Just as my passion for writing and storytelling has been with me for most of my life, so have my struggles with mental health. As a young child, I battled with crippling anxiety, and as a teen, that segued into major depressive disorder and other mental health struggles. On the outside, I have always been high functioning and lived a fairly normal life, but I’ve spent much of my life battling myself.
For a long time, I was tortured by my thoughts and the admission of multiple mental illness diagnoses. The stigma of mental illness tormented me for a long time, especially in the workplace. I felt the greatest shame in the place I spent the majority of my waking hours. It was also the place most likely to exacerbate my mental health struggles.
When I entered the workforce nearly 20 years ago, people did not discuss their mental health or mental illnesses. And if they did, it was most certainly in a derogatory manner. In one of my first jobs, I remember a boss saying another worker was on crazy meds. Imagine the shame I felt when I realized that person was on the same meds I was on. At another workplace, a boss berated me for regularly leaving early for “appointments” (i.e., therapy). But, even when I worked at places I loved with good people, I had a hard time admitting my truth.
Fast forward to today, I regularly share my story on stages and use my platforms to advocate for better mental health care. This complete 180 didn’t just happen overnight. It took a lot of heartache and self-reflection to realize that maybe I wasn’t a total stain on society. I can even pinpoint when things began to shift—the moment I decided to become an entrepreneur.
In 2019, after nearly 15 years of working in the corporate world, I decided to take a break. I had been deeply depressed and planned to take a few months off to realign and reassess my career. I took on several contract jobs, endured many failed job searches, and even did a brief stint working for a small business. None of it felt right, but I persisted and prayed that something would fall into place.
So, here’s the thing–I come from a long line of entrepreneurs, so I always assumed I would own my own business. However, in my mind, it was far off. My perpetual low self-esteem and other loud voices told me that I couldn’t handle being an entrepreneur and needed more time in the workforce first. I believed those voices for a long time, but after a year-and-a-half of tireless soul-searching, the universe made it clear that it was time to start my own business, even though I didn’t feel ready.
Once I filed that LLC paperwork, purchased LaurenPerna.com, and started crafting my brand, I began to thrive. Of course, in the beginning, I had a lot of self-doubts and imposter syndrome, but after the first few messy months, I began to notice just how happy I was working for myself.
All the reasons I thought I wouldn’t be a good entrepreneur were working for me instead of against me. Living with major depressive disorder has made me empathetic and understanding with my clients and collaborators. My anxiety makes me vigilant and detail-oriented, so I always overdeliver. I care deeply about my work, clients, contractors, and partners.
I thought working for myself would send my depression and anxiety into overdrive, but it was actually the best thing for them. I work out of my house, so I don’t feel pressured to wear the mask I wore for many years in the corporate world. I can take a breather without feeling guilty or giving an explanation. I can embrace my creativity and ideas instead of feeling stifled by corporate norms and red tape. I can have time to think through my responses and be thoughtful about my work. In the corporate world, I was constantly anxious about someone looking over my shoulder or waiting for me. The only thing waiting on me these days is my little dog, whose big brown eyes constantly reassure me that I’m doing the right thing.
But I won’t sugarcoat it. Some aspects of entrepreneurship are really tough when you live with a mental health condition. For example, I have to force myself to get outside and be active, whereas before, I had no choice because I had to commute to work. I also miss that organic human interaction that comes with working in an office full of other people, and I don’t have coworkers to give me reality checks or encourage me. For me, it’s easy to get lost in my work since my office is in my house, so I have a hard time separating myself and taking breaks.
Over the past three years, I’ve found ways to counteract those negatives, leading to a six-figure business I love.
Below are the ways that I thrived as an entrepreneur with depression and anxiety:
- Get buy-in from my friends and family. When you have your own little cheerleading section, it makes the tough days more manageable.
- Lean on my tribe of fellow entrepreneurs who understand what I’m going through and act as that reality check I was missing.
- Work when it works for me. I get in my best writing on weekends when things are quieter, so that’s what I do.
- Set time limits for myself, so I am forced to take breaks and not get lost in work.
- Participate in other activities and organizations, so I can take my mind off my work and feel connected to different causes other than work.
- Try to implement good habits because sleep, exercise, and diet contribute to my mental well-being.
- Take on projects I love and clients I enjoy; otherwise, I feel like I’m back in the corporate world.
- Find educational programs and conferences so I can keep up with my professional development.
- Hire people to help me because I won’t get too far if I try to do it all myself.
- Spend time at my co-working space when I need to see another human besides my family.
Of course, there are many days when I don’t ask for help, ignore my time limits, take on projects I regret, or over-commit. But I’ve learned to recognize those moments and either embrace them or course-correct them.
I still go through periods of depression and anxiety, but the difference is that I see the light at the end of the tunnel now. Before, in the corporate world, when I was depressed and anxious, I felt hopeless. I truly couldn’t see a way out. Now, when I feel that way, I know it’s not forever, and my passion for my business helps me push through.
Another way that I stay mentally fit is by sharing my story. Initially, I was scared to open up to the world, but once I realized that people appreciated hearing my story, everything changed for me. I found a purpose in knowing I’m making a difference in someone’s life by sharing my struggles with mental illness. I realized that if more people share their truth, the less stigma there will be around mental illness.
I went from feeling deep shame about my story to writing about it for the world to read. Had I not made the leap to entrepreneurship, my story would’ve undoubtedly had a different outcome, and I certainly wouldn’t be telling it right now.
When I look back at my journey from unemployed lost little girl to thriving badass woman entrepreneur, I sometimes have a hard time believing I’m the same person. Somehow, I managed to take everything I thought was wrong with me and turn it into all that is right. My depression and anxiety have made my life challenging and unbearable, yet they’ve also made me the successful, happy, and diligent entrepreneur I am today.