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I’ve been thinking a lot about Aaron Swartz the past few days. I didn’t know him, but knew of him and have a lot of friends who knew him. I’m still processing it, especially the dynamics around his suicide, and expect I’ll have plenty to say in the coming weeks about depression and entrepreneurship. In the mean time, I thought the USA Today article, Activist Aaron Swartz’s suicide sparks talk about depression, by Laurie Segal, is particularly good. I’m quoted as saying:
Investor Brad Feld, who has battled an anxiety disorder all his life, says one the hardest things for those fighting the disease is opening up about it. “Many entrepreneurs don’t feel like they can talk openly about their depression, as they don’t want their investors, employees, or customers to know they are struggling with it,” he says. “For anyone who has been depressed, not being able to be open about it with the people around you makes depression even harder to deal with.”
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a few people incredibly close to me that I could talk openly about my depression with. The two closest are my wife Amy Batchelor and my brother Daniel Feld. In Amy’s case, she’s my early warning system for my depression. She knows me better than anyone on this planet and is able, in a way that doesn’t set me off, make observations about what she is seeing in my behavior whenever it shifts toward a depressive episode. She goes into a mode that I call “observer” – she’s not critical, doesn’t tell me to “snap out of it”, but also doesn’t get overly concerned. She watches, gives me feedback, and observes. Usually this is all I need since I’ve learned that with my own struggles, merely knowing that I am struggling is often enough to start a shift back to normalcy.
As part of this, I’ve set up a monthly cadence with Amy and Daniel. In the case of Amy, we have “Life Dinner” on the first night of every month. We talk about this in our new book, Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur, but I missed that nuance that in addition to a monthly reflection both backward and forward, it also serves as a touch point on “how I’m feeling.”
Daniel and I do something different. We love the relationship our dad (Stan Feld) has with his brother Charlie Feld. A number of years ago we committed to each other that we’d never get hung up on bullshit between us and if anything came up, we’d clear the air each month. So – we have an “almost monthly” dinner (probably six to nine times a year). I can’t remember the last time we actually had any emotional dissonance of any sort. It’s a casual couple of hours for us to check in on each other.
This morning I was emailing with Fred Wilson about some stuff. He asked me how it was to have Jerry Colonna living part time in Boulder. Jerry is now chairman of Naropa University and is one of my closest friends. He and Fred used to be partners at Flatiron Partners and are still very close. My response was “It’s awesome to have Jerry here. I love every minute I get with him.” Fred responded “i do a monthly lunch with him and its awesome.” There’s that monthly cadence thing again.
Yesterday, I had my monthly meeting with my partners at Foundry Group. We have a quarterly offsite where we spend a day and half together and have recently instituted a monthly day long meeting ending with dinner to go deep on our portfolio now that it’s about 60 companies. We spend the day on the portfolio and the evening on ourselves. It’s yet another version of the monthly cadence that let’s the four of us check in with each other.
I’ve always found rhythms like this to be extremely helpful to me, especially around my depression. Amy, Daniel, and my partners are safe people to talk to about it. They don’t judge me, or coddle me, but they listen and, if nothing else, give me empathy. And, in many cases, they check in regularly to make sure I’m in an ok place, until the phase passes.
Being an entrepreneur, or anyone pressing the boundaries of society, can be incredibly lonely. Make sure you are surrounding yourself with people who can help. And don’t be afraid of being open about being depressed, or anxious, down, or sad. There is no crime or shame in that.
As they wheeled me into surgery, I thought to myself “If this is the end it has been pretty amazing.” This is a photo my brother Daniel took of me just after they wheeled me out of the recovery room and back into my little cubby hole where Amy and Daniel were hanging out. While I don’t remember any of this, probably due to being under the influence of Versed (a truly amazing drug) at least I had the right attitude in response to Daniel saying “take that kidney stone!”
I had an 8mm kidney stone removed using Laser Stone Surgery using Flexible Pyeloscopy on Friday 11/16. While not a major surgery, I still went under general anesthesia for two hours for the first time as an adult. Amy describes this as “they take you to death’s door, open it a crack, let you peer in for a while, and then pull you back and close it.” I probably didn’t need her to tell me that description prior to the surgery.
On Sunday 11/18 I went to Cabo San Lucas for a two week vacation which included my 47th birthday. I don’t remember much of the first week – I was stoned on Vicodin and in a happy, warm, cuddly, very constipated, fields of golden retriever puppy haze. I stopped taking Vicodin on Thursday 11/22 but it still took a few more days to start feeling normal. I dropped off the grid entirely for the week of 11/8 but resurfaced to do some email and writing the week of 11/25. By 12/1 (my 47th birthday) I felt about 90% and was very relieved to have the surgery, and the prior three months behind me.
This period started off on 9/5 in Kobarid, Solvenia with a bike accident. I broke a tooth, got some stitches, and badly bruised my ribs. It was entirely my fault and my partner Ryan McIntyre, who I crashed into, saved me from much more severe damage. I then proceeded to spend the next three weeks on the road, totaling a month away from home. That was mistake #1, as I underestimated how tired I’d get from it. Mistake #2 was underestimating the damage from the bike accident. I ended up running the Detroit Marathon on 10/21 and did fine, but I was completely wiped out physically by the end of October. I continued to spend a lot of time in October and November on the road and found myself exhausted and depressed by the end of it. And then our dog Kenai died.
Oh – and Amy and I wrote the bulk of Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur during this time period (it’s done – we submitted the final page proofs over the weekend.) I recognize the irony of completely burning myself out during the writing of this book – fortunately we talk about this challenge plenty in the book and we communicated extraordinarily well as a couple during this time frame about what was going on. Finally, I do have a full time job and spent the bulk of my time working on that, so all of this other stuff was the extracurricular activity that filled in the cracks around the 60+ hours a week of VC work I was doing during this time.
I had a lot of time to reflect on this last week after I came out of my Vicodin-induced haze. At 47, I realize, more than ever, my mortality. I believe my kidney stone and depression were linked to the way I treated myself physically over the 90 days after my bike accident. While the kidney stone might not have been directly linked to the accident, the culmination of it, the surgery, and my depression was a clear signal to me that I overdid it this time around.
I’m back in Boulder and very refreshed. I’m also determined to learn from this experience. Amy and I spent a lot of time last week talking about changing the tempo on some things, including adding in some new daily habits like yoga that prioritize higher than other things. And I’ve accepted that part of my travel pacing has to include being home over the weekends to so I can recharge my extrovert.
Thanks everyone who gave me well-wishes and support the past few weeks. It means a lot to me. I leave you with the sunrise from Cabo that I saw each morning during the past two weeks.
If you’ve been following along at home, you know I’ve had a tough fall. It started with a bike crash in Slovenia, followed by a few weeks in New York where I physically felt awful. Fortunately I was with Amy for her birthday (we celebrate her birthday for most of September), but I underestimated how long it would take me to recover. I ended the three week trip in San Francisco for my mom‘s 70th birthday, which was wonderful until I got a terrible stomach virus on Sunday morning. I can’t remember the last time I threw up – and as I somehow managed to get home that day, I’m sure I looked like warmed over shit. After a week at home I hit the road again around the release of Startup Communities and spent almost all of October on the road, reaching Boise, Oklahoma City, Chicago, Des Moines, San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Lexington, and Louisville. While I had a great time, ran a marathon in Detroit in the middle of it, and met a lot of awesome people, I totally shredded myself.
I turn 47 in a few weeks. I’m extraordinary lucky to be married to an amazing woman for 22 years. We’ve figured out how to have an awesome relationship in the context of an entrepreneurial life, and we are wrapping up a book on it that will be out in January. I have extremely meaningful work with three partners who are my best friends. I get to work with incredible companies and entrepreneurs every day. And I get to define how I spend my time.
But I’m totally and completely fried. And I did it to myself. I already spend 60+ hours a week working with the companies I’m an investor in. So – all of the stuff I’m doing around Startup Communities is extracurricular activity. Writing Startup Life, while super important to me, is an extra curricular activity. Travelling all over the place is part of my work, and I have a lot of fun doing it, but plenty of the places I’m going are extracurricular activities. I feel like I’m getting all of my primary work done, but I’m neglecting one big thing in the mix – me.
I’ve found myself in a similar position every year. This is nothing new for those close to me – I run extremely hot and often up to the edge of my capacity. I keep adding stuff on top with some fantasy that my capacity for new stuff is unlimited. There is so much I want to do and I just keep going after it. I have a good internal algorithm for making sure I get all the “urgent / important” stuff done and I’m very aware of what work to prioritize over other things. When I start reaching my capacity, I focus more on the important stuff – both urgent and non-urgent, and insert a tighter hierarchy around my work, making sure my partners and the companies I’m an investor in are at the top of the stack.
But I neglect me. And that’s what has happened again this year. My extrovert is completely used up. While I’ve got a few more commitments between now and the end of 2012, I’m resetting my priorities for the balance of the year and focusing internally, on me, my health, my physical self, Amy, my partners, the companies I’m an investor in, and the writing I want to do.
I’ve been through this before – well – about once a year for the past 25+ years, so I know how to deal with it when it happens, although I clearly don’t know how to prevent it from happening. Maybe I’ll figure that out in my 48th year on the planet.
I had my first pain free run in five months. And I’m very happy right now.
In March, I hurt my back. This was my first real running injury since I started running marathons in 2003. I’ve had some ankle twists and some knee bruises from all the trail running I do, but nothing that kept me off my feet for more than a month. This time I lost five months ; the last time I tried to run was two months ago.
I didn’t get serious about figuring out what was going on until half way through July in Alaska when I realized I just wasn’t getting better. My pain on a daily basis never got below a three (on a 0 to 10 scale) and I often was in the six to eight range. If you saw we get up out of a seat in the last five months, you knew I had a lower back injury. The pain gradually settled at the very base of my spin in the middle of back – it was localized, but sharp and chronic.
So I stopped running completely, increased the amount I was swimming up to a couple of times a week, and started the process of getting professional help. My first big goal was to rule out something serious, so I decided to get an MRI. That took a while (doctor visit, referral, scheduling). I had two different doctors read the MRI – each told me that there was an issue, but there was no need for surgery and steroid injections would likely be useless. So, I started the “sign up for physical therapy process.”
In the mean time, my general practitioner gave me a prescription for vicodin. I’m very afraid of drugs and have always avoided them. I don’t remember if it was a movie I saw about drugs in elementary school (I saw movies on sex but never was afraid of it), my parents, or something else but they’ve just never been my thing. I am a Vitamin I users and I used it for a while to try to manage my chronic gout, but eventually gave up and went on Allopurinol. I’ve had other prescription medicines over the year, but I’ve stayed away from anything illegal, even our friendly herb which is basically legal in Boulder. So the idea of taking a narcotic sort of freaked me out.
I was in so much pain after the US Open (and sitting on the stadium seats for two days) that I went ahead and took one pill. The bottle said I could take four a day, so I figured one a day would help without being dangerous. Amy and I flew from New York to San Diego and I took a second one. On Friday I flew to San Francisco for the day and took a third one. When I woke up on Saturday morning I was pain free for the first time in five months. So I decided not to take another one on Saturday.
On Sunday when I was sitting at my computer I started to stand up and had an extremely loud “pop” happen exactly in the region where the pain has been. Amy heard it from across the room and immediately shouted out “are you ok.” My back then went into a spasm – something that’s only happened a few times – and for about ten seconds I couldn’t talk or breath. But, when it stopped, I still had no pain.
I flew back to Boulder Monday morning. I decided not to take any more vicodin until I had at least a pain level of three again. As the week passed, the pain didn’t reappear. On Wednesday I saw a spine specialist who works with athletes as part of the PT referral process. I spent 30 minutes telling him the story from beginning to end and then we went and looked at the MRI together. He again confirmed that surgery was unnecessary and – more importantly – that the MRI showed a few clear signs of distress that would explain the chronic pain, but that steroid injections would be useless. We did a few diagnostic things and then he gave me his hypothesis.
He suggested that it’s likely that the small amount of vicodin I took broke the pain cycle I had been stuck in. Once the pain was gone, my body was able to move in certain ways that resulted in a natural adjustment (the big pop) of an area of my back that was stuck. Having it adjust naturally was much more effective than if I’d gone to a chiropractor. It had never occurred to me that this would happen, but when I think about the number of times my back adjusts in other spots when it gets out of whack this made perfect sense to me.
I’ve now had a week of no back pain. I haven’t taken anything – not even Vitamin I – in a week. I went for a few swims this week and a short run today. I feel great.
For everyone out there that has been patient with me, offered suggestions, and provided help over the past five months, thank you. Who knows whether this really solved the problem or not but this is the first time in a while that I’ve been optimistic about it.