by Emily Aamodt

How I fought through anxiety and depression to finish freeCodeCamp’s front end dev program


I recently completed freeCodeCamp’s front end development program. Woohoo! It took me two and a half years, which initially made me cringe when I thought about it. After thinking back on everything that happened in that time span, I’m proud to have finished at all.

Why did it take so long? Well, the entire time I was silently struggling with depression and anxiety. Only my doctors and a few people close to me knew the truth.

The beginning

I’ve had generalized anxiety my entire life, and clinical depression since I was 11. My family doesn’t really believe in mental illness, so I had to wait until I was out on my own to get help.

With the help of a friend, I went to my doctor and finally got my life back. I started taking anti-depressants and going to a therapist. The meds I was on made me sleepy, but they were so helpful that I was happy to make that tradeoff.

Descent into darkness

About two and a half years ago, around the same time I started freeCodeCamp, I became fed up with how tired the meds made me. It was a massive struggle to get anything done, and I spent the majority of my free time sleeping.

I spent a harrowing two years trying to solve that problem by going off meds, switching meds, switching doctors, switching therapists, and reading self-help books. The list goes on and on. I actually went a full year without meds thinking that, like a lot of people who try anti-depressants, I could wean myself off them and be okay.

Nooooope. I definitely need them. Once I established that fact through excruciating months of suffering, I took the next step: trying to find the right meds for me. Thus began a horrible year and a half of medication roulette. Every drug I tried seemed to have worse side effects than the last. ALL of them had ridiculous withdrawal side effects. I started to believe I was never going to recover, and that made me spiral even further into darkness.

Finally, I found a great psychiatrist who worked with me to troubleshoot my issues (and troubleshoot was his word! It’s one of the reasons he’s my favorite psychiatrist). We eventually landed on a med that worked and found the right dose. Now I finally feel like a functioning human being and I’m not tired all the time.

Slogging through quicksand

While all this was happening, I was working full time and going through freeCodeCamp in my spare time. Amazingly, my work was never really affected. I showed up every day and did my job. It was really hard, but work has always been my number one priority. So I made sure I didn’t mess it up, even when I had a migraine or brain zaps in the middle of the day.

Since freeCodeCamp wasn’t mandatory like my paying job, I struggled to work on it consistently. After pouring all my energy into work and dealing with depression, anxiety, and medication side effects, it was really hard to find the time and energy to practice coding.

Not my first rodeo

I should mention that I’m not a beginner. I took some website building, hardware, and programming classes at the local community college after I finished school, and was looking for a job during the 2009 recession. I was very active in a Ruby meetup group for a few years before freeCodeCamp, and together we completed Zed Shaw’s Ruby the Hard Way. My job is in the software industry, and also involves a lot of coding (VB, definitely not as fun as JavaScript or Ruby) and front-end stuff.

Since I have some programming experience under my belt, there were parts of freeCodeCamp that flew by. Particularly if it was one of those rare moments when I was also feeling okay.

The rest became a slow, frustrating slog. I definitely felt like a loser sometimes, and wondered if I would ever get out of the various ruts I fell into. My productiveness varied wildly. There were times when I slogged through at a slow but steady pace. There were other times when I slowed down to a glacial crawl. I would work on freeCodeCamp material once a week if I was lucky. Occasionally I would just give up and go on a hiatus.

During one particularly long hiatus, I almost decided to stop working on freeCodeCamp forever and just focus on my job and my mental health.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Despite all the setbacks, I somehow kept going. I worked through all the algorithms, the lessons, and the projects. I have a competitive nature, and there was no way I was going to back down from a challenge.

Learning to program is frustrating on its own, even without all the mental illness roadblocks. No matter what happened in life, and no matter how stuck or frustrated I got, I just kept coming back. I wasn’t going to give up. Sometimes I wanted to, but I just kept fighting anyway.

They used to call me “clutch” when I played softball, because I always came through in the end when it was most critical. I’ve retired from competitive sports, but I still have that fighting spirit.

Honestly, I think freeCodeCamp actually helped me get through that rough time. It structured my free time, and distracted me from what was going on with my health. The projects and algorithms in particular required me to focus and ignore any outside distractions.

I’ve always done my best when working under pressure. The freeCodeCamp curriculum provided the tough challenges I needed to pull myself out of my depression and into a flow state. In flow state, there are no panic attacks, and there is no depression. There is only adrenaline and the thrill of solving puzzles. For me, nothing compares to the joy of becoming completely absorbed in a difficult project.

Team effort

As much as I’d like to tell you that I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps (No, not THAT Bootstrap, you nerds!), I had a lot of help:

  • My local freeCodeCamp group was a great source of inspiration. I don’t go to meetings and events as often as I’d like, but the ones I have attended have been invaluable. Meeting fellow students made it feel like I wasn’t alone, coding in the cold vacuum of space, where no one could hear me scream. The best part of meetups is bouncing ideas off each other and seeing what everyone is working on. It never fails to spark ideas.
  • My friends who introduced me to freeCodeCamp were instrumental. Talking with them about projects and algorithms was fun, and encouraged me to keep going. Sometimes it was also nice just to have people to commiserate with when we were stuck.
  • Let’s not forget all the doctors! (Including some of my doctor friends, who gave me awesome advice) It took multiple GPs, psychiatrists, and therapists to get me to this point. I am extremely grateful for all of their help.
  • My close friends and my boyfriend were a HUGE help! Even though they don’t code, they were always there to cheer me on. Special thanks to my boyfriend for testing all of my projects and giving me advice from a user’s perspective.

What now?

Right now I’m going through P1xt’s Computer Science and Web Development — comprehensive guide and getting ready to delve into the back end and data sections of freeCodeCamp. It’s nice to be able to think clearly and maintain a consistent pace.

Whether I’m studying on my own or working on projects at work, I feel like I’m learning something new every day. That’s extremely rewarding. I know I can never “beat” anxiety and depression, but I’m able to manage them and keep them in check so that they don’t ruin my life.

I’m a private person, and I don’t usually like to talk about this sort of thing. But I feel like it’s import to share my story. Hopefully it can help others who are in similar situations.

If you’re like me, and you struggle with mental illness, don’t give up! You can do it! There are rough times, but you can keep moving forward. Don’t let it stop you from learning to code. Even if you go really slowly, you can make progress and build up your skills. Learning might even give you something to look forward to. It definitely did in my case. And the best part is that you will never run out of new things to learn, especially in this field. So code on!

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