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Three years: part one
separation and the descent into the belly of the beast
This is my story of the last three years.
It is about divorce, burnout, depression and the journey back; all set amidst a pandemic.
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I knew I was going to share this story some time ago. When the idea first came to me, it was going to be titled “6 months”. I had no idea.
Some parts of this period were buried and difficult to resurface. Fortunately, I have always journaled and—with the help of those notes—I was able to fill in most of the blanks.
The beauty of writing is that you don’t know the full story until you try and articulate it; writing is never simply recollection. What I see now is different to when I set out and that alone has made the effort worthwhile.
It’s the most beautiful Airbnb I’ve stayed in. We’re at the top of an apartment block in central Paris. The two floors and 10 beds wind around a central open space and the interior is sodden with relaxed, royal pinks, thick rugs and Tibetan sound bowls.
I’m about as stressed as usual. These work retreats are always intense but they bear fruit as we force ourselves to ship something in the week we’re here.
It’s February 2020, and I’d worked in tech for a decade or so, first as a software engineer, moving into leadership and now a cofounder of my own company: Almanac. Alongside my cofounder responsibilities, I was our Head of Engineering: line managing engineers, setting technical direction, leading hiring and building the initial product. It was the culmination of a lifelong dream: to be at the helm of something big and ambitious.
In terms of the product itself, we were bringing the magic of GitHub—reviews, diffs and approval workflows—to the everyday document editing experience of remote teams; a timely endeavour considering what was about to happen to the world.
Before Almanac, a side project of mine had been acquired and it was through taking this product to market that I met my cofounder and our CEO. We decided to work together alongside two other cofounders. After building out the rails ourselves, we knew we had to raise money soon to help with further development and hiring a team. Maybe a few hundred thousand dollars.
In the end, we raised $9m over an extended seed round. We did not expect people to be as pumped as they were but we knew we were on to something. It was crazy money to raise then and even crazier now looking back from our current economic situation.
I was based in the UK. The other co-founders worked out of San Francisco, so I had to promptly get over my fear of flying and adapt to the 10-hour journeys there. Alongside SF visits, we also held regular work retreats in other cities: Mexico City, New York, and Amsterdam.
This time we were in Paris, working long days and sampling decadent, butter-filled dishes in the evenings. The murmurs of a virus making its way from East to West were getting louder. Two months later, the most exotic thing I’d be able to do was sit on a patch of grass, 2 metres away from my parents, being careful not to breathe in their vicinity.
Running and family
Outside of work, I stayed sane through running.
I got hooked on running around 2015, after my partner and I bought a house in the country. Swapping treadmills for trails kindled my joy in running; seeing my distance, pace, VO2max and other data improve over time via a fitness tracker stoked the flame into a fire.
I liked to run solo, but the 2016 Olympics pushed me to sign up for my first event: a 10k. Not long after, I read Christopher McDougall's Born to Run and became obsessed with the idea of running ultra distances. I’ve since run seven ultramarathons, the furthest being a 100km run up the Cotswold Way.
I became enamoured with running: the freedom of movement, the immersion in nature, the simplicity of getting myself from A to B on my own feet, the fine-tuning of equipment and fuelling, the beneficial impact on my body, the challenge and the heroic spirit I tapped into when tackling long distances.
Running had also been therapeutic. At my 27th birthday meal, I had a panic attack. It quickly accelerated into a panic disorder for several months before I realised I needed help and managed to get it under control with CBT. Alongside therapy, running had been one of the most effective ways to quell my anxiety and root my flighty energy into solid ground.
I was also married. My partner and I had met 8 years ago on OkCupid, shortly after I moved from Bristol to Bath. We married 4 years later and went on to buy our own house together, and rounded it off with a cute—if not slightly neurotic—dog called Reuben.
In short, things had just been getting better and better for years and years. With the success of Almanac, it felt like I might reach escape velocity. It was intense, but perhaps I wouldn’t have to worry about work or money again.
6 months after Paris, I’m coming back from a camping trip. It’s already dark. I step through the patio door into bright lights and loud barks. Reuben is thrilled that I've returned; my pounding head is less thrilled by the sensory assault.
Besides the hangover, there is something heavy in the air, a dense atmosphere of anticipation. I look at my partner and see the defeat in her eyes. I know what’s coming next.
A few minutes later, it’s over. She tells me how it seems to her—this just isn’t working—and asks if I agree.
I agree. As I say it, I feel something unlock in my heart, like a necklace unclipping. It’s immediately and irrevocably over.
We hold each other and cry. It’s the closest we’ve been in a long time.
Before our separation, it was clear that we were moving in different directions. We loved and supported each other, but it seemed that the more support we offered, the less we shared in common, like a shoot that strives away from its ground into the freedom of the air.
We wanted different things, had wildly divergent interests and started to argue more. Each time we argued it seemed as though a gulf opened up between us. Past a certain point, the gulf never closed: we just stepped around it and tried not to plummet toward the conclusion.
We weren’t the two individuals we were in our 20s. I’m not sure anyone is.
Even though things weren’t good, the idea of breaking up—of our marriage failing—still felt unthinkable. We’d come so far and invested so much.
But now it’s over. It’s been brewing for some time but I still feel like I’ve been hit by a train. I log in to Slack to tell my cofounders that I’m taking a week off.
Over the next 48 hours, my mind plays a constant reel of our time together, our marriage, and our wedding day, over and over. Every time I think of the wedding in particular, I am distraught.
After the sadness and shock, I start freaking out about the appearance of the marriage ending. I feel guilty and ashamed that we haven’t been able to make it work, that we’ve let people down who supported us.
It seems to me like separation is the act of returning to every person who attended the best day of your life—not to mention, witnessing your eternal vows—and telling them that it didn’t work out. I can’t imagine anything worse.
It starts to feel more real when I tell my parents. Mum already knows something is up.
A new home
The timing of all this is far from ideal.
We break up in between the first and second national COVID-19 lockdowns in the UK. I need to find somewhere to rent before lockdown 2 lands, and I’m competing against a surge of people who—in this brief respite— decide they want more rooms to hide from their families, larger gardens and more country paths on which to spend their allocated exercise time.
After staying in a couple of decidedly un-Parisian Airbnbs, I find a house to rent long-term. For a while, things feel alright.
Work is horrendously busy but, with no relationship, I have more time for it. What’s more, we’re between lockdowns so I can have 6 friends over. In the spirit of respiratory resilience, I also take up vaping full-time. It feels soothing and non-negotiable.
I’m a solitude-loving introvert so the idea of living alone is exciting: uninterrupted peace and the freedom to structure my time as I please.
My new rental is unfurnished so I spend a lot on furniture, plants and art, relishing the opportunity to set things up just the way I like them, with no compromise. It feels good.
It’s also a distraction. I get to the end of the deliveries, put up the last picture and promptly burst into tears.
Maybe I’m not alright. What has happened still feels incomprehensible in some important sense that I can’t grasp yet.
The marriage hasn’t worked, but I still have so much in front of me. I still have running. Running was a frequent point of contention in our marriage and now I am free to train til my heart is content.
Around this time, I also decide to start writing again. I’ve always written and something nudges me towards sharing again.
Back to work
Lastly, I still have Almanac.
In the past, I had to add a daily “Dinner Time - DO NOT BOOK” block in my calendar to stop calls running from the afternoon straight through into the evening. With no partner to (rightfully) get mad about this, I delete the block and knuckle down. Things are once again intense: the company is on the edge of something big and every day counts. Our employees and investors are looking to us.
Because we’re a remote-first company, spread across the globe, Almanac is also 24/7. Someone is always doing something, there are always pending questions, and I’m checking in on things from dusk til dawn.
Like frantically furnishing a house, working all hours is an escape from the seismic shift that has just fractured my sense of being: a familiar place, even if it is a warzone with never-ending hiring, resignations, terminations and critical conversations.
Startup life is volatile. An early-stage, VC-funded company is a wild animal on hard drugs. Its imperative is to keep thrashing around until it latches on to a business model—or more likely, a compelling narrative about how the business model will arrive—that will convince more people to fund the next round of stimulants.
With customer and investor input coming thick and fast, our vision seems to expand and flip every 2 months, requiring handbrake turns to keep a rapidly growing application functioning. We’re always relaunching. It’s a process, not an event.
Adding to the volatility, things become less harmonious between cofounders. I don’t feel like my heart is in it anymore, but giving up is not an option. It’s my company.
The calendar is the killer. As I look across my schedule, I feel my remaining energy flutter and flatten. Back-to-back meetings. Standups, 1:1s, endless interviews, retrospectives, exec meetings, hiring syncs, investor calls. Each one has an energy cost and I will probably be in the negative by the time West coast wakes up (around 4pm UK time). I do a lousy job of pushing back against the surge of meetings. In truth, I don’t want to: I’m feeling less productive recently and I want to get back on track.
I am exhausted. The tank is just about empty and I’m accelerating harder. It feels hard to work at all. I feel strange: numb yet frequently close to tears; juggling many complex ideas yet unable to focus on one thing; knowing I need a break but unable to escape.
When I’m particularly over-stimulated it feels like someone has pulled my skin inside-out and that each sight, sound and ask is burning away at my exposed insides. Panic follows shortly afterwards.
My eyes in particular feel bruised and abused. The ache feels so deep and there is a sense that I’ve allowed too much in, that I’ve seen too much. There’s a scene in Lost where they strap a villagers arms and legs to a chair, pin their eyes open and force them to watch propaganda projected on a wall for hours on end. This is how I feel.
When it’s particularly bad, when I’m pushing hard into the red, it turns to nausea too, a kind of sick rebellion towards the demands of the screen.
Although it’s felt mostly in the eyes, there is also a more diffuse exhaustion. It lies dormant sometimes until someone asks something of me or something doesn’t work out how I want it to. Then there is the silent rage, followed quickly by burning bitterness and shame. I feel as though the world just needs to get out of my fucking way and leave me alone.
Finally, there is the most distressing symptom: a kind of detached horror in my total depletion. I feel like I can’t take in anything more and I start to dissociate from what’s happening. Did someone notice? Am I still here?
Some of this isn’t entirely new. As far back as 2017 I’ve struggled with burnout, although this was only apparent as I reviewed my journal to write these posts.
Yet things have shifted into an entirely new gear now. If burnout was latent and building before, it’s now screaming-in-my-face, combusting with unprocessed grief and a lack of social support.
We’re in the second lockdown now and I’ve bubbled with my parents. I go there every Friday for dinner. Household bubbles were a lifeline for many during the lockdowns, and I'm unsure how I would have coped without them.
To keep the troops motivated at work, we organise a pasta-making class, over Zoom of course, with an Italian mother-daughter act. I enjoy making pasta and offer to cook for my parents one Friday.
I arrive that night and whatever source it is you draw upon to move around, make decisions and take action is entirely absent. I don’t feel weak, I just feel like the possibility of doing things is not possible. Even small decisions feel like trying to telepathically move tectonic plates. It’s very matter-of-fact and not up for discussion.
As a brief aside, I’ve found that anxiety and depression often manifest physically at first (and sometimes, throughout). When I started having panic attacks 9 years ago, they were so intense that I thought there must be some medical condition at play. Why else would I feel on the brink of death and like I need to call an ambulance?
I remember explaining this to a doctor at the time. She ran all of the precautionary tests: ECG, heart rate, blood pressure. “Everything is fine”, she told me. “It sounds like you’re having panic attacks”. I remember walking home in shock. Even with 20 or so attacks under my belt, I would never have guessed they had any psychological component.
This Friday night, the first punch of depression feels similarly physical.
Worse still, I’ve lost interest in running. The idea of lacing up is burdensome and the physical energy just isn’t there. What’s the point?
It’s becoming obvious that I have depressive symptoms, but I still feel uncomfortable using the D word. A sudden indifference to running makes it harder to ignore.
Internally, I have a growing sense of something being deeply wrong, at a level below bad or sad moods. My self-narrative is also deteriorating; increasingly negative, whilst my ability to defend against it crumples.
After making pasta for my parents, I stop cooking. Meal preparation morphs into “putting a thing on a thing”. The primary role of food became soothing; a gentle anaesthesia.
I know things are bad, but I still have some lifelines.
Stretching the bubbling rules, I often visit a good friend and his partner. They cook for me and we drink beer, smoke cigarettes, listen to metal and laugh at the dog. These low-key hangouts are simple but vital.
I am still managing to meditate, my supply line to the sacred. I’ve been meditating for 12 years. The profound insights that come about in insight meditation continue to bubble up and nourish me, but they are quickly drowned out in the screaming demands of a new day.
In some sense, insight meditation is a poor answer to depression: the “here and now” sensations and feelings I was going through at this point did not need to be dissected. I needed to be expressing what was going on, putting it into words, for myself and others. I needed to be around other people.
In the past, when I’ve felt lousy, I lean on exercise and nutrition to get things back on track. I have done these “resets” many times: refocus my diet, increase exercise, lose weight, and feel great.
Until now. I’m about 6kg heavier than usual, but when I try to eat less or stop vaping I feel lonely and abandoned. I can’t handle it. Even when I do string a few days together, nothing happens. I try, over and over, and fail, again and again.
This is the first time these tactics haven't worked. This takes a heavy toll on my outlook: why can’t I change? Why don’t these things work anymore?
Drinking, smoking, coping
One day, I find myself on a bench in a nearby park on the edge of a breakdown.
It is a stunning day: birds piping out their songs, flowers filling my sight with bright blooms and my anxiety is through the roof. I feel like I’m losing my mind and I cannot face the 6 hours of calls this afternoon.
I walk back home before the regular Zoom train departs. I don’t know what else to do so I have a beer. Drinking at 2pm on Tuesday doesn’t feel great, but the internal noise diminishes and I have some energy.
Drinking rapidly becomes the only way to turn down the volume and spark some energy. Each time I’m drunk I reflect: it’s not so bad. Things can’t be that bad if I’m able to go from hopeless to engaged in the time it takes me to down a drink.
Cocktails become my preferred way of administering treatment and, for some reason, the ritual of making them feels very important. I’m not just necking neat spirits like some lout; I’m creating something beautiful.
After a while, it becomes a pain to make cocktails in between calls (there is no time) so I batch-make them around lunchtime and leave the pre-mix in the fridge. Now they only need to be shaken with ice to serve.
Day-to-day just becomes about coping. One day I wake up and smoke all the cigarette butts I find in the garden. I smoke on and off for a few weeks, but smoking inflames my anxiety so quickly that I have to return to vaping. Another week I alternate between KFC and Burger King for 5 nights in a row.
I start to seriously grapple with the idea of resigning, but just like calling time on a failing marriage, the actual exit still retains an air of unthinkability.
I need rest, but I don’t feel like I can stomach another loss. Losing my partner, our family and our home, and then losing the company on top of that… that can’t happen. I must stop the bleeding. I need to get back on track. I need to make this work. I can’t leave, I can’t let people down.
After a month or so of coping with substances, I’m a husk. I’m defeated by the smallest tasks. My emotional tone is flat and dull, except for the tears that creep up on me out of nowhere.
It's around this time that the thoughts start to arrive.
I’m going about my day, chopping some bread, and then an imaginary flash of hurting myself with the knife appears. I wince and recoil. I'm driving to see my parents and then a flash of veering into something. I'm walking and a flash of throwing myself in front of something.
At first, they’re just confusing interruptions. I don’t feel like I want to do any of those things. There is no intention.
But why are these thoughts happening? The more intense work gets, the more they manifest. I wonder what they’re leading towards. As they progress, I feel more beholden to them and things get scary.
Is this how it begins? Is this what happens before someone hurts themselves? Am I actually going to hurt myself? There is some morbid magnetism in this line of thought—the more I consider it, the more reality I endow it.
One other thought punctures this dark period: my engine light is flashing. If I keep driving, something is going to blow up. I have no idea where this thought comes from but it’s resoundingly clear and conclusive.
Around this time, the people I work with are noticing that things are not alright—my symptoms are spilling over into meetings. They propose that I take a month off.
A month off feels like an awfully long time. They tell me I can come back after 2 weeks if I feel ok.
I take 4 weeks off.
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