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Living with Schizoaffective Disorder

Don't Let It Get You Down

Words of advice to a broken man on how I overcame my mental illness
and made a good life for myself as a software engineer.

Michael D. Crawford

Michael David Crawford, Baritone,

March 18, 2006

Copyright © 2006 Michael D. Crawford.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

Late last night a gentleman named ShiftyStoner lamented,

I sit around feeling sorry for myself every day. My only reason for not wasting myself or going out and attacking cops is weed. It is my point in life and it isnt what it used to be.

And I replied:

Time was, I was an astronomy student at Caltech with aspirations of winning the Nobel Prize someday, but then I went crazy, and had to leave school, and the time came when a buddy and I had to put all our stuff in storage and camp out in the woods in the mountains above Santa Cruz, where I lay trying to sleep tormented by a despair just like yours.

Well, it took a long time, but I got my degree, a B.A. in Physics from UC Santa Cruz. But there's not much one can do with a bachelor's degree in Physics, and I didn't think I'd ever get accepted to grad school, so my buddy and I went in together on a used Mac 512k with only a single-sided floppy and no hard drive, which with the help of a soldering iron, a SCSI upgrade kit, a borrowed ROM chip and a ROM burner, became effectively a Mac plus, that I used to learn my first graphical user interface programming.

I wrote a simple graphics editor called "CircleDraw", and took it and its source code with me to job interviews. I wanted to be a Mac programmer like nothing else!

If just one person learns
from your experiences, then you will be remembered
as a silent giant.

-- Gwen DePaz

on Living with
Schizoaffective Disorder

When we got a little more cash, we were able to buy an external two-sided floppy, and I got a good sysadmin job for more pay, and with the cash from that, I was able to afford a used, full-height five-and-a-quarter inch one hundred thirty five megabyte (mega, not giga. Kids these days!) hard disk drive. It set me back seven hundred bucks, but at least I didn't have to boot off floppies anymore!

They wanted to hire me perm at the sysadmin job, but I wanted to be a Mac programmer. So I quit my job and sent my resume to all the agencies. And I got a job as a QA tester at Apple Computer! I worked in their Monroe Avenue complex, testing MacTCP 1.0.1 at first, and later 1.1, because they renewed my contract.

But I couldn't qualify the product, because the test tool I was given, strm_echo, was buggy as all get out. I couldn't run a single test without a crash. There was no hope of fixing it, as we didn't have the budget or the staff to have anyone do any programming - I was only supposed to run test scripts, not write code. It was very humbling, but I was working at Apple, where even the lunchrooms have custom-printed coffee cups, and every project a professionally designed t-shirt.

Well, I told my manager Bruce Southwick that I knew how to program Macs, and begged him to let me fix strm_echo. Not knowing what else to do, he agreed.

MacTCP's programmer John Veizades suggested I upgrade to the latest Macintosh Programmer's Workshop C compiler. strm_echo was written in Kernighan and Ritchey C; the new compiler supported ANSI C, with prototypes. I fixed many bugs, and wallpapered my cubicle with flowcharts and dataflow diagrams.

And I got to know MacsBug. Most of strm_echo's work was performed asynchronously using interrupt tasks - there was no hope of using a source code debugger. MacsBug is a machine-level assembly code debugger.

I became a wizard at MacsBug.

I had interviewed a while before this with a company in Santa Cruz called Working Software. What they didn't tell me was that they were embroiled in a lawsuit with the programmer who wrote their word processor QuickLetter, which was largely written in 68000 assembly code - you know, for speed: six megahertz isn't very fast for a CPU. He tried to take them for a lot of money and equity in the company, then delivered a buggy product a year late.

Working Software won the lawsuit, and I was hired as Product Development Manager on the promise that I could fix QuickLetter, because I was a wizard at MacsBug.

And fix it I did. For fixing just one bug, my boss Dave Johnson bought me a ten pound Toblerone bar!

At last, I was a Mac programmer!

The reason I'm saying all this is not to brag about my accomplishments, but to give you a real-life example of a broken man, a has-been, someone with no prospects, who thought like you think now that I'd be better off dead, but who worked hard and made something of himself.

What would you like to be someday, if you could? Because I'm telling you that if you're patient, and you work hard, you can be just about any damn thing you want!

Sure, it will be hard. Sure, it will be painful. Sure, you will have setbacks and sure, you will despair for a lot longer before it all gets better.

But that's all part of the healing process.

There are very few people who share my diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder who are able to provide for themselves, let alone for a spouse as I now provide for my wife. Most have to subsist on government disability checks, be cared for by their families, live in mental institutions, or live lives of hunger and despair, crazed and on the street.

I've been hospitalized five times, one time for six weeks, the last time in 1994, when I was still working for Working Software but had finally made it into grad school. I had to leave because I was so sick. Three times in the last two years I've been in the emergency room because I was experiencing a psychiatric emergency.

Many, many times I have been urged by people who had good reason to do so that I should quit work or school and go on disability. But I always refused.

Why? Disability payments are a trap! Once you get on the government dole, it's very hard to ever get off it. It didn't damn near drive me around the bend sometimes to continue earning my own keep, it actually did drive me around the bend a few times (hence the emergency room visits).

But I'm proud to say that I've been employed as a software engineer for nineteen years, never out of work longer than a month, even during the more than one economic downturn I have experienced in my career, and I've been self-employed, working out of my home continuously for eight years now.

If I, Michael David Crawford, diagnosed, certifiable mental patient, college dropout and one-time homeless man, can get a degree in Physics and make a career for myself as a software engineer, then surely you, ShiftyStoner, can smoke that last bong, shave your face, get your hair cut, buy some new clothes, and get a job so you can work your way through your college education so you can have a rewarding professional career.


'Nuff said.


When Gwen DePaz wrote to me to say of Living with Schizoaffective Disorder, "If just one person learns from your experiences, then you will be remembered as a silent giant," I was moved to tears. I always keep the email I receive from those who read my essay strictly confidential, but I asked her permission to quote her by name, and when she gave it, I placed her words on the article's first page.


I have written very publicly about my mental illness for many years now. One reason I did so was that I have always felt that if my writing could spare even one single person the agony I experienced, all of my suffering would have been worth it. That is how I am able to find some meaning in what I've been through.

This morning represents a milestone for me; the only thing I have ever really done to hide my mental illness from my software consulting clients is to just not mention it, or link to any of my articles about it, anywhere on my business website. But no more: I'm posting the original of this on my business site among my other articles about programming, and linking it from my homepage.

I am proud of who I am.

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