Amber Discko’s descent into a state of emotional turmoil started as a slow trickle. It began around the time Donald Trump won the presidential election in November 2016 and when Discko’s social media and voter registration work for the Hillary Clinton campaign ended. But then, when Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, the emotional levee broke. The extremes of the campaign—working late into the night just to start again at 4 am, day after day—had drained Discko of all their usual enthusiasm and radiance.
Discko, who uses they/them pronouns, hustled to stay afloat. But their emotional well-being was slipping through the cracks. Discko wasn’t leaving the house, and summoning the effort to do basic things like staying hydrated and eating a full meal felt like a battle. So, they got to work on an app that could help them, and anyone else feeling lost, start to heal.
The creation Discko came up with is called Aloe Bud. The app uses friendly-looking pixel-art icons to set reminders and log basic bits of self-care: meals eaten, glasses of water drank, medications taken. It also offers gentle affirmations and reminds its users to occasionally interact with friends or the outdoors in order to avoid isolating circumstances.
Discko created it for people struggling with mental illness, chronic illness, ADHD, or people who just forget to floss their teeth before calling it a night.
In contrast to other health-minded reminder apps, like the Activity app on the Apple Watch, Aloe Bud’s nudges are especially soft-edged: “You can’t have a rainbow without a little rain. Ready to shine?” Compare this to what an Apple Watch wearer would see on their wrist: “Make it happen. Yesterday, your Move ring didn’t get enough love. Let’s get it closed today.” You can see the contrast; Aloe Bud’s notifications feel more like texts from your Deadhead aunt than shouts from your high school gym teacher commanding you to take another lap.
“I want to show that it’s casual because it has to be,” Discko says, “You’re not going to want something if it’s in your face.”
Aloe Bud user Mars Negrette appreciates the app’s calming reassurance. “I’ve been using Aloe for about a month to help with my daily anxiety, suggested by my habits coach,” says Negrette. “I haven’t forgotten my meditation practice once, and I’ve felt more self-aware and relaxed.”
That's been especially welcome in the time of Covid-19 and social distancing, which has led to a noteworthy spike in Aloe Bud's downloads over the last couple months.
"Usually when that spike happens, it’s because we’ve been featured or someone’s written about us," says Discko. "So obviously at first I didn’t think it had anything to do with what was happening in the world. But as it kept happening it just made sense that as folks are shifting from being in offices to having to find new routines at home, they’re searching for new ways to find these routines through technology."
An app that provides nurturing support for people struggling with mental health challenges could only come from the mind of someone who’s been there themselves.
If you look at Discko’s social media presence, you’ll see they excel at reflecting a rosy personality in their tweets. In fact, ever since reaching adulthood, Discko has used the social web as their primary place of employment, working as a community manager for the online role-playing game Lasuni, and running the social media accounts for the diner chain Denny’s.
Then, in 2014, Discko founded Femsplain, an online publication that catered to trans and cis women, as well as gender nonconforming individuals. Discko felt it was important to provide a safe destination on the web for others like them who may not always feel welcome in the larger communities.
“I felt powerless on the internet. I’ve been doxxed and harassed,” Discko says. “Building these spaces for people has been my way to give what I wish I had had.”
Femsplain folded after three years, and by 2016, Discko had moved on to the Clinton campaign, spending four months coordinating its social strategy and helping people register to vote.
“Amber was like a little general back there, manning the war room during the debates,” says Laura Horak, who worked with Discko on the campaign.
Clinton’s loss wasn’t easy for anyone in the organization, but it was especially tough on Discko. As the candidate gave her concession speech, Discko struggled to maintain any glimmer of hope. “I was getting DMs from hundreds of people who couldn’t believe this was happening,” they say. “I felt helpless as these people came to me looking for answers, and I didn’t have them.”
For the first week after the election, Discko didn’t leave the house. Isolation crept in. “None of my friends or anyone had checked in on me,” they say. “I wish I had gotten a simple text from a friend asking, ‘Hey how are you?’ I just needed something.”
Day-to-day things like remembering to take their medication were getting tougher. By the time of Trump’s inauguration six weeks later, Discko was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a condition which can lead to dissociation, periods of depression, and fear of abandonment.
Discko’s withdrawal from society ended up serving as a wake-up call; they realized they needed to start taking their mental health seriously. As a way to get back on their feet, Discko used the Reminders app on their iPhone to stay on top of basic upkeep like brushing their teeth and eating a full meal. But the constant pings quickly grew to be overwhelming. So they hit the web, looking for a way to get back to their routine. Using Typeform, a site where users can create custom forms like surveys and quizzes, they created a self-care check-in page. Discko would use the web form to check off items in their daily routine (take medication, drink a glass of water) so the simplest self-care tasks wouldn’t be forgotten.
Discko was eager to share the form with others who may be struggling with a mental illness, but the web form was still a bit rigid and clunky. After a few late-night brainstorms with friends, Discko came up with a plan: Take Typeform’s check-in-style lists, add some additional tracking and logging features, and roll the whole thing into an app.
Self-care wasn’t a novel concept on the App Store in early 2017—meditation apps like Headspace and Calm were already gaining buzz—but the most popular options either charged subscription fees or were medically-focused and dull. Discko wanted to create something that stood out from the pack by being affordable and really feeling like it cares.
“I saw a desperate need for something that wasn’t so clinical and boring,” Discko says.
In August of 2017, Discko launched a Kickstarter project for the app. The name Aloe Bud was chosen as a nod to the aloe plant, which is harvested for its medicinal properties, and for its apt imagery of a growing bud on its way to full bloom. “We're all unaware of our own magnificence until we have someone shine that light on us,” Discko says.
The final app is a bit different from the early concepts, but the gist is the same—you set up a grid of activities to “check-in” on, like taking deep breaths and keeping your mind present or reflecting on ways to show kindness to your loved ones, and arrange them in whichever order you want. You can use it as a quick journal, a medication tracker, or as a way to remind yourself to live in the moment.
Discko developed the app with the help of the team at software studio Lickability with the aim of making it approachable and welcoming. When you open the app, you’re greeted with a grid of light-toned icons, all in a pixel-art design you’d see in games like Super Mario World, along with an action verb below each one. You’ll see things like a watermelon with sparkles coming off the top, with the word Fuel underneath, as a reminder to munch on something at times when you might struggle with remembering to eat.
Aloe's grid of icons is customizable too. You can pick up any activity and drag it across the screen to rearrange them based on time of day, type of action, or even just whatever you think looks orderly. (Aloe Bud is free to download, and you can unlock advanced features with an in-app purchase of a few dollars.)
Each activity can be set as either a “check-in” or a “reflection.” Check-ins serve as a checkbox to say you remembered to call your loved ones today, while a reflection will ask you to answer a specific prompt, kind of like Instagram’s question box, and write about someone who always makes you smile, or the ways in which you can “show yourself kindness” today. You can set custom reminders for anything, giving yourself nudges to stand up and move around, reset your brain with a music playlist, or take your medication if you’re prone to forgetting.
Discko isn’t one to craft isolated experiences, so in an effort to bring Aloe Bud’s users together, they created the Community Garden, a project which plays out on the app’s official Twitter feed.
Every couple of hours, a bot tweets an image to Aloe Bud’s nearly 12,000 followers showing a pixel-art image of a garden filled with flowers, weeds, and vacant slots for new plants to grow. Alongside the image, the tweet will show what “resources” the garden needs, including water, sunshine, tending, and compliments, each with an accompanying emoji. Followers can then respond by tweeting an emoji for one of the listed resources. For an extra sprinkle of delight, the bot responds with phrases like “Thank u for taking the time to tend me. Has anyone told u that you’re lovely? You are!” Each day the bot tweets out a “Top Gardeners” list naming the users who have sent the most resources.
Community is important to Amber—they’re a “beacon” for interaction, as one friend puts it—but they often get so engrossed in tending to that community that they forget to take care of themselves.
By early 2019, Discko was in the midst of a manic episode and poured nearly all their energy into fundraising for Aloe Bud. They weren’t taking care of themselves and had to spend about four weeks in a state facility before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition which can cause extended episodes of mania and depression.
“I get put in a fog that makes it hard to interact with people,” Amber says. They’ve been working to pull themselves out of that fog. “A big part of that is not being afraid to talk to people, and realize you’re not alone in this. There are so many people dealing with this.”
Since their diagnosis, they’ve been using resources like group therapy and new medications to soften their symptoms. “I needed to be online less, is what I learned.” Discko’s also using Aloe Bud to set reminders to check in with friends and to occasionally reconnect with the world offline.
“I try not to think that these illnesses are stopping me from doing anything, because they’re not, they’re just something I have to live with,” Discko says. A big part of this acceptance and solace has come from recognizing the crucial role therapy has played in finding healthy ways to manage the struggles of their conditions. “Once people accept that it’s OK to get help, a whole new chapter awaits you.”
Right now, Aloe Bud is only available on iOS, but Discko hopes to one day bring the app to Android when they can resume fundraising to pay for the development effort. They also hope to find even more ways to get the app into the hands of under-privileged users who don’t have access to mobile devices that can run the app.
“I believe in my heart that technology is the solution, not the problem,” Discko says. “I don’t want there to be limits just because there are systems that are hurting people.”
Those more ambitious plans had to be put on hold while Discko takes some time to recharge, but they're still brainstorming new features and working on bug fixes in the meantime. "I’m investing in myself right now," Discko says, "and I feel like eventually the app will see the benefit of that investment."
Discko’s friend and coworker Horak thinks Amber is up for the challenge of keeping Aloe Bud going, and has the dedication to make it happen. “Amber didn’t choose to bang their head against this wall, it chose them.”