R U Ok? Yeah, I am… now
Posted by Amos M. Carpenter
Today is officially “R U OK? Day“. And, as much as I despise the Twitter-gen shortening of two already-quite-short words, this is the first time I feel like I can identify with it. Not that I’m suicidal or anything like that, but I do feel as though I’ve been through the wringer a bit.
What is R U OK? Day?
If you don’t know, R U OK is an organisation founded in Sydney in 2009 that attempts to fight suicide and depression by getting people to ask each other a simple question, “Are you ok?” To really ask, and to listen to the answer, and to dig a little if needs be to find out whether someone is really doing ok, or maybe struggling with some issue or other. One of the critical factors in depression and how people deal with it is a sense of disconnection from others around them. Talking about it can be the first step in the right direction, and as with so many things, we have a dedicated day (the second Thursday in September) to remind us about it, but of course it’s a good idea all year round.
To explain why I can now identify more with depression, I’ll have to go back a few months in time. And talk about my work.
I’m a geek; I write software and websites, server-side programming, user interfaces, Agile development, that sort of thing. Might sound boring to some, but I love it, and I’m very good at what I do. For many years, I’ve successfully worked in the IT industry as a contractor, meaning I hire out my services to companies or organisations who need my expertise. Contracting has its pros and its cons over being a permanent employee (permie). You get paid quite well, and you get paid by the hour – no fixed annual salary – meaning if there’s a deadline and more than 40-hour weeks or 8-hour days are required to meet it, you get paid accordingly. (Quite often in the IT industry, as a permie, you’re expected to work more than the number of hours you’re expected to work as per your work contract.) Of course, if the place you work for runs out of work, you’re among the first that get the boot. You also don’t get paid leave – if you get sick or want to take a holiday, you don’t earn money. So you typically get paid for about 42-46 weeks per year, but the higher rates more than make up for that.
Before my most recent contract, I’d contracted for six employers, and in each case was offered multiple contract extensions, typically in 3-, 6-, or 12-month chunks. I’ve been offered permanency, and in a couple of cases worked for the same company for several years. In three cases I was asked to come back (and did) when they had new work and knew that I was familiar with their systems and could hit the ground running to help out where it was most needed. I had great relationships with those employers, and still keep in touch with several of them (they’re great references when I apply for a new job).
Then my employer ran out of work for me, and I applied for a contract with… let’s call them Company XY. It was supposed to be a one-off two-and-a-half-month contract for a small piece of work with technology I was familiar with. Such short-term contracts aren’t usually my thing, but the timing was right with one week off after the end of the previous one, and I signed a contract with them via a recruitment company. It was a slow start, I had to wait two or three days before I had a PC set up at my new workplace and could log into every system I needed to. I was told that they didn’t have a business analyst (BA) on this project, as the technical architect knew everything there was to know about the business requirements, and had written an extensive document detailing everything.
I got to work, found that the code base was an awful ugly mess written and modified by several different people over time who all had a knack for different anti-patterns. Well, I can deal with that, did some cleanup as I worked my way into the code and became familiar with what it was that they wanted me to do. Until I found that the architect’s document had a logical flaw in it. It had a diagram (a flow chart) with text below explaining the logic, only the diagram and the text contradicted each other. I talked to the architect, showed him the document, and asked – always professional, always polite, at least that’s what I thought – which one was right, i.e. which version to implement. He disagreed that there was even a discrepancy, got confused when I explained my unit tests to him, and told me to just do what the document said.
In hindsight, I suppose the guy felt I’d stepped on his toes, or challenged his authority or something, even though I never brought this up in meetings with the project manager. After two and a half weeks, I’d completed roughly 80% of the work for which they’d allocated two and a half months, and was getting to the point where I really needed a decision on which version of the logic to implement. I tried several different approaches with the architect, finally creating a spreadsheet with a matrix defining all the possibilities and filling it in based on one of the two possible interpretations. He said I had it all wrong, created a matrix of his own, and when I went to his desk to tell him that I now got what the misunderstanding had been, he gruffly told me to “Go away!”
I did, and stayed home the next day due to what I thought was a stomach bug, but maybe it was just a really bad feeling in my gut.
I got a call that afternoon from the recruitment guy telling me that Company XY had terminated my contract effective immediately, and that I shouldn’t come back to their workplace but I should arrange for someone to bring my security pass to their reception and to pick up my private belongings.
I was flabberghasted. I was gutted that this sort of thing could happen.
I explained to the recruiter what I thought had happened, and asked to talk to the project manager and other people, to at least tell my side of the story, but the company refused to communicate with me, except to tell the recruiter that their decision was final. I received an email from the recruiter where he’d copied-and-pasted the reasons they had given for the contract termination, and they were all bogus. It seems they weren’t confident that I could complete the required work in time (I was close to done, with plenty of time left), and something about a lack of communication that didn’t register enough for me to even remember it now. I guess the project manager had bought whatever the architect was saying about me, and some other factors played into it as well that I’ll get to later.
In a daze, I arranged for a friend of mine (who still works there; I’ve known him for years) to get my security pass and to tell him what stuff I’d left on my desk. I was sick of it all, sick to the stomach, literally and figuratively. I decided I needed a bit of time off, didn’t feel like looking for other work right away. I binge-watched some series, played computer games, read some books – anything to keep my mind occupied, keep it from having to figure out what I’d done wrong and what I should do about it.
On the way back up
More time passed than I’d intended, and by the time I started browsing job opportunities again, I had so little enthusiasm for a job that’s always been my passion that I didn’t put as much effort into it as I should have. It took about three months before I found another job – as a permie now for the first time in many years, because I’m too scared to sign on as a contractor where they can do that sort of thing to me. I feel much better about myself again, but I can’t deny that it was a pretty dark time. Part of that shadow still hangs over me somewhere, and will take longer yet to shake off completely.
I’m a very lucky person in that my wife is the most wonderful, most selfless, most loving person in the world. Without her constant encouragement, without her support, I would’ve become lost in my darkness. She knows me so well, knows when to let me sulk or lick my wounds, when and how to cheer me up, when to let me know with a quiet look that she’s always there for me. I can easily see how someone’s downward slide could continue without that type of support.
The occasional rejections from literary agents to whom I’d submitted my work didn’t help during that time, but I’d sort of accepted that that would happen (that glimmer of hope is friggin’ hard to kill, though!).
Of all days, today (even if I technically posted this just after midnight…), on R U OK? Day, I had a chat with a colleague at my new place of work. Guess where she’s worked before? Yep – Company XY. Guess which architect once made her cry at work, and made a former colleague of hers almost have a nervous breakdown? It’s a small world. I learned from her that said architect has six children at home and a wife who is seriously ill.
Damnit, I really wanted to hate that bullying bastard, but now I can’t.
I’m glad I talked to that colleague today, though. I’m glad she didn’t just say, “Oh, that’s nice,” and changed the subject when I told her I’d briefly worked for Company XY. She was really curious, and concerned, and sympathetic when I told her my story. I’m glad I opened up to someone I normally would not have opened up to.
A few weeks ago, I finally reached out to my Dad, who lives overseas, about what I was going through. It wasn’t easy, telling him that I wasn’t doing so well, that I was struggling with something. But I’m so glad I did. It was another pillar of support, and he gave me some great advice, part of which was that I should write about what happened. Even if no one ever reads it, he said, it’s important to get things off your chest, if nothing else, then to simply be able to put a mental “The End” under that chapter of your life. Wise man.
Oh, and the other thing I heard about Company XY today (from that other friend) is that by now almost their entire IT staff have been sacked – yay, outsourcing!
If there’s anyone in your life, even if they’re on the fringes, who might be struggling with something, who doesn’t seem to be their cheerful self – don’t hesitate to offer a friendly ear. It really can make a difference.
If you’re struggling yourself, reach out to someone, even if it’s hard to overcome your misgivings. It really can make a difference.