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.

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