As Amy and I get ready to return to Boulder today and physically re-enter the human race, I woke up this morning thinking about how I’m feeling emotionally. We’ve had an excellent three weeks up at our house in Homer, Alaska, far away from the people we know. Our only friends up here are our neighbors (whom we adore) so other than one visitor (Matt Shobe – who we also adore) it’s been a very solitary and physically introverted time.
I’ve been working a lot – typically on video conferences and phone calls for four to eight hours a day. Toss in email, some projects, and my daily writing and you’ve got a full schedule. But it’s been alone, with just Amy, in our house, far away from other people. The days have been long, with lots of light, late dinners, and even later nights since the sun doesn’t go down until after midnight. And that’s been good for my soul.
Several months ago I received the following question in email. It’s similar to a number of emails I’ve received and I thought of it this morning as I was pondering my mental health so I figured I’d riff on it a little.
“I have been struggling with depression for a while. I want to write about it, but I’m afraid that it will really negatively impact me professionally. Some investor might not write me a check, because he/she will think that I’m not a good bet, or maybe someone will think twice about hiring me down the line. Have you found people treat you differently after you’ve written about your depression? Have you had opportunities close up? Would you recommend writing about it for someone who is not as established as you are?”
Following is a rambling rant on each question.
Would you recommend writing about it for someone who is not as established as you are?”: I have no idea. In my case, I started writing about it without considering the implications. The transparency movement was one of the motivations that resulted in me starting to blog in 2004 as I played some follow the leader with my friends Fred Wilson and Jerry Colonna, who each discovered the joy of blogging shortly before I did. A decade later, I continued to believe deeply in the value of transparency as well as authenticity, which has been reinforced through my work with Rand Fishkin, Sarah Bird, Moz, and Moz’s TAGFEE code. I try to be myself, be direct, be open, and own my thoughts and ideas all the time. So it would have been opaque and inauthentic not to talk openly about depression and, given that transparency and authenticity are a key part of my value system, I never gave it a second thought beyond realizing that if I didn’t talk openly about depression, I was bullshitting myself and violating some of my core values. That said, I have no idea if it’s a good idea for someone else to write about their depression – it’s going to depend on their value system, circumstance, and mental/emotional state. However, I do know that talking about it, even privately, has helped me address my depression, so I encourage anyone who is struggling with depression to make sure they at least have a few people in their lives who they can talk to openly about what is going on with them.
Have you found people treat you differently after you’ve written about your depression? Have you had opportunities close up? I’ve had three experiences: a few mildly negative, a few irrelevant, and many overwhelmingly positive. I’ll start with the negative. Several people who I previously was close to withdrew from interacting with me. I have no idea why – I can only speculate that they were uncomfortable, afraid, or ashamed of something, or for me. I’ve proactively reached out to several of them now that I’m not depressed and re-established close relationships, so the dynamics here are a mystery to me. A few people, instead of being passive, were openly hostile to me. I ignored them as I realized their hostility was likely more about them than about me. Many, many people reached out, provided support, opened up about their own depression, thanked me for providing leadership on this issue, or words for them, or just an example of a successful person who struggled with depression. This was the overwhelming feedback and resulted in a number of new, interesting, and powerful relationships for me. Many of the conversations I had with this set of people helped me work through my depression and better understand myself, and many of them told me that I had a similar impact on them.
Reflecting on this rant, I think people do interact with me differently in a way that is very positive and powerful. There is a lot more connection and empathy in my relationships. I’ve always had a lot of this since it’s the way I’m wired, but now it extends to many of the relationships I have from a distance, online, or are business interactions with relatively little physical or social interaction. It’s easier to get real about what is going on when things are difficult or when I see someone else struggling. And, when I need a break from humans, I just take it without worrying about it or wondering what people are thinking. At some level, I’ve let go of another layer of external judgment and validation, which already was largely absent from my psychological construct since I’m so deeply intrinsically motivated. But by helping people understand me better, they can related to me better and I can relate to them better.
So – overall – being open about and writing about my struggles with depression has been a huge plus for me.
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.
I’ve been very open about my struggles with depression over the years. A few weeks ago, I participated in a Q&A with Greg Avery at the Denver Business Journal titled Brad Feld Q&A: Bringing depression out of the shadows in startups. It was part of a more extensive series on Depression, entrepreneurs and startups.
Since I’m still getting emails about it, I thought I’d republish the Q&A here.
Q: How common is the issue of depression in the startup world?
A: Very common, although it is rarely discussed. While the line between stress, deep anxiety, and depression often blurs, most entrepreneurs struggle with broad mental health issues at various points in their lives.
Q: How hard was it to acknowledge your struggle to yourself? And how hard was it to explain it to your partners and your peers?
A: Initially it was extremely hard. When I was in my mid-20s, running a successful company and clinically depressed, I was afraid to talk to anyone other than my psychiatrist about it. I was ashamed that I was even seeing a psychiatrist.
I was afraid people wouldn’t take me seriously, or would stop respecting me, if I talked about how bad I was feeling. The only people I talked openly about it with was my business partner, Dave Jilk, and my girlfriend — now wife — Amy Batchelor. They were amazingly supportive, but even then I was deeply ashamed about my weaknesses.
Q: When did you start to be so open about it?
A: After I became depressed for the second time, in my mid-30s — in 2001 just after Sept. 11 through the end of the year. The last three months of 2001 were awful for me after an 18-month stretch from the peak of the Internet bubble — spring 2000 through Sept. 11, 2001. That was a relentless slide downhill on all fronts.
Sept. 11 was the trigger point for this depression. I was in New York City after a red-eye from San Francisco, landing at 6 a.m. on 9/11. I was asleep in my hotel room in midtown [Manhattan] when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. While I was never in harm’s way, I was terrified, exhausted, and emotionally distressed.
Once I got back to Boulder, I didn’t travel for the rest of the year. In 2002, when most of my VC and entrepreneurial colleagues were having a terrible year, I acknowledged how much I had struggled in 2001, although I was still relatively discreet about it.
When I got depressed again at the end of 2012, I was open about it this time as it was happening and throughout the process. I knew at this point how to handle it and that it would pass.
I also knew many, many entrepreneurs also struggled with depression but, like I had been earlier in life, were afraid to discuss it.
Q: How much does the issue of mental health differ in startups from the world at large?
A: In general, I don’t know. But leaders and entrepreneurs are programmed to “never show weakness”, so I expect there’s much more pressure to keep it hidden and suppressed, which if you’ve ever been depressed, can make things much worse.
Q: Looking back, how much has your work, or work style, been a factor in your depression?
A: There are many things about my depressions that I still don’t understand. I have been able to identify trigger points for the various depressions, which include physiological exhaustion, boredom, and major life changes [divorce, dropping out of a Ph.D. program].
Most recently, things started with a 50-mile race I did in April 2012 that I never physiologically recovered from, followed by a near-death bike accident in September 2012, a very intense stretch of work which included writing two books in the midst of everything — “Startup Communities” and “Startup Life” — the death of my dog, and ultimately a kidney stone that required surgery.
At one level, I was exhausted. I was also bored — my work was fine, but I wasn’t learning very much. I’m hugely intrinsically motivated and have always believed that I’m fueled and motivated by learning. In this case, I was teaching a lot, mostly around “Startup Communities”. But I wasn’t spending any time learning. After coming out of the depression, I realized this was a huge part of things and have subsequently redefined my intrinsic motivation as a combination of learning and teaching. Now that I’m 49, I realize this makes a lot more sense.
Q: How well does the startup and VC world handle issues of mental health? What would you change about it?
A: Until a few years ago, we generally sucked at it. The philosophy around leaders and entrepreneurs never showing weakness dominated and we were told never to let ourselves be vulnerable. Fortunately, leaders like [venture capitalist and professional coach] Jerry Colonna have helped many leaders and entrepreneurs understand the power of being vulnerable and we now at least have an open and productive conversation around it.
Q: Can an executive afford to show any vulnerability and still hope to succeed in leading employees and attracting funding?
A: Yes absolutely. It’s all about culture, style, and self-awareness. And, it’s much easier to be yourself, allow yourself some vulnerability, intellectual and emotional honesty on your path to being a great leader.
Q: What would you say to a founder who’s grappling with depression but feeling their success might hinge on not letting it be known?
A: I mostly try to listen, be empathetic, and introduce the person to other peers who have struggled with the same thing. I talk openly about my experiences, but claim them as mine, rather than suggest that there are generic solutions.
When ask directly what to do, I offer opinions, but I don’t lead with them, nor do I expect that I will — or that I can — solve the person’s problem. I can simply be a resource for them.
Q: Have you actually had these conversations?
A: I’ve had these conversations many, many times.
Q: What do you suggest to people who need help?
A: Talk to your mentors, your peers, and your partners. Take the risk of being vulnerable.
Q: Are there resources you’ve discovered that are particularly geared or well-suited to entrepreneurs?
Mahendra Ramsinghani, my friend and co-author of Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors, is starting work on his third book to be titled Depression – A Founder’s Companion. If this is an important topic to you, please spend 10 minutes on the survey Mahendra is doing.
After the recent passing of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, the conversation around depression and suicide has escalated in a generally constructive way. More people are talking openly about depression, especially among highly creative and successful people. While the stigma around depression and other mental health issues in our society is still extremely significant, the leadership from an increasing number of visible people around their struggles is starting to make a dent in the stigma.
Mahendra’s goal is to publish a book that tells stories, anecdotes, triggers, advice, poetry, and support of all kinds from people who have struggled with depression. It’ll be aimed at, but not limited to, entrepreneurs who have struggled with depression. By compiling and sharing this writing, the journey can become easier and the stigma may continue to be diminished.
While I am not writing the book, I am supporting the concept and have agreed to write the foreword. I believe now is the time for us to accelerate our awareness of depression and continue to build support systems to help founders. We should not wait for yet another star to burn-out prematurely.
The data Mahendra is collecting on the Google form-based survey is anonymized. If you want to connect with Mahendra to go deeper on this topic, there’s an optional field at the end of the survey for your email address.
For anyone who is willing to participate in this project, thanks in advance.
While not a comfortable thing to talk about on Monday morning – or any morning for that matter – the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain last week generated much public discussion. And, while the suicides were tragic, some of what people said and wrote were powerful and helpful to me.
I’ve talked openly about my struggles over the years with depression. I’ve been fortunate that suicidal ideation has not been a part of this for me. I’m also fortunate that I have a partner – in Amy – who I have a set of rules with if I ever start to go down that path. Basically, I feel safe, even in my worst distress, that someone is watching and is there for me, even in my darkest moments.
The stigma around depression in our society continues to be a huge burden for people suffering from it. This is especially true for high profile and successful people. In addition to the internal loops that get created by depression, there is external judgment, as in “You are successful – what business do you have being depressed – just shake it off!” that weighs on the depressed person. And, anyone who has ever been depressed knows that when the black dog is barking at you, it’s hard to hear anyone, or anything, else.
Several people I know wrote great posts worth reading to get more context. Each post touches on a different aspect of depression, against the backdrop of the suicides, in a very personal way.
Christopher Schroeder – Anthony Bourdain and the “Impossible” Suicide
Laura Rich – Kate Spade and Depression After Business Exit
If you, like me, were rattled by the suicide of either Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain, I encourage you to let yourself feel the emotions you are feeling. It’s a line Amy uses with me all the time: “Brad, feel your emotions.” Don’t suppress them. Just feel them. Process them. And then reflect on what you are feeling. Any, more importantly, explore why you felt them.
It’s probably uncomfortable. But it’s part of being human. And, while tragic, we can learn from it to help ourselves, and help others.
It’s a sunny morning in Toronto, so it’s time for a run. That always helps me clear my mind.
Over 300 million people around the world suffer from depression. I’m one of them and have written extensively about my experience with it. The following 90-second video gives you a little more context on this.
April 7th is the World Health Organizations “World Health Day” and the theme of this year’s World Health Day is Depression: Let’s Talk. UCLA is engaging in a number of activities in commemoration of World Health Day. One of these activities is a social media campaign to publicly recognize a number of individuals who their campus has identified as a #DepressionHero. The UCLA Grand Challenge Facebook and Twitter accounts have been generating lots of content around this and I’m doing a public interview next week (I’ll post the details when I have the final information.)
I’m particularly tuned into this right now as I recently avoided a major depressive episode. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you may have picked up the tone of my increasing distress from posts in the first two weeks of February, including This Page Intentionally Left Blank, Generosity Burnout, and The Power Of A Digital Sabbath.
By Valentine’s Day, which corresponds to a low point in my depression of 2013, I realized I was heading for a bad place and I took a bunch of aggressive corrective actions, including shutting down all travel. Several of my close friends showed up quickly for me, including my partners who know me extremely well. Amy was clear thinking and awesome. We took a vacation for the first two weeks of March and by the mid-March, I knew I was fine and had dodged the depressive episode.
I’m fortunate that I’ve done the work, have professional help, incredibly supportive friends, and the universe’s best spouse to help me when the black dog shows up at my doorstep. Many are less fortunate, like the entrepreneur I didn’t know who unexpectedly to everyone around him committed suicide last week. I’m close with a colleague of his and the shock to the collective system is immense.
When I was in LA in February, I was at a group dinner with Dave Morin, a longtime friend of mine. A segment of the dinner was a discussion around depression among entrepreneurs which had some very difficult and challenging moments (on multiple dimensions). After the dinner, Dave and I had a brief conversation where he told me more about his involvement in the UCLA Grand Challenge on Depression. I told him that I’d be honored to help out in any way I could. I hope this is simply the first step of a long relationship with UCLA on this front.
Last week an email hit the Foundry Group EXEC list from Betabrand’s CMO Aaron. I asked him if I could share it because it was full of some enlightening stuff around depression that was prompted by the suicide of a friend of Aaron’s. He said yes. Aaron – thanks for helping eliminate the stigma around depression.
Following is the email Aaron sent to the Foundry Group EXEC list.
Hey everyone – I know that mental health issues have been discussed in this forum so I wanted to share something that surprised the hell out of me. TL;DR, a close friend of mine took his own life recently. None of his friends would have ever expected it or thought he was even remotely depressed.
Being totally taken by surprise, I shared a bit with our company via the email below just making sure no one felt alone or didn’t know where to turn to get help. As you can see, I sent this email 2 nights ago. So far, I’ve had 14 employees email me back sharing their stories of their own depression and that of their friends/family members that have also committed suicide. We have 76 employees, so that’s almost 20% of our workforce that has responded so far! I have no idea how many others have their own stories and just aren’t ready to share, but I can only assume that n>1.
Our little world can be lonely and isolating. This is just another reminder that you are not alone. If you’re like me and lucky enough to have never dealt with depression, understand that you can be the person that lends support to someone else. Make sure your staff knows what support you/the company offer and where to turn if they want/need help. You may be amazed at the response you get. Thanks for reading & have a great weekend!
PS – We may not know each other, but if you ever want to talk, you alway have someone to call 415-xxx-xxxx
Following is the email Aaron referenced that he had sent out to the whole company.
Hey all – Sorry for the heavy email, but this is an important topic to me. Some of you know that I lost a close friend recently due to suicide. We had no idea he was depressed and dealing with his own demons and dark thoughts. Had we known, of course we all would have dropped everything to help in any way we could have. In dealing with his loss and confusion that goes with it, I’ve had numerous people reach out to me talking about their own challenges and stories about what they’ve been through (directly and with family members). As someone that had never dealt with depression, I had no idea how prevalent it was and how many people deal with this struggle daily. It made me also realize that I didn’t even know where to turn people to in order to talk to a professional about this.
I asked P… what, if any, support Betabrand offers and it turns out, we have a really great benefit to help exactly with these needs. I’m sure many of you already knew this, but many of you may not. The LifeCare Work-Life EAP program for Betabrand employees provides free, confidential help with a variety of personal, work-life and concierge needs, including emotional, relationship, chemical dependency, financial and legal needs. Trained EAP staff are available 24/7: 866-574-7256. This information can be found through our ADP portal. Login into ADP Totalsource, hover over Myself and click on Benefits Resource Center, then Life Management, and the EAP information/portal is listed under Programs. Again, if you want to reach out to them, it’s 100% confidential.
I hope none of you are dealing with depression. However, if you are, please know that you’re not alone, you’re surrounded by people that really care about you and that you can call me at any time: 415-xxx-xxxx. Also, if you are like me, there is a good chance that you do know someone that is suffering and you just aren’t aware. Check in with people that are important to you. Ask how they’re doing. Then, ask how they’re really doing. Let them ask how you’re doing. Then, tell them the truth. Have the hard conversations. Life is too short.
Lastly, I’d like to thank Chris & James for being so supportive over the last couple weeks with me needing to be out of the office. I’m lucky to work at an amazing company that understands that sometimes, life happens and that can be more important than selling pants.
Since I wrote about depression yesterday, I figured I’d highlight a long interview with Colorado Health & Wellness magazine on my history dynamics with depression titled Brad Feld’s Village.
I was interviewed by Sarah Protzman Howlett, who did a lot of research before the interview, and then spoke with a number of people close to me after we talked. She did a great job and the subsequent article captured a bunch of important things about depression. The only thing she got wrong was that I was wearing a Fitbit, not an Apple Watch.
There was a good summary of tactical things at the end of the article that a few people in my village (my wife Amy Batchelor and my close friends Dave Jilk and Jerry Colonna) suggested.
Call the doc. “Your primary-care doctor is a good place to start,” Batchelor says. “They have a much more public health component now, asking things like, ‘Are you safe at home?’ Take advantage of that access.”
Care for yourself. If you’re seeing your friend, loved one or spouse struggle, “It’s not selfish to take good care of yourself; you shouldn’t feel guilty if you need a break,” Batchelor says.
Give the gift of armor. By just showing up, you’re giving someone “an exoskeleton that they don’t themselves have or can’t create,” Colonna says.
Just be there. “You can’t really help actively,” Jilk says. “Consolation is kind of an error. It’s more about being there and listening.”
And don’t try to fix. “I see you’re struggling today” is a good jumping-off point, Colonna says, but don’t use it as a way to talk about your own experience (a common problem known as conversational hijacking).
Laugh. Or try to. “This is serious stuff, obviously,” Batchelor says, “but humor and laughter buoys the spirit and gives some relief in the moment.”
If you have a friend or colleague who is struggling with depression, I hope this is helpful.
This first appeared in the Boulder Community Health Foundation Summer 2019 Magazine in an article titled Taking On The Mental Health Stigma.
I started the second week of 2013 in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show. Within two hours of arriving, I was in my hotel room, the shade closed, the door locked, and in bed with a pillow over my head. I couldn’t deal with anything at all. Having been here before, I knew I was in a deep depression.
From all external perspectives, my life was going great. I was healthy, my business (Foundry Group) was successful, I had an excellent marriage to Amy Batchelor, was surrounded by numerous friends, and I got to live in Boulder, Colorado. But I was physiologically exhausted from 2012. I’d run an ultra-marathon in the spring that I never recovered from, had a near-death bike accident, and squeezed a marathon in October when I had no business running one. I was on the road 75% of the time, working constantly, dealing with the explosive growth of several of our investments while struggling through the challenges at others while writing two books. Ending up with a kidney stone in November that required surgery and a month of rest should have been the warning I needed to slow it all down and take care of myself.
I’m fortunate that my wife, business partners, family, and friends are helpful to me when I’m depressed. I’m in a privileged position of having the financial resources to do whatever I need to do. I have a job that provides me a lot of flexibility. And I’m no longer afraid of being depressed or ashamed of being public about my struggles with depression and anxiety.
I had my first major depressive episode in my mid-20s. While I probably had been depressed prior to that, I never really processed it as depression. I was one of those kids who was successful at almost everything I tried, loved by my parents, and comfortable growing up. One day I found myself in the middle of a divorce, being kicked out of a Ph.D. program, and bored of my work at my first company, even though it was successful. I was lucky to have a Ph.D. advisor who was able to recommend a psychiatrist to me. I was quickly diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and again lucky to have a psychiatrist who was able to combine CBT and medication to help me overcome OCD while providing a safe space for me to explore my underlying anxiety disorder and the root causes of it.
At the time, I was incredibly ashamed of everything around my depression. I was ashamed that I was depressed. I hated that I took medicine. I was terrified that someone would find out that I was going to a psychiatrist. I was afraid to tell anyone I worked with, other than my business partner, that I was depressed. I thought CEOs and leaders had to be strong and show no weakness.
Again, I was lucky. My business partner Dave was supportive, even when he didn’t really know what to do. My new girlfriend (now my wife) Amy didn’t view me like a broken toy she needed to fix but rather acknowledged that I was going through a difficult time as we began our relationship. I had several friends and family members who showed up for me.
During my 2013 depressive episode, I blogged openly about my struggles and what I did. Since I was no longer ashamed of being depressed, I thought it might be helpful to talk about things. I had a large audience of readers and quickly ended up interviewed by a number of national business publications, including Inc. and Fortune. Several high-profile entrepreneurs had recently committed suicide and mental health was starting to be talked about in entrepreneurial circles, so I became a visible example of a successful entrepreneur who struggled with depression but was willing to discuss it.
The combination of these experiences and my liberation from my shame surrounding depression helped me realize how pernicious the stigma around depression is in our society. I ended up talking with hundreds of entrepreneurs about their own experience with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and mania. In many cases, I was the first person, including family members, that they had ever discussed their struggles with.
I decided that part of my mission on this planet would be to help destigmatize the issues surrounding mental health. I won’t be done with this until we have achieved parity between prioritizing mental and physical health. Instead of being a stigmatized health issue, we need to talk about and treat mental health as we would any other physical health challenge. Cancer used to be a death sentence; now many cancers are treatable. Smallpox and polio were deeply misunderstood and mistreated; now they are largely eradicated. Diabetes, once a mysterious and crippling disease, is well understood and easily treated in most cases. Destigmatizing mental health issues and removing the barriers to care are critical to addressing and treating mental health diseases.
I’m incredibly moved by the community’s support of the Bolder Community Health initiative to expand critical mental health services. When Amy and I first heard about the effort to raise money for what is now the Della Cava Family Medical Pavilion, we immediately committed to getting involved. We are honored to be able to provide funding in support of the medical pavilion and for the establishment of the Anchor Point Mental Health Endowment and I’m thankful that my partners at Foundry Group have also provided a significant gift through our Pledge1% Fund.
Most importantly, I’m proud of everyone in our community who has supported this initiative, both functionally and financially. We are a special community at the forefront of many things in our society. Providing excellent care for people suffering and taking action to destigmatize mental health issues are important steps that we are pursuing in Boulder. Thank you to everyone who is helping us find our voice around this issue, elevate the conversation, and help destigmatize mental health.
My various posts on depression and my struggles with it generate a wide range of emails, some with suggestions, some with questions, and some with empathy. The following question is an example of what I get regularly.
“I read your blog every day and have read your book on living with an entrepreneur. Thanks for sharing your experiences with depression. I was wondering if you had any advice or resources for spouses of those going through depression. How does this impact Amy and how does she approach you and things when you go through this? I am struggling with this now in my marriage. It’s hard for me and I think it’s hard for our kids as well. My wife’s depression tests me like no other thing has and really pushes me to my limits of patience and understanding. How does one stay positive and productive when their loved one is suffering in a dark place? How do you maintain good communication through this without the anger and resentment coming out?”
I sat down with Amy this morning and came up with a list of things – from her perspective – that have helped her, and us, get through the depressive episodes. The italics are her suggestions; the text that follows is my thoughts and reactions to it.
Don’t try to fix things. I think it’s important to start here. When I’m depressed I don’t want to be “fixed.” If I knew how to fix myself, I would. But often things just get worse when I use this frame of reference. And, when someone else tries to fix me, I rarely can hear them, or even understand them. This often just makes the person trying to fix me frustrated, which just makes things worse. So start by accepting that the depressed person isn’t looking for a fix – quick or otherwise – when they are in the depths of a depression.
Make sure you take care of your own needs and do things for yourself that make you happy. I think this applies to anyone who has a partner with a major illness – a stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s, or depression. You are already pouring an enormous amount of your energy into your partner and not much, if anything, is coming back. Don’t neglect yourself. Spend time with friends. Do things that you love to do alone. Carve out time to just be.
Don’t take it personally – it’s not about you. This is a tough one. You are in a relationship with the depressed person. It’s natural to think – consciously or sub-consciously – that you are part of the problem. While you might be, don’t obsess about this. When your partner lashes out at you, absorb it rather than escalate. When your partner is non-responsive to you, be patient. Operate in the context of giving your partner the benefit of the doubt. Don’t try to fix things (see the note above), especially when you know that your partner is struggling with something that isn’t ultimately about you.
Be emotionally even keeled. Get a t-shirt that says “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The depression your partner is having will wear you down. Breathe deeply. Don’t suppress your emotions, but try to stay mellow, even when you feel yourself heating up or getting run down. And, if you are struggling with this …
Get therapy. Encourage your spouse to get therapy. Both Amy and I have had multi-year stretches of therapy. I like to refer to it as “spending an hour a week on Planet Brad.” I get one full hour, with my therapist, that is all about me. How fun is that? Well – sometimes it’s a lot of fun and sometimes it completely sucks, but I’ve always found it helpful.
Exercise. Let your endorphins free to race around your brain. Plus, this is a good way to take care of your own needs and do things for yourself.
Talk to friends and share the burden. Don’t follow Marge Simpson’s advice: “It doesn’t matter how you feel inside, you know. It’s what shows up on the outside that counts. Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down past your knees, until you’re almost walking on them. And then you’ll fit in, and you’ll be invited to parties, and boys will like you. And happiness will follow.” It’s wrong. Let your feelings out with your close friends. Ask them to just listen and be with you, not try to fix you.
Try to be optimistic that this will pass. Even the first time Amy had to deal with a depressive episode of mine, which lasted two years, she was optimistic it would pass. She hung in there. The third time we had to deal with this (last year), she knew it would pass and that made it easier.
Watch comedies. Try for laughter. I’d be laying in bed, not really interested in doing anything and suddenly Amy would come bounding into the room and say “One chance only to watch Uncle Buck with me.” I have zero resistance to a John Candy movie and even though I know Amy would rather watch The English Patient, we both realize that laughter is helpful.
If you’ve read this far, go take a look at Depression Part 2 by Hyperboleandahalf to better understand how your depressed partner is feeling.