By Matthew Helt, Program Director, Techstars Startup Week
NOTE: If you are someone who lives with mental illness, and you find that reading about it can trigger your symptoms, please be warned that this post contains details that you might find disturbing.
A Mind At War With Itself
My mind was at war with itself.
I woke up on Friday, March 1, 2002, with what I thought were two choices that I had left. Just two choices. Either I was going to die, or I was going to spend the rest of my life in a mental hospital.
March 1, as it happened, was the last day of my 26th year. The next day, Saturday, March 2, I would turn 27 years old. That was an age that had frightened me for over a year. I was convinced that I would die when I turned 27 because all my music idols died at that age. I knew this was a completely irrational thought, but nonetheless it remained firmly cemented in my mind.
What led up to this date was a series of events that shaped the person I was to become. I was a person who had a pretty healthy ego, but I was also very fragile. I was nervous and anxious most of my life, but I did my best to hide it. When I was young I was considered shy because most adults didn’t understand that I was terrified of the world.
So what caused me to give in to the irrational fear I was holding on to?
A Dive Through the Sky
When I was 25 I decided that the best thing I could do to get over my fear of heights was to go skydiving. I went through the training to do the first jump by myself, and got myself psyched up to do it. When the moment finally arrived for me to jump out of the plane, I could barely breathe. I pressed on, though, as I didn’t want to upset the people behind me, who would be forced to land if I didn’t jump. I held onto the strut under the wing, legs dangling 3,300 feet above the ground, and forgot to let go. I looked to my left and the dive instructor pointed up, which meant I needed to tilt my head back and that reminded me to let go. I remember seeing the plane fly away from me and thinking, “Where am I? What’s happening?”
Moments later my chute opened, and I was flying through the air. A voice on the radio that was attached to my left shoulder talked me through the motions of steering myself to the landing site. I’m sure if the radio wasn’t there I would’ve landed in a cornfield far from the landing zone because I was in the middle of full blown panic attack. I could barely get air into my lungs, and my heart felt like it was going to explode.
When I got close to the ground I heard voice yell, “Flare! Flare! Flare!” Because I panicked I forgot all my training and failed to flare, so I hit the ground hard. A stinging sensation flowed up my legs as my feet hit the landing spot. I laid there for a minute and decided I wasn’t severely hurt. Later on I’d find out that I ruptured a disc in my back.
A week later I was at work and a woman I worked with came up to talk to me about something. Without warning, I had a panic attack. I didn’t know what was happening, but I suddenly couldn’t breathe. My heart raced and all I wanted to do was run away. I thought I was sick, so I quickly excused myself and ran to the bathroom. After several minutes I had calmed down, and could go back to my cubicle.
This led to a more than two-year period of time of frequent panic attacks. It was so bad that I was having five to ten panic attacks a day, and the only cure I discovered was alcohol. I’d suffer all day, praying that I didn’t have to go to a meeting or present in front of anyone. One-on-one conversations were frightening enough. I’d get home from work and immediately reach for a drink.
Eventually I convinced myself that I had a heart condition and went to see a cardiologist. After months of tests, they told me nothing was wrong with my heart. They believed it was all in my head. That didn’t make any sense to me. Why was I having heart attack symptoms several times a day? If it was all in my head, why did I feel such intense pain in my chest, up my neck, and down my left arm?
Out of Control
But they were right. Eventually I hit a point of crisis. At two weeks before my 27th birthday, my wife told me she was pregnant with our first child. It was hard for me to feel any joy in that moment because I was suffering so terribly. I decided I needed help, so I went to see my doctor find out if there was some sort of medication that could help me. He ended up prescribing Paxil, which I later found out was a terrible choice. After four days of being on it, I found that the side effects were horrendous, so I took myself off. That was an almost fatal error. I had not been told that I should not, under any circumstances, take myself off of it. I should have instead gone to my doctor to find a better fit. Over the course of a week my brain started to malfunction. I was spiraling out of control internally, but somehow, miraculously, kept it together on the outside.
Except when I couldn’t anymore. On the evening of Thursday, February 28, I went to bed early. My mind was swirling and I couldn’t keep the panic at bay. I thought that I would just go to bed and sleep my way through it. That’s when I heard two men having a conversation in the living room. I knew no one was there, but I could hear the voices. My body was filled with terror as I knew I was witnessing the collapse of my mind—I was completely out of control.
The next morning, I woke up to find that the terror had not subsided. I knew what awaited me. My birthday was the next day, and I was going to die. Either that, or I was going to spend the rest of my life in a mental hospital.
I went through my morning routine, but I was mostly on auto-pilot. When I arrived at work, I found several people waiting to talk to me about projects they were waiting on. I sat down for a few minutes, then stood up. I looked at my boss and said, “I need to leave right now, or I’m going to hurt someone.” I walked out the door and called my wife. I told her I was headed to the hospital and she should meet me there.
Panic attacks weren’t the only thing that I had wrong with me. I also had terribly intrusive thoughts. Thoughts that were often incredibly violent, both towards myself and others. I’m not a violent person, so I was deeply troubled by what my mind was telling me to do.
When I went to hospital, the staff did a psychiatric evaluation and asked me if I felt safe if I went home. I quickly replied, “No.” I understood that I was not safe and the hospital was the only place I belonged. At that moment, I was not someone who should be left alone, and I was afraid I was going to give in to my thoughts. I was admitted and told that I would be there until I was stable and felt that I was no longer a danger to myself or anyone around me.
I met with doctors off and on throughout the rest of the day. They put me on Xanax to stop the panic and Luvox to stop the intrusive thoughts. I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. For the first time, my condition had names attached to it. Weirdly, just having a diagnosis provided a small amount of relief.
I woke up the next day, on my 27th birthday, in a hospital room by myself. Nurses checked on me every 15 minutes throughout the night to make sure I was okay. I looked around my room, took a deep breath, and waited for the panic to kick in. It didn’t. I waited for the intrusive thoughts to start screaming at me to do terrible things. They didn’t.
What It Feels Like to be a Normal Person
For the first time in several years I felt what it feels like to be a normal person, or as I recently learned to call them, neurotypical. I’m not neurotypical. I have a brain condition. Most people would call me mentally ill. I’ve learned to accept that I’m mentally ill, but there’s a stigma, a very strong stigma, that goes along with that label.
I’ve lived with this condition for over 16 years now. I obviously had it longer than that, with clear signs of OCD and anxiety in my childhood, but my healing began on my 27th birthday. Because my breakdown had a very public component to it, I was outed. Telling your boss you need to leave work or else you’re going to hurt someone has very real consequences. All my co-workers had heard what happened, and I had to meet with HR before returning to work. My doctors had to sign off on my stability. This all makes sense, as they needed to ensure the safety of their employees.
“If this can happen to you it can happen to any of us”
The interesting thing that happened when I returned to work was not that I was shunned or that anyone was afraid of me, but the questions and comments I got. People genuinely cared about my wellbeing. One person even said to me, “Matt, you’re the most put together person in this department. If this can happen to you it can happen to any of us.”
In the Name of Success
As entrepreneurs, we’re driven to succeed by any means possible. Because of this we often neglect our health. We don’t get enough sleep, we drink too much caffeine, we eat unhealthy food. There’s a reason that mental illness is so prevalent among founders. We abuse ourselves in the name of success.
Besides medication, there are a lot of things I do to help maintain my mental well-being. Mindfulness and meditation have been key for my healing. Through the practice of meditation, I discovered there isn’t “one” Matt. There’s a multitude of voices and thoughts all competing for my attention.
My most profound discovery was that there’s one particular voice, my ego, that’s incredibly destructive. It’s the voice that’s constantly saying, “You deserve recognition. You deserve more than others. You’re special. You’re smart.” And on and on and on. When I sat in meditation, I found that that voice wasn’t who I am. When I took the role of observer, instead of participant, I realized who I authentically was. At my root, I don’t need recognition. I don’t need praise. That ego was a false sense of self, constructed over many years.
Many people come to believe that the ego voice is who they are. It’s a voice in your head, so why isn’t it you? I had multiple thoughts in my head all competing for attention—multiple impulses pushing me in many directions. The violent thoughts actually helped me understand that, at my root, I’m a peaceful person who doesn’t wish any harm to anyone. Through the process of observing, and not acting, I could distinguish between all the different thoughts. I felt liberated.
Our Thoughts Are Not Who We Are
The biggest lesson for me was that our thoughts are not who we are. It’s an illusion that our minds have created. If you suffer from a brain condition, it can be torture because you come to believe that you are sick and irredeemable. I’ve come to understand that my condition is the greatest gift I could have ever received. It helped me wake up to who I fundamentally am. The thoughts are still there, and I know I’ll never completely be rid of them, but I have a working relationship with them. When they arise, I watch them bubble up—and I let them go. In the past, they’d latch on so tight that it was very difficult to get past them. Now I observe them and refuse to participate—with my ego, with my intrusive thoughts, and with my obsessive thinking. I often even laugh at my thoughts. There’s nothing more powerful than laughing at something that most would think was extremely disturbing.
You Are Not Alone
If you wonder why I’m willing to share such an intimate story, I can tell you that there are a couple of reasons.
First, there’s a selfish component here. I know that part of my healing process is to share what I went through with others. I went from not being able to have a one-on-one conversation without having a panic attack, to now being able to stand in front of a room full of people and share my story. That journey is one that I could never have imagined. Every time I tell my story I feel better.
The second reason is that I feel people need to know they’re not alone. Suffering in silence is unacceptable, and I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through. I’ve made it my mission to help whomever I can. We need advocates who are willing to share their stories so that others may find the healing they so desperately need. I advise a group in Boulder, CO called Open Labs. Their mission is to eliminate the stigma of mental illness by having people like me tell our stories. It’s terrible that as a society we shame those who have a brain condition. If you have an illness with any other part of your body, you’d seek medical treatment and get sympathy from others. But for some reason if you have an issue with your brain you’re treated differently. We need to end this stigma by openly sharing our stories with each other. I am committed to telling my story as many times as it takes if it will help even a small amount in ending the ridiculous stigma that exists for those of us living with a brain condition.
If anything about my story sounds familiar to you, get help. Don’t wait any longer. Or if someone you know is suffering, encourage them to get help. Tell them that you’ll support them and help them through this. I was lucky that I have an incredible wife who was there for me. Her support was instrumental in getting me to where I am today.
Entrepreneurship Can Be Lonely
Entrepreneurship can be a lonely thing. Suffering from a brain condition and feeling like no one around you understands what’s happening is even more lonely. The good news is that there are people who can help you. You just need to be brave enough to get the help you need. Admitting you are not well is not failure. It’s the opposite. Seeking help is one of the best things you can do—for yourself, for your loved ones, and for your business. Getting help was truly the greatest gift I could ever give myself. I’m grateful every single day that I took that step, and I’m humbled by the person I became through this healing process.
If you’re in need of help, please find someone in your community who is trained to deal with these illnesses today. There’s no reason to wait. Block 30 minutes in your calendar to call someone and make an appointment. It’ll be the greatest gift you can give yourself. I’m living proof that someone with severe mental illness can thrive and live a fulfilling, meaningful life. You can too.
We’re with Matt here: if you need help, get help. Successful entrepreneurs take care of themselves!
National Suicide Prevention Hotline – 800-273-8255