A year ago, I stepped away from a great job at a great company, with almost no notice and no other full-time employment lined up.
I was doing complex, lucrative work with cool clients and a super supportive employer.
So what happened?
I’d been preparing to go full-time solopreneur for a while, and the time finally came.
Answer #2, which I almost never talk about but is equally true:
I left because I had an acute bout of PTSD.
(The rest of this post talks about symptoms and lessons from PTSD. I don’t go into any potentially triggering specifics.)
Last October, the symptoms hit me out of nowhere, stemming from an incident that happened six years prior that I thought I’d dealt with already.
I had intrusive flashbacks, dissociative episodes, and spent large portions of the day crying uncontrollably. It became impossible to hold more than the next 5 minutes in my head. Falling asleep made me panicky, as did eating and drinking. I couldn’t follow a conversation with more than one person at a time, because my brain could no longer keep up.
I tried to continue my full-time job as a management consultant/executive coach/strategic advisor as all this was happening. I made it about 3 days before it became abundantly clear that I was in no way cognitively equipped to be leading that kind of high-stakes, political, systemic Tetris game while simultaneously having a mental breakdown. The speed and distance of my fall from competence was breathtaking.
My company was wonderful and immediately kicked into a mode of unquestioning support with my unspecified “health issues.” I was out on medical leave within a week, and started receiving FMLA disability pay two weeks after that.
Fortunately, I had a lot of education on trauma so I leaned on that and went immediately to work applying that knowledge to my situation. During that time, everything other than eating, sleeping, exercising, and doctor’s appointments was ruthlessly deprioritized by necessity. Just managing those basic biological needs stretched my capacity to the limit.
My most distinct memory from that period was of running. I hate running, but I would force myself to the track at the local high school every day, and run around it as hard and as long as I could while listening to heavy metal music, to exorcise the years of deferred fear and rage that had finally come to the surface. Forcibly discharging that energy from my body ended up being the most helpful thing I did.
Because I couldn’t hold anything else in my brain, the whole world was reduced to that one circular track, in that one unendingly present moment. Over and over and over and over again.
The acute stage of this lasted about a month. Two and a half months in, my short-term disability was coming to an end and I told my employer I wasn’t coming back.
I couldn’t even get myself onto a plane to see my family for Thanksgiving, and I had no roadmap for how long my residual symptoms would last. “Is my brain broken forever?” was a fun rabbit hole I went down often. It didn’t feel fair to ask a company to just wait on standby indefinitely until I was back to 100%. And the mere thought of trying to package all of this into an action plan, like a good corporate citizen, felt impossible.
While I have no doubt they would’ve tried to accommodate my still-diminished situation, by that point I’d figured out what it would take to stay stable and continue recovering, and there was no way that even the most flexible employer would be able to roll with what I needed.
The strangest thing to me about the post-acute period is that, while I was a nonfunctional puddle for 98% of it, I was still able to show up and execute with the handful of private, individual coaching clients I had. When I was in a session, everything would snap into perfect focus, and I’d feel like me again, for 50 glorious minutes at a time. It was my anchor back to the world, to my purpose, and to myself.
Before all of this, I had been preparing for a couple of years to move to full time self-employment as a coach. I’d saved up money and accumulated all the experience and certifications and equipment I’d need, but I had stalled the transition repeatedly out of fear of the unknown, and the insecurity that always creeps in when contemplating taking off those golden handcuffs.
Knowing I always tend to hesitate until life punches me directly in the face, I chose to see this crisis as a message that it was finally time. The leap was being made with or without my consent. I knew I shouldn’t be sitting on my passion any longer.
All told, it took about five months to feel fully back to normal. While I can’t say I’d recommend launching a very vulnerable business in the middle of a nervous breakdown, all of the meaningful growth in my life has come out of trial-by-fire moments like that, so I’ve mostly learned to roll with that dynamic by now. It got me to a beautiful place I probably wouldn’t have reached if life had remained easy and comfortable.
There are so many lessons from this time period, many of which I’m sure I won’t even understand fully for years. Here are some takeaways that I hope might be helpful for you, though:
What questions do you have about trauma responses – either for yourself, or to support someone else through it? Email me and I’m happy to answer as best I can.