Conferences, Trauma, and Harvard Blues

Undeserved success against the looming shadows of my past.

Conferences, Trauma, and Harvard Blues

When I told my mom that I got into my first choice college on a full scholarship, she looked at me and said: "Good. Now don't be late to class."

I grew up knowing that nothing I did was ever good enough. No matter what I accomplished, it was never enough to guarantee safety, financial stability, or social acceptance. The world was kind of stacked against me.

I was a severely mentally ill child with undiagnosed neurodivergence, regularly subjected to abuse, and stuck with a passport from a country that was always under threat of invasion (spoiler: this becomes relevant later).

No "A" could fix the threats looming over my head. No teenage rite of passage could ever truly help. Nothing I did could ever be good "enough".

Why Should You Care?

The more I've reflected on my current mental state, the more apparent it's become that I'm not alone.

Sure, my particular traumas and circumstances are my own. But I suspect that many of you reading these words might find a reflection of your own fears and struggles.

I hope that if you have been feeling like you're "too much of a mess" to deserve a voice, a platform, or professional success – reading about how much of a mess I've been too might help you feel less alone.

At the end of the day, I share my emotional dirty laundry because I know that I'm not the only one who produces weird bodily stains (metaphorically or literally). So I try to do the scary thing of yelling about my dirty underpants to hundreds of people. It's weird, but it tends to work.

2023: My Summer of Breakdowns

Right now, I am in Boston for a conference and I definitely don't feel good enough.

I'm a speaker, and this event should be a wonderful moment of celebration. Except, I spent most of my first day here crying. I cried in the conference bathroom, I cried by the front entrance, I cried in my Lyft when leaving early, I cried in my hotel room, I cried at the Harvard Book Store, and I cried at the ramen shop a block over.

A picture I took between crying sessions next to the Harvard Art Museums. Shows the red brick payment and deep blue night sky as cars drive by.
A picture I took between crying sessions next to the Harvard Art Museum.

I'm ashamed to be writing these lines, but I also know that I can't keep up the veneer of fake glamour. Many of you following me have been commenting on my rapid professional success. Some of you have called me your inspiration. I can't lie to you.

So if you'd like to be inspired by my tale of success in the B2B marketing world, come along. I'll show you what it's really been like, and why the demons of my childhood trauma have been getting louder and louder with every bit of praise I receive.

Trigger Warning: descriptions of childhood trauma, mental illness, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, war, and grief.

How Am I?

My mental health has been rapidly deteriorating since the spring, reaching its peak (so far) in mid-July. Anyone that has been around me this summer would have seen me cry or dissociate in response to any question about my life.

The words "how are you?" have turned into an impossible exam question from hell, where I have to circle the right option between:

  1. All my dreams are coming true and I'm wasting them by being ungrateful;
  2. I can barely remember to eat food because I'm constantly on the verge of hysteria;
  3. "Oh I'm fine, but my life is boring, now how are you? (After which I inevitably forget to listen because I'm so overwhelmed by the act of trying to sound normal.)

Wait... Aren't I Doing Well?

My terrible mental state may sound strange if you've followed me literally anywhere lately.

How could I possibly be doing so badly? From the outside, I seem like the perfect example of the American dream:

  • I'm an immigrant who managed to get my refugee family to safety from war-torn Ukraine;
  • I own my own business, a profitable marketing agency with a team of 6 incredible freelancers;
  • I've been building an audience and an impressive professional network doing creative work (like writing this newsletter, posting on socials, and even occasionally publishing on our blog);
  • I get to help amazing startups improve their marketing, connect with their audiences, and do work they believe in;
  • I've been invited to speak on podcasts, webinars, and live conference stages across the B2B world even though I'm only 25 years old;
  • I just got a byline in one of my industry's leading publications;
  • I am happily married, have wonderful friends, and an even more wonderful cat.

But yet I see two therapists, a business coach, a psychiatrist... and I still can't hold it together even for a single day.

And because I've been such a mess, my business has suffered. I've dragged out client projects because I'm terrified of submitting subpar deliverables, I've let down my team because I'm too overwhelmed to check their work, and I've stumbled over pitches because I couldn’t hear anything over the voice in my head that keeps yelling I don't deserve to get paid.

It's not pretty. And it's really difficult to process how much of that is kind of my own damn fault.

What's Wrong With Me?

I have some mental illnesses that kind of make existence difficult.

As you've probably gathered from the title of this newsletter, Attention Deficit Marketing Disorder, I have ADHD. But you might not realize that I'm a full psychiatric acronym collector: my diagnoses also include PTSD, OCD, and a suspicion of ASD (autism spectrum disorder).

Unfortunately, none of that baggage goes away when I do well professionally.

So when I'm invited to speak at a conference, I show up with a metaphorical pile of suitcases that I leave in the corner, labeled after all of my psychological problems. Worse yet, those suitcases kind of stink. I think something died in there. I'm too scared to check.

"We'll Do As Much as Your Nervous System Can Handle"

In June, I began working with a business coach. Her name is Heather O'Neill from Pixels for Humans and she's incredible (if anyone is looking for a coach or a SaaS consultant, I couldn't recommend her strongly enough!).

One of the things that Heather tells me most often is: "we can grow your business as much as your nervous system can handle."

That statement used to annoy me, because it seems like a cop out. I'm sitting here, broken and scared that I won't be able to deliver results for clients next month, yet I need to slow down because of my stupid nervous system? Who gives a crap! It's not like I've ever respected my own mental health to begin with.

But you see... that's the problem. Because I don't respect my mental health, I don't take care of it. I don't take vacations, I refuse to end my workday before 10 or 11 pm, I don't do anything fun or relaxing, and I continually punish myself for not measuring up to my own impossible standards.

And because I've beaten my mental health to a miserable pulp that vaguely resembles the idea of a functional brain – working and making good decisions has been getting progressively harder.

You can't take care of your business, client work, or colleagues if you haven't learned how to take care of yourself first.

It's cliche. It's annoying. It's so boring it makes me want to scream... but it's true.

So now that I'm actively working to grow my business in a way that doesn't completely destroy my soul, body, and brain – I need to learn my own basic limits.

Heather is right. I can only grow my business at the pace that my nervous system can actually handle without crashing.

My Glamorous Life of a Conference Speaker who Hates Herself

Being kind to myself might be the most difficult task I've ever attempted.

You see, even as I flew out to Boston and happily promoted my talk on LinkedIn, I didn't actually believe that I deserved to be here.

I still don't. I mean... look at me. I'm sitting here with my face full of pimple patches and my eye bags deep enough for Harvard's rowing team to get in a good round of practice:

A photo of a white woman in a hotel room staring at the camera as she has frizzy hair, giant eye bags, and a ton of pimple patches on her face.
The glamorous face of a rising industry leader and multiple-time conference speaker, everybody.

I've been invited to speak at two in-person conferences this year. And both times, when I received my invitations, my reaction was to wonder: "wait, is this a fake conference?"

Because deep down I don't believe that a properly reputable conference could ever want me to come speak there.

And nothing can convince me otherwise. Not even the literal audience of people taking photos of my slides at SaaS Open. Not even the nearly 500 views on that talk's recording. Not even the 47 people who already signed up to hear me speak this Wednesday.

I don't believe that I can say anything worth listening to. No amount of external evidence or validation can possibly convince me otherwise.

So when I saw the auditorium where I'm meant to present, looked at the amount of tables and chairs that my audience would occupy, and stared at the much more experienced speaker presenting there earlier today... I bolted.

I got scared and I ran away. It seems to be a theme with me and conferences at this point:

Success Will Never Erase My Trauma

Once I was done hiding and crying in my bed and breakfast near Harvard Yard, I decided to actually take a walk in my surroundings.

After all, I might be a wimp who is scared of my own conference, but I do calm down when surrounded by books. So I went to the Harvard Book Store. And there... I accidentally found my answer.

Tomorrow, on August 8, the Harvard Book Store in Boston will be hosting an author event. One of those authors is Emi Nietfeld, who recently published a memoir titled "Acceptance". Here's part of the blurb (that matches the edition that I bought):

"Exposing the price of trading a troubled past for the promise of a bright future, Nietfeld explores whether any amount of success can make trauma worth it. With a ribbon of dark humor, Acceptance challenges our ideas of what it means to overcome--and live on your own terms."

I began sobbing in the middle of that bookstore today when I read the words "whether any amount of success can make trauma worth it".

I haven't had the same type of trauma as Nietfeld. But I'm more than intimately familiar with the dirty, ugly legacy of having been abused as a child.

Trigger Warning: My PTSD

You see, reader, I really struggled to understand social norms and interactions growing up. I had undiagnosed ADHD, and I highly suspect that I'm also autistic. From everything I can gather about my childhood, I was kind of a textbook case.

I still can't make eye contact without it causing me severe distress. And I have so many memories of people trying to explain basic social conventions to me throughout my life. For example, when I was 15, my mother spent a good hour or two attempting to teach me how to walk "like a normal human". I didn't understand how to swing my arms, how to straighten my back, where to angle my head, or how to move my feet in unison. I'm still not fully sure I do.

And when you grow up struggling to understand normal social interactions... you become a very easy target for abuse.

I've been severely bullied by other children my age. My roommates in summer camp would lock me out at night and I'd bang on the door and cry hysterically into the cold dark air before giving up and curling up on the wooden floorboards outside. My classmates in middle school would pull up my skirt in front of my crush. And a boy I liked in 9th grade devised an entire plot on my 15th birthday where he pretended to ask me out in front of all of his friends and then started laughing because I believed him.

I got raped during a sleepover as our other friends were passed out drunk two feet away. I spent the rest of that night locked up in the bathroom, shaking in fear. I also never told anyone, because I knew they wouldn't believe me.

A family member tormented me during my teenage years, abusing me psychologically, financially, and sexually from the time I was 13 until I turned 16. I still have nightmares about that man and he was the reason I was mandated to see a psychiatrist my sophomore year of college.

Add to all of this a general history of loneliness, isolation, and lost friendships or family bonds for reasons I never fully understood. The people I loved the most would often go cold on me out of nowhere, claiming I had betrayed or hurt them. Sometimes I'd get explanations months or years later. Other times, I'd never hear a reason at all.

I've lost pretty much everything I've ever loved, for most in my life.

I'd lost my father, who practically abandoned me for years after my parents separated. I'd lost most of my friends. I'd lost places I'd lived when my family would suddenly move across continents. I'd lost my sense of safety in my family's house. I'd lost my things that couldn't fit in my luggage. I'd lost pets, toys, books, even all of my childhood photographs. Then, worst of all... I lost my home country.

I haven't been able to go home to Ukraine since 2019. First, I couldn't visit because of COVID and quarantine restrictions. Then, right as I began planning a trip to see my grandparents, Russia invaded my country and began raining bombs on my city (along with basically every other population center across all of Ukraine).

The Ugly Legacy of My Past

Whenever anything goes well, I'm convinced that I'm about to lose it.

I constantly fear that I'll lose my husband or my cat. I am always afraid that something will happen to my family. And I'm terrified that every single bit of professional success and accomplishment that's suddenly appeared in the past year and a half will be ripped away from me the moment I dare to get comfortable.

It's not pretty. And it's not good for me or others.

My fear and anxiety are an awful, destructive force.

They paralyze me from working or resting. They convince me to disappoint people on purpose so that I can't disappoint anyone accidentally. And recently, they've influenced me to get so clingy that I scared off the first person who I truly let into my heart in years.

I've been heartbroken, afraid, and insecure. I feel like everyone who looks at me is waiting to laugh behind my back. I read good feedback and it simply refuses to process inside my head.

I'm broken, reader. I'm broken but I truly am trying to heal.

And I won't run away from this conference tomorrow or on Wednesday. Please hold me to it.

Thank you for reading Attention Deficit Marketing Disorder. This post is public so feel free to share it.

Top 3 Reading Recommendations

  1. "4 ways generative AI makes founders more interesting to journalists" - TechCrunch. This article fully tricked me into thinking it would blindly push AI, but the writer actually argues that the AI craze will make it easier for truly great storytelling to stand out.
  2. "From ‘walled gardens’ to open meadows" - Ada Lovelace Institute. I am a huge proponent of a truly interoperable and open web, and this was a great piece on what that could look like.
  3. "How One Media Placement Led to 1,600 Customers — And How You Can Do It Too" - SparkToro. Amanda Natividad has single-handedly saved me so much time and stress by laying out the exact pitching process that I was failing to articulate to my team.

Musical Minute

"You Stupid Btch" from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of my all-time favorite shows and an excellent exploration of mental health. This song is, unironically, something that my brain likes to play to me when I'm feeling my most self-loathing. But also it's from a comedy show, so it pokes fun at that type of nihilism just enough to help me feel better.