A lot happens.

by Jesse Noller


Note: Part two is here

My last post here was April 15th, 2013; it was my gushing post letting the world know I was joining Rackspace to chase a dream and change the world.

Well, a lot has happened since then - two years is a lot of time to let pass and the world, people, communities and more have changed. This post isn’t about that. This is, well, personal.

I’m not going to start at the beginning - don’t expect a cohesive thread, or narrative. That will come later after I unwind this gordian knot.

Some of you know I’ve become a bit of a recluse. Maybe recluse isn’t the best word but it’s a word that resonates. It’s September, 2015 - a Sunday. Since Friday when I left work, I’ve been shut in my two bedroom apartment doing nothing but playing video games, sleeping, and taking the dogs out. Oh, and sometimes drinking.

Living the high life, I know!

Not really. I dragged myself out to my favorite coffee hangout to write, and be “around” people. Even if I don’t talk to them. It was a mental battle for me to do this, in fact, except for going to work and the store, I don’t really “get out much”. At work, it's a totally different story, might as well be a social butterfly.

Let’s work backwards from the recluse bit.

Personally, the last two, no, three years have been a mental and emotional crucible. I can’t put exact dates and times to things, I can’t say when certain emotions or events took place that in turn caused a series of ripples that have stripped me down to my core.

One of the first things I know, and apologize for, is that I withdrew from the Python community and the people and friends I made there. The reasons are multitude, the drain and destruction my “emotionally all in” behaviors caused my family and I. The fact that I kept smashing my face against the same rocks, toxic people, etc time and again. I’d wake up mad, go to bed mad. I’d snap at my kids, my coworkers.

This isn’t really a blame-the-community thing; its one of the reasons I’m broken - it’s “all or nothing”. When I go into something I go all in. At one point I was blogging, coding, working at a startup, running PyCon, on the PSF board, running various python community project and more. On top of that, I had new baby girls and a wife, a family.

Humans aren’t meant to do that. You can’t be emotionally all in on everything. You can’t make another 24 hours appear to be “present” for everything. Instead, I stole time and ran my emotional credit card like it was limitless.

I stole time from my family, from work, from everything. I stole it from me, I gave time, emotion and empathy freely to anything and everyone.

My values - what I should have been caring about - were, putting it bluntly, completely and totally fucked.

Online communities are an interesting animal; they’ve given me so much, and I’ve made friends all over the world. It’s opened career doors and more for me, it’s supported me when I’m or my family was down.

However, “community” is not the gift that keeps on giving, it is the gift that keeps on taking and taking and taking. If you don’t set clear and absolute boundaries, it will drain you dry and move on.

I know that sounds awful - don't think I'm bitter or angry - but each time some accomplishment would get made, some thing would be done, there was just more to do more people and things to fix. I couldn’t control what I gave - I couldn’t pick my fights. I’d argue on the internet for days; I’d push for changes and things and see nothing for it. No boundaries, fighting all the things at once, not being strategic in my thoughts, actions and what I'd invest in? Good game bro.

I see the warning signs that were posted all over now, looking back. A good friend and mentor warned me, Dusty, my now ex-wife was telling me. The fact I had a rough relationship with my oldest daughter was telling me. All the signs were there.

Take, take, take, give, give, give - for what? To change the world? Can a programming community change the world? Can it hug you when you’re sitting alone at night on the couch staring at a black TV? The friends you make, if you can touch them, can. Otherwise, No.

Will it raise your daughters or be there for your wife?

No.

That was my job; and I bombed. Then I snapped. I remember the day I snapped too - actually, two times. The first was after the last PyCon I ran, coming home from that carrying all the emotion and pain and things that happens like boogeymen all the way home. It infected work, my family, me. The final snap was when I read a single email on a mailing list from someone basically calling me out.

I probably deserved it, but the lizard brain kicked in and said “hey, asshole - I’ve given so much, how about you show some fucking decency”. That’s the key right there, the decent and kind and nurturing people are silent, they see the snake pit for what it is and sit back. Only the most persistent and toxic survive.

That day, I resigned from the PSF, I unsubbed from every single community mailing list. I walked away. I didn’t go out in a blaze of glory, I just gave up. I stopped going to most conferences/speaking, writing & travel.

This series of events run parallel to what was going on at home - I didn’t see it, but I had poisoned my marriage and my family and the chickens were coming home to roost. I “kicked ass” at work still, but I had given everything to everything but my own damned family.

Let’s just say I'm divorced.

Yeah that’s a bit of a punch - but I have no one and nothing to blame but myself. I wasn’t “present” I wasn’t in the moment. I had one job. One damned job. And I failed at it.

Dusty and I parted ways amicably, and sanely. We have two beautiful daughters whose very smile is enough to chase away the darkness, and we put them first and foremost. We’re still good friends, we talk, etc. For awhile, we even co-parented in Texas which worked out well.

That changed (again, amicably) this year when she moved back to Massachusetts. I had to pick between two fundamentally awful choices: “force” Dusty to stay so the girls would be close to me - which would hurt her more than I care to admit, or agree to let her take the girls for the school year and I’d have them during the summer. Least awful of awful choices.

So that’s where we are now - but the things I’m thinking about are all the events and mistakes that have me sitting in a coffee shop on a Sunday, feeling completely alone, just wanting a hug and maybe have a good cry.

Back to the story.

So let’s throw more wood on the bonfire - community burnout/flameout. A new job in a new state that I threw everything in to. Always being connected & online no matter what day or time. It’s a recipe of multiple disasters - and they all happened.

Learn from my mistakes.

I learned too late. Sometimes it takes getting punched to realize something is just fundamentally wrong, rotten or toxic. I had no boundaries, no work/life balance. No balance at all. Like most of my life, I basically lived every day as if I was strapping on a rocket pack, shutting my eyes and saying “fuck it let’s go!”. I wasn’t intentional.

Thing have changed. And so have I.

Lately, I spend a lot of time looking at people’s smiling faces with their partner, family or kids. I admit freely, it hurts. Each time I see a happy couple talking in a coffee shop or a “normal family” playing, it feels like a dull ache.

I joke about “being bad” at people and “adulting”, and the few friends I have reassure me I’m not, but given the carnage and hurt and more I’ve wrought upon my outside of work life, it sure feels like it.

Am I depressed? Yeah, that’s fair. I’m not angry anymore, so that’s a bonus. Yes, I see a therapist (and have been for some time) who encourages me to re-start my life by simply say “Hi” to people outside of work.

I’m trying to rebuild some semblance of “self” - who am I? Why do I exist? Is it right that every day is exactly the same and time really doesn’t exist, it just passes.

What is joy? Should I try online dating? Should I write? Should I get out of bed today?

It’s not all doom and gloom.

Sometimes, total destruction brings about changes that would not have otherwise have happened. I’m not a workaholic anymore - I have strict rules on my devices for do-not-disturb. I rarely work into the night on weekdays, almost never on weekends. I might respond to an email or three, but generally speaking it can all wait until I’m “on the clock”.

The only exception to that rule is I’m now a people-leader. If anyone in my org is in trouble, or needs an ear, I’m there for them.

Oddly, while all of my personal life was burning to the ground, I somehow compartmentalized it in such a way to shift from just a developer/technical leader into now running an org of almost thirty people all of whom I care about. I believe in the things we’re doing as a team, and what we’ve accomplished. I’m sad for the losses we’ve had and the misses.

However, I can be proud of my career in many regards. I didn’t do it on my own, and I didn’t do it easily, but I can be proud of it. I can be proud of my team and take comfort that I can care for them and lead.

So now, here I am.

I’m thirty five, I see my kids on thanksgiving, I avoid getting deeply involved in “large communities” (mostly, tech and programming). In fact, I coach my team and coworkers about the balance they need (I tell them honestly I learned the hard way). I still love making things and creating. I love my girls more than anything in the world.

I care deeply about my team, and my people. Sometimes, I enjoy the quiet solitude that comes with living alone. Other times, its a shadow choking the life out of me.

Not everything is lost and hopeless, I know. I know, in the abstract, that I have friends. I know that I have two amazing, smart, beautiful children. I know my ex-wife is still my best friend.

I know that I like getting together with people and playing games, or just shooting the breeze.

I know I need to keep writing, to spinning all the context and things in my head out. I have to learn what “life” is supposed to be when I’m not valuing my sense of self and worth by the number of things I’m doing at once, or the communities I am part of.

I know I have to work through the all the skeletons in my mental closet. I’ve defined my “self” by the wrong things for most of my life.

I’ve learned a lot, some in incredibly painful ways, some in less painful ways. Some in challenging ways and some things like “I really love leading & inspiring”. I'm going to keep writing about all of it.

Just saying things “will be ok” isn’t enough, I’ve got to start making things better.

Maybe I’ll start by saying hi to someone in this coffee shop.