’s amazing to me that in American society we take the notion of mortgaging our future happiness for short-term gain or pleasure as a cultural touchstone; a given practice to which strict adherence is mandatory.

“Of course you’re supposed to mortgage your future via debt and contractual agreements–that’s how the monetary wheels continue to get the grease and spin-on!”

You might hear some version of this statement repeated a dozen times a day depending on where you live and the type of work that you might find yourself forced to do.  The narrative there being that in order to continue to make money, you need to swear a financial blood-oath to those that wield money.

People captivated by the spell will kneel before the golden altar of the Almighty Dollar and loosen-up their jaws and hips, because its clergy are well versed in the ways of persuasion and intimidation.  They’re so good at it that they can have them singing hallelujah at the height of their ability in praise of the supposed “virtues” of economic enslavement.

Why is this possible?  Why is this kind of behavior condoned or even “a thing”?  Because, of course, “money is power”.

“Greed is good”, as the Gordon Gecko lookalikes ambling their way through the throng will repeat to themselves.  Ambling to where exactly?  To their ivory towers, expensive chariots, and private jets?  More likely toward a precipice whose existence they will decry and deny even as they take the tumble.

“It’s just a market contraction!  It’ll bounce back!  No risk, no reward!”

And so-on and so-forth, even though the bones and bodies littering the base of the chasm bear a striking resemblance to their future occupants.  The well-to-do are not the only ones occupying the jagged floor of that space; merely the most visible.  Lost among the sea of beige, black, and navy business suits are the bodies of those whose visibility is far harder to judge: the homeowner whose mortgage became worthless when the market fell apart, the soon-to-be-retiree who bet their meager life-savings on the bond market for the promise of a better retirement a decade-on, the young couple who found the fine print of their credit card more damning than the sordid details of their mutual affairs.

Knowing full-well the risks of debtorship and that doing work that we hate for money we can’t say no to is tantamount to financial prostitution and extortion: why continue to participate and enable the system to continue to exploit others?

Refusing to engage in practices that exacerbate debtorship may make us apostates, but if the price of true freedom is isolation and ostracism, then I pay it gladly.  I would rather live a life free of worry and filled with experience than one marred, scarred, and filled with disregard.  Better to live under one’s own power and empower others than accept a Faustian exchange.

Seeking

Let us not be strangers when next we meet; instead I pray we should greet each other as kindred spirits. Ancient souls inextricably and inexplicably linked together by thin threads of existence. Experiences shared would be our bread, emotion and empathy our wine and aperitifs.

Fortunate indeed would we be if we could pray in our own ways in this temple of the universe, our religion of sharing and professing a deep and abiding love. To wildly careen into an ecstatic and and effervescent dream with you would give the universe pause.

To what ends do these desires seek? To set hearts ablaze, purge despair, and slay anger. Is it a mission? A directive? No, merely an imperative bestowed upon us from aeons past.

I weep inwardly, knowing well the depths of my own darkness–knowing that you too possess such a well. The agony of such a wound, un-mendable by any hands untempered that know nothing of your struggle. I would know it, if you would but venture beyond yourself. Grant me vision into that well and know that these hands are tempered in the fires of love, quenched within the depths of compassion.

Breathe with me, and I would make it so. If only in seeking solace you would come to honor yourself, your struggle, and hold space and love for yourself. I would have you smile and be heard.

If only you would begin. If only.

Mental Health in *Ops

What are the first things that come to mind when you think of the words “mental health”? Straightjackets? Pills? Psychiatrists and leather couches? If they are, you might not need to place all the blame on yourself. Western culture, to this day, still manages to maintain a deeply-entrenched stigma around the notion of mental health or disorder; the very words appended together evoking all manner of distinctly negative connotations. We’ve tried as a culture, in many different ways, to describe it: disorder, illness, disease—antonyms of what would generally be considered “normal”. As a direct result, individuals in Western society are now working to find ways to engage in the Herculean task of ending the stigma of mental health and understand its impact on individuals, groups, and society more broadly.

What do I mean by “*Ops” and what does mental health have to do with it? More than you might think. I use the phrase *Ops to describe all Operations groups and individuals rather than just a single subset of them: NetOps is not DevOps, DevOps is not SysOps, SysOps is not SysEng, SysEng is not NOC, etc. However, all of these title are more generally discussing Ops as a whole, thus the idea of *Ops. It’s inclusive and acknowledges the different specialities and skill sets that many *Ops people are familiar with but might not have a focus or interest in, and I think it more accurately represents the diversity of roles within the Operations discipline.

More importantly, what does #HugOps mean? More than a Twitter hashtag, it’s a set of core beliefs and ideas whose time has come. The wonderful people over at PagerDuty wrote a short-ish blog post about #HugOps, empathy skills for DevOps, and its impact on team members as well as the broader organization.  It means embracing the whole of Operations (even the “Type-2 Fun” parts of it), engaging in and improving sustainable Operations practices, and just generally being an empathetic human being.  Sustainable Ops practices aren’t just focused on business continuity and velocity, they’re also concerned with things like quality of life, encouraging personal growth, and skill development.

To the point then: why talk about mental health and Ops in the same breath?  Because they’re inextricably linked, bound at the atomic level by the sheer fact that we are humans operating complex systems.  By inference, complex systems are prone to failure, and as a culture we do a terrible job of decomposing problems into their atomic parts without laying blame on someone or something, whether conscious or not.  When a team engaging in DevOps practices produces a service on which your system or service lives on encounters a failure of some type, of course you’re going to have a reaction.  What’s important is understanding the reasoning behind it and decomposing it so it becomes less of a people issue and remains simply an issue.

Why is it hard to talk about mental health in a work setting?  When we view the question through the lens of traditional (borderline “legacy”) organizations and structures, we often come to the same conclusions: that these issues are “thorny” and are better left to silence.  What we are learning instead is that when we leave these topics in the shadows, they fester and grow into pernicious and poisonous things.  In many cases, HR guidelines in a lot of legacy orgs reflect this viewpoint: feelings are thorny and difficult, the only thing that matters of productivity.  From that same perspective, the notion remains: “So long as your work is getting done and we are paying you a fair wage that we are legally bound to pay you, we don’t care.  Just don’t rock the boat.”

I once had a friend tell me, “HR isn’t there to help you or protect you.  They are there only to protect the business.”  I think what that person was trying to convey was that HR in legacy orgs isn’t (generally) there to be your friend or to help you.  It’s there to ensure neither the business nor you are subject to a lawsuit.  It’s been my experience that those self-same orgs are among the worst jobs I’ve ever worked at.  I worked at a Fortune 50 company many years ago where employees and contractors alike were afraid to talk about personal matters anywhere in proximity to the building for fear of being put on a short list for layoffs once the cycle came back around.

If your organization sounds even remotely like this, I advise you to run.

The notion that these types of guidelines, rules, and groups exist with the idea ingrained that employees are incapable of being functional, rational, empathetic adults at their place of work not only speaks to a level of organizational naivety, it is plainly insulting to anyone who has even a modicum of self-respect and self-awareness.  To that, I call bullshit.

To the above point: what kind of impact does that have on an individual?  Maybe someone who is in struggle at that very moment, maybe someone adjacent to another who is going through a difficult time in their life, has a chemical imbalance, or is a survivor?  It perpetuates the stigma of mental illness and further isolates individuals who might otherwise be strong contributors to both productivity and growth within a team or an organization.  When silence is the only option, that person’s life suffers in a number of ways:

  • Decreased motivation
  • Decreased cognitive function
  • Loss of appetite/sleep
  • Mood variability (depression, mania, bipolar-like symptoms, trauma, etc.)
  • Substance abuse

The list goes on.  To bait the hook even further: why, in two-thousand-and-fucking-sixteen are we still fighting to have this conversation?  I’m not sure I’m able to answer that question without talking more about my own experiences.

I started at my current job a little over two-and-a-half years ago.  In that time, the customer base and the fleet size that we operate has increased by an order of magnitude, and so had our problems.  When I started there, I had just left a job where the manager I was working under had coaxed three distinct panic attacks out of me in a single day.  I turned in my two week notice that very day and nearly refused to do the exit interview because I had nothing positive to say about the company or the person I had worked under.  When I went to the new gig, things were mostly okay.  I contributed to documentation, improved the JIRA dashboards that we used, started putting together a unified shell command structure that would eventually be used by the entirety of the rest of the Ops team… things were going well.

What I didn’t know was that in my personal life, I had failed to exercise the primary rule of Ops: Fix the problem, not the symptom.  I had left one job for another, but in the end I traded one set of stressors and symptoms for a completely different and drastically more complicated set.  I was already having a bad time of things due to depression, but laying impostor syndrome and a large amount of interrupt-driven work on top of the personal issues I was already experiencing was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I began to see a therapist.  I was already familiar with a lot of self-help and motivational methods and books, but what that person helped me to see was too large for me to ignore: I suffered from non-combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and still suffer from it to this day.  (Side-note: the fact that I have to specify non-combat-related screams loudly that we have a long way to go as a culture when discussing mental health.)

What would take me many months and a complete disintegration of a romantic relationship was seeing how the symptoms pervaded every part of my life, from intimate relationships all the way out to professional relationships.  My work suffered.  I was on-call often and being paged in the middle of the night only contributed to an inability to cope with “minor” stress.  Sometimes I’d be paged over a hundred times in a single shift.  I started to lose motivation, not just at work but in my personal life as well.  I stopped going to the gym, I stopped caring about personal relationships, and I began a general spiral.

That’s when I decided enough was enough.  I took a month-long road-trip and got away from the stress so I could try to think critically.  I found that I could sleep at night again.  I started to remember people’s names and faces more easily.  I drank a lot less.  I also took probably one of the most important steps out of everything I’ve done for myself in the last few years:

I explained to my management team that I was undergoing therapy and explaining everything that that entailed.  It wasn’t the most comfortable conversation, but conversations that make room for growth and reflection seldom are.

What has followed since that conversation has been nothing short of eye-opening for me.  I’ve found that there’s a renewed sense of empathy and camaraderie among the Ops people I work with currently.  Rather than trampling each other in stand-up conversations, we are more apt to lay out our thoughts in emails and chat and regroup after emotions have dissipated.  I notice more people are asking how I am doing and if there’s anything that they can do to help–and vice-versa.  I now find myself asking coworkers that are visibly stressed if they need me to take something off their plate for them or talk with them about it.

I’ve learned over the course of this entire experience that there are non-negotiable things that every person has to have available to them:

  • An explicit option to be real with their management and their peers
  • The specific ability and option to set boundaries and expectations with everyone they work with
  • The ability to push the Nope Button/pull the rip-cord (and have that be absolutely okay)

That being said, there’s a lot of room for improvement in the *Ops community from the individual level all the way to the organization level.  “Making room” for people to be able to talk about the difficulties they’re encountering in their lives and how it impacts their work is just one small part of it.

Be empathetic.

  • “Hey, I’ve noticed you’ve been a bit out-of-sorts lately.  Want to talk about it?”
  • “I want to help you succeed.  If that means adjusting your responsibilities here at work so you can be less stressed and healthier, let’s talk about it.”
  • “I understand you’re stressed out.  I feel the same way sometimes.  Would talking about some of it help?”

If HR is an impediment, get them out of the way.  If HR policies or the team is hindering your teams’ ability to be real with each other and their management, it might be a good time to address that.  If people are afraid to be empathetic, rational, thinking adults, then I would think that that would carry over to their everyday interactions with other people.  Culture is both organic (bottom-up) and codified (top-down), not just one or the other.  If what you’ve codified doesn’t match-up to what has been cultivated organically between people, then maybe it’s time to ditch the handbook and instead opt for real interaction.

If you’re a manager and you’re thinking “my team doesn’t have any of these problems” or “this doesn’t apply to me”, then it most certainly applies to you.  Symptoms of mental health might not be visible, but you might recognize them as your “intermittent” or “low” performers (which, by the way, is a terrible thing to categorize someone with).  Personal life circumstances might make the work-life more difficult for some people, and can be exacerbated quite easily.  Losing team members due to stress, burnout, or mental health issues can have a ripple-effect throughout the rest of the team, maybe inducing others to leave and seek better (or less stressful) opportunities.

Educate, educate, educate.  There is literally no excuse in this age of information to not know the signs of someone in struggle with mental health issues.  The resources available are things that we use every day of the week: Google, Wikipedia, HealthMD–the list goes on.  If in doubt, just fucking ask.  Genuinely give a damn about your team’s happiness.  If you don’t have something you can do immediately to make the situation better or easier to handle, then at the very least empathize.

  • “I hear you.  I’m sorry you’re struggling right now.  I don’t have any good answers or anything I can do right this second, but I want to make things better.”
  • “Thanks a lot for telling me.  I appreciate your honesty and vulnerability, and I’ll do what I can to make things right.”

Finally, what can organizations as a whole do to help make things better?  It’s actually a lot easier than you’d think.  “Good culture” is more than free beer, tabletop games, catered lunches, and open collaboration spaces.  If these are your main efforts or focus on cultivating great company culture, then you’re doing it wrong.  If you want to attract “10X Engineers” or “Rockstars” who will leave in 6 months because they got bored, then sure–do that.  If you want to attract people who will stay, who believe in “the mission”, and want to provide the best customer-facing and work experience possible then do the work.  Learn about your employees, figure out their wants and needs, and do what’s in your power to make them a reality.

Feedback loops seem to be overlooked in some places and over-utilized in others.  Here’s a simple way to do it if you can’t change HR policy or company culture in the short-term: anonymous survey forms.  By eliminating the stigma of speaking up about frustrations and letting people contribute to the feedback loop with uncensored input, it can give leadership great insight into where gaps exist and how best to resolve them.  Tossing proverbial “grenades” into conversations and stepping back to moderate the discussion can also be a great way to give team members a sense of empowerment and ownership over issues they feel strongly about.  I’ve found personally that when someone feels strongly about a specific issue, they’re going to take it and run with it until they’ve reached some kind of satisfactory response or at the very least an understanding of the geometry of the problem.

Lastly, this should go without saying: be a resource.  Even if you’re not in management, you can be a vocal advocate for someone in struggle.  Cheerlead for them when they do well, counsel them and step into the thick of it when something goes wrong.  Ask the Five Whys, be provocative in your questioning, make recommendations (not mandates).  Give them a sense of empowerment and ownership.

In short: be the kind of person that you’d want others to be for you.  Lead by example.  Short of that, find somewhere that you can be honest and be yourself without apologizing for being human.