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A Journey of Mental Health and Technology – Part 1

This long-form blog piece goes over my early days of getting into technology and trying to overcome mental health woes.
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License: Adobe Stock

I confess: I’m quirky, frank, and a bit socially awkward. I have an engineering background. I’ve always been the one to break apart the toy and figure out how it worked. I bought one of those damn singing fish to see how many motors were in it.

My interest has always been computers. I moved to Alaska as a teen and my dad was a computer freak rocking Windows 3.1 on custom hardware. This was around the start of AOL.

I didn’t mind building the computers with my dad. I’ve built many since. I just got bored with Solitaire running at a snail’s pace. Computers didn’t offer me anything of value. They were just a gimmick.

Finally a local internet provider named Polarnet launched and my dad immediately subscribed. I visited my first website. The Internet was gray and imageless back then. Boring stuff.

I gravitated towards mIRC. There I could chat with others in my age group.

I spent the majority of time in chat making friends, which irritated my dad when he wanted to use AOL or make a landline call.

I spent WAY too much time on mIRC. I taught myself how to type. I learned about using hex editors to customize a setting or two. I started creating my own bots.

The Internet was finally in color. Then Windows 95 came out. All of a sudden everything went to 32 bits overnight. The Internet was growing slow, but steady.

I was on IRC every other chance I could get. It’s where my friends were, and they certainly didn’t come from my high school. 

People give chat a bad rap, but it helped me form my earlier relationships in life when I needed them.

At school we were introduced to networks. We would just wire them all up to play networked games or upgrade a few select computers so we could run Sim City. Computers were for games, and a networked computer lab was a nice-to-have.

Finally there was this thing called Netscape that blessed itself upon the Earth. Suddenly, after an insane download time, the Internet was moving and pretty.

I already knew HTML at that point. I even began an HTML tutorial website for others.

However, I wasn’t expecting computer class to suddenly turn into a website course. There was no debate over how gif was pronounced. A gif-heavy site would crash browsers and force restarts. They were avoided like the plague. The alternative back then was Java web applets and then Flash.

The Internet was still boring for me. When I moved from Fairbanks back to Vegas, I was without a computer. I missed my online friends. I went into a Kinko’s in Vegas and paid for 15 mins just so I could bypass their security, install mIRC, and chat for as long as I could. But, it was different talking with your online friends on a rented computer.

I forgot about computers and the Internet. I could no longer afford either at home. I got a job as a grocery bagger and lost interest in school. I skipped often and would sneak over to a nearby friend’s house to smoke ciggs and weed during the school day. I waited around for school to end, hitched a ride home on our school bus, went home, and worked. I played this game for a while, then my mom started getting calls. She asked me why I wasn’t going to school. I told her I was worn out. She allowed me to stay home and do my bagging job but said that I would be going back to school next semester.

I helped my mom pay down some bills, but we couldn’t afford to live in Vegas any longer. She saw her two boys getting into trouble in the big city schools. She decided to relocate to her mother’s hometown: a small town in Southeast Colorado. 

I was suddenly out of work, money, and cigarettes. I was immediately forced back into school. I went through nicotine withdrawals my first two weeks in this small, hellish town.

After experiencing small-town culture shock, things started to settle down. I started getting A’s again.

They had a small computer lab and I would sneak in every now and then and work on a small web project or two.

I landed another job bagging groceries and used that to save for a computer and an Internet connection. My mom and I agreed to split the electricity. I continued to play on the net, this time getting into pirated software and music.

My first real web project was for an in-town business. My computer teacher introduced us. I whipped up my best table-based layout at the time. It was yellow, blue, and pretty 😎

While I did do some side jobs fixing people’s computers, I enjoyed building a website over troubleshooting someone’s modem for 2 hours.

I eventually graduated high school (albeit a bit late). I had a bad outgoing GPA. I took my ACT test and didn’t do well. I procrastinated on making a decision on college but saved for its eventuality.

I asked my high school counselor for advice and he suggested I try an accredited private college. I decided to pursue an accelerated bachelor’s in electrical engineering technology at Devry in Phoenix. Phoenix was convenient because my sister was going to college in Glendale and one of my friends from Springfield started at a Motorcycle college in North Phoenix. After begging to be his roommate, my friend accepted. My sister came to my high school graduation and drove me the twelve hours to Phoenix.

I had to find work fast in Phoenix. I only saved up about $2,000, and that was meant to last two months for rent and food. I quickly learned to budget, because money was a finite luxury and there was no parental help. My sis did her best in Phoenix to make me feel welcome, but she was a struggling, poor college student just like I was.

I finally landed a job at Walgreens with zero retail experience. I was trained as a photo clerk. I got pretty good at it, even learning basic photography theory.

School was insanely difficult, however.

Our class started out in two groups and filled two large classrooms. I was promised small class sizes by the recruiter. I was promised one-on-one instruction. This school’s business model was to pack seats and they were indeed packed.

I struggled like hell, but I finally had my aha moment when it came to electronics. It clicked. From there, it was surviving each semester, watching our class shrink as weeks wore on. Only about thirty of us out of our original class made it through to graduation.

I got pretty good at circuits, and also got pretty good at programming chips too. I was hoping there were electronics jobs for entry-level, but this was after the .com bust and nobody was hiring college-aged kids for engineering jobs. I continued my job at Walgreens while working on a double-major in software engineering.

I logged in to MSN one night and one of my old classmates was online. He sent me to a Government website that laid out the program: a free Master’s degree and hiring bonus in the Department of Army for a five-year commitment.

It sounded way too good to be true. Five years was nothing. I dropped out of my double major and started my commitment with the government.

The program was designed to rapidly train newly-hired Government employees on all the boring bureaucratic buzzwords and acronyms the Army used at the time. We had to dress up well. We couldn’t act like college kids. It was professional, competitive, and extremely boring.

We learned the basics of Government contracting while balancing economics, marketing, and accounting. We were being taught the basics of niche languages, but that was it as far as programming.

We learned that the people with the most power in the Government were Congress because they approved budgets. It was up to us to spend the money wisely and not to dare leave a penny unspent. Unspent money meant a smaller budget for the next fiscal.

Our customer in the Army was the Soldier in the field. Our job was to do as much as possible for that person. That felt okay with me.

I graduated from the first portion of the program with a Master’s in business and was ready to spend the next 3 and a half in Government working for Soldiers like my sister.

My first actual Government job was in Huntsville, Alabama. I was given a cubicle and told to twiddle my thumbs until I got a computer. This was hardly the fairy tale I imagined.

I went to my cube. There was a chair and a phone. And my thumbs. After sitting there for ten minutes bored out of my mind, I cried silently. I made a huge mistake. I didn’t want to sit in a quiet cube farm for the next 3 years.

The computer contractor and I became buds. His cube station was next to mine. I begged for a comp, but he said I had to wait in line.

After reading Lord of the Rings in its entirety at work and proving the Internet is, in fact, flat, I decided it was time to stop twiddling my thumbs.

I approached my administrator and asked what I could access with my badge. The answer was, pretty much anything in the building and the next. So I took myself on many tours and ventured onto my first 3D printer and saw a prototype Comanche helicopter land.

We had a group that worked out of a different building who were 3D modelers. 3D modelers were cool because people would come up with the craziest of ideas and these people could turn it into real-life. It was incredibly difficult to learn and you had to be an artist on top of it.

I introduced myself as an eager-to-learn intern. They were a techy and chatty bunch. I was introduced to their gourmet coffee stash and we killed time in between demos chatting about Montana fishing and weekend plans.

After non-stop begging, my new work friends found an unused laptop. I finally had a computer!

My first task was converting an Authorware app to .NET.

I was given one tour on how the application worked and how awful Authorware was towards CPU resources. This was my first real project and I was going to crush it.

Authorware was Macromedia’s idea of a Flash-based component and app builder. It worked well in development. In production, on portable laptops in Iraq, it didn’t work at all.

My first task: research and more research.

I was a novice web programmer at that point. I still hardcoded my websites. I was re-learning CSS and a fan of Zen Garden. I was studying web best practices in my spare time. I even bought a domain and started a forum community using PHP.

My interest in the Internet turned to theming.

Once I learned I could theme my forum, I went hard after it. I made that forum my own and even integrated it with my static website via Ajax. I didn’t know this at the time, but that was my first headless app. Who knew?

Back at work, I studied software design principles. I learned the basics of UML. I used the UML to create flow diagrams of the app’s architecture. I had to figure out where the data was coming from. It was coming from an Access database that looked like a dumpster fire. I may have been naive, but I concluded that no SQL in the world could’ve rescued that database.

I bought a book on Regular Expressions and wrote a small C# App that would run my expressions against the database. I wrote RegEx after RegEx to parse database hell into something I could query and write to.

I chose VB.NET  as my language of choice over C# because C# just seemed backward to me as far as syntax. I bought a good .NET book, got a subscription to MSDN, and took a steep nose-dive of trial and error for a month. I built a VERY rough first prototype and re-architected pretty much the entire app. That was my practice run.

I build a working app in a month. The hardest part for me was figuring out how to configure the installer. I handed over my work, received some accolades, and was given a second project.

This one was a photo viewer for a new model number of a medevac helicopter. My only requirement: make it look like Flickr.

After doing another .NET program, I decided I had enough of desktop programming. It was too rigid for me and it seemed like the wild west of operating systems and PC configurations.

The rise of the personal blog was occurring, and Internet businesses were booming again after the 2000 crash.

I passed the remainder of my first tour of duty researching web design, content management systems, and this weird thing called JavaScript.

I skipped the MySpace era. To me it was just a social bulletin board with inline CSS.

I picked up blogging and dropped my rarely used forum. I ranted endlessly about no-parking spots and long-haired men and tattoos. Naturally, I wanted to decorate my content, so I got into theming WordPress.

I started using WordPress for more and more projects. It was young. Coding a plugin for it back then was a small affair, but a huge deal. 

I decided to write that first plugin, which probably included the most deranged regular expressions concocted in a beginner WordPress plugin. It parsed RSS feeds and injected inline HTML style attributes for feed readers. It was a way for you to style your feeds using CSS.

It generated buzz, but the wrong kind. People wanted content separated from design, hence the RSS standard. I pissed off the standards crowd.

I turned my new plugin knowledge into a tutorial on how to write a WordPress plugin from scratch. I worked on it for 3 straight days, published it on my friend’s design website, and it became insanely popular. My friend compiled the series into PDF form. It was my first published e-book.

I was invited to write for popular blogs. I ran contests and had fun on mine. The Internet was a blast again. I once again had my own version of online friends.

I went to conferences called “WordCamps” to meet these new friends. We carpooled together. We shared hotel rooms. We had after-parties that made the Hangover movies look tame.

My WordPress and blog life was in sharp contrast to my life as an Army intern. I was rotated from research into logistics. Apparently, it’s important for engineers to know how much politics goes into one software purchase of Adobe Photoshop.

There was no obvious work for me in logistics, so I approached my new boss and offered to rebuild their website. It was a downhill fight in this case. Upstairs called the shots, and downstairs had the servers. We were caught in between.

I started researching politics in design and how to resolve disagreements. I started to learn what should go on the web and why. I became a purist.

I learned a popular design system at the time. People called it web standards.

I learned that the folks upstairs opted for a flash website. When I asked the coder if it was 508, he quipped that there were text versions for everything. I then discovered that most of the fancy graphics and animations just linked to PDFs. I was appalled.

I went to my boss again with my case, and he took me to meet his boss. I gave a less technical explanation of why blind people need to be able to read Government websites and that text sites were maintaining two different versions of a site. He told me from now on to call it Phase 2. He pitched it to his own boss and my project got upstairs approval.

I began to work with all department and software leads on how the organization should be laid out digitally. Each basically wanted their own design. I was tasked with marrying all their wants and needs into a cohesive-looking website. I was stuck with the header and footer from downstairs. That was set in stone. I just converted the flash header/footer into HTML and no one noticed.

Glass design was in back then, so I made each department a logo pin and used that to separate out each section of the website. After the design was approved, I began coding and migrating content. My rule was absolutely no PDFs unless it was a form. Everything else could be brought over.

The only server-side language available was ColdFusion, so I built a database-less CMS that could be deployed statically at the push of a button. Software “leads” could edit their portion of the site in Dreamweaver, which was all connected to a shared drive. It went live.

Nobody complained. The launch was awesome but anticlimactic. Nobody gave a damn about a standards-compliant Government website, especially one built with ColdFusion.

The rest of my time in logistics was spent doing a manpower survey since I was on semi-speaking terms with pretty much everyone.

My time was short, and I rotated out from logistics to a program management office. I landed in the middle of an engineering group trying to get a black box onto a helicopter.

I knew nothing about helicopters. I knew nothing about airplanes and black boxes. I was a wannabe web dev thrown into a procurement process.

It was early in procurement, so all the team had was field prototypes. Our weekly meetings were measurement updates and how many helicopters were available for testing and their schedules.

I was exposed to new terminology like colors of money and learned how to get around FOIA requests when writing contracts.

I was in charge of a spreadsheet with items that supported one contractor for a year in a desert situation. We got a contractor to bid on the items and did on-site inspections of their facilities. We inspected the shipment and did inventory at the contractor site before shipment. We then flew to the Army facility and did another inventory as it was being unloaded.

I asked the Sergeant on one inspection if he had any contractors to unload. His Soldiers were up to the task. Everything was unloaded and accounted for by mid-morning. With our jobs finished, we were allowed liberty time. I was a 30-minute drive from Canada with a passport, so I went into the nearest town and had dinner. 

I went on more of these trips. Some would take me close to Kansas City, which had a good karaoke scene. I practically lived in Savannah, Georgia for a solid month-and-a-half. I drove there and back, enjoying the scenery and visiting friends and family along the way.

Back in Huntsville, it was time to wrap up my rotation and program.

I was asked to stay at the program management office and that they would essentially pay my salary to my command as if I were a Government contractor. I was set financially.

I knew my career in web would forever be confined to a hobby. That was okay with me. I just needed to change a few things personally in order for that to happen.

I had been married and divorced years earlier but started drinking and smoking to cope with the rejection. I had to rebuild myself emotionally from the ground up. I started running for fitness. I went to the gym five days a week. I was trying to make my body look how my brain wanted to feel.

I quit smoking and started running like crazy. Damn the heat, splints, cramps, and humidity.

The drinking was always there, however. I always had horrible anxiety and found that drinking temporarily relieved me of this pain. What started as drinking heavily to forget sorrows became a coping mechanism for the anxiety I often experienced.

I went to my GP and asked about the anxiety. He asked what it was like. I said, “It’s like my stomach is constantly churning.” He prescribed Tums. Down went more alcohol.

I eventually insisted to my GP that there had to be something to be done about the anxiety and he finally prescribed me Lexapro. The drug caused me to go manic for the first time.

Since I had no idea what mania was like and had no concept of mental illness, I just accepted the high as the major confidence boost and validation of my “new” self.

My new self held Rock Band parties until 3 am with strangers in my apartment. I found weed allowed me to sleep in this state and was less potent than alcohol. I began to substitute.

My drinking did cause problems at work, and I didn’t want a repeat with my new favorite anxiety treatment.

I knew it was going to cause a problem with my security clearance, so I went to my real Government boss. I told him I had an issue with anxiety and that I couldn’t pass a drug test. I asked if I could see a psychiatrist and possibly enter some form of rehab for my drinking problem. He was fine with it all, even with a plan to go on Ambien for sleep instead of pot. I was told a psychiatrist was not a problem as long as I wasn’t getting worse.

I started on the Ambien and went on my pot purge. I never did call a psychiatrist. Ambien worked. But bad decisions would resurface.

One of my karaoke buds liked the occasional Ambien, so I let a few loose. I also discovered that I would wake up hours after taking the Ambien. Not wanting to drink on it, I just took another one and went right back to bed.

My energy shot way up. I was getting a good amount of sleep. My anxiety seemed to have settled, and I was growing in my job assignment. I took the last of my Ambien for sleep and woke up the next day and went to work. I called for a refill and went to pick it up that night.

I was informed it was too soon to get it refilled. I was like, okay and asked when it could be filled. They gave me a date of next Sunday and I was on my way like nothing extraordinary just happened. That was a Monday and the last night I had a small amount of sleep.

Used to my insomnia, I just wrote it off as not having any pot or anything to help sleep. I went to the store and bought some Benadryl. I took a few pills, turned off the light, and tried to sleep. Nothing. Two more Benadryl. Still no sleep.

I went to work like normal that Tuesday. I was tired but awake and productive. I called the day a win and went home.

Wednesday was a different story. I had an actual lady date that day. My anxiety returned. I was starting to have a nervous shake. I asked my coworker if I should still go on my date. I attributed it to being nervous.

I went. I couldn’t concentrate on anything longer than five minutes and my shaking started to really get noticeable.

I left the date and immediately went to the store to buy some wine and some NyQuil. I knew the combination would surely get me to sleep that night. I didn’t even get the slightest amount of sleep.

I went into work Thursday and made it through two-thirds of the day without issue. Then I broke down. I ran into my co-worker’s office and started crying uncontrollably. I was without sleep and nose-diving into depression, and my co-worker sat in awe of the amount of emotion I was demonstrating.

I took off from there and decided to go on a run. If anything could tire me out, a run in the heat would do it. I ran my normal route at my normal pace. I was exhausted. I made my run like a snail with many breaks in between. I was confident I would be put to sleep by this run. It didn’t work. My body was tired. My mind wasn’t.

I decided to go out Thursday evening. It was Margherita night and I figured I could drink myself into unconsciousness. One of my friends saw me and knew something was wrong. I told her about what changed recently and she asked if I had gone off of my Ambien. I was like, “Yeah, why?”

I received a verbal ass-kicking. “Some people can take pills and get away with it. You’re not one of those people!”

The past month replayed itself in my head. I overused the Ambien and freely gave some away. I got hooked on the drug in a very short time period. I realized I was going through withdrawals.

Ambien to me was just a sleep med with weird side effects. I didn’t realize how addictive it was.

I made it to Sunday. Barely. I had a plan. I can go back on, get some sleep, and talk to my doctor.

One of my friends helped drive me to the pharmacy. Insurance would pay for the drug, but the pharmacy couldn’t give it out because state law said it was still too early. I was out of options.

I just laid there, weak, awake, desperate for sleep, and called a co-worker. I told him I was having a bad drug reaction and I needed to go to the ER to have it checked out. He came by later to get me. We grabbed some stuff in case I was admitted, and then waited for hours in the ER before a doctor saw me. The doc recognized my withdrawal systems and referred me to behavioral health. There were no beds, so rehab was recommended. I was sent home to fend for myself.

I called my boss and told him what had happened up to that point. I apologized profusely and said I would have to go into rehab. I paid my deposit and went off to the facility hoping that in 17 days I would be clean and ready to get back to work with minimal bridges burned.

I was out of my element in Rehab. They had military rules and people who broke them at every turn. Certain counselors were strict. Others could be bought. It wasn’t the best environment for a sleep-deprived twenty-something recovering from an Ambien dependency. I was in detox for two days before I was finally able to sleep. It was like my own private room at camp and I slept as comfortably as one can in detox.

After detox, I was to be “integrated” with everyone else. I was supposed to be assigned a buddy to help me move into my new bunk, but one never came. I asked where I was supposed to go. One of the staff said, “You’re fucking kidding me right?”

Evidently, I was to already know everything about the camp by heart, including my designated spot. I still kept my wallet in my front pocket for the first night in my bunk. I checked it into the safe the next day.

I didn’t sleep that night. I could hear every micro-movement. I wasn’t accustomed to hard drugs, so it was foreign to me for people to constantly sneak into the bathroom every 20 minutes to take a hit of whatever.

Lack of sleep and paranoia swept in. I wasn’t liked. I was perceived as a fraud. On paper, I was an uncertified electrical engineer with a business degree. I never really worked in the electronics industry after college. The others in rehab asked me stuff a field technician would know. I was clueless.

Then came more questions. Why was I there? Why did I not smoke cigarettes?

After I failed the sniff test, weird things started happening. People stopped talking to me. My clothes started getting stolen. I was denied common privileges like sports. I was mocked for not knowing the Lord’s prayer by heart. They laughed when I said I was a recovering alcoholic.

Enough was enough. I knew to get out of a place I didn’t belong and checked myself out after three days. My friend was on his way to pick me up when they tried to talk me out of leaving. At this point, I was practically on day 14 or so with inadequate sleep. I was paranoid. I was delusional. But I knew I had to get the fuck out of there for my personal safety.

They tried talking me into staying. They compared me to Iraqi war vets and how I was weak and selfish for leaving. I didn’t care. I trusted nobody there. I grabbed my shit out of the safe and signed my AMA form. They gave me something to drink as I exited their little interrogation room. It was spiked. I could tell from the bitter aftertaste and I only took a small sip of the 7-Up.

By the time my friend arrived, I was high on something. I was blabbering and incoherent. My pupils were dilated. I was accused of using, which I denied furiously, claiming to have been drugged.

I was losing the argument to my friend when he asked me a very pointed question, “Does this place make you feel unsafe for your life?”

After being spiked, it was a hard yes. He took me out of there. He dropped me off at home, and I succumbed to paranoia.

I imagined the rehab people calling their dealers to come after me and that I was onto their game. I feared they would go after my family after they were done with me. Every bad mob movie played in my head. I was the target with people just waiting outside to grab me.

I grabbed a knife for defense and started to shred my identity. My government ID card, my badge, my driver’s license, social security card, credit cards… all shredded. I took my website off the Internet. I realized how exposed I really was and didn’t like it.

My mind was in a bad place at this point, and my attempt to correct myself ended up in disaster.

I was not doing well. Not doing well at all.

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