I’ve done a couple of business interviews this past week concerning entrepreneurialism. Both times I’ve taken a deep breath, and kept my story as real and honest as possible. It hasn’t been easy because that has meant I have had to revisit the period where I was not coping as a business owner, and detail my bout of situational depression. In both instances the interviewer asked me to explain how I knew I wasn’t coping at work, and that has prompted me to summarise my answers here as well. Brene Brown explains that telling our stories of vulnerability and shame lessens the power the associated emotions have over us. I battle with the idea that I am ashamed that I had depression, and I’m not sure that I do still feel shame (I’ve told my story many times now!) but I obviously am dealing with some emotions linked to the experience and I recognise there’s still a social stigma attached to the condition.
I’m happy to retell my experience because today, if we overlap Australia’s suicide rates with the profile of a typical small business owner the intersection is frightening. We don’t collect enough data in this country to link anxiety/depression/suicide to entrepreneurship but it’s not hard to identify the relationship between the two. I didn’t realise I was sinking into the depression hole until I was in it. Perhaps sharing my experience might help others identify when things are simply not staying real.
I was diagnosed with depression in April 2011 and spent a few months working through it until I could return to work. Prior to stopping work completely (because I was unable to cope with it emotionally), there were a number of things happenning in me that were already red flags that I wasn’t coping with life. I was trying so hard to live a “normal” life, and I had developed a daily ritual of scolding myself for feeling so bad and reminding myself that I was supposed to be an invincible entrepreneur who could overcome any obstacle. My actions, however, signalled otherwise…
- I would cry in the car on the way to work. In fact, almost any time I was alone in the car I would be in tears. It was the one place where I wouldn’t be interrupted. I often cried so much that I would have to sit outside the office each morning for about 10 minutes to reapply my makeup before heading in for the day. Of course, once my foot crossed into the office I’d be all smiles and cheers.
- I unsubscribed from all business blogs, business magazines and newspapers. I just couldn’t stand to read all the business stories of success or stoic business leaders. All they did was make me feel like I was even more of a failure.
- My mind was NEVER present to the immediate moment. Yes, I would hug my kids, help with assignments, cook dinner, go on date night with hubby, but in truth, I was never fully present to them. My mind was hijacked by thoughts of work, what I could do, things I could try to reverse our slowing sales, tasks that needed to be completed, or more specifically, adding to my mental list of all the so-called disasters I was responsible for. I was in a constant state of distraction.
- I only talked Billie Goat. That was my one topic of conversation and the only thing I had any interest in. I was a slave to the business and there was no separation between it and me. None.
- I disconnected from my friends. In fact, I stopped being a friend. Connections with others became a luxury that I couldn’t afford because I was too busy dealing with my imagined failures. If I spent time with friends I must have my eye off the ball. I didn’t have time to listen to their chatter. It either seemed insignificant to me, or something I was unable to cope with on top of my own issues. I stopped being social. This included any hobbies I might otherwise have enjoyed – photography, bushwalking, gardening, reading. They seemed like a luxury I could ill afford.
- I would leave work without explanation and at any time I felt I could no longer physically stay in the room. For example, my management team might be having a meeting to talk about our latest department store plans, and something would trigger inside me (pressure to perform?) and I would simply grab my bag, hop in my car and leave. I wouldn’t say a thing to anyone, I’d just disappear and leave them all wondering what I was up to. Sometimes I wouldn’t return for the rest of the day.
- I cancelled all speaking engagements and requests for interviews. I felt like a fraud, and there was no way I wanted to reinforce an image of a successful businesswoman! If engagements couldn’t be cancelled, I’d ask my Marketing Manager to speak on my behalf. I was so lucky she was wonderful at it.
- I started to think about how I could “exit” the situation. This scared me the most, and my incredible husband and beautiful family were the things that got me through this dark period. I knew I wanted to be here for them.
After lots of discussions with John and doing some online research I realised I needed to seek out some help. Here’s the thing though…when you have depression it can be tough to identify when others can help, and when they cannot. The first counsellor I saw did not help me at all, but I thought that was my fault…it must be me…I’m obviously beyond help! Counsellors are like clothes – you often have to try them on to see if they fit. Leave them on the rack if they don’t! I finally got the help I needed and was able to return to work after a few months. Today I am so grateful for my experience because I’m a better, more whole person because of it.
If you know a business owner who may be experiencing tough times at the moment, please share this story with them. They won’t be alone in their struggles (although they may feel no one understands them).Beyond Blue is currently developing resources for the SME sector to support entrepreneurs in times of need, and, of course, Lifeline is always there to support people experiencing immediate crisis. Their number is 131114.