Friday, August 23, 2019

Anxiety Tech 2019: Neurosquads and Floor Parties

As this is my umpteenth attempt at curating a blog, I promised myself I was going to keep it very professional and elegantly technical. I am, as many of you may be expecting by now, about to totally eff that up.

But hey, I really did go to a tech conference. Anxiety Tech 2019 was a full day of big-bear-learning-thangs about the applications of technology on issues related to mental health. There were workshops and Emotional APIs and free wifi and everything. The thing is, it's really the lead-up to the conference and my experience once I finally made it there that stick out in my mind.

My company put together a useful Twitter bot, Tech Daily CFP, which looks for calls for presenters at tech conferences and RTs them all in one place. One of these RTs was for a conference I hadn't heard of, Anxiety Tech -- but they mentioned mental health, which is one of my hot-button advocacy issues, so it stood out strongly to me. Though I've never given a full-length conference talk before, I submitted a talk, This Is Not the End, at the insistence of Ben and others who were present for my eight-minute panic attack of a security standup comedy lightning talk at CppNow 2019.

And then I totally forgot about it. I don't actually even remember writing the abstract, but I know as I was pressing the "submit" button my brain was like "haha, this is crap, they're never gonna let you talk."

A while later I got an acceptance letter and my reaction was "Oh wow I got accepted OH FUCK I HAVE TO GO TO NEW YORK CITY."

The last time I was in Manhattan, I was eight years old, and I distinctly remember being very unimpressed with the myriad smells, visual overstimulation, and noise. Through a comedy of errors I also found out that Ben, my usual travel-handler (because it's a crapshoot as to whether I can cross a street without zoning out and getting hit by a car, and I can't understand transportation schedules on my own), wasn't planning on going with me. So not just Manhattan, but Manhattan by myself.

Those who've been following my exploits over the past several years know that I suffer from a whole bunch of fancy mental illness acronyms, like MDD (major depressive disorder), GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), and CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). Leaving my basement usually requires deep breathing and a pep talk. I can do the route from Denver to my parents' house in Los Angeles because I've made that trip so many times, but going to what is essentially a new place with no one to look out for me so I can stand up in front of a bunch of people and brain-dump at them for half an hour?

Full disclosure: I seriously considered faking sick because this was just too damn scary and what had I gotten myself into and why did I do this to myself? Unlike the C++ conferences I attend, I didn't know anyone else going. But I had made a promise to the lovely and wonderful organizers, and it was for an important cause, so I spent a few months having full-on anxiety attacks and accusing Ben at top volume of abandoning me and crying myself into cluster headaches.

The conference organizers, Jamund and Kari, noticed the first of many Twitter meltdowns and immediately sprang into action to find a way to help, because they don't just talk about mental health, they actually do something about it. It was decided that I would have a walking buddy between my hotel and the venue -- only 0.1 miles, and yet when your brain is telling you that you're going to get stabbed or lost or run over by a truck trying to get there it seems like an impossible distance.

Somehow I made it to the airport. I made it onto the plane. I even ended up sitting next to a software engineer and gamer who was so freaking awesome we spent the whole four-hour flight talking and swapped contact info before going our separate ways. This was a Good Sign, but there was still the hotel check-in to contend with.

Oh. Check-in went fine. Well.

I still had to get to the conference the next morning, though. I was originally supposed to walk with Dani Donovan, whose ADHD comics have been frequent retweets of mine for ages, but due to her own nightmarish battle with last-minute cancelled flights and rescheduling, she set me up with her friend and fellow attendee Jessica. I expected she'd probably roll her eyes at me, a fully grown woman, needing an escort to a conference.

Yeah, instead we talked the whole way there, ended up being friends by the time we hit the front door, and spent the rest of the conference hanging out.

I don't remember how Robo started hanging out with us too but he's from my hometown and is doing very good work and I'm proud of him so yeah, the squad was now up to three members. During one of the breaks we found a bare patch of floor and sat down to eat snacks. Then Tori saw us and wisely knows the golden rule of "people who sit on the floor are the very best people" and joined us. Four.

I gave my talk. Mikael stopped me afterwards to say that he liked it. We walked and talked and ended up with the rest of the group and now we were up to five.

Poor Dani finally made it to the conference and then we were six -- Neurosquad, assembled! Six people who communicate in the same way, don't begrudge each other for talking too much, or for having their stuff strewn around them while they're digging for something else, or fidgeting during a talk, or say something awkward, or flail and knock something over. Who can just chill out and be their genuinely good selves together and run down the hall shrieking "OH MY GOD BROWNIEEEEEEES" because there were leftovers and brownies are delicious, thank you very much.

As a kid, I was left out and punished constantly because I behaved differently than the other kids. I tried, I really tried. But somehow I would always end up messing up and being sent to the principal's office or being sent to my room. I even remember telling my mom one day that being "good" was way too hard. My impulse control is shit. I imitate noises I like and walk down the hall softly singing or making little "boop boop" noises to myself. I forget what I'm saying halfway through a sentence. My train of thought is impossible to follow.

And yet now, at age 32, I was finally accepted completely as I am by a group of people who literally just felt right. None of the normal fear or anxiety I usually have when meeting new people or even being around people I already know was present. The thing that was formerly the scariest thing I've ever done ended up being the greatest thing I've ever done and for the first time in my life I seriously considered that maybe I wasn't so broken and strange as I thought I was.

Also, I now know that I need to get evaluated for ADHD when I get home, because apparently I'm pretty textbook, and literally every weird quirk of mine is explained by this.

So yes, I should be talking about tech and about my own talk but the point I wanted to get across here is that this is the greatest experience I've ever had at a conference and if I hadn't asked for help or followed through with attending I would have lost out not only on these six amazing people who actually made me feel like part of a group, but the countless other sweet humans I met today and hope to meet again.