The startup life is notoriously fast, busy and stressful, and somewhere among the foosball tables and vending machines we've lost our way on true self-care.

On startups and self-care

It’s June 2012, and I’m standing in the San Francisco penthouse apartment of one of the founders of YouTube. His company has recently acquired my team to work on a new SaaS product, and I’ve flown over from New Zealand to join most of the engineers, designers and community team for a three-week product sprint.

It’s dark outside, the big city lit up below me through the floor to ceiling windows. It feels alive. I can scarcely believe the string of events that have led me here.

Food from our host’s favourite organic Mexican restaurant arrives. There’s too much, but he wants us to get the full experience. His wife is lovely, chatting away as we eat. I’m trying to soak it all up, take in the amazing apartment, furniture, wine, views, the out-of-this-world lifestyle. He’s brewing us Chemex coffee and talking about his pre-ordered Porsche that arrives tomorrow.

We’re saying goodbye, heading off for a good sleep before a massive day of planning and building tomorrow. Down the lift, out into the pleasant San Francisco summer evening. My three new colleagues – already good friends – are talking excitedly.

We’re back at our downtown hotel, on the way up to our rooms on the 21st floor. I’m trying not to fumble the card that unlocks our room. Trying not to look rushed as I close the bathroom door.

I’m bringing back up the Mexican food. The Chemex coffee. The wine. Second time it’s happened today, fifth time this week, every bit as horrifying as the first time it happened six months ago.

The drugs I’m taking are a powerful mix of immunosuppressants and steroids. They’re working, but the side effects are hell. Nausea has become a constant companion. The stomach pain almost unbearable, but staying just under the red line. The sleep…what sleep?

I have a recently diagnosed disease similar to Crohn’s. It’s incurable, flaring severely, and almost literally tearing my insides apart.

The weeks that followed are a blur. Hours and hours spent in meeting rooms talking, planning, scheming, presenting, and trying to keep myself together. I lost 12kg in a month and barely slept a wink. Without the encouragement and support from my wife back home I would have given in and been hospitalised on the spot.

I flew back to New Zealand, to our new house. I spent more time in the bathroom than the lounge.

The Dunedin team grew but the product faltered. Direction and focus – little of which went on the intended users – changed regularly. Developers were throwing out code. Designers were mocking up pages that wouldn’t exist the next day. On paper I was split between Dunedin operations and managing the project. In reality, I was a mouthpiece for changes.

Things had to give, and one of those was my job. Mere months after that life changing acquisition I was thrown from the Silicon Valley roller coaster.

A wife, two young kids. Five weeks until Christmas. Two weeks until the next mortgage payment. Meager savings.

The best $2 I’ve spent in a long time! ?

A photo posted by Kate (@katebutson) on

I headed back to my specialist for an update on some recent tests.

“Surgery”, he sighed “is where we’re at now. I’m referring you to a surgeon here, and while you’re not going to like what he has to say you need to hear him out and think hard about a decision. The drugs are damaging your organs, stripping your bone density, taking you towards acute pancreatitis…I don’t want to put you back on them. You’re young, you need to think long term.”

The surgeon told me the plan would be to fully remove my large intestine and reroute my small intestine through a hole in the side of my stomach. Major multiple operations extending over a few months. Life, for many reasons, would be quite different from then on.

I gripped my wife’s hand tighter and tried not to panic. I felt like I was drowning. Like I’d lost the fight.

I went home disillusioned but not ready to take that path yet. I had a family to feed, bills to pay, a mortgage to stay on top of. Surgery – and the raft of consequences that would follow – did not fit into that picture.

I joined a local marketing agency that was growing and got stuck in. We caught back up with our bills but the disease raged on. It was getting harder to stay in control – to hide what was happening behind closed [bathroom] doors. The stomach pain had become so persistent and strong I was in a continual sweat. Day and night. I sat through meetings literally gritting my teeth, wondering if I’d make it through or if this would be the time I’d bring my lunch back up across the desk.

The soul searching intensified. I couldn’t carry on – my specialist warned me it was a matter of time before one of my hospital visits was serious. That would mean the surgery happening anyway, but under emergency conditions to potentially save my life. It was all starting to hit home. Physically, I was a complete mess.

Over a year of daily battles later, I finally gave in and started putting my health first. The following weeks were like a set of dominoes – I resigned from my job and took point on looking after the kids, my wife scrambled to find work, we sold our house and moved back with my parents to an old pre-renovation building they could offer us for a while…

At the age of 30 we were professionally and financially back to square one.

The company I’d co-founded and spent years building before the acquisition was gone. The shares that were part of the acquisition weren’t even close to vesting when I was let go. Physically, I couldn’t see myself ever walking into an office again.

It was humbling, and it was liberating.

Take equal parts sand and water. Add two crazy characters. Mix!

A photo posted by Kate (@katebutson) on

The first day I dropped my wife and kids off I drove home, climbed into bed, and slept. There were no deadlines. There was no raging inbox. There was no pressure. Just…rest.

A week later I climbed out of bed and blogged. I started writing most days – light, funny stuff about my kids that made me smile and appreciate them fully for the first time in what felt like forever.

I went for walks. I took photos. I started feeling…less awful. Slowing down had shone a light down the tunnel. I was discovering that wellness and self-care – both mental and physical – needed to be a priority. I was clawing back some control.

I fine tuned my diet. The walks turned into jogs. I was far from a picture of health, but I was no longer drowning.

I was – and I wouldn’t dared have said it then – starting to beat the disease on my own steam.

In September 2013 I joined Timely. It was a big step to walk back into startup land, but I did it with an unexpected confidence. The company was founded by down to earth people who valued family, health and life outside the business highly.

The team worked remotely. Meetings were held only when needed. Focus was on output, not time logged at a desk. The culture was in its infancy but already taking a shape that resonated with me. I felt at home before I even got started. I knew I’d have a shot at staying focused on my well-being.

It’s now May 2016. My disease is in complete remission and has been heading that way for almost two years. My wife is back doing what she loves – being a mum. I’m back doing what I love – working on a cool product for a growing company with a team that inspires and challenges me. The culture at Timely has developed into everything I’d hoped, and more. Family and personal health are valued. I’ve been able to balance the management of an aggressive disease with a fast-paced startup career, a concept I had come to believe was impossible.

There will come a day when I’m face-to-face with a surgeon again. Perhaps next time I won’t be walking away with the same body. So be it.

In the meantime I’ll be appreciating every struggle-free moment that goes by, because damn it’s good to be free.

So to you I say: be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself. This being-human thing is hard, and you do know what’s going on behind your own closed doors. Cut yourself some slack and don’t be afraid to step out if the pressure of it all gets too much.

You get one shot at life, so make it a sustainable one.

You and I – we’re worth it.

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