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S1E31: Fight The Stigma

“Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!” – so goes the impossibly catchy song from the Lego Movie. In IT, we are often expected to be caught up in that same spirit – hyped up on the adrenaline of fixing systems, catching hackers, and inventing new stuff. These expectations – which come from external sources like our boss or company or IT culture at large, or internally from assumptions we’ve taken on as personal truths – can fly in the face of how we’re actually feeling. When our feelings turn from just being “a little tired”, “a little frustrated”, or “a little sad” to serious challenges like burn out, rage, or depression, it can be hard to admit, let alone seek help or ask our coworkers for support and understanding. And yet religious, moral, and ethical traditions are rich with stories of people coping with the exact same challenges. In this episode, we’re going to get brutally honest about the mental health challenges we’ve faced and are facing today as well as what lessons from our faiths we can carry with us to provide insight, comfort, and even strength. Listen or read the transcript below:

Destiny: 00:00 Welcome to our podcast where we talk about the interesting, frustrating and inspiring experiences we have as people with strongly held religious views working in corporate IT. We’re not here to preach or teach you our religion. We’re here to explore ways we make our career as IT professionals mesh or at least not conflict with our religious life. This is Technically Religious.

Music: 00:24 “Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you are part of a team. Everything is awesome…”

Leon: 00:31 So goes the impossibly catchy song from the Lego movie and it we are often expected to be caught up in that same spirit hyped up on the adrenaline of fixing systems, catching hackers and inventing new stuff. These expectations can come from external sources like our boss or company or it culture at large. We’re internally from assumptions we’ve taken on as personal truths and can fly in the face of how we’re actually feeling

Yechiel: 00:56 When our feelings turn from just being a little tired, a little frustrated or a little sad to serious challenges like burnout, grades, anxiety or depression. It can be hard to admit or let alone seek help or ask our coworkers for support and understanding. And yet religious, moral and ethical traditions are rich with stories of people coping with the exact same challenges.

Josh: 01:15 In this episode we’re going to get brutally honest about the mental health challenges we faced and are facing today as well as what lessons from our face we can carry with us to provide insight, comfort, and even strength. I’m Josh Biggley and the other voices you’re going to hear on this episode are my partners in podcasts, crime, Leon, Adato.

Leon: 01:35 Hello.

Josh: 01:36 And Yechiel Kelmenson.

Yechiel: 01:38 Hi again.

Josh: 01:39 Hello. All right, so this is a bit of an odd episode for us. Um, I mean this, this feels a little heavy. So before things get to, you know, heavy for us, little shameless self promotion. Leon, why don’t you lead us off?

Leon: 01:55 Okay, so I’m Leon Adato, uh, I’m a Head Geek at SolarWinds. You can find me on Twitter @LeonAdato. I blog and pontificate on all sorts of technical things at www.adatosystems.com and identify as an Orthodox Jew.

Yechiel: 02:11 I’ll take a next, uh, I’m a Yechiel Kelmenson. I’m an engineer at Pivotal. Um, you can find me on social media at @YechielK, um, if you want to read what I have to say, it’s on my blog at RabbiOnRails.io and like Leon, I’m an Orthodox Jew

Josh: 02:26 And I’m Josh Biggley. I’m currently an enterprise monitoring engineer, but by the time this episode drops, I’ll have started a new role as a senior tech ops strategy consultant at New Relic. You can find me on the Twitters, uh, at, @jbiggley. Um, I don’t actually have a place where you can find me other than I would say Twitter, LinkedIn. I I’ve taken to, to posting a fair bit on LinkedIn. Um, and I identify as an ex Mormon,

Leon: 02:52 Um, and I’m obligated to point out to everyone who might be scribbling madly to try to write that down, that we will have show notes and it will have all those links and everything else we refer to in this episode. So please don’t worry, just sit back, relax and listen, just to enjoy the conversation. So I, I have to say that this entire episode was actually inspired by a comment that Josh made during one of our other podcast. It was episode 28, which is titled Release to Production. Once again, we’ll have a link to that in the production notes and around the 12 and a half minute mark, Josh said this:

Josh: 03:26 And then in my own family, right, I suffer from depression and my work toward getting promoted happened to coincide with a really difficult depressive episode.

Leon: 03:37 So Josh, I want to start off by talking about that specific moment. Um, do you find that you’re talking, you talk about your mental health often.

Josh: 03:46 I mean, you know, mental health, um, I, you know, as this episode title fight, the stigma, um, says is perhaps not something that I’ve talked about often. Look, I’ve, I’ve dealt with mental health issues, um, at least going back into my late teens. Um, it’s something that, that kind of ebbs and flows for me. It’s something that I’m comfortable with talking with my family about what my immediate family. Uh, and there are a few other people in my circle of trust who I’ve, I’ve talked to my I talked to about my mental health.

Leon: 04:21 Okay. So that being the case, you know, you, you’re not mental health forward when you have, hi, my name’s Josh and here’s my depression is not how you do things then. Then I have to ask because it, you can hear in the clip. It was just something you said and it was a point that you were making as part of a larger conversation and we move, you know, and we moved on from it. But I have to imagine that that had to feel a particular way to say that on the air like that.

Josh: 04:49 I think the advantage of doing a podcast is that you record it and then it’s done. And then you, you almost forget that you say it at least until I do the transcriptions. And by that point,

Leon: 05:01 by the way, thank you.

Josh: 05:01 You’re welcome. And by that point, here’s the thing, when, when you’re struggling with something, um, confession is good for the soul. And I honestly, I do believe that it is good to share. I mean, did I intend to share at that particular moment? No, I didn’t. Do I regret sharing? No, I don’t regret sharing.

Leon: 05:29 Okay. Which, which takes me to the last, you know, basic question about that moment, which is have you gotten any feedback, you know, on, on social media or in, you know, on the blog that’s associated with Technically Religious or anything, you know, or even just comments that you’ve gotten one-on-one.

Josh: 05:44 Has anybody come in and said, wow, you know, you said that and X, Y,Z , you know, uh, I haven’t, and, uh, honestly, listeners, I’m a little disappointed. Uh, I know that mental health is a real struggle for people. I know many, many people, and we’ll talk about this a little later, who struggle with mental health, whether we’re talking about full-blown depression, whether we’re talking about anxiety, whether we’re talking about, you know, unhealthy levels of stress, whatever it might be, and nobody reached out. Um, I think the stigma is very real. And so, you know, if, if you’re struggling or if you want to talk, you know how to find me.

Leon: 06:26 Right. And I think that goes for certainly all three of us. And I, I would also say that, um, the, the Technically Religious, uh, speaker cast at large, um, one of the things we’ve all been very open about is, is saying, look, if you have a question about anything that you are dealing with struggling with, have a question about, curious about, we’re all pretty, Oh, we wouldn’t be doing a podcast if we didn’t want to talk about it.

Josh: 06:50 That’s right. And we do like to talk. I mean, we’re, we’re pretty good at it.

Leon: 06:54 So that’s on sort of the, the podcast technical social media side. Have you shared these kinds of things in religious contexts?

Josh: 07:03 Um, no, no, no, I haven’t. Eh, and, um, yeah. Uh, and there’s a reason for that. Um, in my, my religious community, um, as I said, I’m ex-Mormon, uh, now as our listeners know, I’ve, I’ve been transitioning since this podcast started. Um, there is a very toxic culture of perfection. Admitting that you have a mental health struggle is not a minute, is not looked at. It’s looked at as a weakness. All right. Um, I F my personal experience, um, included some really fantastic people, but I also met some of the most cutthroat people that I’ve ever encountered in my entire life. And when you showed that soft underbelly, that weakness, your fear was that they would got you. Um, and here’s the thing that’s not unique to Mormonism. Um, I expected that is anytime you get a group of people together, you’re going to find those, those individuals. I mean, in some organizations they may be more, but there’s probably one, at least one in every organization. And for me, ultimately the, the question that I, I had to ask myself was, am I, am I generally comfortable with sharing this, um, within my religious context? And the answer was no. I mean, it’s not that I didn’t share it with people who shared my religious beliefs. I certainly had those, those moments, but it wasn’t something that I got up in the middle of a sermon. I was like, yeah, yeah, I, I suffer from depression. And those things just didn’t happen.

Leon: 09:01 Right? So I think it’s, it’s important to point out, and, and I’ve said it in a very particular way on this podcast a couple of times a Judaism and apparently Mormonism also have not found the cure for the common asshole. There’s still gonna be, you know, individuals who are jerks regardless of their religious affiliation. And that’s, you know, that’s the truth. But it’s got to be hard when you are talking about, uh, w when you’re having conversations around ethics and charity and Goodwill and kindness to know that there is a line in the sand that you’re just not comfortable crossing that by all accounts shouldn’t be there. Um, so in the Orthodox community, my, my first and my visceral experience with talking about mental health, and it’s not the only one, but it’s the one that comes to mind every time, is that when, when mental health comes up, um, where a lot of people go is that admitting to or getting help for mental health will make it harder for, uh, children to get a shidduch or get a match for a marriage, um, either for themselves or for siblings. So a lot of families will sweep those kinds of things under the rug. And again, it’s not just don’t talk about it, it’s also not medicating children for everything from attention deficit to, to anxiety, to oppositional defiance disorder to anything. Because the medication itself is an admission of a problem and that can get out in the community and that can be seen as a challenge. I’m not saying it is a challenge, but I think that a lot of families immediately, that’s their first worry is my kid won’t be able to get married because of it.

Yechiel: 10:47 Yeah, I definitely seen saying as far as the Orthodox Jewish community, that’s probably the biggest obstacle in terms of talking about mental health. Um, and then on a secondary, uh, you know, started saying secondary and isn’t that it’s not as big a problem as the shidduch problem. Um, I find also that people have a hard time sort of owning up or admitting that they have, that they have issues because there’s like, there’s so much stress put on, on, you know, believing in God and trusting God that everything is good, that everything that God does is good and therefore you should be happy and you should be confident and you should be. Um, the umbrella term for it in Judaism is betach baShem to have trust in God and you feel like when you don’t feel that way. When you feel, when, when you do have depression or anxiety or whatever it is, you feel like there’s something wrong with you. Like if I was religious enough, if I took these ideas more to heart, I wouldn’t be feeling this way. I wouldn’t, you know, it’s a, it’s a failure on my, on my part as a person, as a religious person, not realizing course that it’s a health issue, like any other health issue. And just like getting the flu doesn’t mean that you’re trusting God is lacking. So it doesn’t getting depressed me. That is a problem in your life.

Leon: 12:04 And that’s, and I think we’ll, we’ll talk more about that in a little bit about, about how things can be addressed. But yeah, it’s, it’s really hard when a crisis of mental health also becomes a crisis of faith because I think those two things have a really easy time of feeding upon each other to make the entire situation much, much worse.

Josh: 12:24 So I’m curious, something that, that comes to mind, um, that, at least on the surface appears to be a commonality, is this idea of the gospel of prosperity. And you see it a lot in Christianity, right? It’s the whole idea that, well, if I’m, if I’m obedient enough and if I give enough than if I serve enough, then God will give me. And if I’m, if I am poor, if I’m sick, if I struggle, then you know, obviously I’m not doing, or even worse, you know, if you Yechiel, you know, if he’s struggling, well obviously he’s not. Uh, and then we get into that judgment that is unfortunately very prevalent in Christianity. And, and for those who are, who cannot see Leon, he is, he is writhing and agony here.

Leon: 13:18 I only learned about prosperity gospel a year or two ago. I never heard of it before. And the whole thing just, I can’t, I still can’t wrap my head around it because it’s not, it is absolutely not a Jewish concept. Um, and it, that’s not what this episode is about.

Josh: 13:39 That’s interesting though because it’s, at least within Mormonism, there is a lot of veneration about leaders and you know, how do we follow those leaders? And one of the things that at least if you go to your local bookstore and cause they still exist, there are places you can actually buy books that aren’t online. I know it’s weird, but if you go to your local bookstore and go to the self help section, you’re going to read a titles from people who are leaders in their spaces, right? And we look to those people for inspiration. Today I was on LinkedIn and uh, uh, Jeff Weiner, who was the CEO of LinkedIn, shared a post, uh, and we’ll put it in the show notes, but he was asked about what his leadership values were. And I thought that these were really interesting because as, as we’re talking about this stigma or the potential for a stigma around mental health, um, if I had mental health struggles, I would want to be an environment with a leader like this. Here’s what he said, “Be compassionate, be authentic, be open, honest and constructive. Be of service others. Lead by example, inspire.” I thought, Holy cow, that that is what I want would want in a leader. And if I had a leader like that, then I would feel comfortable opening up to them and saying, look, these are my struggles. This is what I’m dealing with. Ken, how can I help? Or how can I continue to work and work through these struggles? I dunno, uh, Yechiel, what values do you have or what attributes do you value in, in others professionally, whether fellow engineers, managers, leaders?

Yechiel: 15:38 Obviously in addition to having their technical ability, I think if they can’t share that tech and global, I said, I don’t have the empathy to, to look back and bring back, bring people up with them, you know, um, then, uh, they’re started sort of uselessly. Um, there’s a whole thing going on in Twitter now about 10X engineers. And I heard someone who said it that defined it very well. 10X engineers that someone who writes 10 times more code at 10X engineers, someone who can teach 10 times 10 more, 10 other engineers who can create 10 other engineers is sort of as a force multiplier. So if you don’t have this empathy of, you know, if you don’t have the communication ability and being able to bring other people up behind you, then what are you worth?

Josh: 16:27 Hmm. I like that. Alright. Leon?

Leon: 16:28 Yeah. Um, so in terms of professional values, I think it’s all the things that are unfortunately labeled soft skills, which says everything that you need to know about how an organization perhaps views them, um, which is wrong. I think that people’s ability to connect on a human level is significantly more important than their ability to do any particular technical trick. Um, or I guess I should say that if I need a particular technical skill that’s a consultant or a contractor that’s not a colleague, a colleague is somebody that I wanna build a relationship with. And, and Josh, to go back to your point from earlier on, I want to be among people that I am, I would be comfortable sharing those parts of my experience, not saying my life. I am not saying that you have to work with people at work who you’re buddy buddy with, but you have to work with people who you can be vulnerable with in a work context where I can say, I don’t know, or this has me frustrated or I’m really frightened about taking on this task. I’m, you know, I’m apprehensive about this. And you have to be able to say that, not because it’s important to be vulnerable or whatever, but because if you, if you can’t say that, then you’re going to either avoid doing things that are, uh, opportunities for you to grow in your career and your skills, or you’re going to do it anyway, and you’re going to sort of do it in that sort of blind haze of panic and you may not execute well. Whereas if you have a team where you can comfortably say, I’m having a really hard moment right now, can I have, can I have five minutes? Can I have half a day? Can someone sit with me while I do this? You may not have to do anything, but I just need, I need a buddy on this. You know? Um, when you have a junior engineer who comes in and says, I’ve actually never, you know, done this kind of coding before and can feel comfortable saying that and the team and say, not a problem. You know, I’m going to sit right here. I’m gonna do my own thing. But when you have a question, I’m right here to answer it for you. You know, that’s again, that’s a vulnerability in a work context that I have to be comfortable enough to say that’s the things that I value are people who, who foster those kinds of conversations.

Josh: 19:03 You used a, a phrase there, um, or an example where you said, I’m not comfortable doing this thing. One, that is a really tough thing to do professionally, but it reminded me of one of the very last experiences I had in Mormonism. Um, so for context and Mormonism, there are no, there is no paid clergy at the local level. Um, they do practice lay ministry. So that means that the, the leader of your congregation is, could be your accountant to, it could be, uh, he could play a plumber. In my case, um, the, the leader of the congregation I attended as, is actually a fellow it pro, um, works for the provincial government. Really nice guy. Um, but my responsibility in the congregation was as the clerk. So I, I had a chance to invite, uh, people at the direction of, um, our Bishop to, to give sermons on Sunday and we call them talks and Mormonism. But we’ve actually there, there are many sermons and you’d be assigned. Everyone in the congregation ultimately gets assigned. And I remember we assigned a topic to a woman who’s been a member for a very, very long time, um, you know, many, many decades. And she approached me probably a week before she was supposed to give her her talk, her sermon, and she said, Josh, I, I can’t do this. Like, I, I can’t speak on this topic. Uh, if you’re interested, the topic was the physical nature of God. Right? Um, and so, you know, Hey, it’s a heavy topic, but she’s like, I read this and I’m, I, I don’t, I don’t understand it. And my response to her was, then talk about what you’re comfortable with. I mean, pick parts of, you know, the reference material that is good for you, and then deliver that. But in your, in your comments, Leon, I was struck by how rare that might be. You know, oftentimes we’re told, well, you know, just, just go ahead and do that. Um, so my next question for both of you is, we’ve talked about these values that we, um, that we want to see in our colleagues, in our managers professionally. Are they any different than our religious observance?

Yechiel: 21:16 Not necessarily. Um, and Judaism, there’s, there are two kinds of commandments. Um, there’s been a bein adam lamakom, which are commandments between man, between a person and God. And bein adam lechaveiro between a person and another person. So the first category would be commandments around prayer, around the holidays, things that are between you and God. Um, the second one includes things like, do not steal, be nice to each other, help each other out. And the Talmud is full of quotes that say that if someone says that I owe, you know, there’s a quote about the ethics of our fathers. If a person says, I only have Torah, then he doesn’t, then even Torah, he doesn’t have meaning. If someone says, yeah, I’m just going to study and learn Torah all day, that’s my thing. Uh, doing things and, you know, being nice to others. That’s that, you know, that I’ll leave that for others. Then he doesn’t even have the Torah because the Torah is all about helping others and being good with others and being good to the world. So, yeah, so just like an it, having the, you know, having the, the brilliance is nothing if you’re not going to share with others, if you don’t have the humility to pay it forward.

Leon: 22:28 Right. And, and as an example of that, um, you know, when we’re talking about rabbis, you know, the, the congregational leaders, and, and we’ll get to that in a little bit also. Um, well what that really means in a Jewish context, but if a rabbi isn’t comfortable getting up as part of his discussions, whether it’s a sermon or a class or a lecture or, uh, a conversation, um, and say, and this thing happened, and I was, I didn’t even know where to go with that, or I was feeling really overwhelmed or it really scared me. You know, any of those things. Once again, same thing as we talked about with the IT people. If they’re not comfortable admitting to that, you know, quote unquote weakness, then that’s, um, that’s problem. If they’re laboring under the misguided assumption that they have to be infallible, that is not going to end well.

Yechiel: 23:27 Yeah. Uh, actually reminds me of something like my teacher brought up a lot. Uh, one of the foremost commentators on the Torah Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki, who lived around 900 years ago in France. And he, so he’s like the foremost commentator on the Torah, every pretty much every homeless you’ll find at any synagogue has his commentary there. And there’s actually a pretty famous, uh, one of the verses, Rashi quotes some line from the verse and says, I don’t know what this is teaching us. And my teacher said, you know, why did he bother saying that? If you don’t know, just leave it out. I mean, you’re not, why do you have to tell us? So how many did you say that, you know, it’s true. There were probably many other places where Rashi didn’t know any, he didn’t say anything, but he made a point to say it at least, at least once. So that we should know that it’s okay to say, I don’t know.

Josh: 24:18 I liked that. I liked that. So what happens when we encounter in our professional, personal, religious, you know, community environments, people who look at these values that we have, that we, that we desire and others and be like, I don’t care. Wait, I, I’m going to violate these values. I mean, I can tell you what happened to me that led to my transition out of Mormonism when I saw people within Mormonism, uh, specifically leaders of the church who were acting in a way that had I acted locally, my wife would have been mad at me, my fellow congregants would have been mad at me. My Bishop may have pulled me in and said, Hey, Josh, like, what the hell are you doing? Like this is not the way you behave. Um, I certainly would have been judged. And so when I saw that from others, that began my spiral down up. I don’t know which direction, uh, at the time it was down, but now I feel like it was up. Uh, and, and ultimately out of Mormonism. So, I mean, Leon, Yechiel what happens, what happens when we’re, we’re, we’re, our values are violated?

Yechiel: 25:23 So I think like Leon mentioned earlier that, you know, no one found the carry out for the common asshole. Um, you realize that you know these things, you know, these people exist and they are not the people that we want to be around. If it’s possible, like you did so cut them out of your life though that does come from place of privilege and how it always is that an option both in religion and in it, not always can you just leave your job or leave your congregation or leave your community. Um, but if you can do it, if you can’t try to distance yourself as much as you can.

Leon: 25:59 I know that Josh, your, your transition was, you know, there wasn’t like, well that was the one thing, you know, there was a lot of things that led up to this, this decision. So I don’t, I don’t want to characterize it as well, if only you had done this one thing that you wouldn’t have those problems. You know, again, it was like all real problems. It was complex and had a lot of moving parts. Um, I think that if, if anyone listening has an experience with somebody where, you know, again, they violate these values that the religion as a whole holds as fundamental or that you personally hold as fundamental. I think the thing is to remember that they’re one individual, that they’re, you know, that, that they don’t make up the sum total of a community, IT community or, or other. If you find yourself in an environment where those values are upheld and lauded, you know, the, the so-called toxic environment, you know, bro-grammer culture in an IT department or um, you know, or, or toxic management or, uh, or just a really unhealthy congregational life or a congregation that, that espouses a value that isn’t intrinsically negative, but it’s not something that’s helpful for you, um, to remember that you, you do usually to Yechiel’s point, usually have a choice. And that choice doesn’t have to hurt. It just, it might be different. And to give you a very innocuous example of that. And I’ve talked about this on our podcast before, I, I read Hebrew very slowly. I’m, I’ve been working on it for a long time. I’m getting better, but it’s still slow. And so when I find myself in a congregation that values the speed with which the prayers go, “we can get morning services done in 20 minutes. It’s great!” You know, when, when I’m in there like, Hey look, I found somewhere that’s not my place. This is really not for me. Um, and as you know, if I’m, if I need to be in that environment for whatever, I just sort of tough it out. But I know that as soon as I can get out of that environment, I, that’s, that’s what I’m going to need to do. It’s not helpful for me. It’s not healthy for me. It doesn’t do anything for me. So that’s again, that’s an innocuous version. If you are in an environment that is exacerbating your mental state, um, either because you know, what you’re hearing in the pews is mimicking the, the mental negative self talk that you have going on in your own head or it’s making you feel more anxious rather than less or you feel like you can’t share anything about who you really are with the people around you. Then, you know, it may take time, but you need to know that there are other communities, there are other places to go in most cases. Again, I’m not diminishing the, the long journey that Josh, you and your family have gone through.

Josh: 29:04 No. Yeah. I think that Maya Angelou really sums up something that I wish I had known before and I, I didn’t know who my Angelou was before I began my faith transition. But among other notable quotes, she says, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” And I think that that’s really powerful when you are, when you’re looking for people who you need to trust. Um, especially when it comes to our mental health. Um, if someone tells you, I am not someone who’s going to protect you, um, and you see that, don’t bring them your struggles because they’re there, they’re not going to be healthy for you.

Leon: 29:46 Can’t wish people into being the person that you need them to be at that moment.

Josh: 29:50 That is right

Leon: 29:50 We know you can’t listen to our podcast all day. So out of respect for your time, we’ve broken this particular conversation up. Come back next week and we’ll continue our conversation.

Doug: 30:00 Thanks for making time for us this week to hear more of Technically Religious, visit our website, TechnicallyReligious.com, where you can find our other episodes, leave us ideas for future discussions and connect to us on social media.

Josh: 30:14 At Technically Religious, we usually have something funny to say at this point in the show, but mental health is nothing to take lightly. If you are struggling, please reach out to a family member, friend, or a healthcare professional. If you are in crisis, please seek immediate medical attention. You are not alone. Fight the stigma.

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