Personal post- my own struggle with mental illness, the challenges it adds to running a business and the important lessons I’ve learned the hard way
It’s mental health awareness week, and it’s such an important thing to talk about as small business owners at any point- but especially now, when we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. So many of us have suffered the loss of loved ones, of freedoms, of the way of life we were used to living. And virtually all of our businesses have been affected in some way. We are in the most uncertain of times, and the usual stress/anxiety/worry that come along with entrepreneurship are even harder to overcome these days.
I don’t speak much about the specifics of my own mental health. I’m quite open and honest when I’m having tough days or feeling discouraged but I’ve never shared my own mental health story publicly before. Now feels like the right time to do it, after six incredibly tough months of uncertainty and change and during a week that’s all about the importance of erasing the stigma, so here I go.
I’ve always felt things very strongly. When I’m happy, I’m really happy- and that’s great. But when I’m down, I am waaaaaay down. Same goes for anxiety, for anger, for any of the complex emotions we feel as human beings. It’s been like that for as long as I can remember. When I was a teenager, I was told that I was over reacting or just being emotional- but it always felt inescapably real for me and I started to wonder what was wrong with me.
Then in my early 20’s, I met a friend who opened up to me about his own feelings, similar feelings, and for the first time there was someone else I could relate to, who understood what I was feeling. He encouraged me to speak to my doctor, and at age 23 I was diagnosed with manic depression (now referred to as bipolar disorder). My doctor pointed me towards some resources, and put me on medication to help make my lows a little less low. Unfortunately this also made my highs a little less high, and left me feeling kind of numb to everything. I was less emotional, but I also felt like I was observing my life instead of just living it. We tried different dosages, but in the end we decided to wean me off of the drugs and instead look at some lifestyle changes I could make: especially diet and exercise, but also opening up and talking about how I felt, and changing the way I ‘spoke’ to myself.
It took me a few solid years before I really got the hang of this- and to be honest it is, and will probably always be a work in progress. There may even come a time where I need to go back on medication again and if that time comes I will do so, without any shame. But mostly I have learned how to navigate the tough days and over the years, I’ve learned how to make my mental illness feel more manageable, with exercise and diet being major players. For a few years I did this halfheartedly and suffered the consequences.
I’ve also learned about how important it is to open up when I’m feeling down and feel very lucky to have a few close friends I can turn to on the toughest days. And most simply, but also most importantly of all, I’ve learned how to be kinder to myself. Let me explain.
Up until the last couple of years, on the really down days, I would beat myself up. I would tell myself I was lazy and useless and “just being emotional”, that I needed to get over it, that I was being irrational. I would try to push through and pretend nothing was wrong and make myself even busier. Some days I got by that way. On the worst days though, it broke me. It caused me to lash out at the people I loved the most, to feel completely overwhelmed, and to end up even more down into the rabbit hole of depression. The anxiety felt suffocating and the depression felt like utter despair- like nothing would ever be okay again. Which then made that depression even harder to come out of. In short- I learned my lesson the hard way: on the down days, I should be even kinder to myself, and give myself the break I need.
Sometimes, when this lasts more than a day or two, this is a big challenge- as a solopreneur I’m the only one running my business and if I’m not working on it, no one is. It’s hard to juggle your mental health as an entrepreneur: you might know you need a break, and want to give yourself one, but you might also have a million things to do and no one else to delegate them to.
Here’s the thing though- if you push on, and end up burnt out and overwhelmed and in that deep dark place, it’ll take you even longer to snap out of it. A day or two of not working is much better than a month or two- and while it might seem to you like everyone is thinking about how you’re not present on social media, or didn’t blog this week, or haven’t updated your website chances are no one has even noticed.
Most of us wear many hats- entrepreneurs, creatives, partners, parents, friends, daughters- and are used to putting everyone and everything else first. But if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s this: on the down days, it’s especially important to make ourselves, and our mental health the top priority.
So now, when I have those really down days, I force myself to do one thing: take it easy. I do the things I have to do: get out of bed and get my daughter ready for nursery, answer my emails, do the business tasks that truly can’t wait. And then I take it easy. I take my dog for a big long walk (even though the last thing I feel like doing when I’m down is exercising, it’s the thing that helps me the most). I curl up on the sofa with a coffee and a book. I organize something around the house. I go wander around a museum or an art gallery or browse the charity shops. I do things that DO feel manageable- and I put the things that don’t aside until tomorrow.
So today, or tomorrow, or next week, if you wake up feeling down, or overwhelmed, or anxious, or depressed be kind to yourself. Take a break. And remember that it’s not a step backwards. It’s just a brief pause before you keep moving forwards.