Sherman, set the wayback machine to…

Sherman, set the wayback machine to February, 2004.

It’s the standard weekly team meeting, only this time, it was a bit different. My management recognized me for finishing (surviving?) 15 years at Apple, and I got my pin, my plaque, and cake. the team we’d put together congratulated me. It’s something not a lot of people can claim.

Afterwards, I went back to my office and sat down to check email, and started crying. And couldn’t stop.

I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I blamed work and stress — I know better now. It wasn’t the first warning. Even six months prior I was noticing changes. I was honored to be invited to Tim O’Reilly’s Foo Camp 1 and found myself spending the time feeling isolated and distant from everything. I came home from Foo inspired to do a number of things — and instead dug a hole and crawled into it and pulled the sides down on top. It slowly got worse, too. Laurie and I took a long-planned trip up to Victoria and Vancouver to spend christmas. That was the year of the great freeze, with snow in Victoria, sub-zero (F) temperatures, and a mad dash out of Portland to the 101 on the coast to try to get home before the entire state of Oregon got snowed in. We made it, and those who weren’t smart enough to do the same waited about 5 days for I-5 to re-open at the California border.

That was the first time my body sat me down and said “DUDE! Stop! Listen to me. THIS ISN’T WORKING”. It was also the first time I ran into something I couldn’t just out-stubborn. Here’s a lesson learned that I wish I’d known then: if you’re blaming work and stress for how badly you feel and you take ten days off and go on vacation and you rest and relax and don’t think about work — AND IT DOESN’T GET BETTER — then hey, dude — it’s not work. And you probably ought to look into it.

I know that now. Learning that lesson saved me a lot of fun later down the road. When something’s going south, it rarely does so without some early warning signs. It gives you a chance to intervene and deal with it before it turns into a crisis.

If you’re paying attention. If you don’t think you can simply out-stubborn it.

In my case, I ignored it until the crisis hit. Then I tried to ignore it for another couple of weeks until I realized it was winning. That was a tough time for Laurie, one I regret to this day. I was seriously manic. By the time she told me to get help or else, I’d already made the phone call.

The words “nervous breakdown” cause interesting reactions in people. I was amazed at how many people I ran into that when I admitted it to them said “dude, yeah. Me, too”. And how many also said “whatever you do, don’t blog about this.” Maybe they’re right. We’ll find out. Mostly, my view today is any potential employer who reads this and won’t hire me because of it isn’t someone who deserves to have me work for them. Their loss, not mine. Better to find out those things before you commit.

My therapist was awesome. One of the first things he said in our first meeting was “You wouldn’t believe how many people in your industry end up in my office”. Later, as I talked to people about it, I found he was right. it’s one of the dirty secrets of high tech in Silicon Valley, how people commit themselves to work themselves until they fall apart, and how companies take advantage of that and create project demands that encourage it. The “sleep under your desk” mentality isn’t healthy, and it catches up with you eventually. When it does — the company rarely makes it up to you. In my case, I was lucky. My management was extremely supportive and did what they could. My team was even more supportive, and for a while, simply worked around the problem and took care of things until I got my act together enough to be a functional part of the operation again. For a while, I was pretty literally a basket case. In a lot of companies, they toss you to the curb and put another body in your cube. That’s something you ought to remember before you commit to chronic 60 hour death march schedules. The company benefits when you do. You probably won’t get a cookie. Just sayin’

I spent a couple of months in therapy, understanding my situation and learning what it meant and how to manage it. Some people need pharmaceutical help, I just needed some perspective and some ideas on how to cope.  It took me a couple of years, but I finally learned how to like myself, something that’s always been a struggle, and how to not let the stress and angst pile up until the container is full and it all spills out in a badly timed mess. For me, it came down to getting an outside perspective and some trained advice on how to change things I was doing to cope with life challenges (and failing at coping). Everyone’s a bit different, but the big lesson is — don’t be afraid to ask for help.  I always believed I could do anything, that I could make it happen by working longer and harder. Look where that got me. Maybe the hardest lesson I had to beat into my thick skull was that I have limitations, and sometimes I need help — and not to be afraid to ask.

What we didn’t do, what we didn’t realize was hanging out there, was look for the root cause. I thought it was work and stress, and my therapist saw no reason to think it might be something else, since dealing with mewling blobs of protoplasm caused by work stress was his stock in trade. And if you look at the dates involved, it’d be another three years before I did get far enough into this to get the root cause identified and treated.

The root cause here was the apnea. And while I don’t have many regrets in life, I do wonder at times how things might have been different had I made the connection and gotten it treated earlier. Would I still be at Apple? Perhaps. What I do know is that a number of people I know and love got caught as collateral damage along the way, and whether I was able to avoid any of this personally, I wish I’d been able to keep them from having to come along for the ride.

The lessons to take out of this?

  • Listen to your body. If something’s wrong, don’t out-stubborn it, and don’t wait until your body pulls out the sledge hammer to get your attention. Things you catch when they’re small are a lot easier to fix.
  • Make sure you’re finding the cause, not just treating the symptom.
  • There are large chunks of silicon valley whose business plans are based on working you into the ground, and then replacing you with someone fresh and ready to go back into the grind. What are you getting out of this relationship? Deathmarches are a fact of life, and deadlines happen; but if every day is a deathmarch and the deadlines are never rational, do you really want to be there? And will they really make it worth what you go through to ship that product? Really?
  • Too many companies demand loyalty but offer none. I know way too many people who did way too many 70 hour weeks to get a project done, only to find out their job moved to india (but thanks for making our quarterly numbers. oh, and we stripped the package. sorry). Find the companies that see you as an asset, not a cog, and make the relationships work both ways.

The reason I stuck at Apple for two years beyond my breakdown was simple: my management and my team kicked serious butt for me when I needed it, and I wanted to do everything I could in return for them. So let me close tonight with this final thought. To Axel and Dean and Michelle and Jason — the more time passes and the better perspective I have, the more I understand just what I put you all through, and the more I appreciate how you all helped me through it. It’s a debt I can’t repay, but it’s one I am happy to recognize and honor. Thanks.

That goes doubly so to my wife Laurie. I’m convinced I wouldn’t have made it without her.

Hey, can someone push the big green button on the Wayback machine? the one labeled “return?” thanks.