Encountering Depression and What It Means To Be Well

A few weeks ago I did an interview about mental health, depression, and entrepreneurship with Samara Linton and Michelle Pamisa. They wrote it up and posted it on the Dream Nation site in an article titled Be Well – It’s Work. I thought they did an excellent job capturing what I said and they game me permission to repost the interview here.

Could you tell us a bit about when you first started noticing that you weren’t feeling right?

I was in my mid-twenties. I had a company that was doing well but at the same time I was in a PhD program that I ended up getting kicked out of, because I wasn’t a particularly effective PhD student. I was also married and ended up getting divorced. I had a series of stressors combined with my own self-identity issues. I was feeling a lot of external stress from different places [with] the normal stress of building my business on top of that. It took me a while to realise I was actually depressed. I started doing therapy and got a much better understanding of what was going on. Two years in that stage of working through it, I had moments where I was like ‘I don’t want the rest of my life to feel this way, this feels awful’.  As I came out of being depressed and felt normal again, I realised this wasn’t necessarily how I was going to feel my whole life.

I was a very functional person. Even though I was depressed, I got up each morning, I worked hard and did my thing. My business continued to do well but there was no joy in anything. I’d get home and not be interested in doing all the things I enjoyed because I had no mental or emotional energy for it. A big lesson in that first depression was the actual feeling of being depressed, this notion of a complete and total absence of joy, versus stress and anxiety.

Did being a “functional depressive” affect your ability to seek help?

It was extremely hard for me to get help. I had a very hard time even going to therapy because of the stigma associated with it. I was lucky to get into a relationship with a woman, now my wife, who is comfortable with the notion of therapy. She would encourage me to go and take it seriously; that helped a lot.

It wasn’t easy to get out of bed in the morning. There were many mornings where, even as a functional person, it took a huge amount of energy to get out of bed, in the shower, out of the house, to my office to actually work.

When I finished doing the shift, I went home and got in my bed again or lay on the couch and did nothing. It wasn’t that the functional method was easier, it was just that where I had very specific work to do, I could do the work. But all the time around it, I felt a range on a spectrum from excess of joy to helpless to completely uninterested in anything else. In the best cases, I’d describe myself as feeling flat and every now and then I’d go for a run or something like that. I could force myself to do stuff but then I would still not feel very good about anything around it.

You mentioned how therapy and the support of your wife helped you. Would you say those are the two main things you found most helpful during the time of your depression, or even now?

Yeah I think those kinds of things that are helpful. I had several other people that first time. My PhD advisor was incredibly helpful. He was a very paternalistic factor for me at that moment in time, identifying the struggle with depression, being supportive and encouraging me to explore things via therapy. I had a business partner who was very accommodating of me. Even though there were burdens on him having to deal with a business partner sometimes, he was very patient with it. I had a mental depression episode for six months a couple years ago, and this was the one that I was public about. Dave is still a friend of mine thirty years later and he was incredible this time around because he knew me so well. He was able to engage with me about being a burden and he was able to be helpful without putting additional stress. He knew what would be helpful to me based on the experience he had thirty years ago.

Knowing the warning signs is tricky because a lot of people are just exhausted and there’s this incredible stigma about depression and mental health in general. If you’re a CEO and have diabetes, you manage your diabetes and nobody cares. If you have anxiety and depression and you’re trying to manage that, there’s no signal associated with that. For a lot of people, when they find themselves in that situation, it’s difficult to even acknowledge to yourself so you encourage this shield because of this external pressure, a lot of which is just uninformed stigma.

I think that one of the things that’s hopefully not so bad is a more open conversation that’s going on to destigmatise it.  You can be a strong and powerful leader or a successful entrepreneur and struggle with mental health issues and not let it become the thing that inhibits you as an individual, but continue to explore and learn yourself.  Understand what’s going on and figure out how to take care of yourself in those situations. What kinds of things renew you? What kinds of things allow the depression to pass? I understand when I’m feeling depressed that it will pass, and there are very specific things I can do. I sleep more, I stop drinking alcohol, I cut back on my eating deliberately, I spend more time alone, I travel a lot. These are specific things that I’ve learned over the years create a renewal for me which then allows the depression to eventually pass.

I’ve been writing on my blog for around a decade and I’m very public about a lot of personal things. When I started to feel depressed, I went through a thought process of not being open about it. I very quickly realised that was bullshitting myself, because I’ve been so open about so many other things. The reason I blog is because I like to write about things.

I didn’t know whether it would be helpful to me or not while I was depressed but I knew there would be internal inconsistency if I didn’t and as somebody with an engineer’s brain that likes a very logical way of putting things together, that inconsistency is very jarring to me. I decided it was probably better for the universe if I talk about this issue, and try to destigmatise it. Along the way, several amazing people, not friends of mine directly, but people whose work I have immense respect for, have committed suicide, clearly as a result of being depressed. I thought ‘let’s put this out there and see if it can be helpful to the conversation’, to try to make more people comfortable with the idea that this is a natural part of one’s existence.

What has the response been like?

Generally very supportive and positive. I have had many extremely well known and successful people reach out, people who have struggled with depression and are afraid, unable or unwilling to talk to others about it. I think it’s been a great relief to be able to talk to me about it, because they view me as somebody they can relate to. I’ve had many people who are struggling with depression ask questions, where I can be helpful to them. Several people have attacked me because of it. I’ve had people who told me I was stupid for putting myself out there. Some people say they disagree that somebody who’s depressed should be a leader.  On a whole, I feel like it’s a very powerful thing and that’s what I want it to be, because that’s what I try to do in terms of my world and the universe.

Brad Feld on what it means to be well

To be well means to wake up each day and be interested in what you’re going to spend your time on. At the end of the day when you reflect back and even though not everything that you’ve done was fun, interesting or stimulating, you feel like it was a good day on this planet, recognising that we have a finite number of them.

  • Brad – thanks for continuing to keep focus on this important topic. You rock! Jeff, the Startup Therapist

  • Startup Founder

    Brad, thank you so much for the advice and continuing to discuss this topic.

    As a recent PhD dropout and startup founder suffering from anxiety and depression, your articles have been really inspiring for me to keep pushing through the crushing apathy.

    I’ve found that if I focus on who I’m helping and how I’m helping them, I can convince myself logically to keep making progress.

  • NYMarKon

    Brad – good job.

    I was raised by a Psychologist and in our household – it was therapy each night at dinner. I never rebelled – it was always interesting.

    We recently sent to the grave, a family member of just 27 years of age (in Boulder). My wife and I, relying on my family history of counseling – just started back up as a preventative measure – a good move all around.

    So, cheers, and thanks for your bold move of kicking the counseling stigma to the ground –

  • conorop

    | Understand what’s going on and figure out how to take care of yourself in those situations.

    There is an incredibly valuable learning opportunity here.

    I have this educational series in my head called, “Team Toolbox”. It is all about recognizing the signs of poor mental health and learning what ‘tools’ you can leverage to counter the current situation.

    The tools could be anything from doing things that make you happy to establishing a person-of-trust you can confide in. The same education could be used to recognize when a family member, friend, or colleague may be struggling and what you can do/say to approach the subject.

  • A “functional depressive”. It is very good that you realized it and more importantly had/found the support network to help you.

    Don’t interpret this the wrong way, but your description of your early depression reminds me of people I knew that were “functional alcoholics” or “functional coke heads”. Each day on the trading floor they were there for the opening bell. They’d be intense, bell to bell. Then post close they’d put their party on. Sometimes it caught up to a lot of them-it wasn’t pretty. Some people I know figured it out and beat it.

    Depression is different because there isn’t a substance you can take away. If I am a coke head, I can eliminate coke. If I am suffering from clinical depression, I can’t eliminate life. Much more pernicious and probably more difficult to deal with.

    I admire you for writing and talking about it.

  • mark gelband

    no matter
    how many times no matter
    the context or content no matter
    when you speak your truth
    as depressing as it may seem
    only on the surface
    no matter
    you bravely
    do more to mitigate
    the social stigma
    get way more than 10x
    the investment in humanity

    than beautiful product
    or people and product

    thanks

  • Terri Finney

    This is such a relevant topic. The statistics on depression in entrepreneurs is astounding. It’s impressive tthat you mustered the energy to be not only functional but successful. As you state so eloquently, other parts of your life suffered. Yes, thank you for keeping this topic in the forefront.

    • my last pay check was $7559 working 8 hours a week online. My sisters friend has been averaging 16k for months now and she works about 18 hours a week. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out. This is what I do…

      http://www.homebiz20.tk

      422

  • my last pay check was $7559
    working 8 hours a week online. My sisters friend has been averaging 16k for months
    now and she works about 18 hours a week.
    I can’t believe how
    easy it was once I tried it out. This is what I do…

    http://www.homebiz20.tk

    545

  • Great post and interview.

    Really connected with your perception of well being, appreciating your day, and recognizing it as a precious resource.