I’d Been Living With Mental Illness My Whole Life
Something I’d always secretly suspected finally became something I couldn’t ignore.
You name it and I’ve likely done it: started a business, spoken at TEDx, written two books. Right before the pandemic, I was even an HR executive at a New York City psychiatric hospital while my leadership development company, Performance ReNEW, worked with some of the biggest brands in the world. I was Natasha Bowman, the goal conqueror.
People would ask me, overwhelmed on my behalf, “How can one person do all these things while also being a mother?” I’d shoo away their disbelief, saying I was fortunate to have been gifted with some sort of unexplained superpower— one that allowed me to need very little sleep, be highly creative, and believe that I belonged in any room I chose to be in. Privately, I had a feeling something wasn’t right, but for years—decades, even—I was too afraid to confront the reality that my mind may not be “normal,” that it was sometimes flooded with unusual thoughts.
Then COVID-19 put the world on pause. My client contracts hit a standstill; my speaking engagements evaporated. I still had my job at the psych hospital, but HR issues were the least of our problems. For the first time in my adult life, my expertise wasn’t needed. I wasn’t breaking through some glass ceiling, I wasn’t chasing some big, audacious professional target. My work suddenly felt secondary, hardly the most pressing thing happening in my world, much less anyone else’s.
Weeks of quarantine went by, and my emotions started to feel out of control: I’d go from being easily agitated and angry to feeling overconfident and on top of the
world. My husband noted a glazed look in my eyes and that my speech would race from one sentence to the next. He asked me repeatedly: “Are you okay?” I’d respond defensively, furious he was suggesting something might be wrong with me. I was just changing, evolving, I thought—the “old” career-oriented wife and mother was gone and a “new” me had arrived. I started spending countless hours talking to old high school friends on Facebook. They became my new life, my new family, who saw my success and started asking...for help buying a new car, some nice jewelry, things for their kids. I gave. And I kept on giving.
Eventually, full of resentment toward my husband, my marriage, and everything about my previous life, I felt I needed to leave it all behind. I told my husband I wanted a divorce. Devastated, he refused to accept that we’d gone from happily married to this in a matter of weeks. He urged me to go to a therapist, but she saw only a “highly functional, accomplished woman who was going through a midlife crisis.”
And then, just as suddenly, the pendulum swung: My speech returned to normal, the glaze left my eyes, and I wanted back with my actual family. But the damage had been done. I’d lost tens of thousands of dollars to those Facebook friends. My husband was exhausted. My two kids were dazed and confused. And my career ambitions were still nowhere in sight. Ashamed of what I’d put my family through, I was plagued by guilt and embarrassment. With no answers about why I’d behaved the way I did, I no longer wanted to live. On January 25, 2021, I gathered every pill in our house and washed them down with a bottle of champagne. I closed my eyes for what I thought would be the last time.
The next thing I remember, I was opening my eyes to a hazy vision of strangers removing the strings from my shoes. I was lying on a mattress on the floor of a small room. A woman sat outside, watching my every move. I’d been involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital just miles from the one where I worked. I felt only disappointment—that I had survived my suicide attempt, that my life would never be the same.
That’s when, at age 42, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And all of it—the ability to work for days without sleep, the extreme overconfidence, the excessive generosity—finally made sense. I learned that I’d been living in a seemingly harmless hypomanic state for years and that when COVID-19 hit, I’d moved into a dangerous hypermanic state. I learned that I have been bipolar my entire life. But like many people, I’d ignored any signs. I didn’t want a mental health condition to overshadow my professional success, because as an HR executive, I knew. I’d witnessed firsthand how stigma can overshadow the value that people with mental illness bring to a workplace.
But now I also knew that with time and treatment, I could return to my thriving career—and that so can many others with mental illness. I wanted to break the stigma that was holding us back, to change the way we’re perceived at work. So in October 2021, I went on LinkedIn and told my 80K followers what had happened to me. “This is the face of someone with bipolar disorder,” I wrote.
Since then, I’ve made it my mission to be transparent about my diagnosis so that people like me know they can still succeed professionally. And earlier this year, I cofounded a nonprofit, the Bowman Foundation for Workplace Equity and Mental Wellness, to help cultivate cultures of mental wellness in workplaces across the globe. Our goal is to destigmatize mental illness through research, management education, and creating a safe space for dialogue at work.
I’m not ashamed to have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or to be living and working boldly with a mental illness. And every time I share my story, I hope it helps others start to live more unapologetically too.
NATASHA BOWMAN, JD, is a mental health advocate, workplace consultant, speaker, author, and LinkedIn Top Voice in Mental Health. She is the author of two books as well as the upcoming Crazy AF: How I’m Living and Thriving With Mental Illness and So Can You!
All of it—the ability to work for days without sleep, the extreme overconfidence— finally made sense.