This essay is one of a short series of guest posts exploring the topic of entrepreneurship, and how on top of the usual challenges faced by anyone who starts a small business from scratch, some of us also experience blocks and obstacles arising from mental or physical health difficulties.
Mental Illness & Entrepreneurship – Owning Nonstandard Narratives
Three weeks ago, I was going to write a piece about my mental health journey and how it informs my fledgling attempts at entrepreneurship. I’m still owning all the parts of myself: crazy lady, black woman, intuitive, queer, pervert, the bastard parts we normally hide, if we can. I wanted to make the case that as they are claimed, these parts become part of my nonstandard narrative. That my shame becomes my superpower.
But then a dark mental cloud rolled in. I was filled with doubt. My energy dropped. It seems to be seasonal, my energetic retraction. Luckily, it doesn’t match my expansions. It’s been a very expansive decade for me. And if this year, my darkness were to match my light, I might not write again for another decade. Certainly, I wouldn’t finish this piece. I’d not even write one more sentence. The dark cloud passed. As I trusted it would. This trust is what sustains me in life and business.
An End’s Beginning
There were a few semesters in undergrad where I could count the number of times I saw daylight on one hand. One of the few reasons I left my dorm room was to see a doctor, counselor, or therapist. I remember the walk across campus to meet with my therapist the final time.
I remember the skin on my hands and my chewed up cuticles being even drier and more mangled than usual. The air was so cold that it sent a sharp pain to my lungs with each breath. The damp grass was covered with white patches of old, dirty snow. I remember the pain in my eyes from the shock of the sun against blue skies. Sunny days were rare at my school due to the climate. Even so, I hated them. They reminded me of the part of the day I could never fully participate in. I’d be in too much pain or discomfort from side effects, or unable to go outside without the aid of medicine.
When I left the therapist’s office that final time, my perspective was permanently shifted. He admitted that he didn’t believe therapy was for me. After diagnosis, I learned to doubt my thoughts and second guess my intuition every day, all day. It was for the best. It was what I needed, at the time, to grow a new voice of reason. But once my therapist confirmed what I had already been feeling, it was as if, at least concerning this thing, I wasn’t crazy. It was like I had his permission to trust my perception in this small way. It was the most validating discussion I’d had with any counselor.
I left the office and saw the same snow, sky, and sun, and breathed the same violent air. But it was different on the way out. Somehow, the full weight of being responsible for my mental health was more comforting to me than journeying to someone else and trusting their narrative about me and what I should do. It would be many more years before I started to own and construct my healing nonstandard narrative, but this was the first of many steps.
When I first put up my website, siobhansmirror.com, I was terrified of the bio page. It’s supposed to be my webpage’s name tag: the thing that tells people who I am and what I’m doing on the internet. I read other people’s bios, and I noticed that they were talking about their lives. I also saw that not many of them spoke of growing up poor, depressed, bullied, closeted, anxious, or alone. None of their lives sounded like mine. I figured this had to be a bad sign…
The thing about mental illness is that even though there are a large number of people quietly sharing similar nonstandard experiences, we’ll never know. Because of stigma, many hide their symptoms and their struggle. Subsequently, we feel alone. Growing up my illness blindsided me in multiple ways. I was so ashamed; I wouldn’t take advantage of resources and advocacy programs that might have helped me. I was so immersed in my experience of suffering that I was unable to notice any of my privilege as someone with access to healthcare and higher education. Also, I failed to connect with others like me.
As a queer black woman, I spent most of my adult life comparing myself to standard narratives. Because my family was one of those that didn’t have awareness about mental health, it took me longer to notice that I had nonstandard mental/emotional states. The mental health practitioners that I had access to weren’t prepared for my cultural differentness. They weren’t as prepared to help me. This meant two very important things to my journey:
I had to cultivate an approach to health and wellness that focused on my personal power and was increasingly less dependent on medical practitioners and my country’s medical system.
I had to cultivate beliefs that ran contrary to standard narratives, allowing, no, requiring me to own and create my narrative.
Owning my narrative was/is challenging. Especially at first. I didn’t know where to find support or even that I needed it. Things got worse before they got better. I stopped taking meds. I self-medicated. I lost two family members in the span of a few months. Finally, a broken rib and debilitating depression afforded me the time and the need to think about recovery. I proceeded with methods of healing that ran contrary to what was popular or even recommended for many people. I sacrificed things that are a major part of how most people socialize, limiting the options for how I spend my time. Over the course of several years, I rewrote my story.
You walk in the world with your new story, hoping no one will poke holes in it. Maybe you don’t yet have experience living your story, and sometimes you wonder if it might be wrong. Depending on if you have support or not, you may not be sure if anyone else understands. And then, occasionally, you wonder if you might be some kind of imposter. Where do you get off claiming to have a new story all of the sudden?
The experience is similar to one that I can identify with as a queer woman: coming out. There are all kinds questions that people might ask themselves while coming out. Some I had to ask and others I was privileged never to have to ask: Is it safe to tell people about this? Will it affect how people interact with me? Will it affect my employment? Will it mean I will lose support?
Some of the things that help me cope with mental illness: finding community, cultivating life-affirming habits, beliefs and a wellness-affirming lifestyle – also help me come to terms with and embrace my personal experience, no matter how nonstandard. This ownership is an ongoing process. Especially since now and then I miss what feels easier. It’s tempting to fantasize about being able to set awareness, discipline, and choice to the side and hope that I can just fit into the “normal” mold. It’s tempting to compare myself to people whose stories are nothing like mine. But to buy into a standard narrative implies a rejection of my nonstandard self. This is even more interesting when you consider that “normal” is an illusion for everybody.
Mental Illness & Entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship is dynamic, elaborate, long-term, time and energy-consuming storytelling. I tell the story of my business the same way I tell the story of my healing. My experience with failure, burnout, and hopelessness supercharge my capacity for success, perseverance, and unchecked enthusiasm. I consider the dance between these two extremes a practice that I have the potential to master. As long as I show up as often as I can, owning my bastard and superhero selves, moment to moment, day to season to decade. Sometimes I move forward in spite of myself, others times I accept that I cannot move.
Living with mental illness gives me an awareness of the separation between my beliefs and actual reality. This is a perspective that many people will not have. I think it’s an advantage. Here’s an example: Sometimes I believe that I’m an imposter. When you think of standard narratives of success, 40-hour work week and benefits, graduate degree, marriage, it’s clear that I’ve not made it. Sometimes, I hesitate even to call myself an entrepreneur.
The reality? I am an entrepreneur. I invest in skills and systems that support and expand my business. I spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy breathing life into something that often doesn’t reward me. I consistently blueprint my future. I cultivate relationships and trust. I honor my values. And, there are days when all of those things feel impossible. Sometimes, I disappoint myself and others. But. I keep at it. I acknowledge the voice that tells me I can’t and the reality that shows me I can. I have to. Depression has taught me that nothing else works.
Entrepreneurship often feels challenging. Like needing to buy the groceries when store aisles give you vertigo. Like needing to pack up a hoarder’s house every time you face the misfortune of needing to move. Like sitting in a room taking a test with the sweats, blurred vision, and a churning stomach. Forget answering correctly, it feels like you might just die any minute and everyone else in the room seems fine. They finish first. They recover fastest. They move on. But you remember. And maybe you learn from the discomfort. And if you do, entrepreneurship has another side. Like when you hold a tiny sleeping being, and it awakens to squeeze your finger for the first time, or smile at you, and your heart fills right up. And you think, I can do this. I can take care of you, little one, and make you strong, just like I do for myself.
PS: Siobhan published a follow-up piece on her blog, in which she shares a tarot spread and reading based on the experience described at the start of this piece: Face Up Journey – A Narrative Spread.