Owning a Business with a Mental Illness

I have always wanted to be self-employed, and I put off taking that step for years because I was so afraid of how having bipolar disorder might affect me as a business owner. Owning a business is a huge responsibility, and honestly, it was probably good that I put it off. I wasn’t stable enough at 18 or 21 or 23 to cope with such a huge change in my life or manage such a large responsibility.

After over a year with no severe episodes and months of dissatisfaction and stress at my old job, I finally quit and opened my own massage therapy office in November 2014.

It affected and was affected by my mental health, for better and for worse.

I had the worst panic attack I’ve had in years when I had to present my business plan to my parents to ask for a start-up loan, even though they’d already agreed to lend me the money. I felt like self-injuring every day for the first month after I opened, even though I was doing well. I woke up some mornings and thought, Oh my God, what did I do? I can’t do this! More panic attacks. A lot of panic attacks.

But good came from all that stress. For one, I learned to handle a huge amount of stress. I don’t think that panicking about things or being tempted to fall back on old coping mechanisms means that I wasn’t handling the stress. The panic attacks subsided and I didn’t self-injure, so I consider that a huge success.

Being a business owner is also teaching me to push myself outside my comfort zone, which I struggle with, but feel is vital to growing as a person.

One of the things that has been a concern for me and for my family is how I will handle running a business when I do have an episode. I’m not naive enough to think that they’re gone forever.

Mania is the one that really threatens how I function professionally. It’s almost impossible to leave the house sometimes when my head is racing and I can’t latch on to any one thought, when I haven’t slept or eaten for days. Before I opened my business, I had a long conversation with my grandmother about how I would handle a manic episode as a business owner.

For one, I wouldn’t schedule too many appointments on the same day. It’s one thing to go into the office for two or three hours while manic, it’s another to work all day long, which was challenging at my old job where I had to be there 8-10 hours a day, regardless of whether I had appointments or not. Calling my doctor right away, or having someone else do it for me, is an absolute must. I also intentionally chose an office space within walking distance of my house. No more 45 minute manic bus rides or overstimulating downtown treks. I can go do what I need to do and then go home.

Sometimes I hate that I have to strategically plan my life about what could happen because of my mental illness. On the flip side, it’s a huge boost to my confidence knowing that I am succeeding at something I’ve wanted for a long time, that I’ve built flexibility into my professional life to help me cope with this illness, and that I’m empowered enough now to recognize potential pitfalls and plan around them.

Even my therapist says she’s seen a huge difference in me since I quit my old job and took on this new role.

I know that not every step of the journey is going to be easy, but I’m proud of myself for being realistic about my illness, and most of all for not letting it hold me back from the things I really want in life.

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