Juha-Matti Santala
Community Builder. Dreamer. Adventurer.

Last two years have been awful

Content warning: burnout, depression, stress. In this blog post, I'll discuss burnout, depression and related topics from the perspective of how it has affected me over the past two years. If you want to avoid those topics for your personal self-care, please skip this post and check out my earlier posts at /blog.

Why did I decide to write and share this?

I will admit, it's not the easiest thing to do. I keep thinking of a potential future employer who thinks I'm unemploayble because of my struggles. And that's not an easy thing to shrug off from my mind – as you'll learn by reading this, the future has been biggest stress factor for me during this time.

But I figured it could be helpful. I keep talking with developers all around the world and there aren't a lot of discussions where it doesn't end up into some variance of "Yeah, I'm actually also really tired". After I've shared my situation, I've noticed people have been more open to share theirs. And even though I'm not a medical expert or psychologist in any way, even I can see the distress signals from some people before they notice it themselves. Because I've been there.

If you're a team lead, a supervisor or an employer, please help your team get through this. They may not tell you they are tired or close to a burnout if you ask – it's a scary thing to admit when it's your job on the line. So if you can, please be proactive and reduce the work load for a while, encourage your team to take some extra paid time off and be a good human. I'm kinda really worried about all those people. I don't want them to go through what I've been going through.

My story from the past two years

It's now been over 2 years since everything was shut down for the pandemic. I've tried to write my feelings and thoughts down so many times but sharing something so personal and finding the right way to say it hasn't been easy. Most recently I've talked with a lot of people who've been telling me how they've felt the same during their burnout and that things have gotten better, no matter how impossible it has felt during the time.

This has been inspiring to me and I figured maybe me sharing my thoughts could also be helpful and to others. Even just to hear that we're not the only ones who are struggling because we don't often see these things discussed. We all put on some sort of a mask infront of ourselves and force a smile on our faces when talking with people.

And there's also the really weird feeling of guilt: in the end, everything's quite okay, I can't be feeling this bad/tired/depressed. I haven't lost my job, my close family has been staying healthy and it's easier than ever to order takeaway delivered to home and buy books, movies and video games digitally online. Not to mention the horrors of war that is ravaging in some parts of the world.

But I guess human mind doesn't work like that. There's no objective level of bad that needs to be reached until things get rough. Our minds seem to be flexible to both directions: to adjust to new things but also to be very subjective to its own experience. And I've been trying to tell myself that it's okay.

A little bit of context & backstory

To understand a bit better how I ended up here, let's start by talking about what is it that I do. The core of my approach is to bring developers together to learn from each other, to inspire each other and to have a good time. Everything I do, I look through these lenses. In day-to-day, it often happens by organizing events like meetups and workshops but also via blogging, running newsletter, doing coding livestreams on Youtube and building online communities.

In 2019 and early 2020, it wasn't uncommon for me to have 5 evenings of events with different audiences and level of participation: sponsoring local communities' meetups, organizing our own meetup events, speaking in meetups/conferences or running workshops for either early career developers or early stage startups. Sprinkled in were lunches either 1-on-1 with devs or open lunches for local groups, meetings and afterworks and a lot of fun activities.

And that's also what I did for hobbies: I run different developer activities like Turku <3 Frontend, codebase and teaching programming & mentoring juniors.

When people have lately asked me "What do you do for a living?", I've told them "All things forbidden in the pandemic." In March 2020, most everything was taken away: work, hobbies and friendships.

2 years of isolation

Going from meeting 500 people a month to seeing 4 people in a year is quite a mental shock. In addition, since my job is so dependent on other people wanting to share, to participate and be active, it wasn't just my inability to adjust to the new situation that made things difficult but it was also the necessary shift of other people's focus towards survival in pandemic that made things difficult. Even when I had a great idea, I still had to overcome the challenge of getting other people involved.

When the pandemic and the restrictions first started, I sat on a park bench having just cancelled 20+ events I had planned and booked for the next few months. I was optimistic about things: "I'm more than a one-trick pony, surely I'll figure out a new way to do these things."

Turns out, it wasn't that easy. Especially when combined with a 24/7 stress, lack of sleep (it's been 2 years and I think I've had a good sleep on 4 nights during that), feelings of inadequacy and my own survival mode. I crashed and burned really hard. I've been on a burnout related sick leave twice during these two years but I don't think I've been well even outside those times: I've just tried my hardest to push through.

I've tried to reinvent myself so many times. I started codebase livestream show because I wanted to provide a platform for interesting people to share their passion for their technology with people in my communities. I've focused on a lot of written content (like in this blog), spoken in a lot of tech meetups/conferences remotely from my bedroom and even hosted a remote christmas party to one of my communities.

Remote events are a nice idea in a difficult situation but it's so exhausting. I once did a 3+ hour lecture at the university via Zoom and I was so done after that since it was pretty much just a monologue staring at a webcam. As a aspiring speaker I wanted to keep up with my speaking gigs but it's gotten harder and harder every month.

As someone who lives alone, it's been especially rough to be all alone with my thoughts all day long. I've played 141 video games, watched hundreds and hundreds of movies and tv show episodes and have averaged 70 hrs of Youtube per week throughout the pandemic.

The stress eats everything

Maybe the worst thing and at the same time the most difficult thing to explain to others is how devastatingly horrifying continued stress is. Trying to keep up with work, every ounce of energy I have goes towards that. It means that if I manage to wake up at 9.00, I might be completely out of energy by 9.05.

And the stress never ends. Since there are so often days when I don't manage to get a full day of work done, the work day kinda never ends and the stress about undone stuff keeps piling up.

All that lack of energy leads quickly to other problems too. I haven't exactly been eating healthy or exercising because I simply lack any energy, both physical strength and mental energy, to force myself to do those things. I've never been in this bad shape before in my life. And while I know that part of the solution would be to eat healthier and start exercising, it's so hard when there's zero energy. And it's so hard to explain to someone how one can be so out of energy for so long. I might cook once a week, or a month or like three months. When I have a really really good day.

There has been plenty of Fridays when on Friday evening, I'm already exhausted for the next week. And I know the weekend isn't replenishing any of that energy because the stress never goes out. It doesn't matter if it's a work day, a weekend, a holiday or a sick leave day. Most of the problems keep accumulating on all of those days.

I've reached the dangerous and scary point where I've started to lose interest towards stuff that I used to love. People who've been here before me (and probably the past me could also tell it if it wasn't drowned in all this mess) and bounced back keep telling me that no matter how impossible the situation seemed at the worst time, once they got healthier and bounced back, they regained their passion towards all those things.

That's a thought I cling onto with everything I have. And I'm trying my earnest to catch those opportunities with the hope that the spark will happen and light my passion again. But it's hard. Because it feels like I'm not in charge of this ride.

Pulling the rug out from under my feet

Last fall we had a small break of good stuff. In October, restrictions were lifted for a moment and I jumped right in. In October and November I managed to do 33 events ranging from local meetups to speaking in DevRelCon. I also had quite a few booked for December and January when at the beginning of the month restrictions came back and once again, I had to cancel it all.

I knew before hand that if it would happen, I couldn't handle it. And I couldn't. I canceled all the events and called my doctor. I ended up being on a sick leave for the next three months. Because of all the stress and the anxiety of "what if I'll never bounce back", the sick leave was necessary but it wasn't a stress-free experience. The stress about future was still there every waking hour.

In March, the restrictions were lifted and I'm back at workbut return hasn't been easy. Just last week on Wednesday, enough of stress factors piled up at the same time and I had a mental breakdown. I ended up crying in a meeting room for few hours and had to do some last minute shuffles to get that evening's event done without having to be on the stage as I had originally planned. And I ended up cancelling all the work for the rest of the week.

Now I try to go one day at the time to see how long I manage to get. I have a few potentially positive things in the horizon: a few workshops, a trip to Django Day Copenhagen and a talk there, a trip to hang out with my colleagues in our Stockholm office and a few dozen events. I'm just really scared since I don't know what to do if those don't spark the passion and get me back on my feet.

It's hard to see those small victories

Even though it feels like I haven't done anything in these past two years other than sitting on the couch and playing video games and stressing about it, I know that when I start listing out the things I've managed to do, the list is not insignificant. I'm also extremely lucky to have had the support that I have from my employer and my colleagues.

However, this is not a problem that is solved by rationale and logic. It's a monster inside my head that keeps all the good things out. It's my own mind telling me I suck and that I'll never succeed again. It keeps telling me I was never good at anything. And even though I know that's not true, it's really hard when it's your own mind telling you that stuff.

And it's so incredibly difficult to explain to anyone who hasn't gone through it themselves.

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