Sunday, November 2, 2014

a java developer's interpretation of depression as one's own heap and garbage collector

this will be more personal than usual

Most of my posts are in the style of "here's how you accomplish x using y", but this post is going to be a significant departure. I, like many other people, suffer from depression; more so in the past few months than I have before in my life. I won't go into all the details as to why because not only are they irrelevant to the post but they're also not something I would dump on my audience.

Instead, I'm going to draw some similarities to the Java Virtual Machine, and how the heap and garbage collector, in my mind at least, closely resemble the ways I struggle to deal with depression.

if you have no idea what the heap, garbage collector, or JVM is...

Maybe you found this post by accident, but you were searching articles about depression. Maybe you use a different programming language. Maybe you're not a developer at all. In these cases, I'm going to give you an abstract, 10,000 foot view of what it is I'm associating to depression. If you already know these concepts, skip ahead to the next section. If you don't or want an entertaining analogy, read on.

If you indeed found this article because you're struggling with depression as well, then I'm sorry to hear that. Depression sucks, and it's crazy how debilitating something invisible to others can truly be.

I want you to imagine a house, filled with the typical things a house has, and a person living in it. To associate the technical ideas I'm going to delve into below, the house is the Java Virtual Machine, the person is a Java Application, and the things are the resources the person (or application) uses.

Some things in the house are quite large: sofas, beds, appliances. These are things people tend to keep for a long time, and are usually things a person uses frequently. Some things are small and get used and discarded frequently: food, packaging, disposable wares, etc; they're short lived possessions. A person's house is only so big, and eventually they can run out of space to put things. The more stuff you have, the longer it can take to clean your house as well. Bigger houses also take longer to clean (or are at least more expensive to clean; I suppose you could hire an army of cleaning people).

Some large items in your house may be things that offer little value that you decide to hold on to: that pool table you never use or that drum set you played a handful of times and abandoned after realizing the learning curve. Sometimes you buy a lot of new stuff that you plan on keeping around for a while, but there's too much large old stuff in the way to use it how you want to. It's even possible to get to a point where you don't really have room for new stuff at all and it's imperative you clear some stuff out, which can take serious time and effort.

All of this is analogous to how a Java Application runs: it's a person in a house with limited space, it needs some large things that are used frequently, but also takes in many small things that are consumed and discarded quickly or new large things that require space to exist. The problems are real too: you can run out of space and spend an awful lot of time trying to juggle what you have in a way that makes sense. In the examples below, the heap is the space you have, and the garbage collector is the process of clearing up space when you need to. In a Java application, the garbage collector will pause the application to reclaim those resources.

similarities to my own mind

I spent a fair amount of time thinking about this analogy, and it both amused and bothered me how much it fit the problem of depression.

I have plenty of experience troubleshooting Java applications that are performing poorly, often due to memory issues. Tell me what's happening, give me access to the server it's running on, and I can pull the problem apart and come up with what's wrong and how to fix it. At the risk of sounding pompous, as long as I have the right tools at my disposal, I'm really good at it too. Sometimes the application was holding on to large things that prevented new things from coming in. Sometimes the application had way too much disposable stuff coming in, or wasn't letting go of stuff it should dispose of. Whatever the case may be, these issues prevented the application from accomplishing what it needed to do, and I was able to identify the problem and correct the behavior once I understood the root cause.

Depression can have similar effects on my mind. There are large things that take up a significant amount of space, but really offer little value; they're a burden on the system and can prevent new things from coming in. Sometimes there's an abundance of short lived stimuli entering your mind, and all you can do is focus on those, even if they're noise: sort of like a mental DDoS. Some things are actually very disposable but you end up holding on to them because of an issue with how they're processed; I think of it almost like being a thought hoarder. Ultimately all of these things can slow you down to a crawl and prevent you from accomplishing the things you need to do.

These things are surprisingly similar in my mind, which ultimately begs the question: why can I see it when it's a process on a server and be completely blindsided and overwhelmed by it when it's happening in my own head?

resource contention, overload, and thrashing

There's a key similarity here in how the problems manifest: the resources of the system under duress are unavailable. The application isn't sorting things out itself: it may have a way of complaining that something is wrong via a failed health check or some error but can't adjust. Ultimately you're the one coming in, analyzing the problem, and figuring out how to adjust what's happening to make those resources available again. Meanwhile, the application is struggling and can't fulfill what it's designed to do; in extreme cases it becomes completely nonresponsive.

When you break it down, resources are being contended for and overloaded, which means they're not available as they should be for all the normal functions the application has to perform. Thrashing takes place when what little resources are left end up being consumed trying to alleviate the stress placed on the resources that are overburdened. This is what can cause things to come to a screeching halt for considerable periods of time.

Applications are lucky though; they can be restarted usually at little cost, and a restart can alleviate the problem at least temporarily. Not so in humans. I don't know what would even constitute the idea of a restart in that case. Moving to a new place and getting a new job? Getting baptized in a new church and going through some kind of metaphysical restart? Who knows...

Still though, a restart is a stop gap. Usually restarting an application only provides time before the problem comes back; the problem still hasn't been solved. The same can be true in us: you can do whatever it is you think is a "restart" but only delay the inevitable.

What can we do?

the application has to change

If you're talking about fixing an application, it means changing it. True, the literal Java application can't change itself, but I think you can see where I'm going with this.

The application needs to be able to manage its resources more effectively. The application has to be able to identify when considerable resources are being used for things that offer no value. The application has to understand when there's an abundance of noise coming in and try to discard it instead of hold on to it. The application has to be able to accept new things. The application needs to manage its resources in a way that allows it to perform what it's designed to do.

Sometimes small design tweaks can provide big gains. Some design changes are enormous and take time. In between these changes, the application still has to run though: it performs an important duty and can't just shut down during construction so to speak.

so what has to change?

I keep using terms like "large things that offer no value" as well as "lots of noisy stimuli" and I'd like to expand on that, at a personal level, to provide context. I'm going to emphasize that I'm not a therapist, I'm an engineer, and that everyone's problems are different, so this is purely an example and not some kind of empirical data.

I struggle a lot with the unknown. I dwell on the "what ifs" and "should haves" and "don't knows", struggling to reconcile what I should or could have done differently or how I need to prepare for them. Most of them I can't do anything about though; life will always do unexpected things that you can't be prepared for. I could get sick. I could be robbed. I could lose someone close to me. Can I prevent any of it? Well, there are some things I can do like eating well or having a security system. The more important question is: can I control any of it? The answer to that is simply: no. Despite that answer, I allow myself to be overwhelmed. I research compulsively trying to find answers to questions I can't hope to answer, and I consume significant amounts of time, and really as a resource time means my life, on doing so, when instead I could spend that resource on enjoyment. The end result of this process, for me, is depression. Not only do I become depressed contemplating all these things, but the realization of how much time and effort I spent in futility depresses me as well.

That struggle corresponds to a few of the analogies I've been using. For me, these thoughts accumulate as a significant amount of noise; to use the term I shared before they're a "DDoS on the brain." They're also large in scope and consume a lot of resources, so much that my brain stops focusing on other large things. What do I mean by that? Sometimes I forget to eat because I'm so absorbed in dwelling on the unknown. Sometimes I spend so much time on it I don't go to the store to buy food, or talk to my friends. Sometimes I lose so much time on something of so little value I either go to sleep late or stay awake thinking about it. I would consider all of those vital functions of myself as an application that I'm unable to perform due to a lack of resources.

the metaphysical gc pause

I don't always manage to do this, but sometimes I'm able to realize just how much of my resources I'm consuming on, well, garbage, and I have an opportunity to get back in control. For me, I equate this to a GC pause.

Like I mentioned above for those unfamiliar, the Java garbage collector will pause the application to reclaim resources so that the application can continue to run. To do this, it has to identify what should stay and what should go, and remove the things that should go. I try to go through the same process. I look at the state of my mind and think "what is currently circulating in here that's not helping me do what I need to do?" and try to purge it. Some of it is still strongly referenced and I can't quite get rid of it yet. A fair amount of it is new enough though, that I can clear it out. I'm not saying this is easy to do; it's only something I've started to do recently and I'm slowly getting better at it. What I am saying though is that it helps me to pause, examine the context of what's happening in my head, and truly identify the garbage so that my resources are available both for what I need to do to keep running and to take new things in.

so who's the person looking at the heap dumps and profiling things?

One of the points I made before is that, with an application, I'm the one figuring out what is wrong with it rather than myself, and how that makes a huge difference in my ability to understand what's wrong.

If we can do that for computer programs, why can't computer programs do the same for us? I have a plan for this, and that's why I'm asking for a small donation to start my work towards creating an algorithm to implement a cerebral garbage collector that...

I'm kidding. :) (but be honest, you were thinking "man, wouldn't that be nice!")

In all seriousness, talking to a therapist has been helping me tremendously. Doing so isn't an easy step to take; in fact I avoided it for a long time and can honestly say that in my case it was due to a bunch of irrational fears. It's important to find a therapist you click with as well; who seems to have a decent grasp on who you are as a person and can communicate with you beyond just words. I was lucky in that I knew someone who recommended a therapist who was perfect for me, and I know others may not be so lucky.

Having a therapist has been hugely beneficial because, to come up with another programming metaphor, I was able to hand over all of my runtime statistics to him, and he was able to identify the bottlenecks and resource contention that was causing me not to run properly. Gradually I've been able to adjust to account for this and have made improvements, but I know it's a long process, and that it's important to fix the bigger problems that require major design changes and not just rely on the small tweaks.

I should mention too that having a therapist doesn't imply taking medication. In my case it was the total opposite: I told my therapist from the start that medication was only on the table if I arrive at an impasse that I absolutely must get past but can't without a prescription, and he was completely open minded and empathetic towards my position.. That's not a one-size-fits-all situation for anyone, nor would I ever judge anyone for agreeing or disagreeing to medicate. I have my reasons for why that works for me; I wanted to call it out for those who may fear a therapist for this reason as I once did. You have choices in how you get better, and data will help you with those choices. The most important choice though is deciding you want to get better, and taking steps to get there.

the road ahead

I know the "life's too short" expression is something people have heard to death by now, but I wanted to call out it here. It's not worth suffering and making yourself miserable if you can avoid it. I plan on continuing to give my therapist the data he needs, to get feedback on where the resource contention is the worst, to figure out what data is garbage, and to tune my garbage collection to make the most use of the resources I have. I know that someday, like all other "applications", I will terminate (it feels like there's a joke there about developers being nicer to operations people). When I do, I want to be remembered as an application that, while it may never run perfectly, accomplished many great things and improved the health and function of the collective system overall. I don't want to be the application that doesn't produce much because its resources are tied up doing things that don't benefit it or anything else. I don't want to be the application that stops running, but others don't notice because it prevented itself from really standing out because it was its own worst enemy.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: I don't want to be Internet Explorer.

And no, this article wasn't just a massive run towards an Internet Explorer joke. It just felt good to end on a comedic note.


  1. Good post, I like the analogy. It fits my experiences too in a lot of ways (generalized anxiety disorder mostly). I know "cure advocacy" is generally a bad idea, but I wanted to list a few techniques that have helped me. For me it's often helpful to declutter my physical environment, because each thing that's hanging around and not where it belongs or dealt with in some way is one more thing tugging at my awareness, demanding attention. Second, just writing down what i'm thinking about or concerned with helps relieve the pressure... flushing some less important memory to disk, if you will. Finally, some mindfulness training helped too... the idea being that if you're focused on the present, you are by definition not worrying about the future or regretting the past. +1 for therapy too, very helpful, and don't shy away from medication if that's the best fit. It's worked very well for me. Mainly, don't be afraid to seek help.

    Thanks for writing this Ian, the more people willing to talk about mental illness the less stigma it carries.

    1. Thanks your your reply Brian; I really appreciate it.

      It's funny you mention the "flushing to disk" analogy; I was thinking about including that in the post but couldn't find a great place to fit it. I agree with you completely though; you just have to do that with certain things to keep yourself clear.

      The future/past thing reminds me of a quote my friend Tom shared with me: "If you have one foot in the future and the other in the past, you're pissing on the present." I agree with you that living in the now is the more conducive way to focus your energy and yields something tenable and tangible.

      I really appreciate your feedback. I also appreciate what you shared in your post on the subject at

      Thanks man.

  2. I love this topic, and even more this quote "If you have one foot in the future and the other in the past, you're pissing on the present."

    Depression is a serious thing. What is dangerous though is that more people can be having depression without them knowing about it. And it goes on with them not getting help or the right action which eventually gets them. Sometimes, i get to evaluate myself, "do i have a depression?, am i happy? am i satisfied with what i'm living for now?" I think giving yourself a break can be very helpful sometimes. And when you get to examine yourself, and figure things out. With positivity you can get a feeling of relief. It's like resetting yourself.

    Thanks for the share and best of regards from


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