I've been quiet the past two months. “Eerily quiet” as one friend put it. I've had many a reason for the silence but haven’t had the opportunity, or voice, to talk about it up until this point. In fact, even right now isn't a good time — I worked a fifteen hour billable day, was on solo parenting duty this evening and now I’m lying in bed at 2am, exhausted — but I need to get all of this off my chest.
A CHANGE WILL DO YOU GOOD
I started 2015 needing a change in my life. I had been feeling, for quite some time, that I had become a bit “lost” in my own business — I was spending a lot of time filling up the buckets of my sub-contractors and ensuring that they always had fun and interesting projects to work on. In the process, I stopped filling up my own bucket and became a bit disoriented.
My company was founded in 2004 as a virtual assistance firm because I love helping people. There is no greater joy in life, for me, than having someone lean on me for support and giving me the opportunity to help them. I love the feeling of being needed and an integrated part of a team / company. However, what had happened over the last two years is that I moved from being in the company, working with clients, to managing the company. Managing my sub-contractors, the clients, expectations, timelines, invoicing… managing and not doing my passion work.
So, recognizing the need for change, I began to take steps toward making that change a reality.
A BLOW TO THE SIDE OF THE HEAD THAT I DIDN'T SEE COMING
In January, I learned that one of my sub-contractors, someone that I relied on quite heavily both professionally and personally, was going through some intense personal issues. They needed to back out of most of their recurring work but wanted to stay on board to complete their larger projects. This meant that I needed to re-assign all of their regular tasks to other team members, myself included, and free them up instantly.
We chatted about the future and what the possibilities were and we came up with a really good plan for moving forward. They would manage the web side of the business completely and independently and I would manage the marketing / virtual assistance / project management side completely and independently. We would be preferred referral partners for each other and house the services under one roof. I felt optimistic about the change as it instituted a higher level of control for both of us.
However, as the weeks turned into months, it became quite obvious that the plan wasn't going to happen as discussed. I became the sole supporter for my clients and needed to step into 40+ client projects to fulfill the promises we had made together. Without knowing where certain projects were at, that meant extra hours every day spent sussing through projects (unbillable) and connecting with clients for phone conversations.
PUSHED TO A BREAKING POINT
I did 10+ billable hour days most days after that happened and, in the midst of the chaos, I changed my entire business model. You see, the old model was only sustainable when I had a larger pool of sub-contractors working across multiple projects. The moment that changed, the business model no longer fit and that meant that I was unsure how I would manage cash flow moving forward. So, feeling battered and bruised from the situation, I set out to find a solution that would work.
I decided to move to a retainer model. The retainer model would allow me to support fewer clients and go deeper with them to be able to go back to that place that I so loved — the supporting place. It would mean that I could really get invested into my client’s businesses instead of skirting through quickly. I was nervous about pitching this idea to my clients, especially those that I've had for years, but I had to. The old model was no longer sustainable and I needed to pivot quickly. I sent out a few e-mails to the clients who were already using us on a regular basis and proposed the new plan. It turned out, people loved the idea and thus, a new model was born.
Even though I had secured this new business model, I still had other open projects to take care of. You see, the sub-contractor that I had worked with and I had created a business that supported both of our areas of expertise. However, there was not much cross-over. They focused on the web side and I did not. The business brought in business to both sides and that meant that I was left with multiple projects that I could not fully support. In hindsight, this was a mistake on my part but one never expects for their person to disappear suddenly.
The open projects, and the stress around trying to fulfill work that I couldn't do, pushed me to a breaking point. I went from being fully functional one day to comatose and unresponsive the next. I was consumed by something greater than myself and it nearly destroyed me.
A DELICATE STATE OF MIND
I remember waking up one morning with severe chest pain and shortness of breath. I stared at the navy blue curtain hanging over my window with my thoughts flying through my brain at warp speed. I felt like I was losing grip on reality and I struggled to stay calm. The overwhelm, stress and anxiety of the past few weeks hit me like a semi-truck.
I remember lying in my bed that morning giving myself a pep talk. However, this wasn't a typical pep talk for me but rather one that included just one, simple task: “Slide your leg to the edge of the bed and stand up.” As much as I willed myself to move my leg, I couldn't. The weight of the situation kept me pinned to the bed. Silent tears streamed down my face.
I must have stayed like that for hours, my brain fighting an intense battle with itself. I knew that I needed to get up and figure things out but the emotion of it all kept me stuck.
The panic attacks sending my body bursts of adrenaline, which would make my skin feel like it was on fire. The fire on my skin causing me to have anxiety about it recurring.
I finally did get out of bed once I made myself the promise that all I needed to do was shower. I didn't need to do any work, I didn't need to face the situation… all I needed to do was turn on the hot water and stand in it. I made a deal with myself that I could even skip washing my hair if I really didn't feel like it. The only thing that got me through that day was bargaining with myself at every juncture.
As the days progressed, I got much, much worse. I wasn't eating, I wasn't sleeping and the seasonal depression that I had before this all started had turned into full blown depression.
I felt like I was losing grip on everything I had worked for… everything that was in my current reality and everything that was in my future. I disassociated myself with most people because I felt like a fraud.
I felt like I had failed and was therefore an imposter. My generally positive outlook was replaced with repetitive negative thoughts and I struggled to survive.
HITTING ROCK BOTTOM
I was out for dinner with my family, after they convinced me that showering and going out would be good for me, and I couldn't put food to my mouth.
I couldn't have normal conversations with my family because I felt ashamed about where I had let myself get to. I envied their happiness and the ease at which they put their chopsticks to pieces of sushi and how jovial their laughter was.
I longed for that version of me — the one who had all but disappeared under the weight of the anxiety, stress and depression.
I looked at my dad and asked him for his car keys. I knew that my sister and her boyfriend could drive him home and I needed out of there. I felt like everyone in the restaurant was staring at me and could see my sadness. The walls felt like they were closing in on me and I needed to escape. When I hit the cold air, I ran to the car and once inside, screamed at the top of my lungs for what felt like five solid minutes. The screams gave way to body wracking sobs and I knew that I was no longer capable of handling this on my own. I drove myself straight to a nearby clinic.
Once inside, I walked up to the receptionist, with puffy red eyes, and asked to see a doctor. She told me that the doctor wasn't seeing any other patients because they were close to closing time and she asked if I wanted to book in with my doctor instead. I looked at her, the tears flowing down my raw cheeks again, and simply said,
“If I don’t see a doctor, I may not make it through the night. My overwhelm and anxiety and sadness may kill me.”
Fifteen minutes later, I was with the doctor.
The doctor that saw me was incredible. She stayed late and talked to me about everything that was going on. When it was clear that I wasn't able to take a break from my problems (the challenge of being self-employed), she offered me medication to at least help me sleep temporarily. She completed a test with me, one that focuses on mental health, and it turned out that I was only one notch above the worst possible place you can get to. The only thing below where I was currently at was “suicidal with a plan.” I fulfilled my prescription and headed home.
My dad had gone back to my house at that point and my mom had taken care of Willow (my four year old daughter) and had her bathed and sleeping by the time I got back. After walking into my house and seeing my parents, I broke down emotionally, mentally and physically. I cried on my dad’s shoulder until I couldn't cry any more tears. He and my mom talked to me about what was going on and they offered some suggestions. Mostly though, they listened to me and told me that they would do anything that I needed them to do.
The days that followed got worse before they got better. Much, much worse.
I remember walking around my house on a Saturday, when I was all alone, and I couldn't land on any particular thought or emotion. I went from thoughts of hopelessness to panic-induced mania and everything in between. I moved from my couch to my bed to the darkness that existed inside my walk-in closet. I saw my family doctor who noted my considerable weight loss and fragile mental state and she made some medical suggestions. My skin remained on fire — the adrenaline rushes a constant reminder that my body was in shock. I was in fight or flight mode and couldn't come down from it.
PULLING MYSELF UP AND OUT
One day, after suffering through this darkness for what felt like an eternity, I finally decided that I needed to take one small action every day to dig myself out of this mess that was left for me to deal with. One small task turned into two, two turned into four and I slowly began to see progress occur. The progress that was occurring began to give me more peace of mind as well — I couldn't see the end but I certainly could feel that something was being done and that felt progressive for me.
However, I did feel the need to eliminate the “noise” from my calendar and give myself time to heal emotionally and mentally. So, I cancelled everything I could from my calendar and said “no” a whole lot over those next couple of weeks. I needed to distance myself from the things that triggered me. I needed time to process and to get my business back on track. Time to understand why my sub-contractor was doing what they were doing and time to forgive myself for getting into the mess.
My support systems continued to be incredible saviours. From my ex to my parents to my sister to my best friend, they all rose up to support me and they did whatever they could to bring me back to myself. I had a much-needed coffee with an old friend and that seemed to be a turning point for me. I received some solid advice, I got out of my house and cleared my head and was reminded, in our reflection-filled conversation, who I was and where I was going.
Through the upswing, I was still treading extremely lightly. I knew that a momentary feeling of positivity could spiral me into pushing as hard as I did before and I did not want to burnout again. Conservation of energy was key.
STIGMA, SELF-EMPLOYMENT AND SOLITUDE
Throughout this dark time, I struggled a lot with three things.
One, I had a business to run but I also had a body and mind to take care of and couldn't seem to do both at the same time. I realized, by going through it, that there were very little resources available for a self-employed person who may be dealing with a mental health crisis. There wasn't an option for financial relief nor was there support in or with the business.
Two, I talk about everything so openly but I felt like I couldn't talk about this. I felt like talking openly about a mental health crisis would have detrimental effects on my business. I felt like the clients that I had just moved to a retainer would be nervous about my ability to cope with stress. I was afraid that I would become labelled by this moment. So, I did what a lot of people who are struggling do — I stayed (mostly) silent.
Three, this wasn't me. I was the woman who could push through anything and come out the other side (mostly) unscathed. I had incredible mental fortitude and an ability to manage copious amounts of stress. I was myself one day and someone I couldn't recognize the next. The speed at which this had taken hold of me was incredibly frightening. I began to self-doubt, self-judge and felt like I was moving further and further from the person I was.
I am fortunate that what I went through didn't last long. I am fortunate that I had the ability to still push through before I destroyed everything. I am fortunate that I had an incredible support system of people who love me immensely and who would go above and beyond for me. I feel like I owe everyone who stepped up during that time my life — the calls, the messages, the visits, the patience and the understanding were (and still are) so incredibly valuable to me.
However, there is an important message to share here.
We (collectively) need to find ways to better support entrepreneurs who are in a crisis due to stress, anxiety and overwhelm. We need to find a way to reduce the stigma so that entrepreneurs don’t feel silenced.
We live in a society that values fortitude and optimism and business owners must have both in abundance. We have been taught that the weak do not rise to the top and as a result, we have become extremely well-versed in “impression management.” We stuff our vulnerabilities down under the sheets knowing full well that there is only one place for them — hidden and out of sight. In doing so, we fake it until we either make it or, in many cases, crumble under the weight of it all.
The silence we maintain around struggle, especially as an entrepreneur, needs to be lifted. We need to speak out.
THE ROAD AHEAD IS PAVED WITH CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM
Now that I am a few weeks out from my depression, and feeling so much better, I am proceeding forward with cautious optimism.
Through the experience that I had, I have learned a lot of valuable lessons that I plan on implementing and holding onto. Things like: have backup plans in place for everything; speak up about the overwhelm when it first hits versus waiting until it’s gone too far; know that I’m (unfortunately) not alone in this silent suffering but I don’t need to stay there and finally, that reaching out for help doesn't make me weak.
I have thought about the experience I went through and why it had such a profound effect on me and I have come to the conclusion that it was the perfect storm. I was pushing for a big change and then felt trapped in a situation that was overwhelming, driven by someone else’s agenda and felt hopeless. Had it not been the coldest, darkest months of the year and had I not already been feeling a bit isolated and lonely working from home, perhaps the situation may not have had as much of an effect on me. But, it did and even though I didn't think I would, I survived it.
I’m cautiously optimistic about everything right now. I am holding onto the hope that my business will be stronger as a result of this setback and that sharing this story won’t have detrimental effects on me personally or my business. I am hopeful that the clients who may read this, present and future, understand.
If you’re reading this and you’re struggling through anxiety, stress, overwhelm or depression yourself, I want to encourage you to seek help.
Reach out to someone. Speak your truth and don’t be ashamed about it. There are many fantastic organizations that exist to help with mental health, depression and suicide. You are not alone.
To close out this story, I leave you with a quote from Robert Frost that helped me immensely through this experience. I hope it helps you, too.
This post originally appeared on my blog. You can read more articles about life as an entrepreneur, vulnerability and emotional connection here.