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Life & the meaning of it all…

The past 2 years of my life have been interesting to say the least. I’ve gone from being a respected (if my linkedin endorsements are anything to go by) IT researcher and software developer to being a full-time dispute mediator with the partnership I setup, ARC Mediation.

I’ve had so many questions from friends and family about my “new professional direction” and other euphemisms that I felt a “once and for all” explanation was in order. Why bother to explain myself? Well, I’ve yet to give a response to my friends that I’m happy with and I tend to shirk the issue.

I left my previous employer to take a career break. That’s not how it was planned originally but when a new contract fell through I took stock and decided I needed a break from working as an software architect and technical lead. There were several reasons for this

  1. I was fatigued. Bone tired of working on funding proposals, reports, code etc.
  2. I was unfulfilled by my job. I daily questioned the point of my work beyond earning money. When I didn’t question what I was doing, others did it for me 🙂 The compulsion-towards and expectation-of long working hours hadn’t gone but the motivation to do so had dissipated. When old team mates moved on to new things it seemed a natural end my role as mentor and manager.
  3. I was ill and just couldn’t live up to my own expectations of productivity and achievement. Whether the expectations were realistic was immaterial, they were acutely felt

Point 3 is the most important. I was so tired. I had the full gamut of CFS conditions that those without the misfortune to suffer from the illness often write off as malingering. Acne, rashes, headaches, IBS, shivering cold, feeling winded under minor exertion. I’d become dizzy if I changed posture and found walking for more than 5 minutes exhausting. The list goes on but the worst problem has been an eyesight problem with intermittent nystagmus (involuntary eye movements). This affected my ability to read for pleasure or research. It also affected my driving on one occasion (sorry about that Jason ;))

Under intense pressure and mental effort, I often saw double, ghost images and/or moving letters and so tended to read everything 3-4 times. I would often have trouble getting my left eye to focus at all and resort to text to speech apps. This made coding a distinctly less pleasurable experience & I loved coding with a passion. While there is somme redundancy in programming languages (although it varies with syntax), the English language has a much higher degree and hence it’s possible to read and write English even while seeing double or ghost images. You get an intuitive sense of what is being said and skip words/letters rather than try to focus on them.

This didn’t stop me working or trying but it did make me very tired from the additional exertion to meet the expectations upon me. That’s life. Life is tough. When you’re younger you assume a linearity and fairness to it that’s just not there. Then you grow up and realise that you have to make lemonade with those lemons. And that’s ok because lemonade tastes great when you learn to make it right.

Rather than mope, I ploughed myself into developing my mediation business as it gives me both pleasure from helping people and reasonable financial reward. Over the past 2 years, Roisin and I have produced over a hundred and fifty mediated agreement between our workplace, commercial and family clients. That’s a lot of pain and heartbreak we’ve helped avoid or lessened. There’s no questioning why we do this work, no nagging doubt in my mind. We’re helping people every single day with the most important decisions they’ll make in their lives. I’m using my intelligence and insights in a way that rewards me and others and I’ve become a broader and more rounded person because of it.

Last year I was ill for several months with hepatitis. This was definitely a setback but I believe it was helpful to give me perspective as I was out of work for months and weighed just 11 stone (a feather weight considering my height of 6ft 1). Since then I’ve learned about how nutrition can overcome CFS type illnesses. I purchased a genetic test from 23andme and had some other tests which revealed the likely problems to do with low glutathione and tetrahydrobiopterin (BH4) and I feel much healthier and stronger now thanks to a few supplements and greatly reducing my sugar intake which was a compensation mechanism for fatigue. My stamina and energy levels have greatly increased.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Richard van Konyenburg who wrote extensively about his theories of CFS and glutathione depletion before his untimely death in late 2012. His words and insights were inspirational and his theories greatly helped me to recover from both hepatitis and CFS. Chronic Fatigue is very real and it wears you down with its persistent sapping of vital energy for work and life. It is not the disease of the malingerer or the yuppie although it may be worsened by a western diet that’s ridiculously high in bad fats and sugars. My experience is that it can be corrected by nutrigenomics and I’m a paid-up believer that this will promote health and extend lifespans. I’m also very skeptical of claims that CFS sufferers are more susceptible to the placebo effect. Indeed the only study on the subject I could find appears to suggest the opposite (See PubMed).

And you’re telling me this because?
So why the confession? Because now that my health is improved I realised that I felt trapped by the need to pretend the past few years were a bed of roses, that I had a coherent “game plan” and that I need to provide an easy explanation for what I’ve heard described as “dropping out” from IT. I don’t regret the decision to give 2 years of my life to helping people, especially 2 years where I was acutely aware of the need for help. A society where you have to apologise for not sitting on your butt and,instead, doing something positive is a society with questionable values and future. When you’re engaged in workplace mediation you become hyper-sensitive to organisational perspectives on staff displaying any forms of quirks / foibles. What we used to know as “personality” is sometimes looked upon negatively in the desire to manage staff as homogenous resources producing X units of productivity. We focus too much on lifting the average rather than improving the peak performance. Creative pursuits rely very much on optimising these peaks and it hints at a dichotomy in managing creative endeavours. At some stage we have to stop perpetuating the myth of super human automatons and realise that we’re frail people who need our physical and mental well being to be actively managed to be productive and happy. It must become acceptable to admit that you were down, weak, ill and depressed. I’ve often felt that if organisations could learn to embrace diversity, humanity and the ebb/flow of productivity (within reason of course as there’s still a job that needs doing!) then workplace conflict would be greatly diminished. Staff are not resources or even human resources, they’re people and learning how to get the best from people is a skill that few have mastered. The first step is to not view diversity as a threat. The second is to foster an environment of positivity rather than blame. Positivity doesn’t mean naivety, it means optimism for meeting the challenges ahead. There is nothing as soul-destroying and paralysing as a culture of pessimism and blame.

I speak from a position of bias however 😀

Unfortunately, I have personality. Oops, the cat is out of the bag.

Unfortunately, my CV has an odd career move to do something positive for other people. This is black mark for some recruiters apparently.

Unfortunately I was fatigued and suffered from stress. Haven’t we all. And yes, I was depressed. More exasperated than depressed by the very real feeling of exhaustion and the very annoying tendency of my doctor to assume that there’s a one-way causality link from depression to exhaustion. This is common it seems. Many doctors believe that the only reason for feeling fatigue is depression in the absence of an obvious alternative. In my case they didn’t find low vitamin or iron levels and didn’t prod much beyond that. I must be “low level depressed” despite me repeatedly saying “I’m not depressed, I’m just tired, please help me fix that”. The response to that was “ah, you have anxiety”. Well I was anxious about feeling tired all day, including upon just waking up. So I did what many fatigue sufferers do and gave up expecting the medical profession to be any help whatsoever.

Newsflash to the depression industry, there are other illnesses and every unexplained health problem isn’t fixed by taking SSRIs. The stigma against people who suffer from or have suffered from ME/CFS or a host of unexplained and probably related fatigue illnesses is disgusting. They are insulted and discriminated against directly and by innuendo. So I’m happy to come out as a person who has faced this head-on and still achieved quite a bit. I’ll take the stigma because I feel I can defend myself eloquently and poignantly.

What next?
As much as I love mediating full-time, it’s time to get back to doing some IT work again, even on a part-time basis. I’ve kept an interest, still read coding books and keep abreast of the latest language and platform fads (and there is always an element of faddishness to new languages and platforms 🙂 ). It’s unlikely I’m going to be a “rock star” coder as I have limits in terms of the time I can spend in front of a screen before my eyes become too dry and my sight degrades. Special contact lenses really do help with the dry eye however and I’ve found monitors without Pulse Width Modulation to be a big help; I sometimes wonder did my initial experience with PWM-dimmed LED displays (I spent 11+ hours / day in front of them) exacerbate my fatigue. There’s some discussion here and at TFT Central.

However, I can surely be useful and fulfilled working in Information Technology. Ultimately, that’s all any of us want… to feel useful. As I tell clients, part of moving on with your life is facing the present rather than feeling stuck in your past. This sounds trite but it requires mental effort and a leap of faith to do so.

This blog isn’t going to become a discussion about illness, CFS or depression. I’ve had a very fortunate life so far with good family, friends and all the comforts of life in a highly developed western democracy. A balance to this is that we have different “first world” pressures and one is the expectation of physical and mental resilience which may be compromised by illness. It’s ok, I think, to be frustrated by “first world problems”.

I may talk a bit more about organisational psychology in later posts but the other topics are covered better and more extensively elsewhere. I’ve said all I needed to.

Looking forward to the next adventure.