Away from Keyboard – Episode #5

Justin Dorfman’s passion is advocating for developers

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After a very difficult 2014 that put Justin Dorfman in the hospital, he vowed to never go back. Justin has Bipolar I disorder, so coming to terms with his limitations and the sacrifices he needs to make to stay healthy hasn't been easy. He talks to me about his early BMX dreams, his transition from engineering to marketing, and the stigma around mental health.

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[00:01:46] About a month ago I got an e-mail from a man named Justin Dorfman, and I quickly realized that his story would be perfect for this show. Justin is a developer advocate for Sticker Mule, which funnily enough, feels like a job that's taking over the world. I mean, I feel like everyone I know is dev rel these days.

Justin is a passionate marketer, but if you ask him, he'll tell you this isn't the job he thought he'd have. No, no, no. He was going to be a BMX superstar.

My dad was always like, "Yeah, that sounds good", and my mom was just like the more realistic one, like "Shut up and go find something to do." From that, it wasn't until I discovered computers, where I just kind of became obsessed, and I was like "Okay, this BMX thing could work out (I was being naive), but I could fall back on the computer stuff, I guess... But I'm definitely going to be a BMX superstar, absolutely."

Obviously, the BMX stuff did not pan out the way I wanted to, so it became computers, and starting with web development, and then went into IT, and then into Rackmonkey, putting servers in server rooms, and all that fun stuff... And then my boss and my really good friend, David Henzel, saw me and he was like "You're not an engineer, you're a marketer...", and I'm like "No, no, now, I'm not a marketer, I'm an engineer. I'm gonna make this happen." I was just like, "How dare he tell me that I'm not an engineer?" and I wasn't; I was struggling, it was very, very difficult for me... But I liked it; I really, really liked it, but I didn't love it.

Marketing was always sort of something I loved, but I didn't realize it was something that someone with a development background could parlay their skills into. Basically, what you are is you're part of the marketing team. To become a really good developer relations person or developer advocate, or however you wanna define it, you have to sell without selling. Developers just want cool stuff, and if it's free - awesome; if it has support packages that they can sell their company on - awesome... But it is forbidden for any developer advocate to directly sell, and I think most of them know that.

Yeah. You know, I do really feel that this type of position is born out of the feeling that we're kind of tired with the old ways of marketing something... And really, I think that comes down to so much more than just technology, because if -- I've noticed that brands, even in the mainstream, are not marketing their products the way that they used to; the celebrity endorsement doesn't work as much as it used to. People are more interested in hearing from other people just like them tell them "Hey, this is really cool. You should maybe check it out", instead of being sold to.

Let's dive into some of the more personal stuff. You talked to me about the fact that 2014 was a difficult year for you... Tell me a little bit about that.

[00:04:30.04] Yeah, sure. I have bipolar 1 disorder, so in the year 2014 I was actually at OSCON, and I was playing doctor, and I was choosing which doses of medication I would take, so I could work 12 to 18 hours a day... But when I got back from OSCON, my hypomania, which is pretty controllable -- you know, you might be talking fast here and there, but you're just spending alot of time working on things because you think they're great ideas and stuff like that, but you're actually getting them done... But that turned into full-blown mania, where you're doing psychosis, and you're seeing and hearing things that are not there.

My hypomania turned into full-blown, acute mania. I remember I actually had a call with Adam Stacoviak, and I was talking a million words a minute, and I just remember him telling me, "Justin, I'm not following you, man...", and I heard that a lot. I was like "Okay, I need to do something about that", so I checked myself into a hospital, and I was there for close to three weeks. It was scary. There were some people in there that I was just like -- they worried me, and especially my state of mind; I was paranoid, and it was just... It was crazy.

You said you have bipolar 1 disorder. When did you find out?

I found out when I was 18. Everyone said I was coming out of my shell, because I was emo... But then over the summer, I was like Mr. Businessman - putting deals together, and this and that... Just talking a million miles an hour... It was just insane. No one knew what it was, they just thought "Oh, he's just getting things done", or this and that... But after summer was gone, that's when my depression went in, and I was in community college and I just could deal -- I was very suicidal, and it was scary. That's the first time I went to a hospital and they were like "He has bipolar 1 disorder", and it didn't ever really sink in until 2014, because I always thought like, "Yeah, I might have that, but I can still do things my way."

So did you not take medication? Or what do you mean by "It didn't really sink in and I wanted to do things my way"?

Yeah, like I would stop taking my medication one time, I would drink, which you're not supposed to do when you have bipolar disorder, I would smoke pot, which you're not supposed to do when you have bipolar disorder... I thought those rules didn't apply to me. I was just like, "Oh, I can handle it..." Because for years I thought I was handling it, but I really wasn't.

Break

[00:07:13.18] to [00:08:53.23]

So in case you didn't know, I have anxiety disorder. What Justin said about feeling like the rules don't apply to him hit close to home for me. I feel like that all the time, and probably worse, I forget some days that I even have this, until it's too late and I'm already feeling terrible.

The reality is that there are rules to this, and coming to terms with the fact that they do actually apply to you isn't easy.

It's really simple to just be like "There's rules here, but they don't apply to me because I'm not like that. I'm a different type of bipolar." [laughter] You find all these ways to justify it, like "No, I could drink, because I'm only drinking after work. It's not a big deal, it helps me go to sleep." Just keep on finding ways to justify that that's okay, and I got to the point where I just said "I never wanna deal with that again." I spent nine months out of work.

Wow...

Yeah, it wasn't like some one-month thing, it was five months of mania. That's just insane. For those who don't know what mania is - your spending is astronomical. I was in a lot of debt. Your ideas are really wild, and you're taking on more things than you can handle. It's not a super-power, it's very destructive.

There's certain places -- there was a cigar shop I used to go into all the time... They told me to never come in again. And it hurt. I understood, even at my worst my mania, deep down I understood why they had to do what they had to do... Because they have customers going like "What the hell is this kid doing?" So I understand that. It still hurts every time I pass by it and I'm like, "God, that sucks. I'd like to go there, but I can't."

How have you dealt with the fact that you shouldn't be drinking? Because I feel a lot of times people don't know what to do with that statement of "I don't drink", especially in our industry.

Absolutely. You know, it was very easy for me, because I told myself "I'm never gonna go back to that hospital again." That got me to be like "As much as I love single malt scotch and Rusty Nails and craft beers, if it means that there's a possibility I'd go back to that place, then I'm not gonna go there.

I don't wanna be one of those people that say like "I don't drink, so don't order me anything", making it like a big deal. I just really just pick "Oh, I'm just gonna get a Diet Coke." It's just my 101.

So you don't tell people that you don't drink then.

No. If they ask me enough times, I'll just tell them, like "Hey, I have bipolar disorder and I can't risk it." I try to make it as least obvious as possible. I'm just like "I'll just have a Diet Coke right now." I noticed that if you say "right now", people don't question it.

Do you feel that that is a consequence of the fact that most people react badly to hearing about mental illness?

[00:11:57.09] Absolutely. It's got such a stigma on it... And even though it's been a lot better, there's been a lot more people coming out, even in our industry, there's just certain people that you know that you're like "I'm just not gonna talk to them about it, because they don't seem like -- judging by other things that they, they're not open-minded."

Someone who used to be in my life years ago was convinced that it was all in my head, and I should be taking my medication, and this and that... And I just told that person, I said "Look, go break your legs and go run a mile. And if you say you can't do it, just snap out of it."

[laughs]

You know, so it got them more hostile, and I'm just like "Ugh, he just doesn't get it..." So it's fine... I had to not have them in my life anymore, which is fine.

How are you making sure you stay healthy these days?

Well, I've been sober for four years. I don't like telling people that; I'm just saying it on the podcast because you just asked... So sobriety and therapy; I do therapy twice a month. It's just really necessary. I used to think I don't need it, and it helps me kind of clear my head.

A lot of things with bipolar people, whether they're medicated or not - they still have the tendency to overreact on things. I can't speak for every bipolar person, but bipolar people I know and myself - it's easy to get into a hamster wheel of thoughts of really irrational things, and therapy definitely helps you put it on the table, because for the most part, there's really no judgment. It's just a tool that I use, and trust me, if I didn't have to do it, I would love it, because I'd save a lot of money... [laughter] But it's just that I noticed -- my whole goal is "How do I stay out of the hospital?" and this is how.

Yeah. As someone with anxiety - and I'm formally diagnosed with anxiety disorder - I always find it fascinating how the things that are there to help us feel better are often the things that have so much stigma around them... And we come back to the fact that, you know, some of us need medication. We need that. It is what helps us feel better.

Some of us, and I would argue actually most of us, need therapy. That is something that helps us feel better. And when someone has knee surgery and they need to go to physical therapy, nobody questions why they're going to physical therapy, right? It's just, "Oh, they need that." And yet, for mental illness there is still so much stigma around the basic things that help us to feel better.

Yeah, you're absolutely right. It's just because it's invisible, for the most part. People could see a broken leg and go "Oh, wow... God, you must be in so much pain", but if someone is in crisis mode with severe depression and thinking about jumping off a bridge every hour, you can't see that, so it's like "Oh, well, I'm not gonna feel bad for this person because I don't even know they're in pain", so I get it, and I think it's just -- you know, more people like yourself and I, the more, the merrier, right?

Right. How are you feeling these days?

[00:15:46.14] I feel pretty good. I'll be honest, the knee surgery has definitely taken a lot out of me, especially with the physical therapy; that's tough, and this and that... But luckily, it hasn't really put too much of a -- look, I'm not happy about sitting on the couch at night and not being able to do physical activity. I like to do laser tag, I like to ride my bike, I like to do things... But I can't do them. So yeah, I'm sad, but I'm not depressed. Mentally, for the most part I'm fine, because I'm taking my medication, I'm staying sober, and I am doing some physical therapy or some physical activity during the therapy, and I'm doing my psychologist therapy every other week.

So for the past four years - sure, there's been ups and downs, but nothing like they were at its worst... And that's something that I had to learn. It's like, I thought "Oh, if I take my medication, everything should be fine. That's a silver bullet." But that's the problem, there is no silver bullet.

That's Justin Dorfman. You can find him at JustinDorfman.com. Justin has some lessons that he learned throughout his experience, and if you're curious, I would really get in touch with him to hear about them.

The day Justin found out he needed knee surgery, naturally, he was feeling a little bit glum, so he did what a lot of us do and decided to listen to some music... Except there was a bit of a problem...

Spotify was logged out. I'd used Facebook to log in... Since I don't have Facebook on my phone, I haven't checked my Facebook notifications forever, and I was going through my notifications and I was like "Oh, my god... Wow, I should probably log on more." But I saw this one, and I was like, "Huh, that girl looks very familiar", and I clicked through her photos and she had one of her knee in pretty much the same brand that I used... And I just messaged her, I was like "Hey, so what are you doing Saturday?" So I added her as a friend and that's how we became friends.

So between my knee, Spotify being logged out and Facebook notifications not being checked in a while - that's how I met my girlfriend.

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