Back in Therapy: Reflections on Starting a Startup with Depression

Posted by Alina Liao on

This month, I got myself back in therapy. I wasn’t planning on announcing it publicly, but then I thought, we all like to post about our workouts and meditation sessions. My passion and the mission of Zenit is to make wellness accessible to everyone. This includes helping create a positive narrative around mental health. So why shouldn’t I post about being back in therapy too?

In February this year, I wrote a blog I never published about starting a startup “on shaky ground.” I reflected on my experience starting a new business after a traumatic end with the last company that I had co-founded and I poured my soul into for over three years. I decided not to publish it, because I was worried it sounded too much like a pity party. I decided I’d publish it later on when I could include a happy, inspirational ending.

Well, it’s a few months later. And as we all know, since February, everything has become harder. I don’t have a happy ending right now. But restarting therapy is a win worth celebrating. It’s also a pivotal moment worth pausing and reflecting on.

I hate it when people tell me I’m strong

Over the past year, I went through losses and betrayals that shattered my core beliefs and disintegrated my self-worth. As I talked with friends, they gave me compassion and encouragement and always told me I’m strong.

My whole life, people have told me I’m strong, but I’ve noticed that now, hearing “You’re strong” makes me sad. I don’t feel strong. I’m always one step away from tears. I take things more personally than I ever did. I feel like a failure all the time.

Successful entrepreneurs love to talk about how they grew from their failures. But no one talks about how to do the startup thing when you feel like a failure every step of the way.

“Are you happy?”

During this past year of feeling constantly “down,” as I had labeled it, I often told myself, “I should get back in therapy.” But I kept putting it off — the kind of putting off you do when you know you won’t ever get around to it. But I woke up when I was catching up with a mentor a few weeks ago, and after the third time he asked me, “Are you happy?” I broke down crying.

Even in my tears, I insisted, “Yes, I’m happy. I mean, day to day I feel down, but when I take a step back and look at my life and the things I have to be grateful for — my health, meaningful work that I created, a good relationship, a tight-knit community — how can I not be happy? Of course I’m happy.”

Translation: “I’m depressed af but how dare I acknowledge it.”

I’m getting better at carrying the pain, but I’m not getting better

After this conversation, I saw that I’m getting better at carrying the pain, but I’m not getting better. I’ve been coping, but not healing. The tangled ball of anger, sadness, and shame sitting in my chest isn’t going to roll off on its own. This is my grief. I need to hold it close, caress it, gently tug on its strings, and unravel it. I need to read each individual strand of hurt so I can understand everything that I lost, and pay homage.

I didn’t want to admit that someone could damage me so deeply

So while I’ve been feeling depressed and telling myself I should get back into therapy, what was holding me back? I’ve done therapy before. For the past decade, I’ve been working on unlearning my belief that asking for support makes me a burden to others. My resistance was different this time. My depression resulted from acute traumas, and I didn’t want to admit that anyone could damage me so deeply.

When I started looking up therapy options, I did a depression self-assessment. The results read: “Moderately Severe Depression.” It's relieving that what I’m feeling is real. It’s also disheartening to be told I have depression. Saying, “I’m depressed” is harder than saying, “I’m down.” But saying it aloud is the first step of picking up my ball of hurt instead of pushing it aside.

“What you’re doing is a gift. People who need it will find you.”

So a year after launching Zenit, I’m coming to terms with the fact that I have and have had depression this whole time I was building it. Some might say it was too early for me to start a new venture. I see the logic in that. But I don’t regret starting Zenit when I did.

Zenit provides a way for every individual to customize their journal with personalized mental health and wellness prompts. Zenit was born out of my pain. While I’m still processing my pain, it gives me hope that I was able to take my pain and create something that is contributing to my healing and the healing of every person who gets a Zenit Journal.

What’s been hard about starting a new business with depression is the real physical, mental, and emotional toll depression takes. I’ve had to adjust my lifestyle, and I’m still in the process of making adjustments. I’ve overcome odds by my work and sweat before. The mantra “make shit happen” is in my DNA as a goal-driven person, since the moment I started gymnastics at five and decided I wanted to go to the Olympics. 

But with depression, I learned that I don’t have the mental capacity to be goal-driven. Being “goal-driven” is getting in my way of building my innate sense of self-worth — that is, my self-worth as a human being separate from my accomplishments. For the first time in my life, I’m letting my goals sit quietly in the backdrop. Through Zenit, I’ve met many business owners in the wellness space, including Tracey Rogers (@trae2u), an astrologist, life coach, and activist. She told me, “What you’re doing is a gift. People who need it will find you.”

These words were exactly what I needed to hear. This is my mantra for this phase in my life. It’s a radically different mindset from what I was raised on — and definitely not what they teach at MBA programs, but in my gut, I know it to be the right approach. For Zenit to be healthy, I have to be healthy. I’m back in therapy. I’m unraveling my pain. I’m putting my healing first.

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