Parted

I’ve long had this vision of you suddenly coming back to our house: the cat running down the stairs to greet you and you smiling and noting how little has changed since you died and don’t we have a lovely house.

But now the cat is dead as well.

And there’s a pandemic going on. Everything has changed.

After you died, it was very important to me that I continued living our life. I often wondered if you would be proud of me and then usually decided you would be ─ and that mattered a whole lot. It matters a lot less now. Maybe I am doing things you wouldn’t approve of. And that would be fine: it’s not like I always fully stood behind everything you did.

It feels liberating to go through the house and move your things out of the way, or simply throw them out. You won’t come back to ask for them. It turns out, there aren’t that many things that I feel emotionally attached to.

Are we still married? I have found it increasingly strange to refer to you in conversations as ‘my wife’. It feels like you kind of stopped being that, if not two years ago when you died, then at least gradually in the time since.

Mind you, it does hurt a bit to write this. Part of me wants to say what I feel I am expected to say, that I think of you every minute of the day and that you are the light that guides me the rest of my life. It would sound lovely. But it simply isn’t true.

I do wish we could hug once more. Then I could promise you I would always look after our teddy bears ─ because some things really don’t change ─ and then we would say that our ways have now parted. And that it is okay. After all, on that hot June day in 2006, we promised to stay together until death would do us part.

You died long before the pandemic that has changed everyone’s life. This isn’t your world any more. We talk about the new normal, and that will not be the same as the old normal. I don’t know what my new normal will look like. It will definitely be very different than my old normal. And I know I will be alright.

Dreaming

In the early hours of 19 July 2018, I found myself in the half-deserted corridors of a hospital. My wife was being treated for a life-threatening haemorrhage she had suffered the evening before and I was convinced she wouldn’t survive.

So I spent the night making plans for my life after her death, thinking about the things I would do ─ including things I would be more free to do on my own ─ and convincing myself that in the end I would be alright. This conviction helped me a lot in the following days, as she lay in an induced coma in the hospital’s ICU. It helped me even more when she died, actually somewhat unexpectedly, a short week later: despite the shock and sadness, I knew instantly I would be alright.

Being an optimist isn’t about avoiding worst case scenarios: it’s about confronting them and thinking them through. In a sense, the life I am living now is the one I thought through that July evening.

We ─ and that is literally all of us ─ are going through quite a rough phase at the moment. We’re all sad about what has already happened and anxious about what lies ahead of us, knowing it will get worse. Because it will get worse.

Here is a small consolation: eventually, this will be over. Maybe next year, maybe this summer, maybe at Easter. (Actually, no, not at Easter.) Things will be different. There will be traumas to process. But we will also be able to build new things.

Now is a good time to plan ahead, at least in our heads. We don’t know what the post-COVID-19 world will look like, and there’s probably not much point in making very practical plans (but if you can, don’t hesitate!), but making plans is a well-known coping strategy and it’s one you may want to try now.

I have already spoken to people for whom the current situation ─ from the global crisis to self-isolation ─ has been an inspiration to think about changing their lives: move abroad, look for a stable relationship, start a new hobby. Perhaps this is what you needed to realise how your current relationship is holding you back.

Maybe the realisation that your job isn’t one that the government considers ‘essential’ makes you want to look for a new one when this is all over. I can understand that. Never before in my life have I felt such admiration for the actual difference healthcare professionals are making ─ not even during that week two summers ago.

Or maybe you want to make a serious effort trying to change society. That would be awesome: the pandemic highlights many things that we all knew were wrong in society but could somewhat comfortably ignore until now. It seems inevitable that society will change and now is the time to think about your role in shaping its future and helping to right these wrongs.

And actually, even if you’re not the kind of person who thinks in terms of changing society, now is a good time to think about how the crisis is affecting many marginalised communities. Have you wondered how homeless people can follow the recommendation to stay at home? Can you imagine how sex workers survive for weeks or months without income? Do you know that domestic violence tends to increase when families are confined to the same space 24/7?

The advice from scientists and governments around the world is to Stay! At! Home! And while there are things you can do already ─ if you can afford to make a contribution to support groups for those marginalised communities, they need it now more than ever ─ a lot of time will be spent doing nothing and waiting. And thinking. So you may as well think of future plans, big or small.

As the government has put me on indefinite house arrest, I am making plans to visit new people and places. I am thinking about how I can make sure future jobs make an actual difference somewhere. And I wonder what role I can play in creating a more fair society that shows it has learned from the lessons we are all learning the hard way now.

Things are difficult and they will remain difficult for quite a while. We need to be kind and compassionate ─ to others and to ourselves. But we should not stop dreaming about leading better lives and building better societies. Because we need these dreams more than ever.

Dreams

A few days ago I dreamed Dimitra was lying next to me and said she wanted to have sex. I woke up feeling a strange mix of arousal and confusion, but it was also very comforting lying there next to her.

A friend, who once was very close to her, told me she had recently appeared in his dream too, probably under different circumstances, and I thought how beautiful it is that as long as dead people are still remembered, they will keep appearing in people’s dreams, as alive as they have ever been.

Aside from that, she recently made small differences to the lives of two friends of mine she never met. This I find very touching.

All the same, she remains as dead as she has been for more than eighteen months. And I miss her.

I have long considered missing an unhelpful feeling. It seemed to get in the way of my moving on ─ an oh how I wanted to move on. In grief too I am impatient.

There was also the at times difficult relationship with a beautiful but complex person that I am still digesting. It somehow seemed more difficult to do that while also focusing on missing her.

But as I have been able to give my brain some breathing space recently, I realise that I do miss her.

Yes, I miss cooking for someone. I miss sleeping next to someone. And I miss making love to someone. But I also miss her being that someone.

That of course is fine. Missing someone is actually a very beautiful feeling, even if it does at times feel bittersweet, especially when you realise you can’t ever fix things that were broken and you can’t do more of the things you didn’t do enough of ─ for there is that too.

It is possible to miss someone while also being fine. I am. There are many good things happening in my life and I owe them all to her, including being given the chance to become a better person.

I look forward to her visiting me in my dreams again soon. Maybe I can tell her about those things.

Hymettus

I saw the snow on Mount Hymettus from the bus yesterday and wanted to tell you, like there are often things I suddenly want to tell you. This time, for some reason, it almost made me cry.

I have been thinking a lot about you lately. About us. I used to think that with your death everything suddenly became alright. The things I struggled with. The things you struggled with. The things we should have been working on. The things we should have talked about but didn’t. None of them seemed to matter any more.

But they did. It bothered me that there were questions I could never get an answer to. I hope you don’t mind I found an answer to them myself. I am certain you don’t mind that I have been trying to be more honest with myself. That I want to be the person who would talk about the things we avoided. That I know I need to be that person, even though it doesn’t matter to us any more.

Us is past. Except it isn’t. It’s still our house that I live in. With our things on the wall. Our things in the kitchen. I still get a little sad when I remember that one of the four little coffee cups has broken, for these are our favourite cups.

I got a Christmas tree again this year. A little one, but our lights are in them, as are the hearts you once made. And of course I had the teddy bears sit underneath them, as they used to do every year.

The bears have been travelling the world with me. We have been to eighteen countries on four continents since you died. I look after them well. I know you know I would.

So many good things are happening and I think they would excite you. My life is going well. I know I have said this before and you know I have a tendency to say that too early but I think I am right this time. I hope you agree.

And yet I do miss you. Which is something I have sometimes forgotten to do. The other day I thought I heard you snore in the bedroom and for a second I wanted to check if you were covered well. You would probably find it funny that I miss your snoring.

I miss making you breakfast or ironing your clothes or going out quickly to buy some food. I miss calling you on my way home to ask if I should bring ice cream.

On that July night the previous summer you didn’t make it to the other side of Mount Hymettus, to the airport from which you would fly to Crete. Instead you were taken to the hospital, then another one and then your final resting place at the cemetery. On the slopes of Mount Hymettus.

Yesterday I finished my job. I finished the project that was very much our project. It is good. This morning I took a train to the airport. I waved to Mount Hymettus and flew to Crete, finishing your trip from 18 months ago.

I went for a run along the seashore here this afternoon. You will be pleased to know I finally took up running again, and quite seriously too. I felt so happy running there. And so grateful to you, for everything. And I love you so, so much.

Narrative

After Dimitra died, one of many reactions was from someone who pointed out that there was “no right way to grieve”. For some reason this stuck with me.

Sure, I knew that everyone experiences grief differently. But my grief always seemed really more different than everyone else’s.

For a long time, this was the narrative I held on to. I carefully avoided grief literature and didn’t feel much connection to other people who had gone through something similar. I didn’t look for professional help because, so I told myself, this would only focus on the grief and I didn’t need help with that. I was fine.

If I could go back in time about a year, I would really urge my slightly younger self to be wiser than that. And from my current vantage point I would like to apologise to all mental health professionals for underestimating your ability to see through my narrative.

Grief is complicated. It’s about far more than missing someone. It includes many things people don’t often talk about, including new life opportunities and a relief that certain difficult things won’t have to be dealt with. Those are fine feelings to have. And I am of course far from the only one to have experienced them.

But by sticking to my narrative and my story of my grief being really very different, I slowly got stuck. The past six months, in many ways, have been about getting unstuck a little bit and then every time discovering I was actually more stuck than I realised.

I am fine. It would be wrong for me to claim otherwise: I am healthy, enjoy life, have many friends and good things are happening to me. But being fine isn’t everything and as there is still plenty of work to do, being fine shouldn’t be the defining part.

Even now I often catch myself focusing on the “I am fine” part, talking about professional help in the context of “I want to do great things” as if is below me to seek help with something I have been dealing with for the past sixteen months. I am silly.

And maybe that should be how I define myself at this moment.

Escape

When people hear the story of Dimitra’s death, they often comment on how beautiful our relationship clearly was and how much we loved each other. This always makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Yes, we loved each other and I am forever grateful for the time we spent together. And yes, looking back it was beautiful, if only because an unexpected early death makes it easy to see the beauty of what was before. But there were also things that weren’t working and that we both, for different reasons, were ignoring. Things that couldn’t have lasted much longer.

I can only guess Dimitra’s reasons for not facing what wasn’t working. I know mine. I was afraid. Afraid that we couldn’t fix things without doing irreparable damage to the relationship.

When I say I felt very peaceful in the months after her death “because death brings you close to what life is really about” this is only partly true. I also felt a sense of relief that I wouldn’t have to do this difficult work.

That isn’t pretty and it isn’t something I am proud of. I am okay with Dimitra’s death. But as a consequence I got a very easy way out of doing something big and important. I am not okay with that.

There is a famous phrase from The Leopard: “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same”. I have started to interpret this freely to mean that if you really want to change a situation, you should be willing to accept having to leave altogether, which is still better than not doing anything about it.

Belatedly, I am working on that. I keep saying I want to do “great things” (and then quietly remind myself that merely writing these things isn’t good enough). I won’t be able to do so if I keep avoiding difficult things in professional and personal situations.

I am okay with what happened last year. But I owe it to myself, to Dimitra and to the world to learn from this not-so-great part of our life together and to do better.

Meta

I started using this blog for ‘mental health blogging’ a little over four months ago. The motivation was pretty obvious: I had lost my wife, found processing our relationship to be more complicated than initially anticipated and struggled with moving on. I thought writing could help.

I certainly did help.

I never had a clear idea of where I wanted to take this writing, but in the back of my head, I always had some implicit end goal in mind. Getting over something. Working through something. Being ready for something.

But what if I change that goal and instead try and become a bit better every day for the rest of my life? A better human being. Better at dealing with things that happened in the past. Better prepared for things that may happen in the future.

Of course, I might not always be writing on this blog, which is only ever a means to an end anyway. But making this end a moving rather than a still target seems a much healthier thing to do.

And while doing that, it is good to note that writing on its own is never going to be enough. Writing doesn’t ask questions. It doesn’t ask whether I really was okay when I describe periods when things were fine, or whether that thing I write about is really what had been bothering me as I claim it had.

And thus I need to remind myself that I am not always the most reliable narrator when it comes to my own life, especially when things move beyond facts. Or, as I put it to a friend the other day: on my blog I write what I feel, or maybe what I want the world to believe I feel.

So let me not forget that talking to people, both personally or professionally, will always be very important too.

Onwards and upwards. Forever.

Ciabattas

that day I went to the post office
even though I didn’t want to
but I still did
grumpily
but then lovingly too
and picked up your parcel
and got ciabattas on the way back
for lunch
because you liked ciabattas
and you were so happy
and said you loved me

I often think of that day
to remind myself
that in our own funny little way
we really loved each other

and also
because it would be our last day together

In which I am looking for new work

So I am looking for new things to do. This is a post that provides some background to that.

I joined Virus Bulletin in January 2007. I was hired to do maintain its website and make sure it didn’t fall over when the BBC and Slashdot linked to it, which I did, but then there were more things at the company that needed doing and I realised I kind of liked security so I stayed on. I built a test for email security products (we called them spam filters back then) which is still running. I started doing other things too, such as write blog posts, give conference talks, and build a web security test framework. I also became heavily involved in our conference. Then, in 2014, I became Editor, which in VB’s funny set-up means I kind of run the company and I am pretty involved in just about everything the company does, from making budgets to writing test reports, and from doing pre-sales talks to putting together the conference programme.

But the time has come for me to move on. In part because I think I have done at VB what I can do. In part to close a chapter in my life. And in part ─ and this is actually the most important part ─ because there are so many other exciting and important things to do.

My main requirement for future work is that what I do is meaningful and makes an actual difference. I have a strong interest in work related to civil society, but I know a big difference can be made elsewhere too. I would like my dozen years of working in security, and thus getting a pretty good grasp of how security works beyond the sales pitches and scary headlines, to be turned into something really good.

I am looking for a full-time, or mostly full-time position, at a new location, but I would be happy to work on short term and possibly part-time projects for a while. I do like working towards a clear, tangible goal, so that could actually be exciting.

I think my understanding of security and my experience in it is rather broad, which is one way of saying I am not necessarily good at one particular thing. I can do a lot of things reasonably well and I think I would be most useful in a broad, varied role.

I can do research. Though never a core part of my job, I have analysed spam campaigns and, based on C&C traffic, malware families. I have done many smaller, ad hoc research projects. I have a background as an academic researcher in pure mathematics, which gives me a pretty good understanding on topics such as machine learning and cryptography. I have given a number of technical talks on the latter subject. I am familiar with a wide range of research tools and can program and design technical systems.

I can write. I have written a great many blog posts for Virus Bulletin, as well as guest articles for various sites such as Forbes and Ars Technica. I write a weekly newsletter on threat intelligence. I have written technical reports and edited a many often technical papers written by others. In the past, I have written articles on music, history and mathematics.

In can speak. I have spoken at more than a dozen industry conferences around the world including RSA, Nullcon, AfricaHackon, NorthSec and TROOPERS. I have given talks at private industry events. I have given both technical and non-technical talks, depending on the subject and the audience. I have helped others prepare for talks and sometimes speak to the media.

I can plan. I have been the main organiser for the Virus Bulletin conference since 2014 and have been a member of various industry committees. I currently serve on the board of AMTSO. I was chairman of the students’ association for maths students and a student member of the faculty council at my university. At VB, I have worked in implementing various regulations and managed a remote team.

I also know a lot of people in infosec. This can come useful in future jobs, especially when it comes to using their help in achieving a goal.

I have over the course of my career in infosec come to learn that the challenges we face are far less of a technical nature than we are led to believe. I would like future jobs to be technically inspired rather than purely technical, but I do enjoy the occasional deep technical challenge. Working with an inspiring team is even more important to me though.

Two final things. First, I am a white man working in an industry with an abundance of white men. If you find yourself discussing possible work with me, which undoubtedly will involve me trying to convince you I can do that work, please try and be critical and consider whether it makes a difference to you that I confirm to the stereotype of an infosec professional.

Secondly, it is important for me to work in a diverse and inclusive work environment. Not only do I believe that as individuals we have more to learn from people that aren’t like us, but a big part of information security is about trying to understand other people’s threat models, thus making working with those other people, in an environment that suits them as much as it does me, of vital importance.

I you want to talk about work, please email me at thinksmall on gmail, or find me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Fifteen

“Time heals all wounds” people kept telling me after Dimitra’s death and I never really knew how to respond. I actually felt very peaceful and perhaps more closely connected to her than ever during our relationship. All time seemed to do was trying to disrupt that peace.

Indeed, as I noted three, four and then five months since her passing on Facebook and Twitter, I felt myself shouting: hold on time, not so fast! Please let me live in this moment a bit longer!

But time never waits and so it became six, seven and then eight months and eventually even twelve months, a symbolic moment that made more of a difference than I had expected.

For a long time, Dimitra could have rejoined my life fairly seamlessly. Now, if she were to somehow come back, it would be rather awkward and not just because I mostly sleep on what used to be her side of the bed now.

That is a good thing. This isn’t her life any more. It is my life now.

This evening marks fifteen months since she took that taxi into eternity. Fifteen months since I last heard her voice. Fifteen months too since I last had doubts about our relationship.

I miss her. I miss looking after her, making lunch and making the bed. I miss making her happy. I miss discussing things with her and asking for advice.

I also regret not being brave enough during our time together to fix the many things that weren’t working. Death is underappreciated for making most things okay and these things are okay now, but at the same time, it should be a darn good reason to try and do better in the rest of my life.

It is good to have things to work on.

Today, as I was doing some tidying around the house, I found myself thinking of a temporary place for some not too crucial items. And then I had to tell myself: hold on, isn’t the idea that in not too long, you want to move away from here? Shouldn’t you start throwing things out and giving them away?

So I went and bought a roll of bin bags. I am less focused on the symbolism of yet another month since Dimitra’s death, but it is good day to start throwing things out. Many more bags will follow.

It is really good to have things to work on.