How Living with a Mental Illness Helped Me Find my Identity as a Rising Entrepreneur
I recently celebrated my one-year anniversary of entrepreneurship, or the year I boldly said goodbye to steady employment and hello to uncertainty. Outside of my entrepreneurial ventures, this past year I also published my dream book and moved back to my native country. Uncertainty definitely can have its perks. When I write it like this, it sounds like I have reached the zenith of personal and professional fulfillment. And maybe in some way I have but what I didn’t say is that this last year I have also been living at the brink of a nervous breakdown.
You see, when we decide to leave our comfort zone, we risk everything that provides us with a sense of safety. As psychologist Abraham Maslow thought it, safety is one of those very basic “human needs.” And for someone like myself, or someone who lives with a mental illness, safety is part of my treatment concoction.
When I cut the chord in 2018 with my then life trajectory, I knew the high risks involved. But I decided that living with a mental disability did not mean I should stop living altogether and that I should succumb to fear and barricade myself in a bubble. Instead, for people with disorders life needs to go on except for many of us it simply means that our journeys are that much more adventurous.
So fast forward a year and the word “adventurous” now seems like an understatement. It has been too long since I last received a steady paycheck, had health insurance, and have been kind to my mental health. In other words, it has been months of anxiety-ridden agony and worry as I slave away working into the wee hours of the night. I have been through some hard situations in the past but I can honestly say that this has been the most challenging yet. The lack of financial stability that comes with entrepreneurship directly translates to an emotional roller coaster of instability.
I’m a few weeks shy of being 30 this year. I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I have lived a meaningful life packed with academic, professional, and personal successes. But on the other hand, I am struggling everyday with a degenerative illness that leaves me mentally drained and physically exhausted night-after-night. Not having stability, in the economic and emotional sense, means that I am more vulnerable to spiraling into a depressive or manic episode.
You see both depression and mania are manifestations of one of the most aggressive mental illnesses in the books, bipolar disorder. A couple of years ago I was officially diagnosed by not one but five different psychiatric professionals. Saying that it has not been easy to come to terms with this realization would be an understatement. That is because bipolar is known to be one of the most concerning psychiatric conditions. It is aggressive, incurable, degenerative, and often destructive. And for me, it has also been life changing.
But I am not alone in this battle.
According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, about 2.6% of American adults are affected. So for the remaining 97.4% of unaffected Americans, what exactly is bipolar? This mental disorder is simply characterized by its extreme mood changes that unpredictably oscillate between periods of severe depression and uncontrollable and sometimes destructive manias. Any of the 2.6% of individuals afflicted will tell you that living with bipolar is often a confusing and isolating daily struggle.
Although the illness has been correlated with great mental acuity considering some of our most brilliant minds were bipolar (e.g., Vincent Van Gogh, Lord Byron, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway), it is still highly and very unfortunately stigmatized. Despite my openness regarding my diagnosis, the stigma prevents me from fully opening up. In fact, as I am writing this piece, I am contemplating whether or not to continue. I am afraid that speaking about my bipolar may negatively affect my professional credibility. That is because when I decided to become an aspiring entrepreneur, I knew the world I was competing in, or one predominantly dominated by healthy-affluent-white-males.
As a bipolar-Hispanic-woman, I simply don’t identify with the image of the successful entrepreneur portrayed in a typical stock photo. This inability to relate with the appearance of success thus makes it hard for me to admit my vulnerabilities so publicly. However, I realized that since I don’t embody that entrepreneurial image, what I have left is to be honest and proud about what I do embody.
Rather than being loud, extroverted, and cavalier, I am soft-spoken, introverted, and humble. I may not have had parents who could afford to send me to a top university, but I did study in a school that provided me with challenging academics and a sense of belonging. English may not be my first language, but I can comfortably conduct business in English and in Spanish. I may be soft-spoken and non-imposing, but people trust me because I am a good listener. Perhaps I don’t walk around flaunting a business diploma, but I do hold two social science degrees that allow me to understand from a more objective and introspective perspective the human condition. And most importantly, I may not be the epitome of mental health, but because of my illness I am stronger after every battle fought to survive just another day.
Despite my incredibly emotional and mental strength, I don’t want to be labeled a survivor. That is because I do not feel that my mental illness defines who I am. What it does do, however, is challenge me more. Prior to being diagnosed I was oftentimes confused by my spontaneous, erratic, and fast-paced days followed by my overwhelmingly crippling and existential depressions. Like most other bipolar individuals, I fully embraced my manic days or those filled with the exhilarating highs of unlimited potential. Then came the depressions. And all of that potential I had felt during my manic moments dissipated into a pitiful hole of darkness and self-doubt. For a long time I thought I was suffering from depression until I got smart and visited a counselor who told me, “Jackie, you are not depressed, you are bipolar.”
I used to think my manias were my normal and my depressions something to fear. But I have come to learn that neither is healthy. For us bipolar folk, mental equilibrium is our goal. We can only achieve this balanced state through proper treatment, which includes a healthy lifestyle, antipsychotic medication, therapy, structure, and safety. In other words, everything I left behind when I chose to start my entrepreneurial journey.
It is true that after diagnosis my overall mental health improved. I cannot properly express how important having answers is to beginning our path to wellness. But in order to stay on this path one must have the following: stability, access to healthcare, a support system, and a non-demanding job.
It is not surprising then when I say that entrepreneurship and mental illness do not necessarily complement each other. We tend to view the entrepreneur as a highly-driven individual who lives the dream we all aspire to, or of being our boss with our own pursuits, schedules, and work places. But the reality of being one’s own boss is far from glamorous.
As a self-proclaimed mover and shaker, pursuing my own interests has been an adventure. Having the flexibility to work from anywhere and the creative agency to approach projects in my own way is liberating. I own my accomplishments. What I produce is not protected under someone else’s copyright and non-disclosure agreements.
But I also own what I don’t produce. During the first few months or years of starting a business, generous earnings is not necessarily a byproduct of our efforts. This can be incredibly frustrating for someone used to having a regular paycheck and a job that paid for health insurance. Because I have been struggling to keep my bank accounts afloat, I have not been able to afford a health insurance plan. Considering that I also made an international move, enrolling in one of the country’s subsidized plans is not much of an option at the moment.
Instead, I have enrolled in the let’s-pray-I-don’t-get-sick-or-in-an-accident plan. So far it has been effective – and free. The problem I have is that I need health insurance to access regular counseling and medication for my disorder. So to be honest, for the first time since my diagnosis, I have put my mental health on the back burner until further notice. I keep pushing through day-after-day thinking that I will eventually catch a break and work myself up the career ladder into economic bliss.
Yet in this world, success is slow. We plant the seeds, water them everyday, and wait for them to flourish. So it is often frustrating when my mom calls me asking every time for news or updates regarding my pursuits. Some days I don’t answer because I have none. Other days I do answer but burst out in tears telling her that this is hard and that I wish I were not bipolar because it makes my work days that much more challenging. As a typical Mexican mother, she gives me tough love and tells me, “Mija, until you are in a better position, you are NOT allowed to be bipolar.”
I love my momma. She is right – I don’t have much of option at the moment. But when I am working day-after-day past midnight and on weekends with very limited in-the-moment return on investment, bipolar does not feel like a choice but a limitation. So I worry. Will I ever afford insurance? Did I make a mistake a year ago? Do I have what it takes to compete in this market?
What people don’t tell you about creating your own path is that it is oftentimes lonely. Most of the day I am pushing through projects alone at home. I don’t have office camaraderie. If I get stuck on a project, I cannot ask anyone for help. I have to be my own business development professional, strategist, accountant, marketer, designer, talent recruiter, etc. The only company I can rely on is my resourcefulness, hustling skills, and love for learning.
Despite the loneliness and all of the uncertainty, this has been my most incredible year yet. I have learned more this year about my professional aspirations and my personal strengths than ever before. Living with bipolar disorder was not something I chose but it is definitely something that I would not do without (despite what I tell my mom when I’m in a crisis). In many ways, I have learned that it is my mental hardships that have made me more committed to pursuing my work and more resilient to withstanding any professional hits.
We all have something that challenges us but we rise above, in our own-unique-ways. For many of us pushing through with a diagnosis, every day lived is another battle won. That is how I define my success, with the small things. I simply cannot compete with the image of the high-yielding entrepreneur who is motivated by profit and numbers while unfazed by mental breakdowns.
Instead, I am creating my own niche or that of the entrepreneur who embodies resilience, authenticity, and empathy.
The Ins and Outs of OWN IT: A Blog on How to Show Bipolar Who's the Boss
A blog for people with mental illness written by an unstable, unpredictable, and uninhibited woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder
Covers all topics including relationships, coping mechanisms, entertainment, and everyday resources
Updated and shared irregularly (like my moods), news and updates available on Instagram @jackie_loweree, and if you don't have an Instagram, no problem, just check my site - all posts will be here
Disclaimer: OWN IT is a first-hand account of bipolar disorder designed to orient those diagnosed with mental illness. It by no means intends to offer medical advice. If you are diagnosed with an illness, or think you may suffer from one, please seek professional help. Otherwise, take my words lightly and have fun reading!