Author Archives: Martijn

Friends and relations

Not long after my wife died, I made the conscious decision that I wasn’t going to go out of my way to avoid spending Christmas or New Year’s Eve on my own. I wasn’t going to fly back to the Netherlands, just to be with some people. I did end up spending those days with friends, and it was good, but I’d have been alright anyway.

From when I was a small child, I have enjoyed spending time on my own. I rarely get bored and even within a relationship I enjoy finding some time for myself. These days, I don’t really mind coming home to an empty house or sleeping in an otherwise empty bed, nice though sharing a house and a bed with someone is.

I did not think I would get lonely now that my wife was suddenly gone.

Then I did.

It is of course a normal and healthy thing. If anything, it confirms I am a normal human being, who needs human contact to stay mentally healthy. As someone who has at times wondered how normal he really is, that is good to realise.

But I have also struggled with finding a new balance in life, now that the natural balance between friendships and the relationship with my wife has gone. And I have struggled more than I realised.

Now that I look back at the past year, I realise I have often been acting like a 15-year-old, at least inside my head. I got unhealthily excited about new friendships and equally unhealthily worried about existing ones when messages didn’t get answered, or when I thought I might have said something wrong. I have felt very lonely at social events because I realised none of these people were really my friends.

That same inner 15-year-old inside my head gets at times stupidly obsessed over confirmation on social media. Twitter likes meant far more to me than they should have. Even now, I often check Twitter first thing in the morning when I get up.

I find it rather embarrassing to write that down. I haven’t been 15 for a quarter of a century. I strive to be a grown-up, sorted person, who uses life experiences to become a better human being. I can deal with death, so surely I can deal with this too?

But then, I guess what happened threw me more off balance than I realised, and in ways I had not anticipated.

Thankfully I am a lucky person and I can turn all of this into an important life lesson and become that better human being that I want to become. It will take both a bit more work and a bit more patience though. And thus a bit more loneliness too. Tough. I’ll just have deal with it.

De-escalation of privileges

There are a great many diversity initiatives in the tech and security community. They make me excited, optimistic and occasionally a bit sceptical about the real intentions of the company organising them. They rarely if ever make me feel uncomfortable.

That is strange. I am a white man to whom you can easily apply half a dozen other adjectives to show I don’t belong to an underrepresented group. In a parallel and more diverse universe there are fewer people like me on company boards, on conference programmes and in your Twitter timeline. And maybe one of these fewer people like me would be me.

I am used to talking about my career in security as one where I have combined hard work and talent to find the right opportunities. But that is only half of the story.

The other half of the story is that to many people I will have looked like the kind of person who could do the job, or give the talk. Research shows that this too makes a different even among people who don’t think they have such biases. (Which, no doubt, includes me.)

And thus I got my first role at a security company as a Perl developer based on three websites I had once built and a few scripts I had written in the decade previously. And thus no one ever questions my credentials as a ‘former academic mathematician’, even though I never finished the PhD thesis I was paid to write. (I don’t think anyone has ever asked me the question how I deal with a big deadline four years into the future. They should have.)

On the contrary, people regularly overestimate my knowledge on technical subjects and confuse an ability to casually discuss a subject with a thorough understanding of it. When I quietly correct them, it is from a position of confidence, not from one where I have to worry I confirm to biases they had about me. I can afford such a position.

Those two paragraphs were surprisingly difficult to write. It is very tempting to think that it wasn’t me but that loud-mouthed CEO or that misogynistic programmer that benefited from the lack of diversity. That I am a neutral outsider in this story. But diversity (and the lack thereof) is far more subtle and complicated than that and I think it is crucial to acknowledge how my privilege has affected me and my career.

So if your diversity initiative doesn’t make me — and people like me — feel at least a little bit uncomfortable, chances are it isn’t very good. And if I don’t use my privilege to actually try to make this community more diverse and more welcoming, even if this would make things comparatively more difficult for future versions of myself, I had better stay out of all the diversity excitement.

So let me do that. And you are welcome to hold me accountable.

Ambitiousness, laziness

I spent the first half of 2018 worrying a lot. About small, practical things but also about the big questions of life. I was going to turn 40 in the summer and that bothered me more than I liked to admit. Was this the life I wanted to live? Was I really happy? What would the future look like?

Then suddenly my wife died. Already when she was in hospital and death was just one of many possible outcomes, it became clear to me that this was the life I was meant to have lead. This realisation helped me a lot during the next few days and then in the period after her death. I have not lost that feeling for a single moment since.

But I had been a bit naive in thinking that all those worries from before the summer had disappeared.

I am 40 now. On my own. Childless. Feeling rather ungrounded in life. Having come to realise I needed my wife more for my mental sanity than I ever liked to admit.

When I am feeling well, I am incredibly ambitious about my future. Not just about the many practical and meaningful things I want to do, but also about the kind of person I want to become. I have said I wanted to live a life that would make my wife proud, and nothing would make her more proud than me becoming a much better version of myself.

But ambitious though I may be, I am also lazy. I want to be a better person more than I want to become one. I also don’t really know how to go about becoming a better person and so I often find myself pretending to be further along the path than I really am.

I am a lucky person though and I know can find the help I need. While doing that, I find it helpful to regularly write on this blog, if only to hold myself publicly accountable and to avoid falling into the “I am fine” trap. Like mental health on the blockchain.

My ambitiousness clashing with my laziness is often interpreted as me being too harsh on myself. Trust me, I am not. If anything, I could do with being stricter with myself and with expecting more. No, losing a partner hasn’t always been easy, but I have caught myself a few times now using it as an excuse (to myself, mostly) for mistakes I simply shouldn’t have made.

I appreciate feedback on the things I write. It means a whole lot to me when people say what I write helps them in various ways. But just like there has never been a reason to feel sorry for me this past year, there won’t be a reason to tell me to be easier on myself. But by all means, if you feel like doing so, do cheer me on.

Thank you.

Not quite okay

Last summer my wife died. She had a haemorrhage on Thursday evening and died Wednesday morning the following week, without having woken up from an (induced) coma. She was buried the next day.

It was a strange week, but I experienced it very calmly, not because what happened didn’t get through to me, but because I was so very aware of it. I was experiencing my life changing forever in real time and I was able to handle it well.

The weeks and months after her death were some of the most beautiful in my life. I am sorry if this sounds strange; she would understand. It also made me believe I was able to do great things: it felt that if I could handle this, I could handle a whole lot. And I did really want to start doing great things.

 

Then things slowly started to slip. I started sleeping badly. I had a hard time concentrating. One evening I found myself crying over a work meeting I was to have the next day. I had never done that before. But I convinced myself it was work, not me, and dismissed it as a relatively insignificant incident.

My ability to sleep slowly got worse, to which I responded by having multiple short naps a day and drinking an unhealthy amount of coffee. I realise now that I am lucky that coffee is my go-to vice at times like that.

My ability to concentrate got worse too. I had a hard time focusing on the books and articles I read. I was feeling tired most of the time. The many naps I was having only resulted in me waking up restless.

Meanwhile, I thought I was fine. Or maybe not fine, but I didn’t think there was something structurally wrong with me. This has always been my response to not being well: to pretend everything is fine. And to convince myself this is the case. I am frustratingly good at it.

There were of course plenty of reasons for things not to be fine. It was never really the grief itself, I was and am fine with that, but I slowly started to realise that I was really on my own. That the children we had planned to have were gone forever. And that, happy though I felt about our relationship, there were some unresolved issues that had now suddenly come to a strange end.

Being on my own was a problem for a different reason too: I work from home. I think working from home has many benefits for both parties and I like to think I have shown this in the past decade. But doing so when you are on your own, not in a good mental state and don’t see many people in the evenings isn’t a healthy thing to do. Which is putting it mildly.

It allowed me to stretch my working days from 8 in the morning to 11 at night. Not because I had turned into a workaholic, but to make up for both low productivity and the many breaks I found myself taking.

Thinking back to some of the events I attended, some of the trips I made and some of the talks I have given, many of these appear to have passed in a blur. My output in just about every measurable sense was really poor. And my brain started to do some weird things.

I have been rather proud of my self-sufficiency this past year: I can cook and do things around the house because I have always done them. In practical terms, the past year has been easy. But it took me a good six months to realise I am not that good yet at emotionally looking after myself when I am really on my own.

And really, I should have known that. I have gone through enough mental health stuff in the past to know I find certain things difficult ─ even if I perhaps handle other things surprisingly well.

 

When my wife and I just got together, I went through a rather difficult time. She helped me and stuck which me, which I appreciate now more than ever. She also wasn’t shy of discussing what was going on and would often refer to the various weird things she found me doing. She regularly wrote about them on her blog.

I now realise how much this served as a reminder to me that things weren’t okay, because then as now I preferred to make things smaller and pretend I was mostly fine. I write this post in large part to remind myself that things haven’t been all that okay, now that she isn’t there to remind me of it.

 

Realising how not okay things have been is a relief in itself. Still, I have learned my lesson and won’t say I am okay while I still sleep badly and while I still struggle to concentrate. I now know to regularly check my logs.

But I do feel a lot closer again to the person I was last summer. And I still want to do great things. Heck, if I, with my privileged life and now quite a bit of life experience, aren’t going to try to make the world a better place, then who is?

But I won’t be able to achieve this without making myself a better person too. And that requires some more work.

The past year has been good. Even the past six months included many genuinely great moments and important life lessons. But things can be so much better, and it feels again that I have an unique opportunity to make that happen.

Onwards and upwards.