By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Being an entrepreneur is exciting and can be very profitable, but it can also lead to mental health challenges including breakdowns, hospitalization and fractured relationships if you don’t take care of yourself as well as you do your business, says Tonia Jahshan, founder of Steeped Tea and Sipology.
“We are so caught up in our dreams for the business and Sipology led to millions of dollars in sales, a Woman of the Year award in business in 2016 and many awards. I am so, so proud of all of that. But three years ago I spent six weeks in a mental health hospital,” revealed Jahshan.
Jahshan shared her story of success and survival during Farm Credit Canada’s farm women’s summit called Empower the Leader Within which was held virtually on March 9.
Now back at the helm of her business and holding her own, Jahshan says “I still struggle with mental illness but it is not a personal failure. It is not a sign of weakness. Talking about it is a sign of strength.”
Jahshan went back to the early days of her marriage to Adam when sharing her story. Anxiety and depression were not new to her as she’d struggled with it during her teens. Marriage, though, was a happy event made even better when the couple discovered Jahshan was pregnant. “We told everybody and things were humming along really nicely until I had a miscarriage. Adam and I were both devastated but I was so sad, I could not breathe. I thought I had developed asthma but what it was an anxiety attack and I had no idea.”
She would have many more anxiety attacks over the next 15 years but as was her way, Jahshan kept soldiering on.
After the miscarriage, Adam noticed the change in his wife and took her on a break to Nova Scotia. At one bed and breakfast where they stayed, the host served up a loose leaf tea that tasted so good, Jahshan felt herself distracted from her sadness.
Back home, she decided to launch her own loose tea business and set about inviting friends and family to her very first tea party. People came but when she asked people to book an event, she did not have even one response. She decided to host another tea party for the community at her house. This was before the days of social media so Jahshan put up flyers, made 100 tea baskets and asked her mother to make 100 dozen shortbread cookies. Four people showed up and only one bought a tea basket.
“It was devastating. What had I done?” recalls Jahshan. She had already spent $5,000 on this hobby/business. “It almost ended there but I felt in my gut if I could just get one or two people to host an event, it would work.”
That happened, of course, leading to a multimillion dollar company with Dragon’s Den support and Sipology demonstrators across the country.
In the meantime, the couple decided to try for another baby. It was taking some effort as the couple kept track of ovulation times and temperature readings. “I tell you, baby-making sex sucks,” says Jahshan. The journey was creating routine spikes in her anxiety with every month’s period raising her stress levels.
Then, it happened. They got pregnant. It should have been a happy time but multiple scares of bleeding during the pregnancy continued to keep anxiety levels high.
When the baby was born after an emergency caesarean section, Jahshan was determined to breast feed through raw nipples, sleepless nights and refusing to ask for help. “It was so consuming and God forbid I should ask for help!” Jahshan says of her behaviour. Finally, Adam went out and bought a breast pump so he could take turns feeding the baby. All through this time, Jahshan chastised herself for being a terrible mom.
“Does this sound familiar to you? Postpartum depression anyone?” Jahshan asks on the screen. Realizing she needed help, Jahshan went to the doctor and was put on anti-anxiety medication. When pregnant with her second child, Jahshan’s doctor said it was perfectly safe to stay on the medication but she went off it. “Truthfully, I was ashamed to be on medication.”
Meanwhile, the couple was managing the thriving Steeped Tea business and running three Subway franchises while Adam was finishing off his degree.
Life continued and as Jahshan describes it, she soldiered on through the busyness, another child, another bout of postpartum depression and incredible success after appearing on Dragon’s Den. Then, in 2018, what Jahshan describes as her Jenga structure of little stacked boxes of emotional denial came crashing down. She had hired a CEO to help manage the business who promised to make her life easier. Instead, Jahshan felt bullied by this woman and said the CEO was creating a rift in the couple’s marriage by trying to exclude Adam from the business.
“Looking back I have never seen my husband so beaten. Believe the CEO almost cost me my marriage and my businesses,” says Jahshan. The situation ended up in court and Jahshan remembers 2018 as one of the darkest periods of her life.
The stress started to manifest physically. Jahshan would have uncontrollable bouts of shaking. She threw up. Had night sweats. Insomnia. “Suicidal thoughts raced through my mind and I would tell myself to ‘snap out of it’ because I was stronger than this.” Adam would find Jahshan in tight corners, rocking back and forth, trembling. He would hold her tight until she stopped trembling. “He was and is my rock and when I told him I wanted to die and that he and the children would be better off without me, I meant it. We both knew I needed help.”
The couple decided Jahshan should attend a mental health hospital called Homewood for six weeks. “There were no scary nurses. It was a warm, inviting, red Victorian home with a wrap-around verandah. But I walked up those stairs with my heart constricting and I could not breath. I tried to fight back the fears and I remember walking through intake in a complete daze.” However, the eix weeks were so helpful. Jahshan was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and through therapy learned worry, fear and uncertainty are the biggest culprits to her mental health.
A year after that, armed with courage from author Brene Brown who says “You can do vulnerability or it can do you,” Jahshan decided to share her story publicly for the first time. “I was very worried about what the world would think of me but to my surprise, the support of family, friends, employees and the community was incredible.”
Now, Jahshan speaks regularly on the topic while being very intentional about taking care of herself. “Journaling is a big one for me,” she says. “Along with medication and exercise. If I don't exercise, I see my mental health go down.” She also drinks tea, of course! Steeped Tea became Sipology and she chooses Deep Calm tea when life – and pandemics – create anxiety.
“I also accept the fact that this is who I am and that I am always going to have to work with this. My disorder will never go away. I just have to make sure I don’t get back to where I was in 2018,” says Jahshan.
Jahshan supports the Kids Help Phone via Sipology and also shares tips on mental health via her social media outlets. Her best advice for anyone struggling with mental illness is to be vocal.
“Silence is a trap. Do not be silent about it. If you are going through something, get the help you need,” Jahshan advises. Take care of yourself so you can run your business, take care of your family and live a life with honesty and joy. ◊