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Puccio: Explanation and apology from Coursicle co-founder

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Macbook Unsplash
One year ago, today I was admitted to the hospital for disorganized thinking, unbounded elation, and highly risky behavior. I was sending crude, lewd and bizarre push notifications to hundreds of thousands of college students. I was sleeping two hours a night while writing essays. And I nearly bankrupted my company when I tried to spend $1 million dollars on an ad attacking Mark Zuckerberg. News coverage only motivated me to continue.
While this deeply concerned my family and friends, I felt as though I was not only fine, I had never been better.
The story starts in 2012, when my girlfriend and I started the company Coursicle. After graduation, we moved to San Francisco where I kept working on Coursicle and she took another job. In hindsight our relationship changed after college. Over time, I sensed my agency decreasing, and her comments began to make me feel insecure about my body. Unexplained daily nausea ensued, and after many months of doctors and an endoscopy, it was concluded that I was suffering from anxiety. When I told her I was afraid I was losing my mind, she told me she didn’t know how long she could stay with me while I was like this. That’s when my panic attacks started.
If depression is passive agony, anxiety is active agony. All of the worst eventualities became forefront in my mind. The main one was a feedback loop: as my anxiety increased, the chance my girlfriend would leave me increased, which in turn increased my anxiety. Only sleep could break the cycle and stop the intrusive thoughts. But just an hour after falling asleep, I’d wake up to a panic attack, and would have to wait another 23 hours before the next break from my brain. It was during those sleepless nights that, for the first time in my life, I started to contemplate suicide. After months, I was able to overcome this severe anxiety with therapy, medication and running.
Less than two years later, it resurfaced. This time it’d mean the end of our 10-year relationship. She told me she couldn’t be with me while I was like this. I was broken and began documenting our break-up so I could understand what happened and my friends could help me come to terms with it. Once I opened up about the relationship, they helped me realize its true nature and how much better off I was.
But then she became hostile in the one way we were still connected: Coursicle. In order to get the most money for her stock, she removed me from the board and took full control of the company. After months of deliberation, enormous stress and tens of thousands in legal fees, the Coursicle lawyers convinced her to restore my position and negotiated a price for her equity. Finally, I was free.
The story should have ended there, but the legal battle, the stress of an impending eviction, and the antidepressants I was on would add another complication: bipolar disorder.
Delusions of grandeur ensued, much of which is very difficult to recount due to the embarrassment. I came to believe that Artificial General Intelligence was imminent and that I was capable of creating it. Because I thought it posed an existential risk to humanity, I called the White House to warn them. When my computer’s trackpad was malfunctioning, I believed Apple and Google were battling over control of my computer. I developed and began to live by a theory that humans control one another based on their positions in Maslow’s hierarchy. I social engineered two members of the hacking group Anonymous in the hopes that they would put me in contact with Edward Snowden.
Many of my friends pleaded for me to stop. I justified my actions with the positive reinforcement I had received: Steve Wozniak responded positively to my belief that companies need to make gender equity, wealth disparity and mental health a priority. The CTO of Reddit told me if I ever wanted to leave public life, he would buy Coursicle. Noam Chomsky responded to the excerpts of my essays that I sent him. These were indeed good outcomes, but I was completely ignoring the mountain of bad ones that overshadowed them.
Only two days after the legal battle for Coursicle was over, I was involuntarily admitted to Bellevue hospital’s psychiatric ward in New York. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, my medication was adjusted and both my therapist and psychiatrist were changed. I began to improve, but it’d be three months before the mania subsided completely.
When I got out of the hospital, friends I had talked to on a daily basis for a decade had cut me out of their lives. The ones who remained have told me that you should surround yourself with people who will stand by you even in your darkest times. I’m inclined to agree, but that hasn’t stopped the waves of grief that wash over me a dozen times a day when something triggers a memory of the ones I lost.
To my friends, both former and current, to Coursicle users, to acquaintances and strangers: I’m sorry for distressing you. I’m sorry for ignoring you. I’m sorry for hurting you. I’m sorry for confusing you. I’m sorry for everything.
After acknowledging the bad, it’s helpful to focus on the good that came from this. Hundreds of people gathered in online communities in support of some of my points, like reducing mental health stigma and narrowing the wealth gap. I spent more time in Washington Square Park, a place that holds a tradition of accepting those who are different. It was there that I discovered my gender identity and met a new set of friends who were supportive of my disorder. I met hundreds of Coursicle users who reached out directly, some giving support, others in need of it. One thing I discovered in the psych ward was how gratifying it is to help someone who feels alone with their disorder. If you’d ever like to chat, you can text or email me.
My hope is that sharing my story will encourage others to share theirs, and that anyone who is ashamed of their affliction will feel a little less so. I believe empathy is built from exposure, and if we explain to others what we feel, when we feel it, and if we’re fortunate enough to know: why we feel it. Then maybe they’ll understand. Maybe they’ll see beyond our symptoms.
Maybe they’ll see us.
Joe Puccio is the co-founder of Coursicle, an app designed to help students build their class schedule by notifying them when seats open in classes that they are interested in.
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