Losing Igal

Yesterday evening, as I was wrapping up my workday, I learned that a beloved friend and peer in the Portland tech community, Igal Koshevoy, had taken his own life.

Stumptown Syndicate made the official announcement for the tech community, and Rick Turoczy has also done a great job of capturing the community sentiment about this loss on Silicon Florist.  I encourage any of my friends and peers who did not know Igal to check the comments on the Stumptown Syndicate announcement; I can’t think of any one individual in this community who has touched more people than Igal has.

The feelings that the loss of Igal has brought about for me are complex and somewhat frustrating.  I suspect I’m still in some degree of shock and denial, and it has been quite comforting to see the community reacting in an open and heartfelt way; this has really helped me scaffold my own emotional response to this tragedy when I otherwise wouldn’t be certain how to start.  I am comforted that our grief exists on a community level, and that we are sharing it with each other, and normalizing the assorted responses that come when something this heartbreaking occurs.  Please keep doing this, everyone.  Reading Twitter last night, and retweeting the sentiments about Igal that really spoke to me (most of them), was a very soothing way to start this painful process of grieving.

Grief is messy and strange and can inspire people to behave in frustrating ways, and for that and many reasons I’ve felt reticent about trying to capture my own feelings, for fear that I’m “responding incorrectly”.  But I’ve also been so comforted by others’ willingness to share their own responses that I do feel like capturing mine – at least as it looks thus far – would be helpful for this larger community grieving process, and for maturing my relationship with the public expression of grief.  So I’ll make an attempt to capture what is on my heart right now.

I met Igal sometime in late 2008, when I was making my first timid toe-dips into the Portland technical community.  I don’t actually know the precise time I formally met him, but I was attending monthly Code N Splode meetings at Cubespace and Igal was a constant fixture during these initial meetings, either in the background (as a constant fixture at Cubespace), or more actively during our CNS meetings and post-meeting ‘Splodes.

Part of why this news is so complex for me is because I started involving myself in Portland tech immediately following the darkest depressive episode in my own life.  It was summer of 2008 and everything hit so quickly: all of a sudden I was changing jobs, ending a romantic relationship that had meant the world to me, and otherwise having my life completely upended.  What I knew at that time was that I couldn’t afford to ever get that dark again, and I set out to start making positive changes in my life.  Finding support in the technical community was a huge part of this, and it’s strange to admit now how scary that once was for me.  It has felt like home for a long time at this point. Igal was one of the first people who made me feel like I was going to be okay, that I was welcome and safe and valued in this new community.  He, and the others who I got to know in those first few months, had a direct hand in helping me lift myself out of my own most disastrous bout with depression, simply by virtue of making tech community the supportive and welcoming place I so needed at that time.

It was not long after I’d gotten to know Igal that he really stepped up for me as a friend.  I was in a situation at work that turned abusive, and my manager at the time made some inflammatory comments about me in a community context.  Igal stuck up for me, and let me know what was happening so I could escalate the situation appropriately at the office.  I spent my first Open Source Bridge in the midst of this situation, and my manager was trying to keep me from enjoying the event by demanding I finish some extremely time-consuming work by the end of the conference.  Igal passed on some vim tips so I could get the work done more easily.  His support during that time was incredibly valuable; I suspect my manager would have succeeded in his efforts to alienate me from the tech community were it not for Igal.

Two years ago, when I emerged intact from another abusive supervisory relationship, I was starting to critically examine hypervigilance and other symptoms of complex PTSD as they were showing up in my working life.  I was thinking through an assortment of issues that would eventually lead me to trauma frameworks – and I’m closer now than I ever was before in being ready to talk about those things publicly.  During this time, I had a very involved email exchange with Igal relating to the concept of “safety”, and how it can shift in meaning based on many different factors, from social and cultural context to common turns of phrase to gender socialization.  He really took the time to critically engage with me despite the fact that I was more or less just dealing with post-traumatic jumpiness, and I still regularly think of those insightful and thought-provoking e-mails we shared.  He stepped up and met me where I was, even though he didn’t need to, and his efforts made moving on from a traumatic experience much easier.

Early last year, while reeling from being laid off at Gilt, Igal noticed my hair color change (from red to black) and nodded along with a sorrowful bemusement as I explained it as a statement of grief.  We discussed a meetup to vent about the ways tech had broken our hearts.

I have made some very good friends in the technical community over the years, and the community response shows that Igal has been a very good friend to so many of us, often in exactly the way we needed at the time.  There aren’t many people who are able to respond to a person feeling such regular and severe pain over their choice of profession  with consistent empathy and kindness.  Most people need to shut down to some extent.  Igal never did that to me.  He was always present with me when providing that sort of empathy and support.  The fact that he understood the myriad ways in which one’s love affair with tech and tech community can be heartbreaking has always been obvious to me because of the ways he has stepped up as a friend – but that ease in understanding was also the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news yesterday.

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There are certain people in my life who I feel an attachment to that is out of proportion to how often I see them, how emotionally close I am to them, how well I actually know them etc.. They enrich my life so much just by existing and being exactly who they are.  Since I’m such an intense person sometimes, I often keep such sentiments about these people to myself, since I don’t want to overwhelm them, freak them out, or otherwise commit some sort of boundary violation.  Symbolic value like that is a hard thing to capture in words and actions without saying or doing the wrong thing.  When people are like that for me, I feel like the best I can do is let them know that I appreciate them, as regularly as I can.  I felt this way about Igal, and appreciated him at every opportunity I got.  After getting this news, I am definitely spending some time checking in with how I show appreciation and whether or not I should modify my behavior in this realm in the future.  There are no easy answers.

Over the years, I’ve come to see Igal as a “kindred spirit”.  Others’ reflections on Igal show that he cared about this community at a level that is difficult for most people to come close to.  You could argue he “cared too much”. That’s a phrase I’m familiar with.  Every time I saw an especially unique example of that in him, it filled me with such happiness.  He regularly threw the energy of five or more people into the things that really mattered to him.  And everything in the technical community seemed to matter to him.

I remember my first “Train Porn” presentation.  Igal did many of these over the years, each time deep-diving on a topic that was of geeky interest to him, and sharing his findings with the rest of the group. “Plane Porn” and “Things That Hover” were the other two I saw over the years, and I know I missed out on many more and feel a definite sense of loss at that right now.  These presentations were an incredible mix of visual imagery, geeky trivia, and hilarious mishaps in Engineering and Design.  As an audience member, it was normal to oscillate rapidly between enthralled and laughing one’s sides sore.  I’ve never been a person who is inherently geeky about trains or planes, but during these presentations Igal always did a good job of capturing what I was missing out on and inspiring me to dig deeper.  We so often focus on engineering successes in these areas, but he took special delight in sharing the engineering failures with us, the ludicrous resort buses of the future and the plane designs that would lead to certain death.  The amount of depth and research that Igal must have done to prepare these presentations is somewhat exhausting to comprehend.  There was always more to share than time to share it, and he had a hilarious dry wit about the content.  It was the kind of humor that was incredibly reaffirming for a person who hasn’t always felt at home in the tech community – but this was so deeply geeky, and so perfect, that I always knew I was right at home.  I think I’ll miss these presentations of his the most.

This far-above-the-norm devotion to things was everywhere, though.  When we were planning the curriculum for an introductory programming workshop for women a few summers ago, Igal really did his homework in preparation for the event.  He had a strong opinion on every pre-existing Ruby on Rails curricula for new programmers that was out there at the time, and that knowledge inspired a stirring and tense debate about how to best teach, and not scare away, new programmers.  It’s strange to feel such joy at watching a group of peers and friends get into a strained and drawn-out argument like we did when planning the curricula for that workshop.  I felt that joy because that meeting was turning into such a big deal because it turned out we all cared about accomplishing the nigh impossible at that programming workshop that much.  Igal cared that much.  And seeing him pull that attitude out of others in the group, and everybody putting their hearts out like that – to make programming a more welcoming and exciting thing for newcomers – well, that’s one of those gifts that keeps me going when sticking it out as a woman in tech feels discouraging.  That’s one of those things that reminds me it’s worth it, that I’m not the only one who cares about these things so much.  I’m not even the one who cares about these things the most.

By last Spring, when I was helping out with the Open Source Bridge selection committee, I wasn’t surprised when Igal was the committee member who had the most well-formed feedback on each proposal we reviewed.  He didn’t just read these proposals and take the content seriously, he’d also research the speakers and their passions, and he’d seek out any other details that might help us find the “diamonds in the rough” presentation-wise.  I was especially in awe of this effort as a fellow committee member, because reading through that many proposals in a short period of time is exhausting and it takes a considerable amount of effort to stay engaged and positive, and to treat each proposal with the respect and enthusiasm it deserves.  It was definitely one of those experiences where he was a role model for me as a member of the tech community.  I want to throw my heart and energy into things at that level, but can’t even come close at this point in time.

I treasured these aspects of Igal because I am also a person who “cares too much”.  It’s one of those things that happens automatically when something matters; it’s not always a conscious choice to throw your heart and soul into something like that.  It is, quite frankly, a trait that I have worked very hard over the last 15 years to temper and otherwise minimize in myself.

Caring about things at a level that is out of proportion to the rest of the group can be a very isolating experience.  Even if most people appreciate it, the folks who don’t understand or find it weird can get under the skin.  It can feel very vulnerable and awkward to have your passion on display like that and not matched by anybody else.  That’s why I really value it when I see it in others, and try to let them know that, whenever I see it.  But I also know that most of the people I’ve known who care about things that much have paid some sort of personal cost for it as well.  They can’t not care, and many times it brings them great joy – but the times that it brings about pain, heartbreak and sadness are very intense and hard to weather.

When I learned about Igal’s passing yesterday, it came as a complete shock: I hadn’t known he was depressed, and I hadn’t known he was vulnerable in this way.  That said, now that I have this information it fits what I knew of him and could empathize with.  It’s interwoven into all of my recollections.  Of course he could show such perfect understanding, support and compassion when my own struggles with depression touched my interactions with the technical community.  Of course caring as intensely as he did would come with some sort of personal consequence.  So even though I was shocked by the news, it doesn’t surprise me at all in retrospect.  And I am not surprised that he couldn’t bring himself burden anybody with this terrible final decision before he made it.  It is still an incredible tragedy.

Igal is the first friend I’ve lost to suicide, and the feelings that are coming up for me are very strange and not necessarily the ones I expected.  There’s an emotional numbness that is out of proportion to the loss I am feeling and how much he meant to me.  But as a person who has had a long and complicated history with depression, I don’t find myself grappling with the “What could I have done differently” as much as others may be.  I feel bad that the last time I saw Igal – sometime last summer – I didn’t know it would be the last time I would see him.  It feels strange that it’s been that long since I saw him, but I know I have been using that period of withdrawal from the technical community for a legitimate purpose – addressing my own history with depression and trauma, and prioritizing self-care.

Earlier this year, after Aaron Swartz died, Valerie Aurora wrote a great piece that best captures my sentiments about how we respond to suicidality in others as friends, peers, community and society.  I feel like her piece captures most of my thoughts on how we can help vulnerable people in the long term.  It’s easy to turn ourselves in circles with “what ifs” with regards to the days and hours leading up to these fateful decisions, but ultimately depression is complicated and just as there’s no one thing that brings a person to that place, it’s hard to imagine that there’s one immediate thing that can be done to prevent it when a person reaches that point.  I suspect the imagining is normal and inevitable nonetheless.  We would rewrite this history if we could.

I’m in agreement with Valerie that if we want to help we need to “do things that lessen the suffering and illness that cause suicide.”  This is a systemic, society-wide effort.  For me personally, I view Igal’s passing with the same sentiment I would another tragic accident that isn’t so overtly self-inflicted.  Depression has that sort of power; a one-person “natural disaster” that somatizes so much of pain of the world around us.  The nature of this tragedy is an issue that I will need to grapple with more, but like most people with a history of depression I am reminded right now of the incredible value of self-care and keeping with the work I am already doing.

The fact remains that I have lost, and the community has lost, an incredibly special person, and regardless of the role that depression played in this, and the questions we ask after a suicide, the main thing I’m still grappling with is that Igal is gone.  I suspect it’s really going to take a lot of time to sink in; there’s so much that he did for this community that I know I took for granted and his missing presence is likely to be a lot more obvious in the coming weeks, months, and years.  All I can say right now is that I am incredibly glad to have known him and called him friend, and thankful for the positive influence he had on my life.  I’m really hoping I can figure out the right way to properly honor him without it feeling self-important or trite.

I don’t feel like a post like this even begins to capture everything I’m feeling – and I don’t think it captures it right, either.  But I figure sharing is preferable to silence in this instance.  The community’s expressions of grief have been comforting for me, and I want to contribute to that in my way.

He truly was one-of-a-kind, and I miss him and will miss him.

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3 Responses to Losing Igal

  1. Thank you for writing this and for sharing the particulars of how Igal was magnificent; I wish I had seen as much as you had.

  2. Stacy Watts says:

    Thank you, Addie. You words say a great deal.

  3. Pingback: Thank You, Igal Koshevoy « drnormal.com

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