DaveNet: Sunday, July 20, 1997; by Dave Winer.

blue ribbon Programming and Madness

From Mike Crawford, crawford@scruznet.com, an intimate personal story about programming and mental illness; very touching stuff.

Programming and Madness

I just read your piece entitled Programmers and really liked it. I have some experience with understanding of human relationships, and with healing, I'd like to discuss with you.

You may recall we met quite a while back, at the introduction to Frontier. I was working for Dave Johnson, at Working Software. I did the Word Services Apple Event Suite that allows Spellswell to spellcheck text in other programs via AE's.

I wasn't always a programmer. I originally studied physics, and wanted to get a PhD and be a scientist. I've even published some papers in the astrophysical journal and the physical review letters. I spent most of my life from childhood through college preparing to be a scientist. I had dreams of winning the Nobel prize.

I studied physics and astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, one of the most prestigious, and most rigorous institutes for these fields. I even got to observe with the 200 inch telescope on Mt. Palomar.

But my education was disrupted by mental illness. It started as severe depression. But suddenly my mood brightened and I was on top of the world - I felt happier than I ever had. After a short time I was quite out of control. I got depressed again. I started seeing visions. I left school, spent a long time drifting, eventually transferred to UC Santa Cruz and continued a half-hearted effort at studying physics. Once one of the best students at CalTech, I was suspended from UCSC for failing too many classes.

I attempted suicide twice. In the summer of 1985 I spent six weeks in a mental hospital. They gave me powerful tranquilizers but I was unable to sit still or even read the newspaper. I was hearing disembodied voices talking to me. Hallucinations, but the sounded as real to me as someone standing next to me. The voices did not say much but they were deeply frightening to me.

I was diagnosed manic depressive. I was given lithium to take, which is moderately effective at preventing mania - the high, what starts out as a happy, creative feeling but turns into frenzied insanity and paranoia. It does not help for depression. It also doesn't help to turn a wrecked life into something worth living.

I spent a lot of my time on the computers at school. UCSC had an open-access policy where any student could get on a Unix machine. I whiled away my time writing programs, just to keep myself occupied. After a while I managed to BS my way into a programming job. I didn't know what I was doing but I made up for it by studying real hard.

I bought a Macintosh with a friend - $1000 for a used 512k. We were so poor it was months before we could buy an external floppy, well over a year before we could upgrade it to a Mac plus. I learned to program a Mac with 1 MB of memory, two floppy drives and no hard disk.

Eventually I saved up enough money to buy a 100 MB hard disk and my life got a lot easier.

I worked low-paid jobs as a system administrator and a tester. Finally Dave Johnson was willing to take a risk on me. He was broke and I was willing to work cheap. But by then I knew my stuff. Dave gave me a lot of freedom to create. I had become particularly good at Macsbug debugging and this paid off on all the INITs I wrote for Dave, as well as all the debugging I did on his existing products. I debugged QuickLetter, Spellswell, Lookup and Findswell, and went on to write Last Resort, Working Watermarker, Toner Tuner and the Random House Websters Electronic Dictionary.

Around the time you and I met, I organized a committee of our competitors in the spelling business, some word processor developers and folks at Apple to develop the Word Services Apple Event Suite. The suite is a reality - it is not widely used, in part because of Apple's failure to evangelize Apple Events or to use them in their own products, but the suite works very well. I'm very proud of it, and now I'm writing a version of it for the BeOS. I have Spellswell ported to Be already. I won honorable mention in the Be Masters Awards at the May developer conference for it.

Sometimes I look back on this, and think of all the chaos I have been through, and it just amazes me. It amazes me that I am even still alive, let alone as successful as I am.

Here is something important that I learned in the process. It is something that they teach you in mental hospitals: Reality doesn't just happen to you. It is something that you make.

Most people think that the things they experience are real. They think the world just sort of happens. But they are wrong. There is an objective reality, the reality of the physical world, but it is too complex and too detailed to be really experienced. The physical world is also devoid of meaning and significance. Most of it lies outside of our ability to sense it - we see only a narrow spectrum of the possible wavelengths of light. We cannot see things that are very small.

Our experience is first filtered physically by our senses. Then we interpret it, first biologically - for example, bright flashes or sharp noises draw our attention as they warn us of danger. Then they are interpreted by our culture and our personalities. There is much we have in common with others in our society, so it appears that we share an objective reality, but this can be seen as an illusion if we go to a different culture, or if we enter a different reality by going insane.

One of the things I've learned to do is to make a reality that I am comfortable living in. One that is free of the fear and the despair of the insanity that I experienced. I can do this on my own only temporarily - manic depression causes a powerful disruption in one's brain chemistry that wipes out any form of conscious control. To prevent this, I take a number of drugs.

Psychiatric drugs have a strange effect. When I take them, other people change their behaviour. Things that are true become false. Things that are false become true. A life that I am convinced will be filled only with despair for the rest of my existence becomes serene and even joyful. The CIA stops tapping my phone.

Programming played a big part in my recovery. Besides giving me a way to make a living, it provided me with a new identity. The sort of analysis and problem solving that takes place while one programs helped me to understand my life. I've always had pariticular difficulty understanding human relationships. It gave me a safe place to be while I learned to deal with other people.

I'm starting to move beyond programming. All of my life I have always derived most of my pleasure from my work. I program at work all day and then go home and write code for fun. I like to write screensavers and post them on the net. I started programming the BeOS just for fun - I hope to make money off it but it wouldn't particularly disappoint me if I don't. It's fun to program. But I feel a void in my life that programming is not filling.

I'm just starting to work on filling that void. I'm starting to find things to do that don't involve programming. I've just started taking piano lessons, and have resumed practicing my art (I taught myself to draw while I was insane at CalTech. I was out of my skull but really was able to draw well). I'm becoming more involved with other people, making new friends. I'm starting to date women, something I've never done much of.

I'm doing well at managing my illness. I've been through the worst of times but that is past me now. One thing I feel like doing now is raising the public consciousness about it. I want to help other manic depressive people live better, and to be better understood by society. There is still a tremendous stigma against mental illness. Many people fear or distrust the mentally ill. Mentally ill people often hide their illness, and live in fear of being exposed.

I've written a web page about my experiences with manic depression. Some of the mental health indexes have linked to it so I am starting to correspond with a number of people about it, other manic depressives or their friends and relatives or just curious people. I'm also starting to be more open about it. After I worked for Dave Johnson a couple of years I told him about it and he has been very supportive of me.

I'd like you to read this web page and tell me what you think. I hope that you will find it interesting and useful. It's at:



Mike Crawford

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