Trigger warning: This story discusses sexual assault, PTSD, trauma, and work addiction.
At 16, I co-founded a nonprofit.
At 18, I started my first year at Harvard.
At 19, I ran for public office.
At 20, I published my first book.
At 21, I joined a fast-growing startup as chief brand officer.
At 22, I embarked on starting my first venture-backed business.
At 22.5, I was admitted into residential trauma rehab.
I developed an unhealthy relationship with work at a young age. At sixteen-years-old, I fell into darkness and found my purpose simultaneously. I could no longer repress my PTSD symptoms from past sexual abuse, and flashbacks flooded my mind every time I found myself alone.
By that age, I had been told enough times by authority figures that I was to blame for the bad things that happened to me and those around me. But there was another side. I also discovered what I wanted to do with my life: Fight for gender equality and—more specifically—access to period care. So, I followed that passion and didn't look back.
That year, I started a nonprofit, now known as the global organization, PERIOD. When I began organizing for PERIOD, my goal was to get anyone to talk about periods with me most days. Sometimes, I'd keep track of how long it would take me to pitch and convince new people to join me as a fellow "period warrior." Each of these moments would give me a jolt of energy and a glaze of perceived happiness. I told myself I was healed.
Finding my voice and potential as an activist and organizer gave me a new sense of self-worth: My work is my worth. This is what I can give to the world. This will justify me. At night, insomnia and flashbacks would eventually push me to get out of bed. I'd find an escape in sending one more email or applying for one more grant. I would work until I passed out on my computer. Still, the work was never enough.
The more I worked, the more challenge I needed to get a dose of distraction. I was blinded by my genuine passion for fighting period poverty and stigma. If I was making an impact on the world, the impact on my health didn’t matter. That came to a hard stop when I fainted during my junior year of high school and was rushed to the emergency room.
For hours I sat getting tests ran on my blood and brain. The diagnosis was exhaustion, and my treatment plan included therapy, sleep, and—most importantly—slowing down. I agreed to treatment for PTSD but argued my way out of every attempt to cut back on my hectic schedule. My family still recalls how I pulled wires and tubes off my chest and arms while still in the hospital bed, demanding that I be released because I had homework.
In college, my patterns continued. I was partying and working on minimal sleep freshman year and finding myself unable to say no to professional opportunities and sexual advances—even those I really didn’t want or consent to. I saw every breakdown, new experience with sexual assault, and toxic relationship as something I deserved and even needed as a reminder to refocus on work. And I was right on-trend, hustling to my detriment, ignoring all red flags in my personal and professional life on a quest to become a #girlboss.
I was taught to feel inspired by the leaders who were on the brink of burnout, pushing themselves to be heroes of hustle culture. Dr. Lea Lis, known as the "Shameless Psychiatrist," shares that social media doesn't make the race to being best any easier. "We are constantly flooded with each other's best and brightest moments to compare ourselves to," Lis says. "This is a major issue with hustle culture, as we aren't seeing the full scope of people's everyday lives."
As I grew professionally in college, I spent more time meeting with clients and colleagues. The nonstop hustle and no-sleep lifestyle were things social media told me to be proud of, so why stop? As someone who derived self-worth from work, the world of external validation was a dangerous spiral.
According to Dr. Sylva Dvorak, a holistic counselor and NYT best-selling author, addictive behavior—even towards work—is often used as a mechanism to cope with stress. "With work addiction, a person can make it very justifiable by saying, 'I'm not hurting anyone, or myself, I'm just working hard," she explains. "Hustle-culture only reinforces that validation to work more at the risk of one's health including their social-emotional well-being."
I continued to experience this pattern as recently as 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic forced speaking tours and work to come to a halt. I only saw it as an opportunity for more work. A few months later, other menstrual justice activists came forward on social media to share their experiences of feeling silenced by my work. They noted that I led with a dangerously competitive mindset to grow my nonprofit into a monopoly in the space—the last place a monopoly should exist. Though I didn't agree with all of the stories, the negative experiences shared by others hit me hard. Part of me recognized some truth in their critiques.
For the first time, it was more apparent than ever that the competitive spirit I've adopted my entire life and a desperation to be seen and worthy might make me a less thoughtful and inclusive leader. I needed to respect those who came forward, and I didn't trust my instincts anymore. I began to question who I was outside of my work.
I watched as some of my best friends and colleagues kept their distance from me or piled onto the social media storm. I was sent back to a dark place but felt I had nowhere to turn. That situation resurrected many old feelings of depression and PTSD. But, I was exhausted most of all. For years I was functioning in overdrive while crumbling mentally and physically behind the scene. I realized I had very few memories before age 16 that weren’t traumatic experiences. Alongside the gratitude for the journey and learnings along the way, this broke my heart. I had finally reached my breaking point.
In early July, I was admitted into a residential trauma rehab facility. For six weeks, I had a full schedule of therapy, neuropsychic tests, medicine, and treatment for my work addiction. My focus was processing trauma and finding a sense of solid identity. I put my work hard, play hard hustle on hold, and focused on broadening my perspective of the world and my place in it. In June, I started working with a team of accountability coaches who further challenged me with holistic education. They helped me recognize and release harmful beliefs and behaviors to prevent further harm to myself and others.
I needed to separate my personhood from any professional and public brand. Before I even considered getting back into work or re-entering the period space, I needed to meet and learn to love Nadya. I reflected deeply on how I could make decisions without realizing the harmful effects and the type of leader I truly desired to become.
One year ago, if I were asked to advise young changemakers, I would probably urge them to go for it or build a team and jump. Today, I say prioritize feeling present and feel complete with yourself. Lead from a place of compassion, not fear of not being enough. Society perpetuates a myth of meritocracy that pushes us to define ourselves by productivity—especially with social media. I became fixated on how I showed up on digital platforms for strangers rather than investing in or considering my wellness and happiness. I wanted to have it all and be the young woman who could balance family, work, and breaking boundaries—the dream created for me by the #girlboss lifestyle.
Still, I've learned that hustle is healthy only when you take care of yourself. I now hustle because I believe that change is possible, disruption is necessary, and because I am inspired by the communities I've had the privilege to be a part of. And that inspiration is what has carried me through the last year of finishing my college career at Harvard and launching my lifestyle period care brand August.
I acknowledge that having access to professional support and residential treatment is a privilege that I will never take for granted. Part of my healing journey has involved working with coaches like Amina AlTai. She challenges me to look within and understand my intentions when making decisions in my personal and professional life. I've been working with Dr. Dvorak, using a combination of somatic and hypnotherapy to address my trauma as well.
"Like with all negative behaviors, it is important to recognize that the addiction is there and to seek help," Dr. Dvorak says. "Then, work with a professional that can help balance the mind and the nervous system to be calmer within, so you can continue to strive for success." Dr. Lis also suggests looking inward when experiencing symptoms of this dangerous hustle culture. "Try to redefine what success means outside of a +40 hour workweek," she says. "Where do relationships and mental health land on that list of priorities when you take work out of the equation?"
For the first time in my life, thanks to the accountability coaches, therapists, treatments, and self-love over the last several months, I feel like I am enough. Now, I hustle even when no one is watching and take pride in hustling—most importantly—for my own mindfulness.