Health + Entrepreneurship: How I ended up in the ER because of stress and mental exhaustion

By AJ Bruno
Health + Entrepreneurship: How I ended up in the ER because of stress and mental exhaustion

I woke up with hives all over my body. I tried to stand up but my legs gave out. I hit the floor.

Something was very wrong.

It felt like arthritis, the flu, and some sort of infection rolled into one. I’d never felt so miserable. I went to the hospital and ended up staying for six days.

Rather than relax, I worried about work. I’d beaten the odds and helped launch a fast-growing startup called TrendKite. By January 2017 (when this story takes place), my company had 300 employees and $25 million in annual revenue. I was supposed to be in New York closing the largest deal in company history. Instead, I was in a hospital bed staring at my swollen hands.

In today’s hustle culture, where people are expected to grind from sun-up to sun-down, startup founders like me are pressured to go non-stop. It’s an unsafe climate. Startup founders are twice as likely to suffer from depression, psychiatric hospitalization, and suicidal thoughts as the general population. I didn’t have those issues, but I did drink tons of coffee, rarely slept a solid eight hours, and stressed night and day. I stressed about my 100-person sales team, pleasing our board, and cultivating a great company culture. I also stressed about moving my family back to Philadelphia after years in Austin. Who cared if I ate breakfast? Nobody.

It was all too much, and my body simply gave out.

Following my release from the hospital, I still felt crummy, but went right back to work. Two weeks later, I spoke in front of the entire company. Once I got off stage, I collapsed. I went right back into the hospital and finally took a step back from work.

Turns out there was a 4 millimeter ulcer in my throat. An antibiotic had gotten lodged in the ulcer (gross, I know) and made my body try to kill things it shouldn’t be trying to kill. I lost 30 pounds from a combination of illness and a hastily deployed fruit-and-vegetable-only diet. I spent six weeks in the hospital scared out of my mind. I was scared of not finishing something I started. I was scared of letting my team down. I was scared of letting my family down. I was scared that I couldn’t protect anybody because I couldn’t protect myself.

I knew I had to make some serious changes.

I’ll always be a workaholic. But I’ve learned that if I’m not healthy, I can’t be my best at work. If I don’t accomplish everything on my to-do list, that’s okay. If I strive for 100% and hit 70%, that’s okay.

I drink more water. I’m eating healthier and exercising. People actually started telling me, “Your skin is glowing.” I was just getting the image of my hives out of my mind, now people are telling me I’m glowing? Unreal.

I gained a deeper appreciation for those struggling with unseen illnesses. Mental health issues. Auto-immune diseases. Fibromyalgia. People might look perfectly healthy but they could be in intense, invisible pain.

As for my company, everything was just fine without me. My team stepped up big time, kept clients happy, and closed deals. In fact, January 2017 was our best month ever. Two years later, TrendKite was acquired by Cision for $225 million.

My family and I moved back to Philly and I started another company called QuotaPath. I’m just as excited, energized, and passionate about success as I was when I started TrendKite — but I’m no longer letting stress run my life. The journey is far more important than the destination. We must be happy and fulfilled by the work we’re doing today rather than constantly dreaming about the next deal, the bigger house, or the next vacation.

I’m sharing my story because founders, early-stage employees, and executives are particularly susceptible to running themselves into the ground. ‘Hustle culture’ has gone too far. We need to start caring for our mental and physical health — not just revenue and client lists. We can hustle without running our bodies ragged. Yes, it’s important to eat breakfast. Yes, it’s important to exercise. Yes, it’s important to spend time with our families. Don’t let a venture capitalist or motivational YouTuber tell you any different.

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