As a long-time software geek I can honestly state that Jeff Atwood’s writing has had an incredibly positive impact upon my career. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that I’ve probably read just about everything Jeff has ever written. The software engineering world is a much better place because of Jeff. I can’t recall the last full day when I didn’t hit stackoverflow at least a few times.
TLDR; I am a Jeff Atwood fan.
Perhaps that is why Jeff’s blog post, "The End of Ragequitting" struck such a chord with me. I can, in all honesty, say that Jeff’s post is the first thing in a very long time that truly offended me - I was actually shaking with anger as I finished it.
I agree with Jeff that we, as a community, did almost nothing to help Aaron in his long and painful struggles. Aaron was never treated fairly and I’d go as far as stating that he was most definitely persecuted. I hope we will do more in the future when we see one of our contemporaries in trouble. “I’m frustrated by the idea that martyrdom works.” Jeff, I agree with you 100%.
But where Jeff goes off the rails is to relate Aaron’s role as an activist to Aaron’s condition as a human being; a human being who obviously suffered from a deep level of depression. Does Jeff really believe that Aaron [in the midst of a horrible, unimaginably painful depressive episode] was thinking, “Hey, I am an activist for a software community so I should go on living”? Jeff writes:
But also, I must admit that I am a little disappointed in Aaron. I understand that depression is a serious disease that can fell any person, however strong. But he chose the path of the activist long ago. And the path of the activist is to fight, for as long and as hard as it takes, to effect change. Aaron had powerful friends, a powerful support network, and a keen sense of moral cause that put him in the right. That’s how he got that support network of powerful friends and fellow activists in the first place.”
Jeff indicates that Aaron’s suicide was some type of “strategy”… some version of, “I’m taking my ball and going home.” That sentiment is high on my “most offensive and ignorant things I’ve ever read" list. And just to be clear, Jeff never met Aaron - he didn’t know him in any way.
Jeff, I am so sorry that Aaron let *you* down. The fact that Jeff refers to Aaron’s “powerful support network” belies a reckless lack of knowledge about how depression really works. I suffer from severe depression. I have been where Aaron was - several times - he was, unfortunately, just more “successful”. By just about any measure I am successful. I have a loving family. I have an incredibly supportive network (both personal and professional). But if I killed myself it would be my choice - even though I know it would be the wrong one. There is no way to describe the unbearable pain which accompanies severe depression and no amount of support makes it better. You don’t just decide to no longer be depressed. It isn’t like being sad… where you can rationalize that tomorrow will most likely be a better day. You are not thinking correctly… your brain is in a recursive loop and sometimes you run out of stack space.
In many cases mental illness is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Some medications help… others actually do damage. In the end a person has no more ability to control the imbalance as they would, through sheer will alone, repair a faulty heart valve. In fact, we know how to, with a high degree of success, mitigate heart issues. There are no known cures for chemical issues within our brains.
Aaron committed suicide because depression is a disease. Aaron made a very unfortunate choice. Jeff is right in that we lost an amazing person… someone whom we all should have helped. But I can guarantee that Aaron wasn’t thinking of software or what his death would mean to our community when he made his decision. All he wanted to do was stop the pain.
Aaron did not give up and to say that he did is offensive and callous to anyone who suffers from severe depression. Suicide is not “Ragequitting” Jeff.