This is a story about the origins of [my] bipolar disorder...
Here are a couple of select conversations from the last year that might help you to understand the circumstances that influence my mood instability.
Me: "I'd like to discharge myself from hospital, please"
Doctors: "No. You are on a high dependency ward. You will die"
Me: "It can't be that bad. I want to discharge myself, please"
Doctors: "Your kidneys aren't working. You need dialysis. Your blood has dangerously high levels of potassium in it and you could go into cardiac arrest at any moment"
Me: "But I need to go to work otherwise I will lose my job"
Doctors: "You can't work if you're dead"
Me: "I'm going to have to risk it"
Why would I do such a staggeringly stupid thing? Why would I risk my life like that? It seems patently absurd, doesn't it?
For my whole career, bosses and shareholders have demanded only one thing: do more, faster.
I decided that I was being exploited. I'm the one who makes the software. Without my software, there's no product; there's no business and there's no profit. Without software that I've built, no amount of lawyers and salespeople and middle managers and jumped-up idiots with important sounding job titles, would have anything to do other than burn what little money the company had left. If the software is the product, then you've got nothing if you've got no software. If the software is what allows you to do thousands of times more volume than you'd be able to do without it, then you haven't got a business if you haven't got the software - your business model would collapse. Your business is software.
I'm not saying that software is important. Software can't build a house. Software can't plant carrots. Software can't dispose of your sewerage. Software is bullshit. However, most of the economy is bullshit - at least 85% bullshit here in the UK anyway.
So, anyway, some jumped-up little twat with his daddy's money comes up to me saying "I'm an entrepreneur and I've got a genius idea... I just need a geek to make the software". On closer inspection the software is where the genius lies. When the business idea is examined with close scrutiny, it turns out that none of the important details have been figured out. Turning an idea into a working business - the execution - is something that gets figured out by the lawyers and software engineers. The "entrepreneur" just provides his daddy's money, while he walks around with his chest puffed out pretending like he's a serious businessman.
The next thing that happens is that I say "how much money have you got to spend and when do you need to have a working product?". The answer is always the same: "I haven't got any money and I need it yesterday".
Where did the budget go for the software? It seems to have all been spent on employing a bunch of old schoolchums to do "brand consultancy" or "business development". Basically, the directors fly all around the world attending conferences and "networking", which is very costly because they're running up huge expenses. Meanwhile, the geek is expected to churn out the software - "I don't know what it is, but is it finished yet?" - as fast as they possibly can. It's quite common now for very capable young computer programmers to work unpaid, or on slave wages, because they're desperate to gain commercial experience. Some idiots even think that I'd enjoy working on a software project for free, like it's a motherf**king hobby or something.
So, I arrived at the situation where I would always work at top speed. I've pleased my bosses and shareholders, not because I give them what they want, but because I've generally been much faster and much cheaper than anybody they've used before. In short: I deliver.
I was working so damn hard all the time and not seeing much of a reward for the dedication I put into my job, so I started to work for myself. I made software and I sold it. I made some iPhone apps and I sold them. One of my apps took me half a day to code and it was downloaded thousands of times. This made sense to me - the whole reason I work with computers is because they can do things while I sleep; a computer can perform many thousandfold tasks than I ever could. It makes sense that I would use a computer to leverage my talents and efforts.
I didn't quite understand that the whole reason why I came to be writing iPhone apps was because I'd been burnt out by my employer. I'd landed a hell of a project. The world's biggest project, in fact - "Nick, would you mind creating us a system that can process a quadrillion dollars worth of credit default swaps, please? Have it done as soon as you can, please, there's a good chap... we've got a global economy that needs wrecking".
I didn't quite understand that I burnt myself out again writing iPhone apps. I coded as fast as I could. I catnapped and skipped meals. I worked 7 days a week. I knew that every moment that I wasn't coding was another moment that my competitors were potentially going to release a similar app. I had to be first to market with my ideas. I had to be the first person in the Apple App Store with an app that did something that nobody else had thought of yet.
I decided to start a proper business. I decided that I'd create a piece of software with a recurring license cost. I decided to create a piece of Software as a Service (SaaS) and then I'd be able to earn money while I slept, once I'd completed the system. I didn't have any of my daddy's money to spend though. I didn't raise any money from friends and family. I just had me and my idea, my software engineering skills and 24 hours in every single day.
I didn't quite understand that I burnt myself out doing my startup. I didn't understand that writing the software - the hard bit - was only the beginning of what I had to do. I had to raise investment to be able to market my product. I had to sell the product. I had to support the product. I had to do all the business administration. I had to raise investment to be able to afford to hire people, so that I didn't collapse under the weight of all those competing demands. I didn't go fast enough though, so I did collapse.
With every burst of intense focus and effort, there would be a windfall. Particularly in investment banking, if you do a good job then you get a big fat juicy bonus. If you make an app that goes to #1 in the App Store charts then you get a windfall. Even if you do a startup, you can sometimes get a reward - my startup was at least profitable; investable.
The pattern of behaviour was established. It made sense to me to work as hard and as fast as I could, because the rewards seemed to be there.
When I run a software project - a team of people who work for me - then I put developer welfare as the top priority. I set realistic deadlines. I allow time for people to catch their breath. If the pressure starts to increase, then I move the deadline rather than asking people to work longer hours. Bosses should hate me, but I underpromise and overdeliver, and I run happy motivated high-performing teams. I get great feedback from the people who work for me.
When I'm coding, I seem to forget about my own mental health. When I've got a tough deadline and a tough deliverable, I'll work as hard as I can. I get scared. I think I've forgotten how to code. I feel like my skills are rusty and outdated. I feel old and useless. So, because of this fear, I go as fast as I possibly can.
It hasn't helped that I've never quite managed to gain a comfortable financial cushion that would allow me to feel like I can consider my health and general mental wellbeing, as well as just delivering the software. I always put work as my first priority.
Me: "I'm going to go to London to do some IT consultancy for an investment bank"
Psychiatrist: "But that's what you always do, and you know it makes you unwell"
Me: "But I need the money"
Psychiatrist: "You need to look after your mental health"
Me: "My mental health can wait. I'm nearly bankrupt"
Psychiatrist: "Well go bankrupt then. Allow yourself time to recover"
Me: "But then I'll never be able to work in investment banking again"
Psychiatrist: "That might be a good thing. It makes you unwell"
Me: "Yes, but it also makes me rich"
In the interests of completing the picture: I am not rich. The amount that I earn would make me rich if I could stay well for long enough to keep working, but the stress and the pressure also mean that I almost always get sick. It's a horrible catch 22.
So, I've completed another software system and it's live - it's up and running and people like it. My boss is pleased. Am I burnt out? Yes, I am a little. I had to bunk off work yesterday. In fact, I've bunked 3 out of the last 9 days. Is this the beginning of me starting to take a little more care of myself?
The cycle is very much not over. I need at least another one or two decent length contracts before I have that all-important financial cushion. It's going to take me until the end of the year to get back to financial security. It's going to be months and months before the ever-present threat of running out of money goes away, even if some money is slowly starting to trickle into my bank account.
It's quite ludicrous that I was on collision course with certain bankruptcy, and now I'm solvent and I've delivered another project on time and on budget. Last year was the year where I gave up. Everything was just too damn hard. I had a great contract, then my kidneys packed up. I had an OK contract but the boss didn't seem to realise he'd hired a bit of rock star at a bargain basement price. I got a contract, but I only just had enough money to be able to afford to go to work... I was running on petrol fumes.
If you were to ask the most stable person you know to live my life, I guarantee that their mood would be unstable as hell. How can you expect anybody to go through the kinds of ups and downs that I go through, without accompanying high and low mood? My mood is a sane reaction to an insane world.
I don't think I have bipolar disorder. I think I'm a product of my environment.