Why a code camp saved my life

In the days leading up to graduation, I found myself battling a heart-wrenching sadness over the prospect of having to say good-bye to my cohort. Final projects had been a kind of sampling of what that was going to feel like as we initially split ourselves into tiny groups and, for the most part of the next nine days, only interacted with our designated group, despite the fact that we were all within each other’s periphery. It honestly felt like a punishment, being cut off from our usual full intra-cohort camaraderie. And post-graduation would only herald the undertaking of interviews which would lead to offers which would lead to jobs which would lead to our gradual division and departure. I, who have never dealt even remotely well with good-byes, was not coping with this looming change in status quo.

Compounding this was an overwhelming emotional pride for my cohort. After we presented our final projects on Demo Day, I was bursting at the seams with unmitigated joy and rapture. Because we’d done it. We graduated. We made it through nine massively demanding weeks of question marks and setting examples and establishing culture. Nearly one thousand hours over nine weeks. We came into this program with no concrete idea of what was ahead of us, other than an expectation of an intense amount of effort and work, and with no one to guide us, we set forth and navigated our way through. We were trailblazers, and what’s more, we laid the path not for glory or recognition, but so that others could follow in our footsteps and go even farther than we had.

It was a lot for me to handle. Too much, as I would come to find. I held myself together until early Friday afternoon, when Dave gathered us– the Squirrels and staff and all our instructors– together in the yoga room for one last group exercise: the Angel Tunnel. Each of us was blindfolded, one at a time, and “passed” down a tunnel the rest of us formed, and one by one we had an opportunity to whisper something kind and raw and honest and true to the person blindfolded. And it felt so much like good-bye right then and there, and it was just– accessing such an intimate level of communication and having this chance to tell people who had come to mean so much to me that they meant so much to me (though I don’t feel I communicated it well at all)– and then being the blindfolded person and having these people (who meant so much to me) tell me things which for once actually made it into my heart– and then having Dave come down the tunnel last–

I cried for a solid half-hour. I cried until I hit that point where I felt utterly ridiculous and melodramatic for crying so hard that I had to laugh at myself, and then the laughter tipped me back over into tears. When we left the room, I didn’t even try to mask the fact that I’d been crying, because anyone who might look askance at me for feeling so strongly toward my cohort could go fuck themselves.

Not long after that, I was hanging out on the red couches with Dave, and we got to talking about the dynamics of the Squirrels, and I marveled over how lucky I felt, how absolutely replete with gratitude I was that the Squirrels cohort turned out to be the way we were. How easy it would have been for things to have been differently– how easily we could have chosen other cohorts instead. How easily we could have chosen other schools. How I could have never even applied to Dev Bootcamp. How I wasn’t supposed to have shown up on April 22, how I’d canceled my plans to attend due to a conflicting arrangement. How I almost missed this entire experience.

And the conversation was just wave after wave of repressed grief, and I couldn’t understand it. Swells of pride, pangs over leaving– sure, yes, check, got it. But this grief. This stabbing ache from the idea that I almost missed this– it began to dawn on me that there was something at play here beyond just hating good-byes.


The night before graduation day, Greg Baugues came to talk at DBc. What with the timing of everything, all of the Squirrels were hurriedly focused on putting the finishing touches on our apps, so we missed his presentation.

I found out, hours later, however, what the topic had been and was immediately regretful. I expressed as much to Greg the next day during the Squirrels’ post-demo interview sessions, and he told me there was a video of him giving that speech from a previous event on his blog.

So when I found myself on the verge of something akin to a panic attack in the middle of the graduation dinner social, thinking about gratitude, thinking about luck, thinking about almost missing this– I grabbed my laptop and quietly hid in a small, unoccupied room away from the crowd and pulled up the video. I’m not sure what I expected; I was definitely looking for a distraction, but I knew what the subject material was. I couldn’t have thought it would be a mood lifter? Maybe I wasn’t thinking at all. Maybe it was just the path I was meant to take, and I unwittingly took it. Either way, I sat on the floor and watched the video. And as his talking points reminded me so poignantly of the life I had put on hold when I came to Chicago for DBc, I saw the full and total disparity between where I was then and where I was now. The absolute significance of what had seemed at the time to be a trivial decision– learn Ruby! learn Rails! learn to make web apps!– blindsided me, and I fell apart with the revelation that not only did I come so close to missing DBc; I came so close to missing everything.

Or, to put it more bluntly: I came so close to dying.


What Greg came to speak to DBc about, and what he covered in the video I watched [1], was developers and depression and how society needs to destigmatize mental illness, how a mental affliction should be considered no different from a physical malady. We openly acknowledge if we’re suffering from the latter, from paper cuts to broken legs to failing kidneys to cancer, but from the former? Anxiety disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, addictions– those (and all things related) are still considered dirty laundry. If you have to talk about those things, you do it behind closed doors or you do it under a guise of anonymity. But why? Why especially since there aren’t support networks called Diabetes Anonymous (because that would be absurd)? Why do we not question calling in sick when a fever is keeping us in bed, but struggle to justify doing the same when the cause is depression?

As a culture, we’re slowly making progress toward addressing the human condition from a holistic perspective and conceding that there is no line to be drawn where the physical ends and the mental begins. (President Obama has even openly supported this shift [2].) More and more, conversations about mental health issues are moving out of sequestered rooms and textbooks and into everyday accessible mediums like comics [3] and blog posts [4] and even New York Times #1 best-sellers [5].

For a few years now, I’ve held a personal policy of freely answering any questions asked of me, regardless of the topic– with the caveat that the questions have to surface on their own. It’s a mashup of inherited cultures; I believe in transparency and open communication, but I was also raised to never impose on others.

This post is an exception. Because having one’s life saved is no small thing (and warrants more than I feel I will ever be able to adequately convey), but in order to explain why I say Dev Bootcamp “saved” my life, I need to first make clear just what my life was before I came to Chicago.

Alors.


I can’t say for sure how early I exhibited signs of malfunctioning neural pathways, but I do distinctly remember that by the time I was 12 years old, I was actively suicidal. Not on a daily basis or anything, but there were moments. Moments that would continue to populate my life throughout high school, throughout college, throughout everything else after, moments more often than not fueled by a fear that, in spite of everything my environment consistently told me, I would never amount to anything useful. That I was, in fact, a waste of not only my parents’ resources, but the earth’s as well. That I was wasting oxygen just by breathing. By existing.

In 2005, I was hospitalized for a little over a week and officially diagnosed as bipolar. I went on medication; the meds made me feel worse. Or rather, they made me feel nothing at all? It was the strangest thing, in that some part of me was aware that I should be furious and outraged that I was being robbed of my ability to experience any and all emotion– including fury and outrage.

I stopped taking the medications after a few months. I didn’t ask my therapist. I didn’t ask my psychologist. It actually happened by accident; I was traveling and the time changes threw me off-schedule and I just forgot. And then realized the world didn’t explode after missing one dose. So I kept “forgetting” out of perverse curiosity, just to see what would happen.

What happened was that I started to feel like a normal human being again as my capacity for emotion slowly came back, bit by bit. And then suddenly felt like a catastrophe as the floodgates opened and my Pandora’s box of gods and demons and dreams and nightmares unleashed itself. But having read other people’s horrific accounts of switching or stopping medications, I was somewhat prepared and managed to tread the waters until they receded.

Ultimately, I decided to just live with my mania and my depression instead of “treating” it, and I have been ever-watchful of myself since. Some years less watchful than others, in truth, but for at least the last two years, I’ve closely monitored my every mood, every day. I know my triggers, I know the warning signs, and I know from enough years of experience now that the dark episodes pass. That depression is a lie [6].

But the problem with skillfully learning to accept and live alongside something that has the power to destroy you is that it becomes frighteningly easy to forget that there were ever alternatives. Last December, the frequency of my cycles picked up drastically, and when I hit the troughs, I would just shut myself inside my house and turn off my phone and ignore my email and read books and write until I was once more “whole enough to bear the burden of the sky” [7]. I went to France again in February and came alive as I had a crushingly, unexpectedly passionate affair with Nîmes, then returned home weeks later and, in the hollow spaces carved out by my roller-coaster mentality, promptly lost what was left of my mind.

In hindsight, the worst of it was that I didn’t honestly think I was in that bad of a place. I remember being aware that I was on shaky ground, but I’d gotten so used to finding myself in unstable territory, and what’s more– I’d been so much worse before. I’d known the very depths of my own personal hell, and that wasn’t where I was in March, so I assumed I had to be fine, or as “fine” as someone like myself could ever expect to be. I was capable of happiness. I was capable of experiencing sheer joy. Wasn’t that enough?

Except. Except, my journal from March and early April is littered with confessions of wanting to disappear, to literally leave everything and everyone I knew behind and vanish. I would openly joke with people about running away to the mountains of France and becoming a cheese maker, but it wasn’t entirely a joke. The nearest I came to questioning whether or not I was really “fine” was when I had an extremely level-headed conversation with a friend about the difference between choosing to die and choosing to move away to a remote location while leaving no way for anyone to contact me again, and I asked why the latter was considered acceptable but the former was not.

If you’ve ever had to talk to someone who is contemplating death, you know that it’s bad enough when that someone is hysterical and in pain. It is downright chilling when that someone is making the case for their self-removal from this world as calmly and rationally as one might make the case for chicken over fish. But instead of being as disturbed by my placidity as I should have been, I used it to further maintain that there was nothing really wrong with me. I was in complete control of my emotions. I was using sound logic to back my (purely theoretical) arguments. Over and over, I insisted that I was fine. I wasn’t really going to disappear into the mountains. I wasn’t going anywhere– except, of course, to Chicago.


Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. (…) of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In ten percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening. Drowning does not look like drowning. [8]


I’ve long been aware of the adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” I know that “running away” doesn’t solve things, that you can’t just leave your problems behind when you change locations.

That being said, I also know that there is a grace period for arriving in a new place, completely alone and knowing no one, during which you get to be a Brand New You. That it takes some time for Old You to catch up with the blank page fable you create upon entering the city limits. And so when I touched down at Chicago O'Hare, I resolved to start fresh and maintain that facade for as long as I could. In the back of my mind, I was also convinced I would be too busy with coursework to be “crazy”.

And the plan worked. Or it seemed to? DBc commenced, I dove into the code challenges, and I still demonstrated flashes of the old habits, but it was all on the side of ebullient, effervescent mania. Every day, I was bouncing in my seat and curling my toes in delight over new material. Every day, I thrilled at finding patterns and refactoring for efficiency and scale. Every day, I shared buoyant high-five moments with my pairs as we schemed and explored and puzzled and problem solved.

Every day, I waited for the euphoria to end and the inevitable crash to take place and send me spiraling down into a bleak pit of despair.

It never did.


After we graduated, I spent that weekend applying some serious eye-narrowing scrutiny to the previous two months in search of concrete explanations for this uncharacteristic longevity of stabile state.

There’s the fact that I was spending 16-20 hours a day creating code that ultimately Did Something, mitigating an otherwise relentless fear of being an unproductive “non-contributing zero” [9]. The intensity and the pace with which we moved through topics also kept me constantly on my toes, constantly curious, constantly engaged.

There’s the fact that I frequently– eventually daily– had the opportunity to be useful, insofar as I had the privilege of being asked for help by other boots.

There’s the yoga, which taught me how to focus precisely on a moment as it came into being and how to seek out the adjustments necessary to make something that was good just a little bit better. Yoga taught me to find my limits and then push beyond them because I was capable of it. Yoga reminded me to stop anticipating future uncertainties and to let go of a breath once it had done what it needed to do. Yoga encouraged me to strive for deeply ingrained right action, for “effortless doing” . Through yoga, I developed stronger roots in Taoism.

And then there was the abundance of opportunity to identify the patterns within and the relationships between every instance of interaction. The discovery, for example, that improving my conversational listening skills actually made me a significantly better dancer. Or that a military combat operations process could be applied to program architecture, or code design theory and refactoring to heart-to-heart conversations.

But all of these are just things that kept me from succumbing to self-destructive habits and tumbling down rabbit holes of horror. What saved me, what saved my life, in every way that a life can be saved, was nothing short of a miracle, and yet something so rudimentary and obvious as to hardly warrant significance: human connection.


Among analysts, Fromm-Reichmann, who had come to the United States from Germany to escape Hitler, was known for insisting that no patient was too sick to be healed through trust and intimacy. She figured that loneliness lay at the heart of nearly all mental illness and that the lonely person was just about the most terrifying spectacle in the world.



[…] Over the past half-century, academic psychologists have largely abandoned psychoanalysis and made themselves over as biologists. And as they delve deeper into the workings of cells and nerves, they are confirming that loneliness is as monstrous as Fromm-Reichmann said it was. It has now been linked with a wide array of bodily ailments as well as the old mental ones.



In a way, these discoveries are as consequential as the germ theory of disease. Just as we once knew that infectious diseases killed, but didn’t know that germs spread them, we’ve known intuitively that loneliness hastens death, but haven’t been able to explain how. Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.



The psychological definition of loneliness hasn’t changed much since Fromm-Reichmann laid it out. “Real loneliness,” as she called it, is not what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard characterized as the “shut-upness” and solitariness of the civilized. […] Loneliness, she said—and this will surprise no one—is the want of intimacy. [10]


I confess I never factored people into the DBc equation. I knew I would be working with a single group of people for the duration of the program, but the most thought I ever gave to my future peers was a wariness that we wouldn’t get along. The most optimistic scenario that occurred to me was that we wouldn’t not get along. I envisioned friendliness, but not friendships. I anticipated working closely together on projects, but not closeness. I predicted graduating from the program armed merely with a newly-gained and hard-earned beginner’s expertise in Ruby-flavored web development and nothing more, and I couldn’t have been more wrong if I’d tried.

If this initial dismissal of the people who would make up my cohort as completely irrelevant seems cold, understand that I instinctively resist forming attachments to anything and everyone. For the longest time, nothing horrified me more than the idea of dependency, so much so that in addition to developing a forced aversion to needing, I taught myself to altogether stop wanting. Wanting something was considered to be a point of weakness that had to be overcome, conquered, and vanquished– and always through deprivation of whatever it was I wanted. And the problem with people was, the more I liked them, the more time I wanted to spend with them.

Or rather, the problem with people was, people always leave. Regardless of the interval between the two, “hello” is only ever a precursor to “good-bye”– but if you’re not attached, “good-bye” doesn’t hurt, or at least, it doesn’t hurt as much. Hence, making an art of engaging with people without forming ties. Hence the irony of my life that was, the stronger I found myself caring for someone, the less communication I maintained with them. In 2011, I came to the realization that I was no longer any more capable of letting myself feel attached to a person than I was capable of growing three inches taller. The ramifications of this were not lost on me, but I had no idea how to override this setting. To be perfectly honest, I also had little desire to override it. People were never going to stop leaving and leaving was never going to stop being such a wounding thing to endure. I don’t have many self-protective mechanisms in place, but the ones I do, I’ve established with the intent of keeping.

Then DBc came and ruined everything.

It happened without my even realizing it– certainly without my intending it. Standard literature and lecture promote focusing primarily on the self in order to find peace and resolution, but then, a decade of thorough introspection and self-analysis only proved to make everything worse for me. And much in the way a broken bone repairs itself once it’s isolated from the environment, the broken pieces of my being healed as my attention was usurped by externalities: in this case, learning a vocational trade.

What does coding have to do with connecting to people? Nothing, of course. The code was just the common ground. The code was just the shared focal point of the 7+ daily hours of random pairing sessions wherein we learned how to articulate our inner monologues and listen to and parse each other’s silences. The code was just the currency we exchanged as we learned how to be vulnerable enough to admit to needing assistance, humble enough to accept offered help, and generous enough to later give as we were given. You reap what you sow; what we sowed in our first weeks was compassion and patience, and what we reaped was a trust that we were all there for each other. Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, the ties we established not only stayed intact, but persistently deepened as our challenges became more difficult and our reliance on each other’s varied strengths increased.

The compassion and patience and trust I shared one-on-one with each person in my cohort was what got me to, however subconsciously, let down my guard– but it was the compassion and patience and trust I witnessed being passed back and forth between everyone else that did me in. It was similar to the phenomenon of “random acts of kindness”, only more so because they weren’t random at all; they were entirely deliberate. It’s easy to anonymously give something of yourself– or even all of yourself– to a stranger because the risk of having to later deal with the consequences of that interaction are almost always eliminated. But to establish a relationship with someone built on a foundation of empathy– to communicate to someone that the kindness you are extending to them today will be reliably extended to them from each day forward? My peers gave freely, gave enthusiastically, gave without a moment’s hesitation, over and over, and their magnanimity knew no bounds. New cohorts came into the program, the population of the school steadily expanded, and their generosity never waned. I watched as their actions influenced their way to inheritance, and my heart overflowed. My defenses were down, and unable to reconstruct my walls in time, I did something I hadn’t been able to do for years: I fell wholly, unguardedly in love.


As part of our graduation ceremony, we received– in lieu of a fancified piece of paper– dog tags commemorating our time here. I’ve never framed any of my diplomas (and actually have no idea where they even are), but these dog tags? I’ve worn mine every day since.

Make no mistake– DBc didn’t “cure” me. This isn’t my first rodeo, this isn’t the first time I’ve undergone something this transformational (read: regression and relapse happen), and the brutal truth is, had I been in a different cohort, had the context and timing of our cohort been anything other than what it was, I sincerely doubt that the above would still be valid. I got really lucky, is my point.

I specifically chose to use the word “why” instead of “how” for the title of this piece to avoid misconstruing my purpose. The word “why” foreshadows hypotheses and explanations for a curious incident, whereas “how” implies there is an intentional and repeatable methodology at work. To offer up 4600 words on “how” DBc saved my life would presume that Dev Bootcamp is in the business of saving lives, which would be ludicrous.

Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe it’s not so far of a stretch to suggest that beyond teaching a technical skill set that makes its graduates valuable to a global occupational career field, DBc teaches a skill set that makes its graduates valuable to a global occupational community– to the communal occupation of being a human. Maybe it’s not so preposterous to suggest that the skill of knowing how to connect to and foster connections in others is quite possibly the most poignant and meaningful skill we could ever possess.

I don’t know the extent to which DBc has impacted its other students. I do know most of us show up the first day simply because we want to learn how to code, and I know that within a few weeks, our motivating factor has expanded to include spending time with our peers, and I know that that is no small feat, especially in a field renowned for attracting and harboring individuals prone to isolation and reclusion. I know that not a day passes here without witnessing meaningful interactions and true human connections.

So many companies claim to “connect” people to one another, and maybe they do on some level, but it’s also the case that as connected to each other as our social networks imply we ought to be, many of us still feel very much alone and in want of intimacy with discomfiting frequency. Rather than argue this is proof that said companies fail to provide the correct mediums through which to foster deep connections, I would posit that our current culture fails to provide the correct tools to teach people how to deeply connect with one another.

Is every life that passes through the doors of Dev Bootcamp ultimately “saved”? I’d hesitate to say that most of these lives were ever at risk in the first place. But the potential to drastically improve the human condition and the self is here, is available to any boot open and willing to receive it. The power to evolve people into better versions of themselves lies within these walls, and it is enthralling and beautiful and humbling.

A code camp that could elevate the human race. Who would have ever guessed?









[1] “Devs and Depression at MountainWest RubyConf”

[2] “Obama: Destigmatize mental health issues”

[3] “When we are hurting” || “What if…”

[4] “21 Tips to Keep Your Shit Together When You’re Depressed.”

[5] “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened”

[6] http://thebloggess.com/?s=depression+is+a+lie

[7] “This contentious storm invades us to the skin”

[8] “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning”

[9] Louis C.K. - “Generation of Spoiled Idiots”

[10] “The Lethality of Loneliness”

 
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