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As Amy and I get ready to return to Boulder today and physically re-enter the human race, I woke up this morning thinking about how I’m feeling emotionally. We’ve had an excellent three weeks up at our house in Homer, Alaska, far away from the people we know. Our only friends up here are our neighbors (whom we adore) so other than one visitor (Matt Shobe – who we also adore) it’s been a very solitary and physically introverted time.
I’ve been working a lot – typically on video conferences and phone calls for four to eight hours a day. Toss in email, some projects, and my daily writing and you’ve got a full schedule. But it’s been alone, with just Amy, in our house, far away from other people. The days have been long, with lots of light, late dinners, and even later nights since the sun doesn’t go down until after midnight. And that’s been good for my soul.
Several months ago I received the following question in email. It’s similar to a number of emails I’ve received and I thought of it this morning as I was pondering my mental health so I figured I’d riff on it a little.
“I have been struggling with depression for a while. I want to write about it, but I’m afraid that it will really negatively impact me professionally. Some investor might not write me a check, because he/she will think that I’m not a good bet, or maybe someone will think twice about hiring me down the line. Have you found people treat you differently after you’ve written about your depression? Have you had opportunities close up? Would you recommend writing about it for someone who is not as established as you are?”
Following is a rambling rant on each question.
Would you recommend writing about it for someone who is not as established as you are?”: I have no idea. In my case, I started writing about it without considering the implications. The transparency movement was one of the motivations that resulted in me starting to blog in 2004 as I played some follow the leader with my friends Fred Wilson and Jerry Colonna, who each discovered the joy of blogging shortly before I did. A decade later, I continued to believe deeply in the value of transparency as well as authenticity, which has been reinforced through my work with Rand Fishkin, Sarah Bird, Moz, and Moz’s TAGFEE code. I try to be myself, be direct, be open, and own my thoughts and ideas all the time. So it would have been opaque and inauthentic not to talk openly about depression and, given that transparency and authenticity are a key part of my value system, I never gave it a second thought beyond realizing that if I didn’t talk openly about depression, I was bullshitting myself and violating some of my core values. That said, I have no idea if it’s a good idea for someone else to write about their depression – it’s going to depend on their value system, circumstance, and mental/emotional state. However, I do know that talking about it, even privately, has helped me address my depression, so I encourage anyone who is struggling with depression to make sure they at least have a few people in their lives who they can talk to openly about what is going on with them.
Have you found people treat you differently after you’ve written about your depression? Have you had opportunities close up? I’ve had three experiences: a few mildly negative, a few irrelevant, and many overwhelmingly positive. I’ll start with the negative. Several people who I previously was close to withdrew from interacting with me. I have no idea why – I can only speculate that they were uncomfortable, afraid, or ashamed of something, or for me. I’ve proactively reached out to several of them now that I’m not depressed and re-established close relationships, so the dynamics here are a mystery to me. A few people, instead of being passive, were openly hostile to me. I ignored them as I realized their hostility was likely more about them than about me. Many, many people reached out, provided support, opened up about their own depression, thanked me for providing leadership on this issue, or words for them, or just an example of a successful person who struggled with depression. This was the overwhelming feedback and resulted in a number of new, interesting, and powerful relationships for me. Many of the conversations I had with this set of people helped me work through my depression and better understand myself, and many of them told me that I had a similar impact on them.
Reflecting on this rant, I think people do interact with me differently in a way that is very positive and powerful. There is a lot more connection and empathy in my relationships. I’ve always had a lot of this since it’s the way I’m wired, but now it extends to many of the relationships I have from a distance, online, or are business interactions with relatively little physical or social interaction. It’s easier to get real about what is going on when things are difficult or when I see someone else struggling. And, when I need a break from humans, I just take it without worrying about it or wondering what people are thinking. At some level, I’ve let go of another layer of external judgment and validation, which already was largely absent from my psychological construct since I’m so deeply intrinsically motivated. But by helping people understand me better, they can related to me better and I can relate to them better.
So – overall – being open about and writing about my struggles with depression has been a huge plus for me.
My various posts on depression and my struggles with it generate a wide range of emails, some with suggestions, some with questions, and some with empathy. The following question is an example of what I get regularly.
“I read your blog every day and have read your book on living with an entrepreneur. Thanks for sharing your experiences with depression. I was wondering if you had any advice or resources for spouses of those going through depression. How does this impact Amy and how does she approach you and things when you go through this? I am struggling with this now in my marriage. It’s hard for me and I think it’s hard for our kids as well. My wife’s depression tests me like no other thing has and really pushes me to my limits of patience and understanding. How does one stay positive and productive when their loved one is suffering in a dark place? How do you maintain good communication through this without the anger and resentment coming out?”
I sat down with Amy this morning and came up with a list of things – from her perspective – that have helped her, and us, get through the depressive episodes. The italics are her suggestions; the text that follows is my thoughts and reactions to it.
Don’t try to fix things. I think it’s important to start here. When I’m depressed I don’t want to be “fixed.” If I knew how to fix myself, I would. But often things just get worse when I use this frame of reference. And, when someone else tries to fix me, I rarely can hear them, or even understand them. This often just makes the person trying to fix me frustrated, which just makes things worse. So start by accepting that the depressed person isn’t looking for a fix – quick or otherwise – when they are in the depths of a depression.
Make sure you take care of your own needs and do things for yourself that make you happy. I think this applies to anyone who has a partner with a major illness – a stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s, or depression. You are already pouring an enormous amount of your energy into your partner and not much, if anything, is coming back. Don’t neglect yourself. Spend time with friends. Do things that you love to do alone. Carve out time to just be.
Don’t take it personally – it’s not about you. This is a tough one. You are in a relationship with the depressed person. It’s natural to think – consciously or sub-consciously – that you are part of the problem. While you might be, don’t obsess about this. When your partner lashes out at you, absorb it rather than escalate. When your partner is non-responsive to you, be patient. Operate in the context of giving your partner the benefit of the doubt. Don’t try to fix things (see the note above), especially when you know that your partner is struggling with something that isn’t ultimately about you.
Be emotionally even keeled. Get a t-shirt that says “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The depression your partner is having will wear you down. Breathe deeply. Don’t suppress your emotions, but try to stay mellow, even when you feel yourself heating up or getting run down. And, if you are struggling with this …
Get therapy. Encourage your spouse to get therapy. Both Amy and I have had multi-year stretches of therapy. I like to refer to it as “spending an hour a week on Planet Brad.” I get one full hour, with my therapist, that is all about me. How fun is that? Well – sometimes it’s a lot of fun and sometimes it completely sucks, but I’ve always found it helpful.
Exercise. Let your endorphins free to race around your brain. Plus, this is a good way to take care of your own needs and do things for yourself.
Talk to friends and share the burden. Don’t follow Marge Simpson’s advice: “It doesn’t matter how you feel inside, you know. It’s what shows up on the outside that counts. Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down past your knees, until you’re almost walking on them. And then you’ll fit in, and you’ll be invited to parties, and boys will like you. And happiness will follow.” It’s wrong. Let your feelings out with your close friends. Ask them to just listen and be with you, not try to fix you.
Try to be optimistic that this will pass. Even the first time Amy had to deal with a depressive episode of mine, which lasted two years, she was optimistic it would pass. She hung in there. The third time we had to deal with this (last year), she knew it would pass and that made it easier.
Watch comedies. Try for laughter. I’d be laying in bed, not really interested in doing anything and suddenly Amy would come bounding into the room and say “One chance only to watch Uncle Buck with me.” I have zero resistance to a John Candy movie and even though I know Amy would rather watch The English Patient, we both realize that laughter is helpful.
If you’ve read this far, go take a look at Depression Part 2 by Hyperboleandahalf to better understand how your depressed partner is feeling.
As 2013 comes to an end, I feel some relief that what has been a difficult and confusing year is almost behind me. I mark the year boundary with my birthday (12/1) so December is an “unwind” month for me. Amy and I are at our house in Keystone with a variety of friends swinging through, working some, reading some, exercising, and just hanging out.
The first half of this year was marked with the deepest depression I’ve had since 2001. It came out of the blue and was a total surprise to me. The depression lifted at the end of May and I’ve now had about six months to reflect on it. For a while, I put together a narrative about what happened, dug into the root causes of it, and tried to make sense of how I ended up feeling the way I did. Eventually, I stumbled upon this brilliant explanation of depression from Allie Brosh and as a result stopped trying to analyze it.
During this period I heard from hundreds of successful people who also have struggled with depression. As I synthesized these discussions, I consistently heard that people were generally deeply ashamed of their depression. They hid it. They struggled with what it meant. And they were afraid to talk about it, especially with co-workers and investors. These conversations were liberating to me, and hopefully helpful to a lot of the people I talked to, as it created a context where serious, hard working, and accomplished people could explore depression – and what it meant – in a safe (e.g. with me) environment.
Another thing that came up a number of times in these discussions is the metaphor of depression as the black dog. I heard this for the first time many years ago from my dear friend Jerry Colonna. Yesterday a blog reader sent me a link to a phenomenal short video about The Black Dog. It reminded me of an important thing that I learned this year – “don’t fight depression.”
I’ve talked openly about the five month long depressive episode I went through earlier this year. If you missed it, I encourage you to read my article last month in Inc. Magazine titled Entrepreneurial Life Shouldn’t Be This Way–Should It? Depression is a fact of life for some entrepreneurs.
My depression lifted near the end of May and I’ve been feeling normal for the past few months. On July 1st I wrote a post titled Regroup Successful. I changed a lot of tactical things in my life in Q2 – some of them likely helped me get to a place where my depression lifted. And, once I was confident that the depression had lifted (about 45 days ago), I started trying to figure out some of the root causes of my depression.
I’ve told the story of how I ended up depressed a number of times. In the telling of it, I searched for triggers – and found many. My 50 mile run in April 2012 that left me emotional unbalanced for six weeks. A bike accident in early September that really beat me up, and was inches from being much more serious. Six weeks of intense work and travel on the heals of the bike accident that left me physically and emotionally depleted, when what I should have done was cancelled everything and retreated to Boulder to recover. A marathon in mid-October that I had no business running, followed by two more weeks of intense work and travel. The sudden death of our dog Kenai at age 12. A kidney stone that resulted in surgery, followed by a two week vacation mostly in a total post-surgical haze. Complete exhaustion at the end of the year – a physical level of fatigue that I hadn’t yet felt in my life. There are more, but by January I was depressed, even though I didn’t really acknowledge it fully until the end of February.
The triggers, and the tactical changes I made, all impacted me at one level. But once the depression had lifted, I felt like I could dig another level and try to understand the root cause. With the help of Amy and a few friends, I’ve made progress on this and figured out two of the root causes of a depressive episode that snuck up on me after a decade of not struggling with depression.
The first is the 80/20 rule. When running Feld Technologies in my 20s, I remember reading a book about consulting that said a great consultant spent 20% of their time on “overhead” and 80% of their time on substantive work for their clients. I always tried to keep the 80/20 rule in mind – as long as I was only spending 20% of my time on bullshit, nonsense, things I wasn’t interested in, and repetitive stuff that I didn’t really have to do, I was fine. However, this time around, I’d somehow gotten the ratios flipped – I was spending only 20% of my time on the stimulating stuff and 80% of my time on stuff I viewed as unimportant. Much of it fell into the repetitive category, rather than the bullshit category, but nonetheless I was only stimulated by about 20% of the stuff I was doing. This led to a deep boredom that I didn’t realize, because I was so incredibly busy, and tired, from the scope and amount of stuff I was doing. While the 20/80 problem was the start, the real root cause was the boredom, which I simply didn’t realize and wasn’t acknowledging.
The other was a fundamental disconnect between how I was thinking about learning and teaching. I’ve discussed my deep intrinsic motivation which comes from learning. At age 47, I continue to learn a lot, but I also spend a lot of my time teaching. The ratio between the two shifted aggressively at the end of 2012 with the release of my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. I spent a lot of time teaching my theory of startup communities to many people I didn’t previously know in lots of different places. I expected that I’d continue learning a lot about Startup Communities during this period, but I found that I had no time to reflect on anything, as all of my available time was consumed doing my regular work. So – between teaching and working, I had almost no time for learning.
I had an intense insight a few weeks ago when a friend told me that as one gets older, the line between learning and teaching blurs. This is consistent with how I think about mentoring, where the greatest mentor – mentee relationship is a peer relationship, where both the mentor and mentee learn from and teach each other. With this insight, I realized I needed to stop separating learning from teaching in my motivational construct – that they were inextricably linked.
Each of these – the flip in the 80/20 rule that led to a deep boredom combined with the separation of learning and teaching – were both root causes of my recent depression. As I reflect on where I’m at in mid-August, I’m neither bored nor struggling with the learning/teaching dichotomy. Once again, I’m incredibly stimulated by what I’m spending my time on. And I’m both learning and teaching, and not spending any energy separating the two.
While I expect I’ll discover more root causes as I keep chewing on what I just went through in the first half of the year, I’m hopeful that explanation of how I’ve unpacked all of this helps anyone out there struggling with depression, or that is close to someone who is struggling with depression. It’s incredibly hard to get to the root causes when you are depressed, but moments of clarity arise at unexpected times.
My theme for Q2 was “regroup.” I wrote about this in my post When The Sun Comes Out in early May as I was starting to feel my depression lifting. It’s officially gone at this point – I feel normal, and have for at least a month (probably six weeks.) That’s long enough to declare this depressive episode over.
The feedback I’ve gotten from talking openly about my depression has been incredible. I’m deeply appreciative of everyone who engaged me, offered me support, help, suggestions, empathy, or just said “thanks for sharing.” While I didn’t have any urgency about feeling better, I was optimistic that I would based on the arc of my previous two major depressive episodes (the first for two years in my mid-20s, the second for three months in my mid-30s). This one – at age 47 – lasted about six months which is so much less than two years…
My goal in Q3 was simply to “regroup.” I’ve talked about some of the specific tactics that I tried. Many people have asked me what they were. Here’s a quick list.
- Stopped drinking alcohol
- Stopped drinking coffee
- Stopped travelling
- Stopped waking up at 5am – just slept until I woke up
- Went to bed consistently at 10pm
- Running when I felt like it
- Scheduled a lot less things
- Took a digital sabbath – no email or phone from Friday night until Sunday morning
- Started floating in an isolation tank once a week
- Didn’t fight how I felt
- Shared openly with friends / spend more time with friends, especially with men
- Checked in with Amy every day – worked hard to communicate my emotions
From a work perspective, I focused on the things that mattered and tried to eliminate all the other stuff. I prioritized my Foundry Group partners, the companies we are investors in, and Techstars. Rather than looking at a lot of new stuff, I shut it all down and made sure I had time for all the existing stuff. I put more effort into videoconferencing and face to face interactions locally since I wasn’t travelling. And I tried not to schedule anything before 11am.
As Q2 comes to an end, I feel that I have successfully regrouped. I’ve added back in a few things that I want to do, including drinking coffee and getting up at 5am. I’m still not drinking, but I’m being more disciplined about my running. And I believe that digital sabbath will be a part of my rhythm for the rest of my life, although I’m letting myself answer the phone when it rings and occasionally sending an email or a text throughout the day when I need to communicate something to someone.
I was originally thinking about a theme for Q3 like “ship.” I’ve got a several work related things that I believe I’ll get closure on in Q3. I have several writing things in process that I’d like to finish. I’m still not travelling – nothing until Amy’s birthday in September. So, I originally thought I’d focus on something like “ship” as the broad theme for the next three months.
Yesterday I spent two and a half hours with my dear friend Jerry Colonna. We just hung out and talked. And eventually started talking about the idea of a Q3 theme around “ship.” After a while this sounded wrong – first to him – then to me. He challenged me with what I was actually trying to do. Ultimately it was to give myself more focus, and more structure, to spend time on the things I wanted to spend time on, and stop spending time, or filter out, the things I didn’t want to spend time on.
“Ship” seems like the wrong way to think about that. Instead, we came up with “be happier.” I’m going to try to use the phrase “be happier” as I decide what to spend time on, as in “will spending time on this cause me to be happier?” The simple theme – to be happier – which has all kinds of implications and second order effects on how I spend my time.
Instead of focusing on applying this theme only Q3, I’m going to apply this theme for however long I feel like it. And just thinking of it that way makes me happier.