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On Depression and Burnout...

Preface: Screw the taboo, I'm gonna talk about this! Rarely, if ever, are we able to talk about "uncomfortable" topics like depression, but they're real, they're serious, and I would wager that if we would just talk about these things a little bit, then others who are going through (or have gone through) similar experiences might find some comfort.

There are few things that feel so good as returning to a normal life of happiness after suffering through a bout of depression. Thankfully, for me, such things are a rare occurrence, but I know that for some it's an ongoing struggle. The last time (prior to this Summer) that I dealt with depression was 2002 when I moved across country from Montana to Harrisburg, PA, leaving my wife behind because we couldn't afford to make a full move, seeing her once in ~5 months. Back then, it might have been the loneliness, the constant state of being broke, or maybe just general diet and exercise issues (or a combination of them all), but it was my first time dealing with depression, and it wasn't really until some months after emerging from that dark state that I even realized what it was I'd been going through.

This Summer marked a return to that dark place, and lemme tell ya, it was not enjoyable. Thank goodness for a tolerant and understanding wife and a handful of amazing friends who didn't give up on me and helped me find the light at the end of the tunnel. I don't know what it was that put me into the funk. I had returned home from 4 weeks on the road, 2 of which being spent on vacation with the family. I came back to an empty house, having left the wife+kids behind in Minnesota to visit with the extended family. I was absolutely dreading the 2nd week of that 2-wk period because I knew I wasn't going to be able to keep myself busy. I digress...

As I said, it's unclear what the trigger was... Was it the prospect of loneliness? Was it exhaustion from all the travel? Was it exhaustion as I recovered from pneumonia (diagnosed in late June)? Was it a result of no exercise and a complete breakdown in my diet? Was it work stress? Was it something else altogether? I'll never know for certain, but what I do know is this: It sucked, it was miserable, and it happens to more people than you might realize.

For those who don't perhaps know me all that well, I'm an extrovert. I thrive off being around people. I need socialization for my energy. I also try very hard to be a nice guy. I like joking with people, teasing people, and just generally trying to be fun and funny. While I'm not obsessed with being liked by everyone, I am cognizant of the emotional aura people project toward me, and - depending on the day - that may influence me one way or the other in terms of general happiness.

The point here, though, is that I'm not naturally a frump (despite what some might think after pointed email exchanges). I'm generally full of energy and try to push forward through concerns, challenges, etc, etc, etc. So, when I fell into the pit of despair, suffice to say that it swallowed me whole and threatened to keep me forever.

If you've not dealt with depression, then here's an idea of what it's like:

  • You have no energy whatsoever. Even the most minor/trivial of tasks (including eating and sleeping!) are exhausting and often seem insurmountable. Getting out of bed is nearly impossible. You want to sleep all the time. Yet, contrary to this feeling, you can't sleep, or at least your sleep is incredibly uneasy and non-restful/non-recuperating.

  • Everything is shit. If you've heard the phrase "viewing life through rose colored glasses," then shift that to being "through black-death-tinted glasses." All the positives in life? Gone/forgotten. Ever had fun? Can't recall. The job? It sucks. Life? It sucks. Friends? Meh. Family? Meh. You believe, truly and deeply, that your life has been a waste, that you're just taking up space+resources on this planet, and you just don't think you belong anywhere. (If you're not seeing where this line of thinking potentially goes, then you're not trying hard enough.)

  • Everything is a failure. Related to the last point, but noteworthy... nothing you do is good/successful/worthwhile. Reaching out to friends? Fail. At best, they tolerate you, and at worst they hate you. Trying to relate to family? You're misunderstood and unloved. Trying to do your job? You suck and are on the verge of being fired. Note that this all applies to perceptions and not to reality. Perception is so much more important and powerful than reality... as we see time and time again with depression, politics, and mass marketing...

The key points to all of this is that the harsh, dark feelings are very, very, very real to the person experiencing them, no matter what reality may actually be. And, no matter what you (as friend or family) say, there's really no changing these feelings, which can be /incredibly/ frustrating for friends and family. For more on what it's like being depressed, see this excellent article on Huffington Post, "9 Things Only People With Depression Can Truly Understand," which perfectly captures some of the feelings and challenges associated with depression.

Soooo... how did I finally snap out of it? Honestly, I don't know for certain, but I have a few ideas...

  • First and foremost, my wife and close friends continued to provide support throughout the episode without deriding me.

  • Second, I got my diet and exercise back on track (this was hugely important with the 2002 episode as well).

  • Third, work-related stress abated (a little bit, anyway). In part, this came from a former manager telling me "Ben, you're a good analyst." Just being told this phrase (backed by performance numbers) did a world of good as up to this point I'd felt like I was failing completely. I also finally broke-through on a project that had been plaguing me the entire time, though the breakthrough could arguably be linked to my recovery, too.

  • Fourth, better quality sleep returned. I think this relates significantly to diet and exercise.

  • Fifth, my T levels bounced back dramatically (see this article about the impact of low T in men, often contributing to depression). This may seem like a trivial thing, but it plays heavily into energy levels, at least for men.

Breaking free from the funk is a wonderful feeling. Sure, it hasn't been all sunshine and puppy dogs since the initially breakthrough, but for the most part things have been fine. There are still down days, and I feel very vulnerable to getting tipped back into the pit of despair (as nearly happened on Sunday/Monday after receiving a rude email at work). But, for the most part... things are better.

It's really a hard sensation to describe. I quite literally feel like a switch flipped and overnight I went from dark depression to elation (which, in itself, is a dangerous shift, since extremes can swing both directions). My goal is to get onto and stay with my diet and exercise, and to work diligently to find the positives in life. And, to quote Dylan Thomas, I hope to rage against the dying of the light... to push forward toward those positives that make my life good, and try to steer clear of those things that detract from that goal.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

"Do not go gentle into that good night"

Dylan Thomas, 1914 - 1953

Brad "theNurse" Smith

I've just learned that a quiet pillar in the security community has suffered a massive stroke while attending Hacker Halted and remains in a coma. I first met Brad at Black Hat in 2009, where we immediately got to talking about Montana, his beloved home state, and a place I was proudly able to call "home" for a while. He immediately invited me to participate in his own conference, CIScon, up in Helena, which I immediately agreed to do. He's a good dude who "got it" and was doing everything he could to help others, too. Much of his efforts were employed on a shoestring budget, whether it be providing first aid support to hacker cons, working with various orgs in the Northern Rockies to better secure their environments, or providing top-notch training opportunities and speakers to his local security community.

Please join me in sending positive thoughts, energy, prayers, or whatever your belief system may condone toward his full and speedy recovery. I also encourage you to join me in donating to the fund that Social-Engineer.org has setup to help defray out-of-pocket expenses.

Donate here: http://www.social-engineer.org/bradsmithdonation/

A Stroll Down Amnesia Lane

I was cleaning out some old boxes of "stuff" from days gone by and ran into a hard copy of a presentation that I delivered as part of the interview process at CERT/SEI in Pittsburgh back in 1998. At the time, I had been very hopeful to get a job at CERT as they were doing security work that I simply wasn't seeing in the private sector (at least, not in the Midwest). Alas, it didn't work out, but I digress...

What jumped out at me about this presentation is that, in 12+ years, nothing has changed! The same arguments I made back then about needing to be proactive with security, working to integrate it into all aspects of the business in order to make it implicit and inherent are still true today. Perhaps the most interesting bullet in those slides for me was one where I asked "why aren't we teaching calculus and computer science in elementary schools?" I don't think my audience grokked the question back then, and I'd be surprised if people would even get it today.

Things You Think About In Hospitals

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We just spent a bit over 24 hours in the hospital, the kiddo having come down with a bad case of the croup (complete with stridor). The last time I was overnight in the hospital was also for this kiddo, though for slightly more joyous reasons (aka "birth"), but I digress. When one spends a night in the hospital - particularly one for which you've not planned - it puts you in a position to rely on the hospital staff and facility much more to ensure that your needs are adequately met. Here are some random thoughts from the fray of this latest experience...

btw, the care we received was very good, and so this shouldn't be seen as negative or griping, just observations of various things... the contrast between quality of care and quality of environment were, perhaps, what I found so interesting here...

My Jiu-Jitsu is Frustrating Me

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I'm extremely ticked off tonight, partly at myself, partly at my school, and just overall in general. I've been training in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (Brazilian JJ, generically) since October 2008 - so, less than a year, not a whole long time. I'm a white belt. Some day I would like to earn a belt of color, but for now I'm the level I should be.

So why am I upset? Well, a few reasons. First, I got hurt tonight, doing a move the wrong way, but because I didn't know any better. Second, I'm tired of guys from other martial arts coming in and not training or playing "nicely." Third, I don't feel like I'm progressing at all after a night like tonight, which makes me question why I bother. And, fourth, as per usual, I just can't keep my mouth shut sometimes and it just embarrasses the heck out of me.

About Me

Through various conversations and interactions it's come to my attention that I've never really properly introduced myself. By now, if you've read this blog at all, you've probably come to realize that I'm rarely challenged for words. So, forgive this indulgence while I delve into a little bit about who am I, where I've come from, what I've been doing, and so on. In so doing, I hope to give you a glimpse of who I am without providing detailed enough answers that would allow you to bypass passwords on all of my various accounts. :)

Knowing One's Strengths

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Based on Anton's recommendation, I picked up a copy of Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath. That Anton found it interesting and useful told me that I would probably also appreciate it. My assumption has been proved correct.

Knowing one's strengths and weaknesses is very important, whether it be in competition or personal life or professional life. For me, I know that one of my weaknesses is tending to be somewhat negative, cynical, and sarcastic. This trait, when combined with my tendency toward incessant questioning, can be terribly off-putting. It also, however, can make it difficult for me to see my own strengths. As a good friend of mine has pointed out on numerous equations, life is generally pretty good, if only I'd look at it that way.

Where's Ben? / RSA Reminder

In case you blinked and missed it, I've not been super-active lately. This is because I've just moved from the DC metro area (NoVA) to Phoenix, AZ. This was a lengthy process in order to coordinate with my wife and her job, as well as our kiddo. So, suffice to say, I'm exhausted AND surrounded by boxes. :)

In related news, now that I'm settling into AZ, it's time to leave! :) Yep, Friday night I fly out to San Fran to start pre-RSA meetings, followed by RSA itself (of course). Hope to see you there!

Overwhelming Flood

This is a personal note. You've undoubtedly heard about the flooding in Fargo, ND. We're talking water levels of unprecedented proportions, blowing through the previous record (from 1997) last night. They've raised the crest estimate numerous times, with it now in the 42-43' range. If you live anywhere near ND or MN and can get away, I urge you to do so - folks need help.

If you can't make the trip, but would like to help another way, please visit the web site for the Minn-Kota Red Cross

My parents were under mandatory evacuation last night. If the river reaches 42' (previously thought nearly impossible), the water will reach the main level of their house. With the evacuation, they're not able to monitor their basement, so if the power goes out, they're sunk (water table will rise and flood the basement), or if their sump pump dies, their sunk. Not good.

Track current river levels on the NDSU Fargo Flood page.

For news, road closures, and general coverage of the event, see the Valley Flood Watch site, or visit the local newspaper, the Fargo Forum.

A live web cam is available from the Forum at http://www.inforum.com/pages/floodcam - be advised, however, that it has been up and down a lot.

I wish that I could be there to help out. Unfortunately, I'm on the verge of a cross-country move, with the movers coming Mon/Tues next week. It's very frustrating not being able to do anything to help my own parents!

Just a brief note... I was on travel a good chunk of last week, combined with having a newborn in the house and several deliverables due last week, leaving me no time to blog. I have a couple topics lined up, just need an hour to research and write. I realized last week that I never posted an August goals summary. At this point, I think I'll just wait until October first to post a joint August/September retrospective. There's just something about having a newborn in the house that seems to absorb all of one's time. More to come!

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