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
Before my son was born, I thought for sure that I would be the type of mom that can’t wait to get back to work. I wanted to plan 2018 so that the office wouldn’t even notice I’d be away. But I was lucky that my diverse group of colleagues ignored my enthusiasm and constantly reminded me to see how things would evolve once the baby was born. It was all the support a mom-to-be could want and I really thank them for that.
We welcomed a healthy baby into our family on one of the coldest weeks of February. And the plan I had projected in my head went completely out of the window.
Being thrust into this new role of a “mom” really changed my perspective on a lot of things — one of them was the way I pursue my career and work life. I realized that I can work my entire life, but I have only a few years to enjoy quality time with my newborn. And this time is extremely precious. So why not just take a step back and focus on what’s the most important thing in my life right now — my family. Otherwise, I might wake up with regrets one day because I missed my child growing up. I would rather miss out on some work opportunities now than shortchanging my kid.
It made me think, does this make me a worse leader now? Am I not ambitious enough? But I realized, that there’s only one answer to this — who cares, be whoever you are and do whatever you want, what matters the most is that you’re happy.
While I was expecting my son, I was really afraid of missing out on things. And this made me tell myself that I won’t take any time off, as I have to keep pushing on the work front. In the startup world, it can really get to you when you are surrounded by the 24/7 hustle culture — you constantly feel that if you don’t do it, somebody else might take your place, be it within the company or in the industry.
As a founder, I was constantly reminded that I should be doing so much more and there are an infinite number of challenges to tackle and too little time. It was easy to fall into the circle of guilt. But over time, I understood that for most of us, families are an integral part of our lives. I had to find the inner peace necessary to lay the foundation for it to be okay for me to not prioritize work for a bit. Obviously getting to this mindset and inner peace was not easy. Occasionally, I’ve still found myself thinking that I could be doing so much more and I find myself asking whether I’ve ‘earned’ the right to still be considered part of the team.
I actually struggled with the concept of ‘family first and stay-at-home’ for a very long time, but only precisely until the minute I saw my son Aaron for the first time.
And it made me think “why?” Why did I feel that I have to continue working at the same pace? Is it the pressure our society puts on us? It seems that as soon as you’ve decided to stay at home you’re tagged as a ‘lost cause’. There is this pressure that we shouldn’t take any stops on this fast-moving train of life, otherwise we will miss out on opportunities.
I recently stumbled upon an article about mandatory paternity leave that outlined a 2018 Deloitte survey:
Of more than 1,000 men found that a third worried that taking a leave would hurt their careers, and more than half feared it would signal that they weren’t serious about their jobs.
This is just ridiculous. No one should be afraid to take a paternity or maternity leave. Having a family should not affect our ability to continue our careers. But unfortunately, we also see report after report on how women after giving birth to their first, second, etc. child, lose even more on their salaries while working full-time. Having children is almost like a “handicap” basically. But for dads, as I wrote in my previous post, becoming a parent gives them plus points and increases their likelihood of getting promotions and bonuses.
Based on all the daunting statistics, I asked myself the question — How can I possibly enjoy my time as a mom and still be there for my company and my team? And to be honest, I haven’t found a magic formula. However, I’ve come to this one conclusion:
Be confident in doing what makes you most happy
Happiness opens up so many more opportunities in life. Be happy and confident about your choice of choosing parenthood. If you have decided to give parenthood a go, it will certainly give you a confidence boost as well, at least that’s what it did for me. I realized that I should lead my life to its fullest potential and it’s up to me to define how it will look like.
I realize you might think that as a founder, I’m in a different situation than my team members or other parents out there, but truly, I’m not. At least not in Testlio. We all share the same burden of responsibility and we all try to balance family lives, whichever form they may take. My priority is still making my team and company a success as well.
We feel threatened and scared because of how society has been built up. We are ruled by strong stereotypes but by now it should be clear that stereotypes are meant for breaking. I can assure you that an awesome team member is always welcomed back. No matter how many years they’ve been gone. My sister has been home for three years now with her kids and her colleagues are still eagerly waiting for her return.
I believe being a parent makes you a better person. So be awesome and talk about how awesome being a parent is. Parental leave should definitely be encouraged and supported — this time is like no other. It will teach you things that no amount of money can buy.
But we won’t see a change unless we ourselves act on it, right? So, let’s continue to speak about it and eventually, I hope, we’ll see things change!
To conclude, I sincerely believe that taking a break such as a maternity or paternity leave to enjoy new life experiences won’t make you ‘miss out’ on anything. Rather, once you’re ready to catch the next train, you will have even more skills under your belt.
Being at home with my son has been the second best time in my life besides just working side by side with my dear team at Testlio. For the first few months, I put everything aside and unplugged myself almost completely out of work. The well-being of my son and giving him comfort/safety in this new world was my number one priority. In all my life thus far, I have never felt this way and I’ve cherished every moment.
Is this a time in your life when you’re 100% dedicated to your startup? Apply to a Techstars mentorship-driven accelerator to #domorefaster.
Originally published on www.medium.com.
During my relatively short six-year journey through the startup landscape- I’ve been through ugly founder breakups, I’ve lost plenty of money, way too much time, and I ended up in the hospital from exhaustion from too many 100 hour weeks.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reality of building new companies. I know of suicides, families being torn apart and of course, severe depression.
While it can be exhilarating to be an entrepreneur or to work as a member of a startup, it’s most certainly a roller-coaster of emotions- and it often goes on for YEARS.
Successes are often followed by disappointments and just being able to process the complexities of legal agreements, founder disputes, hiring and firing employees, scaling or downsizing, taking on funding, failing, iterating…you get the point.
It can and does boggle the mind.
The most helpful thing for me personally was to be able to compare notes on a regular basis with my fellow entrepreneurs who were going through similar challenges. Even with a monthly ‘therapy’ session with my brothers-and-sisters-in-arms, my stress levels remained incredibly high and exercise and meditation were barely addressing my issues. Alcohol helped- only for a few hours- and of course, the next day – I was never at my best, unable to focus or be productive.
The good news is I’m not alone – nor do I feel that way. (I certainly also recognize these issues are not unique to startups and they’ve been around for millennia).
One of my missions in the coming weeks, months and years is to provide my fellow startup enthusiasts and entrepreneurs with tools to become more educated, less stressed, more productive and more focused when it comes to their wellness- despite the constant barrage of change and tribulation.
My first public effort of this sort was to help moderate a discussion during the 2016 Boulder Startup Week with some of the most prolific and respected names in startups including Brad Feld, Jerry Colonna and Tom Higley. A key portion of this event was a long Q&A session with the audience to ensure folks can get answers they need. Each panelist had important personal stories to share, and tools and modalities to recommend.
None of us pretend to have all the answers- but each of us has enough experience to know that it’s a fools errand to not listen to those who have been through it before. If we can help even one person who needs it- it will be worthwhile.
I believe the first step in this process is to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health issues in the entrepreneurial/startup realm. This will only happen when we openly and regularly discuss the issues, demonstrate that it’s ‘human’ to have these challenges and to share our stories of how we’ve overcome them.
I will personally continue to explore healthy alternatives and approaches to my own stress including different mindfulness techniques, exercise that requires being fully present, and yes, therapy.
I also look forward to finding more colleagues and partners that are passionate about this subject.
To that end- I look forward to building further interactive and truly immersive programs in Colorado focused on entrepreneur wellbeing. I know we can help our colleagues lead healthier, more productive and happier lives. The impact of that can’t be understated.
I hope you’ll join me.
Techstars put together a list of resources for anyone who thinks they may be suffering from mental health issues, or anyone who wants to learn more about the topic. You can find them here.
Join us on 5/25 for a live, interactive AMA to hear more about this important topic and how we can all help out in our communities. We’ll be joined by Brad Feld, Managing Director at Foundry Group, and co-founder of Techstars. Register here.
For our second “pre-event” leading up to our Health + Fitness Edition in NYC (the first being a ride with SoulCycle!), Startup Weekend NYC hosted a panel to discuss innovation and growth opportunities in the Healthcare Industry. This was a sold out event held at WeWork Soho Lounge, and included a group meditation facilitated by Buddhify. We were fortunate to be joined by:
- Derek Flanzraich: Founder and CEO of Greatist
- Dr. Bobby Green: VP of Clinical Strategy of Flatiron Health
- Calvin Hwang: CXO of CityMD
- Mike Kopko: Head of Business Development of Oscar Health Insurance
- Fon Powell: Founder of SALT (Sodium Analyte Level Test LLC)
After an hour of very lively discussion and facilitating questions from the attendees, we pulled together this list of 15 things that were most interesting points to come from the event:
- Healthcare is having a tremendous moment now!
- Surprisingly, numbers point to the reality that millennials are not any healthier than their age group was a generation ago.
- NYC is a “startup” startup-scene.
- Let’s get doctors doing more doctor stuff less administrative work.
- Opportunities around the “consumerization” of healthcare have never been so numerous and fantastic!
- NYC is offering startups incredible science and technology resources to build amazing Health tech solutions.
- It’s exciting to hear about how technology is completely changing how an entire industry is operating.
- I am not sure we are seeing another industry be so completely disrupted.
- Building a company in the healthcare space is challenging but knowing those unique differences can make or break a company.
- Preventive health is a broader and more impactful approach to health living!
- We need to create partnerships in healthcare to help push prevention to the forefront of people mindset.
- An integrated view of health history is super important to provide consumers with the best tools to work with doctors.
- Healthcare very scattered, not enough focus on patients and patient care specifically. Data will change things!
- Responsibility around regulations and privacy is very high.
- NYC offering next level tech talent and a great consumer base for consistent growth!