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Entrepreneurship’s mental health problem

After almost five years of working for myself, I recently went on the hunt (successfully, thankfully!) for a full time job. Lots of people were incredibly supportive. It was great. On the other hand, I also had a multiple people express disappointment, implying that I had “given up” on my business, that I was throwing away everything I had worked so hard for. (Because saying that to anyone at any point is a good idea, right?)

The truth was simply that I needed different things than (full time) entrepreneurship can offer me right now. But expressing that was usually met with more argument. Which was frustrating, silencing, and entirely unhelpful for all parties involved.

The main motives behind looking at jobs were two things: stability and community. There were (and are) other motives (less pressure on making creative projects pay off quickly, wanting to learn about business from a different perspective). Either way; stability and community weren’t wants. They were my needs, and they were being pooh-poohed. I was repeatedly assured that no, I really could get those things from entrepreneurship, I just wasn’t trying hard enough. (And hearing that when you’re already down in the dumps is just a fucking party, let me tell you!)

Let’s talk about stability, since that’s the key one.

I’ve struggled with anxiety off and on for several years now, but this year has been a true mental health rollercoaster. I had, if not an actual nervous breakdown, pretty damn close to one, I went on anxiety medication, and then I had an awful reaction to said medication that left me borderline suicidally depressed for a solid month before I figured out what was going on and stopped medication. (On my own, because the doctor I saw thought I was a junkie and refused to help. Migraines and withdrawal symptoms on top of an emotional rollercoaster are tons of fun!)

I had barely stopped reeling from that when I spoke at a conference, moved, and then visited my family for a week, all within the same month. I got back and spiraled into depression.

Anxiety, I know how to handle. It’s not what I would call fun, but with practice I’ve become quite adept at channeling it into some disfigured cousin of manic productivity.

Depression however, despite my family history, has never been something I’ve really struggled with aside from medication wreaking havoc on my brain chemistry (previous to this year, my other main run in with depression was caused by hormonal birth control). I don’t know how to deal with it. I vacillated between trying to be not-home as much as possible (because when I was alone I felt terrible and if I was with friends at least I had something to distract me) and spending days at a time trying to stop feeling so terrible by numbing out to Netflix (surprisingly ineffective!). I didn’t have a reason to leave the house unless I specifically created one, so I mostly didn’t.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it sucked. I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten until, towards the end, I realized that I straight up did not remember most of October. Aside from those social incidents where I dragged myself out of the house and made myself be around people, most of the month is a big gray hole in my memory. What’s even more disconcerting is that I had actually realized that a week or two before…and I was still in the throes of depression, so I didn’t care.

I thought “I don’t remember this month. That’s weird.” in the same sort of bland mental tone you would use to make a note to self to pick up more eggs at the supermarket.

I had already been looking at jobs to some extent, because even before I realized how bad it was I knew something was not quite right, and that was a huge wake up call. Given my family history and my predisposition to anxiety, I had to consider the very real notion that this might not be the last time depression rears its head for me, even outside of medication influencing things. I had to make some kind of plan for if that happened again, a plan that involved interacting with people on a very regular basis, a plan that involved having a reason to get out of bed that didn’t rely on internal motivation, a plan that created some sort of structure for my life that was not self-imposed (and thus, a structure that can’t fall apart when I do).

I could entirely revamp my business model to solve those problems (and I’m still not sure how I’d solve the daily face-to-face interaction one), while hustling my ass off to make it profitable, while pulling myself out of depression and trying to take care of myself mentally, while also ignoring most of the different creative directions I want to go in. (Because of course, you can’t freely experiment when you have to pay the rent.)

Or I could get a job, and work with a team that I love, and learn about business from an entirely new perspective (because lawd knows I don’t know it all!), and get that stability and routine and structure that I craved.

The choice was obvious to me, but still disappointing and “giving up” to others.

We don’t talk about it. In our society in general, we don’t talk about what it’s like to struggle on a daily basis with depression or anxiety, or the maze that is navigating medication (receiving it and dealing with the side effects of it and deciding on your own without bias whether it’s the right choice for you), or any of the host of other things that come with knowing your brain chemistry can and very well might turn on you at any given moment.

Entrepreneurs, specifically, don’t tend to talk about how lonely and stressful it can be to run your business, even when you’re on a relatively even keel. We sure as shit don’t often discuss how difficult it can be when you’re having a hard time getting out of bed or can’t sleep at night for all the awful scenarios running through your head and the noise of your heart beating far too fast.

It’s symptomatic of larger issues with mental health in our culture, to be sure. But it seems as though entrepreneurs, with our emphasis on “go it alone” and “self reliance” and “bootstrapping”, are especially likely to fall into unhealthy traps. And it leaves those of us who do struggle with anxiety and depression stuck between a rock and a hard place. Where do we go to talk about it? Where do we express our need for security, for safety, for stability, without being told to STFU and get out of the game? Where is our safe space as entrepreneurs struggling with mental health issues?

It doesn’t help that we’re all so stuck on the idea of selling everyone else on entrepreneurship. We want others to know it’s a viable choice, a good alternative to being at a job you can’t stand, that we aren’t being irresponsible and selfish by being entrepreneurs. That obsession with selling everyone can mean that anyone who doesn’t have a unicorn-farts-and-rainbows experience gets shushed or shunned.

I don’t know what the answer is and I don’t have a neat way to tie up this post. I wish I did. But we do need to talk about it. With this new generation of entrepreneurs, we have an opportunity to create a newer, healthier paradigm, and we should take it with both hands instead of letting stigma and outmoded ways of thinking dictate our thoughts and behaviors.

37 Comments

  1. Good for you, Michelle for figuring this stuff out and for bringing up this topic. We DO need to talk about it a whole lot more.

    When I lived with Mr. Perfect, running my biz from home was lonely but it wasn’t impossible. I thought moving to Portland (where there were people I could be friends with in real life) would help alleviate that loneliness, and to some extent it did. But without another person in the house, my alone time just magnified. And that, coupled with the change in weather (can you say GREY?) did NOT help my mood.

    I think even the healthiest of us toy (often) with the thought of getting a full-time job for just the reasons you outlined. And there should be NO shame in wanting those things, or in pursuing them.

    I recently got myself a part-time teaching gig and it’s helped me feel more involved with life and people. Time will tell tho if it lasts!

    Reply

  2. Hey! Sorry to hear about how rough your year has been. I follow you, so had some idea, but didn’t know the extent.
    Good for you for doing what is necessary for you! Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do, whether other people agree or not. Entrepreneurship (specifically solo-preneurship) is a lot more lonely and stressful than people make it out to be. It’s true that I work best alone, but sometimes I just GOTTA get the heck out and see some people in person!
    I hope having a job gives you what you need, and allows you to create for fun! I know all too well the feeling of having to pay the bills and working on things that aren’t any fun, but that make money–and then you have no time/energy left to be creative.
    Hope 2014 is awesome for you!

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  3. Michelle, thanks for your honesty. We all know what we need, you’re brave enough to go after it. And you gotta be super strong to even see it when you are diggin out of depression and outside judgement.
    Happy 2014!

    Reply

  4. Kudos to you, Wonder Woman. Writing this took great clarity and presence. Publishing it took serious ovarian fortitude. (I refuse to equate male sex organs with strength – those things are fragile as eggs.) I’m proud to know you.

    Reply

  5. This is such a great post. I’m so sorry your year was like this… I’ve struggled with depression before, and anxiety just plain runs in the family, so I know what you’re talking about.
    I quit my FT job this year for my business, and it’s been a roller coaster. But the thing that’s made it easier, more of an even keel, and eliminated some of the loneliness and struggle, is that I also have a PT job I absolutely love, at a co-op with a great group of people, and the balance it provides from working on my own is a lifesaver some days (and weeks). But it’s hard, because it’s that unmentionable thing that if my business were “truly” successful, I shouldn’t have to have… but then I’m not sure I ever want to give it up, even though I make more money with my business, because I enjoy being there so much, and it provides that sense of balance and stability and real-time community that entrepreneurship doesn’t necessarily.
    It’s a really interesting thing, that the entrepreneurship movement is all about doing your own thing, but still there’s so much uncomfortableness when someone’s experience is outside the unicorns and rainbows (and it doesn’t lead to a business epiphany and 6-figure growth).
    I hope 2014 is beautiful for you 🙂

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  6. Kudos to you, Michelle, for regonizing depression as a call to action and taking the steps you need to make your life better. No matter what your other peers say, this is your story. Focus on what’s best for you. You’re right. Depression does need to be talked about more, and the only remedy I can see is to talk/write about it whenever it comes up (and even when it doesn’t).

    Reply

  7. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I think it took a lot of courage for you to write about these struggles. I’ve also been struggling with anxiety and depression. Even though depression runs in my family, I had not had to deal with it until these last few years. Your post is timely for me because I’ve been considering leaving my full time job and moving into the entrepreneurial world. However, part of me thinks that I should stick with the FT job until my mental health situation is more stabilized. Time will tell! The important thing is to be able to talk openly about our feelings and share ideas and encouragement.

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  8. I’ve been looking for this post and adore you for writing it! There are too many posts about “how much I made last month” or “how I got a million followers on Facebook”, and not enough like this one. It’s a huge disservice to people who are thinking of starting online businesses that they aren’t getting a full picture of what it can be like. It’s also a disservice to those of us who have been in your shoes and had times where we thought there must be something wrong with us that we were struggling so much. Love your honesty!

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  9. I hadn’t heard of you before this post, but have to say this made an awesome introduction. Thanks for this.
    Telling part of my own story, I was a meth addict. The significant part was after I stopped. No serious organ damage, but meth is 110 volts on what is normally a battery-powered circuit- the brain. The body simply stops making the chemicals that usually power those circuits, and the receivers of those chemicals are too blasted by overpower to react to those chemicals when your body DOES go back to “our regularly scheduled program”.
    What does this mean in practical terms? Three years of no sunshine, no hope of sunshine, and knowing the whole time it was self-inflicted. As you said, one hell of a fucking party.
    I didn’t really care if I died, but I had younger brothers and stepsisters, and I didn’t want them following a suicidal brother’s example. So I learned how to stay alive, never knowing if this condition would ever end. (Spoiler alert: it did).
    You have to find reasons to stay alive; depression is nothing less serious than that. It can’t be a self-destructive one; that’s just another form of depression. But once you know what that purpose is, it is literally “do this or die”. And it honestly doesn’t matter what other people think about it.
    It helps if it’s legal, and it can’t compromise your “morals” (whatever those might be) because your identity is already under attack anyway.
    Also, there were two other core tenets I discovered 1) when all else fails in your life, productive work will sustain you. 2) when even work fails, anything that helps someone else will let you get out of bed the next day. Being needed by others is a valid reason to continue- even if you know its all pointless, sometimes you’re all someone ELSE has. Be alert for those reasons.
    This wasn’t meant to be grim (sorry) but an expression of practical rules that literally preserved my life until I could rejoin it.
    Ro your employment decision- bravo! You evaluated “do or die”- and whether time proves you right or wrong, it shows something else- that you’re willing to fight to live. When the clouds are overhead, that knowledge can shorten their stay 🙂

    Reply

  10. Michelle,

    I think that you did what was right FOR YOU and that is simply all that matters. Our society puts way too much emphasis on autonomic success, but not on taking care of themselves. You did that, and I commend you.

    The two years after having to leave a job due to spinal cord injury, where I had success & great friends, were the loneliest & most difficult of my life. Without Cymbalta helping with the neuropathy providing some much needed SSRI “side effects”, supportive family & friends, and therapy with a trusted professional, I would never have made it out of that time without severe depression. I learned to “be” with myself and like it, but I have given my all to get BACK TO WORK for the things you mentioned: stability & community. I can only work part-time, but the days I’m working are my happiest.

    Brave article. Truest of true. I will enjoy following you from now on due to that courageous honesty. THANKS

    Reply

  11. Well done for persevering and finding the best answer for you! Thanks also for being strong enough and brave enough to raise this subject

    I also spend a bit of time on the dark path and it’s not fun, so good on you!

    Reply

  12. YES YES YES YES YES!!!!!

    As someone who has struggled with depression since age 8, and only had proper medical treatment at age 37, I get what you’re talking about.

    Fuck those people: they want you to do their ‘going after freedom’ for them. They can find someone else to live through vicariously.

    (And also, if you didn’t know, I adore you. Keep on being you and taking great care of yourself!)

    Reply

  13. Great topic. I never understood why so many bloggers underplay the reality of entrepreneurship. There’s always someone bragging about working in their pajamas, living life on their terms or whatever.

    But, I don’t think it’s fair or honest to sell that sugar-coated version of an entrepreneur lifestyle and then silence or shame people who struggle or get down sometimes.

    I think open and honest discussions like your post and more resources for support would actually encourage more people to become entrepreneurs as opposed to selling a dream and leaving people without a voice when reality doesn’t align with said dream.

    Reply

  14. Thanks for this post, Michelle. It sounds like you did a great job of assessing what you needed to feel integrated and get on an even keel. I’m sorry your choices were questioned and put down.
    One of the things that attracts me to entrepreneurship is the possibilities to create one’s own path and have a flexible career. Going from self-employment to working for a business and every hybrid of that flexibility is to be celebrated. Congratulations on finding the right place for you to be working right now!

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  16. I had a job. Good job. Twice a month pay. Regular raises. Not the dream job. Not the lifetime career for me. But a job.

    Then, I fell for the, “You just have to have faith and work full-time on your business,” line of bullcrap, and I quit my job after having a really, really good few weeks in my business.

    And… the FREAK OUT that occurred immediately AFTER quitting my job (how will I pay my bills? OMG I can’t stand my husband 24/7. Get me out of here…)meant that biz TANKED. Because when you’re stressed, you don’t do good. In any area of life. Let alone in Biz.

    I’m an introvert, so I don’t mind being alone. But money? Well, I have bills to pay after all, and freaking out about how I was going to pay them was NOT conducive to business. At all.

    So when the job I quit called me three weeks later and literally BEGGED me to come back, I did. It was a relief.

    I realized all the biz hype going around in 2013 was just that… hype. It was bull. I can’t tell you how many people have told me they were just faking it, because that’s what their coach told them to do. “Fake it ’til you make it.”

    I’m still working on my biz. I’m taking it slower. And I’m doing it MY way. Period. Screw the “focus on one niche, and take a leap, quit that job, make 6-figures” bullcrap. It’s my way now. Period.

    I went NUTS the three weeks that I was out of work. Absolutely nuts. Now, I have steady income. I’m out of the house 5 days a week (thank goodness). I can fund my business with my extra income (them begging me to come back meant more MONEY for me 😉 ) And stress is down. A ton. So now the biz is fun again.

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  17. Firstly, YOU are an incredible, strong, brave individual and I’m so happy you’re in my life (even if we’ve never met in the flesh).

    Secondly, I wish you lived riiight around the corner so I could give you a huge hug.

    And thirdly, my experience. What do I want to say about my experience? Just that the last few months since my friend was killed in a motorcycle accident have been like a black hole for me. And I wish things would start to feel easier, but instead I’m questioning everything. I know I’m not happy and I’m struggling to remember what I need to do to make sure I AM. Even if it’s something small, every day.

    And I think the point, the lesson, the key is this: Do whatever it takes to make you happy. If that mean getting a full-time job, do it. If that means taking a solo retreat somewhere scenic and warm, do it. If that means dying your hair pink, do it.

    Your happiness is THE most important thing. Screw what anyone else thinks or wants for you.

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  20. I landed here from somewhere else and just want to say…wow. First, my heart goes out to you and I’m so sorry that so many of your peers discounted your needs. That makes the anxiety and depression even tougher when you don’t feel supported.

    Second, I’m so glad you figured out what would help you and went out and got a job. I’ve worked on my own for over a decade and no matter how much any of us loves what we do, the loneliness, isolation, uncertainty about $, and being constantly “at work” can put a serious dent in our equilibrium and emotional wellness.

    Third, and finally, I suspect you’ve uncovered something that runs pretty deep in the online biz community. Most of my work is brick and mortar in my home town, but in the past few years I’ve wondered about increasing my online presence. A huge ambivalence accompanies this wondering, because I’m trained to read between the lines and listen for what’s deeper, and what I keep picking up from the online community is pain: sadness, anxiety, stress, worry, uncertainty, overwhelm. Again and again. I actually thought at one point if I were going to create a niche that maybe it could be as a therapist for online coaches/entrepreneurs.

    I always admire truth tellers and it seems like you’re one. I wish you the very best as you carve out the path that’s right for you and you alone.

    Reply

    • Great post indeed!

      I wonder how much of this is because of being on the computer too much – more than 5 hours can cause depression??
      There’s soo much technology overwhelm these days, many people are behind computers both for business and leisure…
      Some people are already ‘unplugging’ for at least a day or part of day…

      Reply

  21. Wow, YOU GUYS. I did not expect this kind of response. I’ll be replying to all of these comments tomorrow. But I just wanted to say; totally blown away. You’re all amazing.

    Reply

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  26. I’ve often wondered about the “you can’t have a day job” attitude in entrepreneurship. I don’t see why not. Stability of money allows you to invest in your business. You can learn from the place you work – what to do (or what not to do). Maybe your business is only able to generate a part time income. Maybe that part time income is enough for you in some parts of your life and not others. There are so many different reasons why you may want a job alongside your business.
    I hate that “Quit your job and you’re forced to make money” attitude. It doesn’t work for me. Personally I think it makes people reek of desperation, but maybe they like that.
    Bottom line: what’s right for you is the only choice to ever make.

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