At Business of Software 2013, Greg Baugues spoke about depression and the stigma surrounding mental illness. The only way to eliminate that stigma is to talk about it. So I am.
When I was a senior in high school (1987), I applied to one school, the University of Southern California. I filled out the application in one pass – in ink – including the essay. I had very high test scores, all A’s except for one B (I was robbed!), and I knew where I wanted to go. I was confident bordering on arrogant. Sure enough, I was accepted as a Trustee Scholar, one of 20 incoming freshmen awarded full academic scholarships to the university. I was also awarded a small, additional scholarship from the music department that I could apply toward my room and board.
In retrospect there were healthier school choices for me. I should have gone to a school closer to my home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But I had made up my mind that I was going to study with Eduard Schmieder, who had gained a reputation as one of the best violin teachers in the world. (Here’s part of the audition tape I submitted – I found it in a box the other day … it makes me cringe to listen to it now, but it was an OK effort back then.) I wanted to study with Dr. Schmieder because my friend Pieter Schoeman was going to USC to study with him – I adored the way Pieter played, and I wanted to be like him. (Pieter’s sound is so distinctive that years later, I heard a violin solo during a Lord of the Rings movie and knew it was him. Sure enough, when I got home and Googled it, I found that the London Philharmonic Orchestra had performed the music for the movie and that Pieter was indeed the concertmaster.)
Dr. Schmieder didn’t really understand me at the time. Most of his students were from countries other than the U.S. (Pieter was from South Africa, for example), and he would normally have a new student live with him for a couple of months until they were acclimated to life in Los Angeles. He figured I didn’t need that, since I was an American. He didn’t realize that I probably needed it more than anyone. I was a 108-pound, 5-foot-4, androgynous boy who had figured out how to be reasonably cute in Michigan. Los Angeles is full of beautiful movie stars and wannabe movie stars that continuously breed and make more beautiful people. I was 18 but looked 12, and I didn’t adjust well at all. I wanted so badly to fit into the school at large, but I was a runt and an oddity.
I took way too many classes and honors everything (of course); for the first time in my life, school was HARD. I never did homework in high school, because stuff just made sense the first time I heard it. I’d complete assignments between classes or as the teacher was talking. I won math competitions and aced every math class without trying … until my senior year of high school, while taking second semester calculus from the local community college. Once we got to the point of finding the volume of donuts, math was finally hard – so I just dropped it! The point is that I never learned how to work during high school, so college was a real eye opener for me. Everything was just damn hard.
Music went OK my freshman year, but it was a big adjustment for me to be an average-at-best musician. I was used to being the best in my tribe or close to it, but USC had a great music school, and Dr. Schmieder had a monster class. I was just another violinist who didn’t stand out in any positive way. That was a difficult blow to my ego. My fondest memory of that year was practicing in my dorm room one day and sounding so good that when Pieter heard me through the window, he thought I was someone else.
I have an impulsive side, and somewhere in that freshman year, I found a new religion in Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. Jumped right in and started chanting twice a day. Just made sense to me.
One evening I was offered the opportunity to smoke pot for the first time … I inhaled deeply, and I liked it. A lot. Some people say that they can’t really feel anything different the first time they get high. I am not one of those people – the first time I got high, I visually hallucinated for about 6 hours. I traveled across time and space and visited all sorts of family, friends, and historical figures. Jean-Luc Ponty made sense to me for the first time. It was awesome. I called my mom the next day and told her how great the experience was – I didn’t really understand why she wasn’t as excited about it as I was. I didn’t get high again my freshman year, simply because it wasn’t offered to me. It seemed like a trip to Disneyland – something you did only on special occasions.
On the last day of my freshman year, the dean of the music school called me into his office and told me that they were taking away my supplemental music scholarship. I was devastated. I was also pissed, since I had about a 3.5 GPA. I wasn’t living up to my own standards, but I wasn’t doing THAT poorly. I learned that it was fairly common for the school to take away scholarships after freshman year so that they could get new freshmen locked in. An alternative theory occurred to me about 20 years later, when I remembered that there was a name on the front of that scholarship – I had never bothered to contact the benefactor and just say thanks … maybe offer to serenade them or something. I don’t even remember who the benefactor was. I wonder if that would have made a difference.
Instead of recovering and growing stronger over the summer, I had to deal with my girlfriend breaking up with me. We had a “mature,” “accepting” long-distance relationship (i.e., we knew we were going to sleep with other people), so I thought we’d survive as a couple. I honestly thought I was going to marry her, but nope. She found someone she liked better. That wasn’t just a blow to my ego – it was a rip in my universe. My heart was broken, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I just pressed forward.
Update, October 2019: Recently, while going through a box of music that I hadn’t touched in 30 years, I found a stack of all the letters she had written to me. It was illuminating to see all the variations of “still waiting for a letter from you.” Seeing my inherent selfishness reflected back to me through her words, it reminded me how easy it is to oversimplify a breakup by saying, “She found someone she liked better.” In truth, we were just young (she was still in high school) and both had needs that we were unable to meet for each other when I left. I think she was more self-aware and honest about that than I was. Thus, my heart was broken.
For my sophomore year, my roommate and I moved into an off-campus apartment that we shared with a couple of other guys. Guys who happened to get high every day. I figured that if I was only joining in 2 or 3 times per week, I must be exercising restraint. But I learned from these “experts” that I don’t react to pot the way most people do. Apparently, pot affects me the way LSD affects most people. My new druggie friends found my wild hallucinations fairly entertaining, and they were kind of protective of me. They tried to slow me down a bit and said they’d never let me try anything harder than marijuana. I think they were actually a bit worried about me.
I learned later that it was known to be a really bad idea to combine smoking pot with religious chanting. On the one hand I was letting go, and on the other I was winding up. In the moment, I was receiving positive reinforcement, so I thought I had simply figured out something that was expanding my horizons. My violin teacher was quite a bit happier with the way I was playing that year, and I had a couple of communities (pot and Buddhism) where I felt I belonged.
And then I stopped coming down. Even though I wasn’t smoking as much as my roommates, the effects seemed to last much longer for me. After a while, I lost my ability to sleep, staying up for what seemed like days at a time. I started acting weirder and weirder, even when I wasn’t smoking. I have an odd sense of humor anyway, but my filter was OFF. I made bizarre connections about everything – something as innocent as going to the mall seemed like a date with destiny.
On one such adventure, I remember having a tripped-out conversation with someone from the Tracy Ullman Show – looking back, I’m pretty sure she was asking if I wanted tickets to a taping. Her conversation with this wacked-out kid wearing painted-on jeans and talking in profound aphorisms must have left quite an impression, because Tracy herself referred to a “Patrick Firstman from Grand Rapids, Michigan” in her next show. This of course freaked me out when I saw it on TV (I saw it on a rerun years later and was amused to see that I hadn’t imagined it). These types of self-fulfilling prophesies happen all the time when you act so comically weird that people notice you.
I went through a freeloader phase, where I thought people should just pay for things for me. Sorry, everybody! If I still owe you money, send me a bill! During this time, I played a gig at a recording studio and “befriended” a gentleman who wanted to hang out with me. He bought me a nice dinner, took me back to his place … and was severely disappointed when I rebuffed his advances. As he drove me home, I remember feeling guilt that caused me deep, physical pain, as if I had been kicked in the balls. At least I think that’s what happened.
I spent a fair amount of time thinking meta “thoughts about thinking.” I remember being aware of multiple threads of thought at the same time and generally being able to maintain them simultaneously. I tried to see how many different thoughts I could keep going in my head at once, almost like juggling. Fun stuff.
As things started getting worse, I remember going to classes and being super weird. The worst was an orchestra rehearsal where I must have been mumbling or something – maybe I was un-showered, maybe I was trying to flirt with my stand partner … I don’t remember anymore – I just know that I was having a great time making music, but somehow I was making everybody else uncomfortable – the whole damn orchestra. At the end, the conductor addressed the orchestra saying something like “please don’t come up and talk to me after this rehearsal.” My face gets red just thinking about that episode, even though I can’t describe it very well.
The memories aren’t all bad. One consequence of my emerging psychosis was that I made connections all over the place. Connections are the foundation of humor – so the world seemed very, very funny to me much of the time. I was just cracking myself up left and right. In Matt Groening’s “Life is Hell” series, he made a mock cover for “Annoying Street Lunatic Magazine.” One of his headlines was “Thinkin’ about String” … that headline captured a certain essence of my experience perfectly – it still makes me laugh every time I think of it.
From Matt Groening’s Work is Hell (shared without permission, sorry) – click to read in all its glory
And Pink Floyd! The Grateful Dead! During this time, they started making sense to me, and I’m still fond of them. I suppose that’s something.
Eventually, however, my short-term memory stopped working, and I even lost my ability to speak for a while. I could imagine what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t form the words. I think it was at that point that I started getting scared – and I noticed the people around me getting more and more scared as well. I was no longer “a little odd” – I was clearly messed up. Yes, it was funny in its own way, but I was hurting pretty badly, too. I had an image in my head of the person I expected myself to be. As my world became more and more complicated, I felt more and more pressure to make sense of myself in it. I expected myself to be perfect, and as I was distorting my own reality with delusions of grandeur, I was simultaneously punishing myself for not living up to those delusions – and for not being able to snap out of what was happening to me and get my shit together.
I could tell more stories, but that’s enough for now.
When I was a small boy, my mom had experienced something like I was experiencing at USC, and she knew she had to do something (she later wrote about this same story from her perspective). She called some relatives that I trusted, and they somehow managed to put me on a plane (I think it was December 7, 1988). It was approximately like checking a cat onto a plane without a pet carrier. I’m pretty sure I shoplifted a Disney-themed toothbrush holder during a layover in Kansas City and gave it to somebody at my gate. Again, sorry. It was an imperative at the time, I assure you.
One of my memories of smoking pot is that the other people in the room who were also smoking pot “glowed” to me in a certain way. I don’t know if it works that way for other people, but for me it was as if the boundaries between people got smeared a little (in a pleasant way). After I stopped coming down, that effect was less prominent but more present. When I got off the plane in Michigan and my parents picked me up, my dad glowed like a neon sign to me, and my mom looked like a beautiful watercolor. It was a huge relief to see them. I forgot to get my luggage (and my parents were a bit more concerned about me than my stuff), so some of the funniest artifacts of this time are lost to me. That’s a bit disappointing. I would have liked to include a picture of my wardrobe in this post – it would have made a hippie proud.
I was pretty distressed by the time we got home. It was exhausting dealing with my spinning thoughts as well as being on the receiving end of the way people looked at me. This whole time, I was still me, even though I was messed up – and I could tell by the way people looked at me that something was wrong. That night, my dad led our family in a rosary, and I remember that made me feel a lot better. It was like chanting, except that my family could join me – so it had an additional, comforting aspect to it.
The next day, my mom took me to our family doctor, and this man might have saved my life. For the first time in weeks, somebody looked completely normal to me. This kind man had been around the block a few times and wasn’t shocked at all to see a kid struggle at college and come back with a screw loose. We had a pleasant conversation where one of us brought up the fact that my mom thought I needed to go to the hospital. I asked him if he thought that was a good idea, and he said, “Yes, I do think the hospital’s a good idea – I think it would do you some good.” OK, then. I’ll do it.
So my parents took me to Forest View Psychiatric Hospital (the better of the two in our city), and I signed myself in. THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT. If ever you are in the situation that my family was in, do your best to have your loved one check himself into the hospital instead of getting him committed. Once I started getting better, it was so helpful to know that I could just check myself out when I was ready. No need to throw a drinking fountain through a window to escape.
The first thing they did was give me sleeping pills. That alone helped a lot. Then a psychiatrist prescribed me a powerful antipsychotic called Trilafon (12 mg, I believe). It was as if all the gears in my brain had slipped apart and were spinning wildly – the drug acted like molasses to slow down the gears so I could put them back together. The psychiatrist also intuited what makes me tick, so he outlined a couple of paragraphs in a clinical book and handed it to me. “Here, this is what you have.” Cannabis Psychosis. There it was, right on the page: “a psychosis brought on by using marijuana, a condition that affects 8 in 20,000 marijuana users” (btw, why the hell didn’t they write that as 4 in 10,000 or 1 in 2,500?) …
WOW! It’s ME! All this time, I thought the world was getting weirder and weirder, and now this smart-looking man with the airplane propeller in his office explained to me that I was sick – it made so much sense! The world was fine all along, but I wasn’t! That was a huge relief, and by simply learning and trusting in this fact, I knew I would get better quickly.
I spent an intense week or so as an inpatient that was kind of like being in a monastery to me. I felt more alive, not less. We were a bunch of wounded souls trying to get better, spending most of the day reaching out to each other and sometimes connecting. Someone introduced me to Jethro Tull. We played a lot of ping pong and pool. I tried to like cigarettes but just wasn’t into it (where are the hallucinations? what’s the point?). Family and friends visited me, which was kind of weird, but I was still happy to see them.
After I was “normal” enough to sleep at home, I went back to the hospital every day for about a month. We did group therapy and arts and crafts – pretty much day camp for grown ups. After that, I saw a psychologist once a week for about 6 months or so.
Once I started digesting what was going on (ultimately before I even left the hospital), I was pretty damn embarrassed. Replaying various scenes in my mind was more terrifying than living them, because it was an opportunity to beat myself up and worry about what other people thought of me. Thankfully, I stumbled on a book by C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, which describes a bus ride through heaven and hell. A guide of sorts was trying to explain shame to the protagonist:
Don’t you remember on earth—there were things too hot to touch with your finger but you could drink them all right? Shame is like that. If you will accept it—if you will drink the cup to the bottom—you will find it very nourishing: but try to do anything else with it and it scalds.
That sentiment helped and in fact helps to this day – I recognize that this experience is part of who I am and always will be.
But there were practical matters, too. Before landing in the hospital, I had a scholarship to a prestigious university, and now that was gone. I learned that I could get my scholarship back only if I paid for the semester I had just pissed away – and I didn’t have that kind of money. Also, a side effect of the anti-psychotic drugs was that I couldn’t move my fingers very well – it felt as though they were stuck in molasses – so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to play the violin well again. But after a while, they gave me drugs to stem the side effects, and I got back to work.
I called Dr. Schmieder, who was still shaken that one of his students had flipped out but ultimately relieved to learn that I was OK. He suggested I contact his friend Arkady Fomin at Southern Methodist University, which I did. I attended Fomin’s summer music program at SMU, then was awarded a scholarship by the music department and attended the university. I was pretty much back to normal before wandering off in another direction a couple of years later and becoming a computer programmer.
It would be way too easy to blame my experience on marijuana. Yes, it was the trigger, and I used that knowledge to my advantage. It was comforting to know that if pot caused this problem, then just don’t smoke pot … problem solved! But that’s a gross over-simplification. My mom experienced a psychotic episode. So did my grandma. At least one uncle. At least one cousin on the other side of the family. If there’s a genetic tendency toward psychotic experiences, I certainly have it.
I knew all along that there were other factors contributing to this. Remember that girlfriend who broke up with me? That hurt a LOT. My inability to process that heartbreak might have been enough to trigger an episode on its own.
And there’s an even more complicated issue – the parts of me that led to my psychosis are arguably the BEST parts of me, not the worst. I’m an exceptional problem solver and pattern matcher, and I’m really creative. These qualities served me well as a musician, and once I applied those skills to computers, I turned them into a career. Those “good” qualities are the parts of me that spun out of control, and I’m not alone. Research appears to support a link between creativity and madness. I suspect that everybody has the ability to push the limits of what their mind can take, but I just live a bit closer to that edge than most people. I think that if I had been born into a different culture, that closeness to the edge would have been celebrated – perhaps I would have been part of a family of shaman.
That high school girlfriend once took me sailing on Reed’s Lake and shared some profound wisdom with me. “If you never tip your sailboat over, you don’t really know how fast you can go. Of course, if you spend all day with your mast in the water, that’s not sailing, either.” Well, I found out how fast my mind could go … but the boat didn’t just tip over, it ripped apart, and I almost drowned. Although I talk about it with humor, let’s be clear – it sucked, and I don’t ever want that to happen again. But I do want to sail again – I want to do great things, I want to have fun … I want to use my strengths, even if they’re dangerous. Coming back from a crash is hard. I’m still not sure I’ve fully dealt with it. I’m pretty sure I haven’t in fact.
I think the biggest lingering side effect is low confidence when I get close to doing something truly good. I’m fairly extroverted, I generally have low inhibitions, and I genuinely like myself, so most people probably think I’m brimming with confidence. I’m not. I have moments when I get really excited and caught up in solving a problem or being creative, and confidence is simply not an issue. And then I eventually come down, and it’s time to do the WORK, and I have to drag myself through low confidence bordering on despair just to get my name filled in at the top of the page. Yes, I’m like Ricky Bobby trying to get back in a racecar. Once I get immersed in the work again, then I’m fine, but it’s sometimes really hard to get there.
I’ve always loved puzzles, but only ones where it isn’t obvious if there’s a solution or not – I’m not crazy about things like Rubik’s Cube, because I know that there’s an algorithm to solve it, and I just don’t find it amusing to find that algorithm (that’s work for me, not play – and I’d rather do real work). Poker, on the other hand, has infinite variability and unknowns (because it’s really about people) – so I love it. The greatest non-obvious puzzle in the world is running a business* – that’s why I love startups. I get so much energy from working on business problems or even just talking about other people’s business problems. Working on my first real attempt at a startup last year with Jody Burgess was a double treat, because for some reason, Jody understands my wacky mind and can handle it. Unfortunately, the flip side of being non-obvious is that succeeding at business is really hard. I haven’t succeeded yet, or at least I haven’t been able to make a living from my own business yet. I’m hopeful that my new job with Moraware (I start in January) will be a nice compromise, because I’ll be working on non-obvious problems that excite me while making a steady living and taking care of my family. The founders, Ted and Harry (coincidentally both USC grads), also seem to appreciate my wacky mind more than most. We’ll see.
About 8 years ago, my wife and I had some serious problems with our marriage (this was the real reason I joined Microsoft – because I was barely hanging on and Microsoft was a life raft). I started seeing a psychologist again while working through that process, and even when we managed to “fix” things after a couple of years and keep our family together (one day at a time), I decided to continue seeing my shrink on a weekly basis – simply because I can. It just seems like a smart, cautious step to have a professional help me keep tabs on my sanity. Why not? Interestingly, we had never spent much time talking about my psychosis until I decided to write about it.
In fact, until hearing Greg’s talk at BoS2013, I hadn’t thought about my psychosis more than maybe once a year. After deciding I was going to write about it, I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot and thinking about the lasting impact it’s had on me. I certainly don’t understand all of it, but it seems useful to explore it a bit more. There’s quite a bit of emotional scar tissue … maybe I can get rid of some of it and grow.
That’s all I got. I hope that more people will talk about depression, anxiety, ADHD, psychoses, and other mental illnesses, because they affect people that YOU know and love. They’re a part of our world – they’re a part of us. Why is it so different from breaking a leg? I got sick; I went to the hospital; I got better. It’s just one of many stories in my life.
Thanks for listening. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments, twitter, or by email.
* OK: #1 Women, #2 Business, #3 Poker