Greg Baugues used to dread being awake.
“The best part of my day back then was the time in which I was unconscious,” he told Business Insider.
In 2003, he was in his fifth year at the University of Illinois pursuing a degree in computer science.
Still in bed, he ignored two calls on that Tuesday at 2 p.m.
The calls were from Bill, his friend and coworker at the time. Just earlier that week, Bill had sent him a series of texts and messages asking if he was ok.
Then, Baugues heard a knock on his door and the doorknob turning.
“I wasn’t very good at locking my doors back then,” Baugues said. He recalls thinking, “It’s fine, just be quiet. He doesn’t know I’m here,” as he quietly slipped into the gap between his mattress and the wall and dragged his covers over his head.
Bill walked into his apartment, took a look inside the bedroom and office, and then left.
That’s the personal anecdote Baugues, who suffers from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and bipolar II disorder, shares in his Developers and Depression talk that he gives at conferences and hackathons across the country as part of his role as developer evangelist at Twilio. As a “devangelist,” he provides developers with training and applications to help them be successful.
“That’s what shame feels like,” Baugues said.
Shame often prevents people from talking about mental illness, according to Susan Evans, professor of psychology in clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Physicians.
People who suffer from bipolar II disorder experience symptoms similar to those with bipolar I. Both disorders are marked by cycling between mood “highs” and “lows” and depression. Unlike bipolar I, however, the kind of bipolar Baugues has includes less severe episodes of mania.
At its best, Baugues writes in his blog, “Mania feels great. It’s euphoric and confidence inspiring.” But when bipolar and mania are combined, the mix “can be quite destructive. It short-circuits your decision making process and gives way to impulsivity that wrecks work, relationships, finances, and health,” he wrote.
In short, Baugues’ bipolar disorder “could be characterised as months of despair and lethargy punctuated by days of intense enthusiasm and productivity,” he wrote.
He has used his experience with mental illness to talk about the difficulties of coping with mental illness in the tech workplace. Leading this conversation is also part of his work as a developer evangelist at Twilio. In that role, he serves as a mediator between the company and developer community at large. Twilio, a successful cloud communications company which has made the unicorn rankings, is now valued at more than $US1 billion.
Mental illness in America
Mental illness is not as uncommon as you might think: A 2012 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration revealed that as many as one in five Americans suffers from a mental illness, like depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, each year.
The subject has gained some attention in recent years, particularly in the tech world, with several high-profile tech leaders having died by suicide in the past decade. These include reddit co-founder and internet activist Aaron Swartz, who died in 2013 and Microsoft original employee Richard Weiland, who died in 2006.
Mental illness is not limited to the tech world, of course.
“Depression doesn’t discriminate,” Susan Evans, professor of psychology in clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Physicians, told Business Insider.
A way to cope
After the incident in his U of I apartment with his friend Bill, Baugues flunked out of school and moved home. Since then, he’s come a long way, with the help of years of therapy.
Still, he admits he was concerned w
hen he was first offered a full-time job at Twilio.
He said that it looked like a job he would enjoy, but was worried about the amount of travel the role would require.
“It’s not uncommon to hear that they travel 150,000 miles a year or more,” said Baugues.
In his blog, he wrote about the first developer evangelist he met, who didn’t work for Twilio, but “travelled so much that he didn’t even keep an apartment in the city he considered home.”
A happily married man to his wife, Rachel, with a daughter, Emma, he did not want that to become his reality.
Baugues joined Twilio 18 months ago despite his initial hesitation, and has never looked back since. He’s also been able to limit
his air travel, having flown only about 30,000 miles in the last year.
Baugues attributes his positive experience as a developer evangelist at Twilio to focusing on creating real relationships with fewer developers, control over his schedule, and rewarding himself with time working at home.
Part of the job Baugues likes the best is how each week is a bit different, since monotony bores him.
Educating people about mental illness
Aside from his talks at college across the US, Baugues maintains a weekly newsletter on mental health and a website that discusses topics ranging from his experiences with medication to finding a psychiatrist, and living with bipolar disorder.
In his newsletters, he has offered referrals for mental health professionals whom he prefers and started conversations on Devpressed, an online forum for developers experiencing mental illnesses. Other posts addressed the fear of becoming dependent on medication to treat depression, or using it “as a crutch.” Here, he concluded, after explaining that he was troubled:
“Of course, it doesn’t make sense for a healthy person to use a crutch. Crutches are for the wounded. And I am wounded.”
Baugues has also appeared in several publications and podcasts to talk about mental health in tech. His post in Creative Bloq could help explain why, after getting on stage once to talk about the topic, he has come back to share his experience with mental illness time and time again:
“Over the course of the past year, I’ve come to realise that I greatly underestimated the acceptance, compassion and empathy of those within our community,” he wrote. “I’ve been met with unimaginable encouragement after sharing my story, and I’ve heard scores of stories similar to my own — developers who suffered for years, got help, and saw their lives turn around.”