An open discussion about hypomania and depression in the startup community.
By (Startup and Publishing Consultant)
This post originally appeared on Medium.
Over the summer, entrepreneur Faigy Mayer was said to have sprinted toward a shrubbery-lined ledge of the terrace at 230 Fifth’s rooftop bar, climbed up, and jumped to her death, the Post reports.
When I learned about the tragic story, my heart broke for her and her family — and then my heart shattered again when I thought about how many more successful people struggle with mental health issues and how these polarizing and cyclical feelings of both hypomania and depression can be exacerbated in the startup environment. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about someone in the startup world committing suicide and sadly, it won’t be the last.
You probably know these people. You might be one of them.
If fact, you might think you are one of them after a quick Google on hypomania, depression and cyclothemia.
Many of the most successful leaders in history have suffered from some sort of mental health issues. Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression. Winston Churchill was thought to have had bipolar disorder. The list goes on and on… but remember, it’s all a spectrum, just like sexuality. Doctors try not to put a label on anyone. We all hate the buzzword “unicorn” in the startup world, but that’s what we all are. We’re all different.
Some people struggle. Others get help. Some yo-yo back and forth because they are scared of losing their edge if they start taking meds.
This is exactly why we need to start talking more about the ups and downs of entrepreneurship and how they mirror the ups and downs experienced by those who suffer from mental health issues. We need to ignore the stigma and figure out what we can do to help valuable startup team members without judgement.
If startup leaders are not scared of failure, then why do we avoid talking about the bumps in the road? I was afraid to talk about this — to out myself and many of my friends, but I’m doing it anyway. We need to encourage people to get help, rather than self-medicating or ignoring the problem until they crash and something tragic happens.
Forget Happy Hour
How many startups have a whole fridge for beer, available from morning until night — however late the night might go. How many startup employees have whiskey bottles at their desks? How many of these people are sleeping more than 3–4 hours a night? How many of these brilliant but restless people have to smoke a giant blunt just to calm down at the end of the day? How many of these people are abusing Adderall, developing drug addictions and having to buy the pills illegally when the dosage stops working and their doctors won’t prescribe more? How many of these people are chainsmoking — e-cigs or real cigs? Honestly, it doesn’t matter — we should all probably be breathing instead. The truth is self medication is the name of the game in this world and it only makes things worse.
Sometimes I look around the city and think, we’re all like this. We’re all hypomanic. If we can make it here, we’ll make it anywhere but the truth is that we all get depressed and burnt out at some point. The constant noise of the city quiets our minds, giving us some kind of peace — maybe like a New Yorker’s version of meditation. Let’s be honest though: there’s not a lot of people who moved to New York City to relax. I sure didn’t.
I am not saying that you should fire your developer because he’s moody sometimes. He probably doesn’t get enough sleep because he’s working all night long. I’m not saying your business development executive should be looked at any differently because after a few too many drinks at Happy Hour, she admitted that she took anxiety medication and really shouldn’t be drinking. Your developer is not going to fly off the handles and go crazy, and neither is she. In reality, she’s the one actually doing the right thing by beginning the process of taking care of herself so she doesn’t crash into depression and not make her goals. The developer might be experiencing hypomania. He just really needs a nap and probably can’t turn off because he can’t stop thinking about the workload. Give him a day off to rest and let him rest. Don’t call him every 5 minutes. He will be even more valuable to you when he gets back to work the next day, trust me.
The taboo of mental illness has existed forever. However, in a community where unrelenting optimism is so important, founders and startup team members have to keep a poker face regardless of how they are feeling that day. Sometimes their depression has nothing to do with their workload. In the case of Faigy, she didn’t feel her Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic family accepted her. She had feelings of rejection from her parents and her community. Her depression probably came from a much deeper place than the startup life. Negative thoughts can creep up on you, even if everyone else around you thinks that your life is all sunshine and rainbows. No one knows everyone’s life story.
Before reading the sad news, I ironically had spent the entire day working on a book proposal on this very subject and my own personal experiences with hypomania and depression. I immediately was inspired to write something to help our community understand. And like I said, I only know my story. I just don’t want someone who went through what I went through to feel alone. My hypomanic superpowers are my superpowers for life and business, regardless of medication or therapy. This is just me. I have no clue how some people drink several cups of coffee in the morning. I have to take an anxiety medication as soon as I wake up because I am unrealistically overambitious about what I’m going to do that day. This is the truth. No one in my professional life has ever known anything about this, nor should it change their perception of me.
With that being said, I have always gotten glowing recommendations from people I’ve worked with or for. I’m still a top performer. I still mentor and teach. I still consult and write. I still enjoy New York and my amazing friends. My family may continue to think I’m crazy, but my husband — who I’m crazy about — loves me and at the end of the day, one giant hug from him (and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s) can make all the sadness melt away. However, if he catches me in a hypomanic state — there will be post-it notes all over every wall of the apartment. I’ll be flooded with ideas about something for my work, my General Assembly class, my writing or even my dreams of “couple projects” I want to do with him. Yes, we are nerdy like that and I like to think he believes my post-it note “problem” is kinda cute.
Today, I thought about Faigy and all the other people who suffer silently. After years of working with entrepreneurs at Inc. Magazine, as well as launching an early-stage startup, I learned a lot about my dreams, my strengths, my limits and myself. In reality, I had to hit my lowest of lows to get there… and honestly it wasn’t all about the company exclusively.
Launching the company and the instability of the seed capital stage made me feel anxious and on edge, but my enthusiasm covered it all up. I loved what I was doing but I didn’t tell anyone how I really felt — honestly, it was like the moment I found out my mom was diagnosed with Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer. Back then, I was just a teen and there was no way for me to control what was going on. I went into hypomanic overachiever overdrive, not unlike the girl from the movie Election. I always wanted to make my mother proud. I always wanted to bring home good news. I put an insane amount of pressure on myself to achieve. My mom magically survived 11 years of treatments before she passed away five years ago. For over a decade, I was always feeling like the ground under me was unstable — that it could fall out at anytime. That’s pretty much how early stage startups work, too. You get surprised when they succeed and every single day, you’re worried what horror the next day will bring. Or both.
Let’s do this for Faigy. Her memory should serve as a reason to start talking more about this issue and preventing it from happening to more ambitious leaders.
A little crazy is a lot of awesome and without these personalities, your company wouldn’t be the same. They are your secret weapons — the ones who have a breakneck pace. You count on these people to kill it and they will.
The Head of Product from my former startup came to visit me in NYC a little while ago. He worked out of L.A. and we had only met in person once before. However, we were bicoastally attached at the hip (read: screen) while developing the product. We communicated exclusively on Google Hangout, Google Chat and the phone. When we finally met up in person again, I told him I was writing a memoir about mental illness as it relates to the startup experience. I explained what hypomania was and how it was my superpower in life, but eventually a downfall for my overall health. I told him my scariest stories and what led me to get help. He never knew anything was wrong. After a couple drinks at the bar, my wall broke down for the first time to someone other than my husband. I started rattling off about hypomania and the list of symptoms I experienced. I explained how I was on a swing that went from hypomania to depression, back and forth. His girlfriend nodded her head and faced him. I could see her making check marks as she patted his shoulder. He rarely showed his frustration. We never really talked about it. He just looked tired on Google Hangout. Really, really tired.
At first, we were both flying so high — excited about making something beautiful from nothing. Our ideas were fast and furious. We could figure out how to do anything because we were so damn passionate about the company and the future.
Talking about our shared experience so freely in the bar that night made me feel better; knowing how well I covered it up for so long made me feel like a rockstar.
About the guest blogger: Alison Taffel Rabinowitz is a power networker, innovator and savvy business development professional. She is also a helpful mentor for young women in the startup and media world. Alison consults for publishing companies, startups and a New York incubator, while also working on her dream of writing a New York Times Best Seller. Follow her on Twitter at @taffel.