NeuroDivergent CEO - what you don't know.
At a recent pitch summit, the founder of the investment group Pipeline Angels cited their successes in reaching women of color as no other angel investor group had achieved, reaching women, in general a vast change from status quo in investments that go principally to white men. She discussed their challenges in investing in indigenous women and disabled women still to date. I was wowed by their successes, in awe of the unapologetic battle to take back the opportunity that the neurotypical able bodied cis-gender white man had taken away from women of color, non-binary people, LGBTQIA people, neutrotypical, and disabled people for far too long.
I was distracted by my upcoming pitch, but the statistic she mentioned - only 2% of their investments had gone to disabled people - stuck in my heart and in my stomach long after the pitch. The American Disability Act considers severe mental illnesses, those that affect one’s ability to live a normal life, a disability. In the last 19 months since my official diagnosis and treatment of bipolar, I have come to know all too well how my psychiatric disorder is a disability. And since this topic came up at the pitch summit I have been stirring and stirring and stirring over what psychiatric disabilities imply for being a founder and CEO of a social enterprise.
I know exactly why a person with a psychiatric disability may not be the ideal candidate for founding and leading an ambitious company (me), and yet I know why that person is exactly the perfect person for founding and leading the company (me).
To illustrate this dichotomy, let me walk you through the days leading up to this reflection and the day of the pitch summit (stream of conscious).
Are my eyes dry from new meds or because I didn’t sleep from working on that proposal all night? The hand tremors are definitely from the medications and I really wish they would stop so I could drink this cup of coffee and finish this presentation or proposal or whatever it is.
I feel like the sweating must be from the meds but I will take my temperature just in case I picked up some weird disease in El Salvador last month. Presentation. Mind blanks about ten time because I just keep forgetting words. They said the new medication could cause me to forget new words. Forgetting new words seems like a really inconvenient side effect when you are trying to run a company.
Finish the other project plan and try not to think about the fact that you feel a little sad. Last time you took these meds you had a depressive episode so bad you almost sat yourself down in the stream in the coffee fields to give up on life because you were too far in the jungle to get to the psychiatrist or psychiatric hospital, so let’s hope the sadness is just because you didn’t get those funds you really needed to pay your employees and not because you might be depressed. Finish the project pitch presentation go go go.
You must take these meds so you stop gaining weight but still make sure you don’t get manic. Finish the project plan. It’s not depression maybe you are tired. What is this project even about? It’s your dream remember? Remember when you used to be skinny and could go for runs and could follow your dreams? But then you were manic and a superhuman and that was a bad thing somehow? It was so easy to follow my dreams and get things done when I was manic but I hurt so many people and I hurt myself too.
Focus Rachael focus on what you care about. How will I pay the people. I haven’t paid myself. You quit your job because you care so deeply. I am sweating and my hands are shaking because of the meds. Breath deep. Mediate they say. That will fix everything. Right? Surely the meditation will make the crazy in my brain go away. My eyes are still itchy. Deep breath. Keep going. You have to.
I am not exaggerating that the medication that I just started taking has all of these side effects and previous medications have caused something similar. I think anyone who has taken any medications for mental health can probably agree that anytime you are changing medications or starting a new medication is the worst and I am in the thick of it. It does get better. I have survived it before and I know I will again. My brain will come back to almost full function. It will never be as super human as it is when I am manic, but that is a different discussion.
It seems that these days to follow my dreams society has determined I must pass through this filter in which you get in a confined space and you are limited to a certain time and you pitch your idea to some people who have more money than you have and they decide if you are worthy of following your dreams or not based on these five minutes in said confined space. I exaggerate but that is how it feels in the moment.
It is not terrifying but it is terrible. And I say this given that I love public speaking. I can pull an inspirational speech out of nowhere on one of one hundred topics with zero ounces of anxiety. I have addressed rooms full of 500 farmers in Spanish with no problem. But the minute you give me a time limit it triggers panic. And I am talking about the kind panic that is associated with panic attacks that is associated with need to lay on a cold floor and take psychiatric medications to be able to breathe again. The kind of panic that is diagnosed by doctors.
I gave my first pitch the other day with a 5-minute exact limit. I can give 100 variants of the exact same presentation without thinking of time and they will last +/- 10% of the time of that presentation and they will be 100% better because I won’t think about the time. I am sure that the presentation I gave was fine. I went through the slides, I didn’t pass out, everyone was nodding like they understood, and the questions all made sense, but honestly I pretty much feel like I blacked out for 5 minutes. Welcome to the brain of a person with diagnosed anxiety mixed with really bad side effects from a new medication.
What I don’t understand is – what aspect of being a good CEO has to do with doing a task in exactly 5 minutes? When I am negotiating a partnership with suppliers I don’t have a 5-minute deadline. When I am mentoring employees, no time deadline. When I am submitting reports, yes, deadlines, but not 5 minutes. I get it – they want to know how you perform under stress – but like what – when I am magically a CEO do you lock me in a box for 5 minutes and ask me to make hard decisions? NOOO. This is not real.
I’m sorry, I’m bitter. I’m frustrated because my body seems to be self-destructing from the medication I have to take in order for my brain to not self-destruct. And if I take anti-anxiety medications to avoid these panic-attack scenarios, I am pretty much a vegetable. So you combine the forgetting words at random from the medications that make me not-manic and not-suicidal with the meds that me not panic in the 5-minute no fresh air conference room, I’m pretty much taking a nap on the floor.
Yet here I am a CEO. And before I was a CEO I was a twice over project leader/manager at international research centers for USAID-funded projects. I have founded a handful of school organizations from age 15 onward and raised money with individuals, private donors, and public donors for a wide range of topics. I form alliances and I am known for being an efficient, effective, and kind leader. I am not a vegetable sleeping in the back corner, though that would be much easier most days and my body probably wishes I would just do that.
Somehow, something in me, makes me push forward. Somehow the anxiety that I live with helps me to be a more compassionate person as I interact and adapt to working a great diversity of people around the world. Being manic helped me learned that I am capable of strange, magical, and powerful things, that even when tells me something is impossible, I know that it is not, so I keep pushing to make change in the world.
And as someone who has lived many times through the darkest depression that feels impossible to live through, that feels as if there is no life on the other side – the only way I have actually found to keep living, is to dedicate my life to hope. Hope that there is a better world in front of us. Maybe there is not and I know that it is a true possibility. But if I do not continue to believe in hope and continue to fight with every ounce of my being for a better world for all people, I know that I will not be able to keep living through these depressive episodes that I face on a regular basis as a bipolar person. I will literally not be alive.
What most people don't know is that this is my secret weapon, a weapon that neurotypical people will never have, a weapon that makes me one of the most powerful CEOs on this planet.
In reflections with myself and my deep emotions and fears of failures and losing my dreams; in digesting the experience about why I care so much about 5-minute time limits; in facing day in and day out the anger I hold about the disease I have and the side-effects of nasty medications that literally keep me alive every damn day and h
ow I still have medical challenges despite all the medications; I don’t care if I gave a good presentation or not, if those particular investors believe in our work and want to invest or not, if I have 1000 panic attacks more or not. I am strong and I know I can handle the medications, the mental illness, the rejection, the sweaty palms and shaking hands, and ultimately so much more.
What I want is EarthEmpower to blossom, grow, thrive. I want it for myself, to finally feel I have a safe space to be a professional woman to innovate and grow as the human that I am. So that my co-founders can create that space for themselves as well with their own desires and limitations. And so that together as a team we can give space for the innovation and growth so needed for the women farmers in Latin America and around the world to take care of our earth and build a better future.
I am terrified that having a psychiatric disability will prevent me from doing that. I know that most days it does not, but some days it really really does. Some days when the hands are shaking and the brain is fogged by medicine that is keeping me alive, it seems that I should NOT be a CEO and founder. It seems I should stay in bed and merely exist. Give up ambition and try to hold myself together and focus on staying alive as a full-time job. It would be all too easy to put my emails on an out of office reply forever and never come back.
But I cannot and I won’t do that. I will continue to be the CEO of EarthEmpower even if I have a panic attack when sitting in small rooms and limited to certain minutes. Even if my hands shake from the medicine not because I’m nervous. Even if its embarrassing to have a dry mouth every time I talk in a professional setting.
I will wear a jacket so you cannot see me sweating. I will forget words in the middle of a presentation for no reason and I will keep going even if I look ridiculous. I will channel super human manic Rachael who is still in me somewhere without being manic. I will run a company who will make the world better for other people and we will fight for equality and we will fight so maybe one day other people can have a safe workplace where they don’t have to figure out how to hide the side effects of their medications and their disabilities.