(I know this is really long, but if you are a professor, or a teacher, or a manager, or work in games or tech, or think that you might ever be in the role of a mentor sometime in your life, please read it. I’m trying to, somehow, turn what happened to me into something that can save a life. Maybe not mine, but someone’s.)
I have something to say to all of my professors at My School. Well, maybe not all of them. Or maybe all of them to different degrees. I have something to say to people in positions of power and guidance. Maybe not all of them.
I want to start with a simple premise – when you teach at a university, you are teaching us how our career will work. This goes past the material, especially in a project based career, like games or tech. You are, in essence, the first manager we’ll ever have. Or like a parent for near-adults. You’re shaping the way we’ll interact with our jobs for the rest of our lives. It can be tempting, I’m sure, to focus very hard on how *important* college work is, and it is important, but the way we learn to cope with college is the way we will cope with our career, and that never stops, really. There is no summer vacation. The semester doesn’t end. We don’t graduate from life eventually.
I heard, throughout my time at My School, very very often that we were going to crunch in industry, and we were going to be overwhelmed, and we were going to be expected to do things we knew nothing about with a tight deadline. Things were going to go wrong on teams, and you just had to make do with however people on your team are (even though this is why management exists..). So this was simulated in class. To prepare us. This is.. so, so wrong to do. Please stop doing this. If you stop reading here and move on with your life, please at least stop doing this. Why would you break us in preparation for being broken? What about that seems right to you? Instead of showing us how to not let work take priority over our own well being, instead of teaching us the importance of reaching out for mentorship so that you don’t just try to take high priority, highly technical, overwhelming work on yourself alone and set yourself up for failure.. you indoctrinate us in to the most toxic things about games. The fragile superstars. The crunch. The silent, painful, damaging internal team politics, especially for those of us who aren’t white men. The proud, self-aggrandizing suffering that is thoroughly *unnecessary*. STOP DOING THIS. You are HURTING US.
Now, I move on to the crux of why I wrote this, and while I’m sure most people who need to read this know some of this, I want to lay it out. In my last semester of school, I lost my mind. There, I said it. I had had two hard internships, and years of overwork, and I came back to school to finish things up, and everything just went wrong. I was sleep deprived, and overwhelmed, and so, so scared. I was suicidally depressed. I want every single person who was my professor in the Fall of 2017 to know that every single day that I showed up to your class (and I had perfect attendance for most of you), that I had almost certainly contemplated suicide the night before. The number of suicide attempts that I made was non-zero. I was dying.
Worse than the depression, for the first time in my life I met crippling anxiety. I started having panic attacks. I started having panic attacks all the damn time. In between classes. During classes. At night while thinking about how much was due. In the morning after realizing that I had woken up again, and needed to get through another day. I want everyone to know that I finished the last project of my college career while sobbing, hyperventilating, and choking while biting down on a towel. I want you to know that my roommate was rubbing my back and telling me that I was going to live as I cranked out code that was then GRADED AND THROWN AWAY. I want you to know that, because of what I’m going to tell you next. I want you to know that even now, sitting down at a computer puts me on the edge of a panic attack. Typing this on facebook has me anxious, because being at a keyboard in front of a screen is horrifyingly difficult for me. Please take a moment and absorb that as you remember that I work as a software engineer in the games industry.
When things started getting bad, I sought help. Multiple times. Eventually, I told my advisor, and she told my professors. Some of them let me miss a few classes to recover (it was appreciated, but it certainly didn’t avert things), but many of them did not. Many of them told me that it would be unfair to the other students to give me “special treatment”. I got a few days of extension on a few things. There were two professors, and their names are [redacted] & [redacted] (their names be praised), who just let me stop. Those wonderful, beautiful women just let me stop. They probably saved my life.
I agreed with those of you who told me it would be unfair to give me much. I didn’t hold it against you. I thought it was fair. This was my problem. The work was still there. Me being broken didn’t make the work go away. I had to force myself to fit the schedule, the schedule doesn’t shift to fit me. This is what all of the other years at My School had taught me, too. This is what life had taught me. It makes sense. So I made do. I started binge eating to cope, and gained 50 lbs in that one semester. I withdrew from my friends. I cried in private, I held it together in public.
But I internalized that lesson. Right now, I have probably the best team lead that has ever existed. I have been breaking down, extremely, and I was so, so afraid to let anyone know. I was so, so convinced that even if I said that I couldn’t do it anymore, that they’d fire me. The deadlines still exist even when I can’t do it, right?
Do you know what he told me, when I missed 5 days of work this past week because I had genuinely pushed myself past the point of no return? That I was a long term investment, and that he cared about me, and that nothing about my future or the future of the team is worth sacrificing for a few tasks, or even a single project. That he knows that I am conscientious and want to do a great job, and that when I say that I can’t anymore, that he believes me. That when I need someone to help me, that I can voice call him and nobody has to know. Because he wants me to be happy, and he wants me to be okay.
Why is it that this isn’t how it is when a student comes to a professor and says they can’t do it anymore?
To my professor friends, and their colleagues, and anyone else this makes its way to. Please. Love us. Genuinely, love us. The next time a student is struggling, the next time a student stands before you suffering and asking for something that you could give, please just love us. Fairness is not asking us to die or permanently damage ourselves for low-stakes assignments just because other people also do it. Love is not assigning us absurd amounts of work that we then are required to go “above and beyond” for just because the industry will do it to us too. The next time you get an opportunity to take the pressure off of a CHILD that is cracking, please think of me, curled up in a Company bathroom, biting the back of my knuckles and riding out a panic attack, because it’s still happening. Think of me sitting on my apartment floor sobbing because all my dreams are dead, and I can’t even do my career anymore because between burnout and anxiety I don’t even like games now.
You could have prevented this.
Please, save the next one that comes along.