I Felt Like I Didn’t Belong In Software Engineering

Awn Duqoum - EngSoc Mental Health Blog
Posted on: June 17, 2017

Earlier this term MHA directors were approached by Jessica Hanta – an upper-year Software Engineering student – who wished to share her Mental Health journey by writing this story.

In addition to running this blog, the Mental Health Awareness directors also run Post Secret every term. This is a service where people can submit short anonymous secrets, confessions, or just about anything they want to get off their chest. We write them out and stick them up on a wall for everyone to see. You can submit a secret here: https://goo.gl/ATnDFX

If you have a story to tell or are interested in being featured on the blog, email us at engsocmha@gmail.com.

Q: Why don’t you start by telling us a little about yourself?

Okay, well I’m 4A Software Engineering. Throughout my whole University career, I’ve found it kind of hard to fit in because I’m a girl, which means I’m a minority. A lot of people don’t have the same interests as me so there’s always been this reoccurring theme that “I don’t fit in. I don’t belong in Software Engineering, why am I here? Am I good enough?” The first time I started experiencing bad mental health was in 1B and I actually had a panic attack during one of my final exams. So that was the first time where I hit rock bottom and I remember thinking “Okay, I need to go get help.”

From that point on I went to counselling to work out my anxiety and I became more comfortable being in SE, but that didn’t happen until during 2A. I went to the Grace Hopper Conference back in 2014 and that’s where I realized, “Hey, I’m not the only girl, or the only girl with these subsets of interests. There are other girls out there that like Gilmore girls and other ‘girly’ things. It’s just that for the time being, they’re not here. But that doesn’t mean I don’t belong.” I sort of had this revelation that I do belong in this field, I like what I’m doing and what I’m learning. So I was fine until sometime around last summer.

Last summer I got an internship with Microsoft, and I was really excited, really proud of myself for getting that. But I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to move across the country from my family and my friends. I was in a long-distance relationship at the time too, which made things even harder for me. They put me in a one-bedroom studio apartment so I didn’t have any roommates. As my coworkers weren’t very social, I would just go to work and then go home. When I was home, I would either be by myself or on FaceTime with my boyfriend. The FaceTime calls with my boyfriend honestly helped me stay positive and helped me feel less alone, because at the end of the day, I still had someone I cared about to talk to, even though we were separated by thousands of miles. Most of the time, I felt like I had no one there because no one was there physically in person. I also wasn’t enjoying what I was working on at the time, so that caused me to have the same thoughts that I was having in 1B where I was like “I’m not good enough”. My logic was that because I was at Microsoft, one of the top tech companies in the world, if I didn’t enjoy what I was doing and that I felt as if I didn’t I belong there, why would I feel like I belong anywhere else? I thought to myself, “I’m supposed to enjoy this, I’m supposed to like this, this is what people dream of.”

I ended that work term in a really bad mental health state, and what I realize now was the start of my depression. I remember going to L.A. with my friends over the summer and I just wasn’t having a good time, and I had no idea know why. I felt like I should be having a good time. Who doesn’t want to go to L.A. and explore and do all of the cheesy tourist stuff? But I just wasn’t enjoying myself and I was super confused. Now looking back, that was the first time I recognized my growing depression. Going to work and not really having any work friends made me feel like crap and like I was totally alone. I was working with this other intern, but the U.S. interns only work for 12 weeks, so for August I was all by myself. He was sort of the only friend I had, and the only one I talked to. For the last month of my co-op, there were days where I would go without talking to anybody. And it just sucked. Even though I’m introverted, I still crave human contact and feeling like I have friends and people who want to talk to me. I started last fall term being depressed, which led to the worst four months of my life.

I was dealing with this depression but I didn’t fully realize and accept that it was depression until a lot of damage had been done. I remember around Thanksgiving thinking I should tell my parents that I just wasn’t feeling well and that I should go get help, but I didn’t follow through because I thought it would just go away. I sort of went on this downward spiral. I got a bunch of interviews but I was still dealing with feelings of inadequacy in the tech field combined with depression, which I conveyed in interviews. I didn’t come across as passionate about the industry because I didn’t feel like I belonged and I wasn’t having a good time. And again, because I didn’t enjoy Microsoft, I felt that it affirmed the fact that I don’t belong in the industry—that’s just how my brain was working at the time. I ended up in continuous round for the first time in my entire university career and I felt really embarrassed about that. I was an upper year, I was a 3B student, I should have been able to get those jobs. I was getting interviews but I was getting rejected past the second round, which was even more affirmation that I wasn’t smart enough and that I didn’t belong. I also had another really bad panic attack before one of my midterms. That was awful, and it was the worst panic attack I’ve ever had in my life. That was brought on by me finding out for sure that I’d be in continuous round, an affirmation that I don’t belong and don’t fit. At that point the only thing I felt that I had going for me was the relationship I was in at the time. What ended up happening was that my boyfriend got a job in San Francisco and I ended up getting a job in Toronto and I felt that that was the end of everything. He was my sole support at the time and was the only one who knew about my depression. I was scared of going long-distance, because last time we were long-distance, I ended up getting depressed. When you are depressed, or have been depressed, you actively try to avoid anything and everything you feel were the ‘causes.’ I hit rock bottom, and I called my parents and they brought me to the hospital. Prior to that I was having suicidal thoughts, I know that I wouldn’t have gone through with it but I was just thinking of different ways I could commit suicide. There were many nights where I would fall asleep thinking about how I could kill myself. I didn’t have a plan, but I knew “This is not healthy. I should not be thinking these things.” And again, me hitting rock bottom after finding out I would be in a long-distance relationship again was the point where I was like, “Okay I need to go get help.”

My parents brought me to the hospital that night because at that point, I just wanted to feel better. I felt sad all the time. I didn’t see the joy in anything. I was just fed-up with it and I didn’t want to feel that way anymore. I live in Hamilton so my parents came to drive me back to a hospital in Hamilton and we were there for a couple hours. Basically, they didn’t admit me because I didn’t have a plan to commit suicide, I was just feeling suicidal and depressed. Because I didn’t have a plan they didn’t think it was ‘severe’ enough so they told me to go see my family doctor the next day. It sucked, because it takes a lot of courage to go get help and it’s really discouraging when doctors essentially say “Oh, you’re not bad enough. We can’t do anything for you.”

I ended up going to my family doctor and I was prescribed anti-depressants. I ended up moving back home and commuting to school — my parents would drive me back and forth. I needed more than the support of my boyfriend. I needed my family. It was sometime mid-December that the anti-depressants actually started working. It was around that point that I started to feel things again. That I started to feel happy again. Over the past co-op I was in Toronto so I was able to go to counselling there and I was able to get better. I’m in a much better place now than I was back then, because I’ve learnt how to cope with depression and get over my thoughts that I don’t belong and that I’m not good enough.

Q: You mentioned that you did go to a hospital in Hamilton and they didn’t admit you because you weren’t ‘bad enough’. Do you think the healthcare system kind of failed you in that regard?

Yeah I definitely do. It was frustrating for me and also my parents. It’s very hard for you to get help when you’re not mentally well. There’s still a stigma surrounding mental health. I didn’t tell anybody that I was suffering from depression except for my boyfriend. My friends didn’t find out until I wrote a blogpost on Facebook. They had no idea, and I guess that’s just because I was hiding it. So it sucked that I built up the strength, the courage, to tell my parents that I wasn’t mentally well and then I got to the hospital and they were like, “I can’t do anything for you. You have to go to your doctor.”

Q: Were there counselling services you went to on campus?

I’ve been to counselling on campus. I went last fall a couple times. The thing about counselling on campus is that they only take you every three weeks or so. I went to counselling through my family doctor last coop, since it was covered and close to where I was living. I’m still seeing a counsellor, but they’re outside of campus – just because I want more consistency and that’s not currently available through the school’s counselling service.

Q: Would you recommend the on-campus counselling to someone? Was the experience good for you?

Yeah. I had to go there after I had my panic attack before my midterm because I had to get a doctor’s note and they refer you to them, and I mean I also wanted to go. Talking it over with the counsellor helped, she was very nice and helpful and I think it was beneficial for me at the time. Seeing a counsellor during the fall term really helped me get through it. I honestly didn’t think I would be able to finish 3B. I talked things with my counsellor and decided that deferring an exam would be the easiest way for me to reduce my course load. A lot of my profs were very accommodating with respect to assignments and group work. My profs were really sympathetic and wanted me to get better. I feel that most profs get this picture painted of them that they won’t do anything and that they’re jerks but honestly that is not the case.

Q: Do you have any advice for anyone in SE or any other engineering that feels like they’re not good enough and that they don’t belong?

I guess something that is particular to Software is that it is one of the most competitive programs in engineering. I’ve talked to people in Systems Design and their class sounds more like a community. Since Software has such a high admission average, you have the smartest of the smart people there and it’s very competitive because everyone wants the best jobs. I think what’s important is to realize what you want, and what your goals are as a person. Once I stopped comparing myself to my classmates my mental health improved. If you define yourself or your value as a person based on your grades or what company you work for, you’re not going to be happy. Not everyone can work at the top tech companies. Your goals in life don’t align with working at a top tech company, it makes no sense for you to work there in the first place. I feel like it’s important to realize that feelings of not belonging and not feeling good enough comes from comparing yourself to others. As soon as you stop comparing yourself to others, you’ll be happier. Just concentrate on yourself and what you want.

Q: One last question, you mentioned being on anti-depressants, there’s a pretty big stigma for taking medications for mental illness, especially on campus. Is there anything you’d like to say about that?

My view on mental health is that I want to end the stigma, so I’m very very open about talking about my experiences including that I’m on medication. Even now, I have a little bit of shame for taking them because there is a negative stigma associated with taking medication for your mental health. The reality is that it’s no different from taking medication to help chronic pain. Mental illnesses are legitimate illnesses and they should be treated in the same way. Like depression occurs from a chemical imbalance in your brain, and anti-depressants fix that imbalance. I feel like people should not have shame in taking medication because you should do what you need to do to get better. Sometimes counselling is enough to help you heal, but that isn’t the case for everyone.

Q: Is there a song or artist that you’d recommend right now?

My current jam is “Most Girls” by Hailee Steinfeld. It’s all about girl love and I really like it because it makes me feel like a boss ass bitch, it makes me feel empowered.

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