Neurodiversity In Business: How A Bipolar Bear Found Success As An Entrepreneur
Hi, I’m Hazel, and I have Bipolar Disorder. Specifically, Rapid Cycling Bipolar 1. I also have Anxiety Disorder, PTSD, and may have ADHD (it’s been suggested, and certainly fits, but honestly I’ve got enough acronyms already; I’m disinclined to add another by getting it formally diagnosed). The short version? I’m neurodivergent. I’m also a successful entrepreneur. After over a decade of finding my feet in the world of business (and here you have to imagine I’m pronouncing the word like Sam the Eagle in A Muppet Christmas Carol), I’d like to discuss neurodiversity in business.
I’ve been having a rather existential start to the year. You might even go so far as to say I find myself in the midst of an early mid-life crisis. I’ve struggled in the wake of losing Dexter (the beloved hound who was my constant companion throughout my recovery and entrepreneurial journey). The last months have seen me overwhelmed by a sense of futility with life, the feeling that I’ve achieved nothing, have nothing to show for my time, and will inevitably continue on my way for a few more years before succumbing to whatever does me in and, ultimately, leave the world no better off than I found it.
This thought bothers me. As I’m sure it does many people at some point. I have no children and it’s looking increasingly likely I never will. The word legacy is endlessly rattling around my brain, and I find myself wondering how a person leaves such a thing without biological offspring to take up the mantle, to carry on the family business, to produce grandchildren in time and ensure some small part of me remains in the world after I’m gone.
In all of this self-rumination and moping, it occurred to me that others might find something useful in the tale of how I have managed my bipolar (not to mention anxiety, PTSD, and quite possibly ADHD) while building a successful business as an entrepreneur.
The Superhero And The Stigma
I’d love to say it’s been a breeze. That, as Hollywood and many a TV show would have us believe, the possession of a mental illness is akin to a superpower that enables a person to perform superhuman feats and grants them the ability to do everything exceptionally well in a fraction of the time.
Alas, this is not reality.
Pre-diagnoses I often hallucinated, and at the time had no idea I was hallucinating. Unravelling what was real and what wasn’t in my recollection of my late teens and early twenties was something of an odyssey. So I have a more fluid view of what constitutes ‘reality’ than most.
If you believe a thing to be real, you experience it as reality. Your experience, in a physical and emotional sense, is the same. You have the same chemical and hormonal reactions as a person experiencing it in reality. To you, that thing was real. To the rest of the world, you look like a mad woman strolling down the street, having a heated argument with thin air.
One person’s reality is another’s mental illness. One person’s illness is another person’s superpower. You may view your mental illness as a superpower. For some rare cases, the rest of the world would agree. But for the majority of us, however we personally view our conditions, the world views them as a problem.
Worse still, a stigma.
When a person carries that stigma and still manages to achieve things in life, it transforms into a superpower. There are benefits to certain states that we might learn to harness. It may at times appear our conditions have granted us the ability to do something faster, or better, or more creatively, or more insightfully than others. But here’s the question: why are they giving credit for our achievements to the thing they perceive as an illness?
Who is the superhero? The illness, or the person who achieves despite the illness?
Do we actually want to use the label ‘illness’ at all, or do we simply acknowledge that our way of thinking, of viewing the world, and reacting is not ‘the norm’? We don’t always think, act, and react as people expect us to, or demand we do, and that bothers them. Often it bothers us too, causing a myriad of issues, including:
A lack of organisation
An inability to get anything done
Difficulty interacting socially
Heightened sensitivity to sensory inputs
Challenges with executive functioning
Anxiety in unpredictable situations
Struggles with maintaining focus on non-preferred tasks
Heightened emotional responses
Difficulties in processing and expressing emotions
Feeling overwhelmed by multitasking
Experiencing burnout from constant efforts to ‘fit in’
Difficulty in understanding non-verbal cues
Navigating misunderstandings in communication
The stress of constant self-advocacy
Facing stigma and misconceptions about neurodivergence
The exhaustion from masking or camouflaging to appear neurotypical
The isolation that comes from feeling misunderstood
Challenges in finding and maintaining employment that accommodates neurodivergent needs
The perpetual battle for acceptance and accommodation in a world designed for neurotypical norms.
Each of these issues, while daunting, also presents an opportunity for growth, learning, and the development of unique coping strategies. More importantly, they highlight the need for a shift in societal perspectives towards a more inclusive understanding of neurodiversity. Instead of viewing these differences as deficits, recognising the strengths and unique insights that neurodivergent individuals bring to the table can lead to richer, more diverse communities and workplaces. The question then shifts from how to ‘fix’ these individuals to how we can adapt our environments to be more welcoming and supportive for everyone, celebrating differences rather than stigmatising them.
How I Became An Entrepreneur
I was diagnosed with bipolar in 2010…or was it 2011? I struggle to remember to be honest as I was in a terrible state at the time. Born in 1985, hindsight and a lot of therapy revealed that I first started experiencing ‘issues’ as a child, long before anyone else noticed I was a bit odd. That happened in my early teens and was chalked up to hormones and being a teenager for a while, before some idiot GP decided I had regular depression, prescribed SSRIs and began a merry-go-round of meds-mania-depression-suicide attempt-meds that would continue until I was in my mid-twenties and figured out for myself that whatever the fuck was going on with me wasn’t just regular depression.
So often, we are forced to diagnose ourselves in the absence of access to doctors actually trained in the art of diagnosing complex mental illnesses. Regular GPs aren’t trained enough in these areas to distinguish between depression and something worse (or at least, they weren’t when I was first being seen). The absence of adequate training in mental health issues often leads GPs to diagnose depression, shove a prescription in your hand, and send you on your merry way, not realising your brain chemistry is completely different to that of an neurotypical person with general depression. You don’t have a serotonin deficit causing your blue mood. Your serotonin levels are, in fact, perfectly normal. And they’ve just given you pills that will cause them to skyrocket, pushing you into a manic episode that will, inevitably, crash, leaving you suicidal.
I was never a normal child. At least, in the sense that I did not think and experience the world in the same way as the majority of my peers. Childhood and adolescence are hard enough, isolating enough, confusing enough, without adding to it that your brain functions completely differently to most people’s, nobody knows or understands this, and everyone is constantly trying to ‘fix’ you by forcing you to think and act in the way that regular people do.
But I was never broken. I was just oddly shaped.
Square peg. Round hole.
Doesn’t matter how much you try to bash it in, it’s never going to fit.
By the time I realised what the doctors kept giving me was making it worse, what that might mean, and fought my way through various hoops to see a psychiatrist capable of a true diagnosis, I was a mess. Mentally, physically, exhausted, traumatised, and trapped in an abusive relationship.
Extricating myself from that mess, even after I understood I had bipolar, wasn’t easy. My then-fiancé was opposed to me seeking treatment. He confided in my brother his concern that, if I did, I would leave him, and he was quite correct to fear that.
I already wanted to leave him, I just didn’t believe that I could. When I finally did, I found myself in an odd position. Despite my struggles I’d managed to work my way through an undergraduate degree, a masters degree, and into a PhD scholarship. I was studying and lecturing in archaeology at Bangor university. I’d mapped out an entire career path when I was about fifteen and I’d been following it ever since: I wanted to be an archaeologist. I wanted to study mythology and demonstrate how we could better understand ancient cultures and civilisations without written records by decoding the oral histories that were eventually recorded as myths. I wanted to smash the binary view of gender that had permeated every lesson I’d had at university, insisting all societies had lived with the modern concept of male and female.
I wanted to smash the box women have been forced into.
To demonstrate that, contrary to our current belief in societal advancement, ancient societies may have been more enlightened in their gender views, recognising women in roles far beyond mere vessels for procreation and maids for domestic chores.
But you remember that long list of ways neurodiversity can affect a person and lead to struggles in certain areas? By the time I was 25 all of that was well and truly kicking my arse. University life was stressful. My homelife was toxic. When I finally extricated myself from the latter I found myself incapable of continuing the former. I also found I was in a ton of debt, and now needed to find a new way of earning money.
A feat which seemed impossible in the face of doctors telling me I had an incurable condition, that I would be on medication for the rest of my life, that I was ‘broken’ (a word reinforced regularly by my mother and anyone else who cared to voice an opinion).
Society viewed me as a pariah, and for a while, I viewed myself through the same lens.
Until I remembered who I was, and all I’d wanted to achieve, and refused to accept the box I’d been shoved into as a mentally ill person. Worse still, a mentally ill woman. The problem was that, to some extent, they were right: I could not, at that time, function in a regular workplace and hold down a normal 9-5 role.
How I Became A Business Woman
It took me several long years, a lot of medication, a lot of therapy, and a lot of work to reach a point where I understood myself and how my brain works well enough that I could exist and function as a neurodivergent individual in the world of business.
Seven years, to be precise. I started my own freelance business from the boxroom of my mother’s house, and slowly paid off the debts, secured my own home, bought a new car, and created my own financial (and mental) independence. In 2018 I took a short-term, part-time freelance contract to cover 3 months of maternity leave, was offered a full-time role, and wound up working as Head of Marketing at a digital agency for nearly four years.
I became a person who was not only functional but successful in the business world. A person who had a career – albeit not the career I originally wanted. A person who built a successful freelance business, and went on to create their own digital agency focused on teaching other women how to do exactly what I had done. And in the middle of all that also wrote fiction and spun stories of other worlds, magical creatures, and fierce heroines.
In building my business, I eventually found that my neurodiversity, while challenging, can also be an asset. I wouldn’t call it a superpower, but nor do I think of it as an illness anymore. I did, for a long while, when I was first diagnosed. After seeing a therapist for several years I came to understand that I had a choice: I could accept the label I had been given and live my life as a person with an incurable illness, or I could refute that label and learn to understand myself and how my brain works well enough that I didn’t need medication to control it. That i didn’t need to curtail my ambitions in life. That I could, despite everything, become a successful woman in business.
These days I work for myself again. Taking on a role for someone else, working a 9-5 was, in many ways, proving a point. To myself, and to the world, that I was a bonafide woman in business. Or more specifically, marketing. Despite years of working as a freelance writer and marketer, when I came to a point I wanted to start my own agency, to teach marketing, I felt like a fraud. Sure, I’d been doing it for myself and for my clients for years as an entrepreneur, but it didn’t quite feel real.
After all, I was the only one who had decided I was good enough to do this professionally. I needed someone else to make that judgement, to put me in charge of marketing other people’s businesses, before the assertion that I knew anything about marketing (let alone enough to be paid to do it and teach it!) any credence.
Neurodiversity In Business
You remember me saying reality is fluid? This is one of those times the fluidity of reality was fucking with me. My role at that agency was, in reality, no different to the role I’d been working as a freelancer for years. I was, in reality, already in charge of marketing other people’s businesses – my clients. And those clients had deemed me good enough to pay me money to write and market on their behalf.
Still, it took a couple of years of doing exactly the same thing in a 9-5 environment as an employee of someone else before it felt real. Before I felt real. Before I accepted the reality that all my hard work had, in fact, led to me becoming really good at what I do and successful in business.
In the end, I found success as an entrepreneur by realising that just because I’d carved out a hole that fit the shape of me, instead of forcing myself into the round one society expected me to inhabit, did not mean I was any less successful or capable than all the round pegs out there
I can be in business while working for myself; I don’t have to work for someone else in order for my business to be ‘real’. I can work in a way that works for me; I don’t have to conform to 9-5 hours and a daily commute into a corporate environment I find overwhelming, confusing, and generally counterproductive to my creativity and productivity.
Finding My Success As A Neurodivergent
Neurodiversity in business takes many forms; employees in offices or working remotely, freelancers working whenever the hell they feel like it, contractors, temporary workers, and yes, bosses who run the show. Anyone can be anything in the world of business whether they are neurodivergent or neurotypical. In either case, a person must navigate their industry, learn, grow, progress. The difference between the two is in the experience. How we experience and navigate the world in a way that is manageable and compatible with our unique brain chemistry, how the world perceives and treats us as individuals who don’t do things in quite the same way as most.
How did this bipolar bear find success as an entrepreneur? It started with a decision: to stop viewing the way my brain works as an illness, and embrace it as simply myself. It continued with an ongoing effort to find ways of achieving my career goals and business aspirations that work for me, even if that means doing things differently to most other people. Most recently, it evolved to realising that, as a woman who created my own successful business as an entrepreneur I was already the thing I was striving to become, but felt I could not be until someone else acknowledged it.
Until someone else told me it was real. That they saw it too. That I wasn’t just a crazy girl walking down the street arguing with myself. I was a business woman. And a successful one at that.
This point was driven home to me again recently when my mother visited my office for the first time. I’ve had a big office for over a year now. I go and work there when I feel like it, despite my other half’s incessant desire to get me to work ‘normal hours’ and go in at a ‘normal time’. That usually means pitching up at 10-11am. There’s a ton of space, clients can come in for meetings if they want. My team can come in to work on projects with me if they feel like it. And I have plenty of space to work in peace and quiet in whatever way I fancy.
But mother had never visited. When she did, she expressed surprise, firstly, at the size of the space. Despite me telling her several times how big it was an sending her photos. She didn’t expect it to be so big. She was then very impressed by the sight of me sitting at my desk and ‘looking professional’. For the first time, she expressed pride in my accomplishment building my own business.
The same business I’ve been running for years. The difference is that, prior to working in the 9-5 I’d always worked from home. When I made the switch back, it was shortly after I’d moved in with my OH and working from home, in our shared house, was impossible. There is no spare room I can turn into an office as I had at my old house. There’s no space for my books, my desk, my work. So, I rented somewhere. Somewhere that allowed me to create a chaotic working environment that had different ‘zones’ and areas for different types of content creation. It’s still a work in progress, but there are filming areas, and will soon be a podcast studio. I love my office.
But it’s not new.
What was new was the way my mother viewed me once she had seen me in my office.
For the first time, she took me seriously as a business woman. It was a slightly surreal experience which simultaneously pissed me off and touched me. It was nice that she was finally seeing me. But it was also bloody annoying that she hadn’t seen me for so long when the person before her was no different, it was just the context that had changed.
If you are neurodivergent and in the business world, as an employee, an employer, a freelancer, contractor, temp, whatever, the greatest obstacle facing you is the expectation of failure. Or at least, amounting to less than your neurotypical peers. Recent years have started to see progress in this regard, but it’s slow and particularly if you’re dealing with anyone older than millennial age, sluggish.
There is a perception many people have of neurodiversity and their expectations can very easily shape our reality if we aren’t extremely careful about it. Just as society has certain views of women that we must work to subvert if we want to create success on our own terms. You have a mental illness, therefore you can’t hold down a normal job.
Incorrect. If you want to work, you can, you just have to find a way of working that works for you.
You’re neurodivergent, therefore you can’t successfully focus on and complete projects to a high standard.
Incorrect. You can be just as much an asset to a team as anyone else, and may actually bring a unique perspective that is highly valuable and couldn’t be provided by neurotypical viewpoints.
If you can focus and do a job well, you’re that special kind of neurodivergent who got the good kind of the mental illness. The kind that makes you a superhero instead of a drain on society.
Incorrect. If you’re working and successful despite the challenges of neurodiversity, whatever condition you have is not a radioactive spider bite. Your illness, condition, or state of mind isn’t the source of your power; you are simply powerful.
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Rebel Wolf Marketing is run by Hazel Butler, an award-winning writer and creative content marketer specialising in SEO. Hazel has over a decade of experience in all things wordy and digital. She’s worked with big names like The BBC, huge sites like The Huffington Post, marketing ninjas like Plann, and snazzy brands like BMW and Subaru. She’s also worked with countless small businesses and entrepreneurs to produce epic content, rock their SEO, and help them create passive income streams in their businesses. You can find her freelance copywriting services at The Write Copy Girl.
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