In 2016, on the precipice of selling Bonobos, the menswear startup I’d been building for the previous nine years, I flew into a manic spiral and was hospitalized for a week in the psych ward at Bellevue in New York. When I was discharged, I was met by NYPD officers, who took me to jail, where I was charged with felony and misdemeanor assault.
It was the culmination of a 16-year odyssey during which my illness —
— went unmedicated and untreated. It almost cost me the woman who is now my wife, the company I cofounded, and everything I cared for in the world.
I call my illness my Ghost because for my entire adult life it was a secret, known only to a handful of my closest loved ones. My Ghost can amplify human potential and seek to destroy it at the same time. For some, a ghost like mine might even seem life-expanding — jet fuel for the entrepreneurial drive — before the liabilities rip it all apart.
To be clear, I still live with the Ghost — but it isn’t a secret anymore. It has taken five years of therapy and some miraculous medicine to be able to write those words. And if there was not a profound stigma around mental illness, perhaps I wouldn’t be speaking out about it even now.
The truth, though, is that there is a stigma, and it is deep. Mental illness is one of the final taboos. The business community values stability. When it comes to leading teams, shepherding capital, and governing enterprises, a steady hand is what is sought. So even as we have entered a new era, one where assumptions surrounding race, gender, and power are being interrogated more deeply, issues of mental illness in the workplace go largely unmentioned. For most of my professional life, my mental illness has felt unspeakable: a fast track to an awkward silence, a closed door, or a lost opportunity.
The thing is, a lot of us have it. A lot. Bipolar disorder affects 3% of the population and, by one estimate, is seven times more prevalent in entrepreneurs. That might mean 20% of entrepreneurs have bipolar disorder. It is an illness where suicide attempt rates approach 60%, and suicide “success” rates approach 20%. One study by the National Institutes of Health indicated that almost half of entrepreneurs deal with mental-health issues. The figure was 32% for non-entrepreneurs, staggering in its own right.
In the world of sports, the mental-health conversation is beginning, thanks to Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Mardy Fish, and many others. In entertainment, it’s understood and accepted that artists face mental-health challenges: witness Kanye West, Demi Lovato, and Britney Spears.
In the business world, though, no one talks.
I’m lucky to be in a position where I have a voice — I sold Bonobos in 2017, and my good fortune insulates me from the fear of financial loss, if not social stigma or personal embarrassment. So why go there? By not discussing what transpired, I would be letting the delusion continue to masquerade as fantasy: It never happened. It won’t happen again.
So, what is it like to found and build a startup while living with bipolar disorder? In my case, the horrific extremes—the full-blown manic periods on one end, the annihilating depressive ones on the other—were far less common than mania’s antecedent: hypomania. Hypomania is a vibrant experience of reality. Mania is inventing your own reality, living out your unconscious in Technicolor. Hypomania is talking excitedly about the woman you just met whom you are going to marry. Mania is talking excitedly about the watermelon you just ate that is the reincarnation of your grandfather.
For me, controlled hypomania is when I am at my entrepreneurial best: able to work long days, with high levels of endurance; generating kinetic positive energy for recruiting, fundraising, and motivating the team; and having frequent sparks of ideas, perhaps even moments of vision. Everything is clicking, everything is making sense, life has purpose. Colors seem brighter; gratitude flows. This is the zone where creativity and productivity flourish.
During Bonobos’ first three years, from 2008 to 2011, we raised $8 million across four angel funding rounds from more than 120 investors. This was like scoring 50 points in a football game with 25 safeties. I wonder if I would have been able to pull this off were it not for those frenetic episodes of elevated mood that bipolar disorder made possible.
As I hustled to keep up with the company’s growth, I felt full commitment to one mission: to build Bonobos and, in so doing, serve as inspiration for how brands would be built in the digital age. Serve as inspiration? That sounded like the Ghost talking. A grown-up boy with a grown-up gift: Here’s the future of retail. I made it for you. Enjoy. I had trouble discerning megalomania from startup thinking. Aren’t those sometimes the same thing? I began to believe that I could see a future no one else could see, that all brands would one day be built digitally. Grandiose, sure, but still within the boundaries of hypomania.
But herein lies its dual nature: Hypomania is a gift of relentless optimism and tenacity that can enable Herculean feats of magnetism, attracting capital and talent to a fledgling enterprise. He is also a harbinger of potential doom. Because around the corner of hypomania, mania is always lurking.
With additional firing of synapses at the upper bound of the mood spectrum, aided and abetted by a lack of sleep that becomes both cause and symptom, the dynamic person who days earlier just seemed “up and super energized” might come apart entirely. One day you’re inspiring the team; a few sleepless days and nights later you’re in a delusional, messianic, life-threatening tailspin. This happened to me for the first time back in 2000, when I was initially diagnosed in college; again on a harrowing business trip to Las Vegas in 2015; and once more in 2016, the episode that landed me in Bellevue.
But hypomania is dangerous too. Even without the ascent into mania, it creates a whipsawing effect of impulsiveness and poor judgment, laced with a winsome charisma that can cover up the costs. These errors of judgment might be more accurately called errors of excitement, and the magnetic nature of the mood state can seduce others into being excited about them, too. High spirits lead to exuberant decision-making, the feeling that anything is possible; strategic lurches produce new ideas, a sense that the supply of capital might be infinite. More than once during these “productive” periods, I promised employees more Bonobos equity, then had to walk back these promises when the board objected.
And of course, for every phase of productive hypomania, there was one of the opposite: clinical
. Sometimes I’d power through these periods with caffeine in the morning and alcohol at night; other times they were debilitating. These low moods not only created pessimism about the company’s prospects; they also rendered the job impossible, the future unlivable. Deprived of the life force that made all the good days worthwhile, I’d become the bare minimum of a human and retreat into my cocoon until the depression gods let up.
It’s one of the cruelties of depression that it sometimes hits when you are supposed to be having a peak life experience, and there is nothing you can do about it. In 2015, I made a huge decision that I thought would help: I replaced myself with a new CEO and stepped into the chairman’s role. To celebrate, my fiancée, Manuela, and I took a long trip to China. It should have been magical. It was awful. A horrific depression settled in, the likes of which I had never known. I’d stay in bed for hours in the morning, desperately needing to pee, because I couldn’t summon the energy to walk to the bathroom. For the six weeks I was there, I rarely got out of bed before 2 pm
In retrospect, it was obvious: Bonobos had not been the source of my depression; it had been the only thing that kept depression’s severity at bay. Without the grueling schedule of being a startup’s CEO, one where I had to pull myself out of a funk every Monday morning as best I could during depressive episodes, I had nothing tethering me to a routine.
By demanding so much of me, by insisting that I show up and keep the lights on at the company, the business gave me a purpose that transcended my malaise, that over time, in fits and starts, could pull me out of the doldrums and into the rhythm of success. Once I was out of the depths, it provided a vehicle for me to run, to live life intensely, to interweave a vibrant social life and a job leading hundreds of dynamic and mostly young people. It was an amazing job, and it took not being able to do it for me to wake up to the privilege of it all.
Which made it even more difficult to place the most difficult phone call of my professional life: to Bonobos’ board of directors, shortly after I was released from Bellevue, and then from jail. There are playbooks for almost everything in the startup world. But not for this.
My strategy was to get everything out in the first few sentences:
“I just spent the last week in the hospital. I had an episode, what they call a manic episode, during which I lost my mind. Before getting to the hospital, I struck both Manuela and her mom.”
For a moment, there was silence on the other end of the line, then somebody spoke. “Yes, I was afraid it was something like this,” said one of our elder-statesmen board members, softly. It was an important first comment, because it set a tone of understanding and acceptance.
It also broke a spell for me. We hold this idea in our heads that something that is stigmatized simply cannot be spoken of. It is unspeakable. Before this phone call, I couldn’t imagine that even in a thousand universes I would ever divulge to the board that I had mental-health problems. In a dark and twisted way, what had happened was a blessing: I had no choice but to tell them everything.
One day I was talking with a friend about the book from which this essay is adapted. He asked me what it was about.
“It’s about the intersection of mental illness and entrepreneurship,” I replied.
Without missing a beat, he said, “Aren’t those the same thing?”
We both laughed.
Here’s the thing: They are and they aren’t.
Could I have built Bonobos if I didn’t have bipolar disorder? I don’t know.
Because I do have bipolar disorder. And I have no way to conceive of myself without having been through what I’ve been through. What if I’d been medicated the whole time? Could I have built a startup under those conditions? No idea. I was unmedicated and untreated. For 16 years. I’m not worried about whether I could’ve built a startup. I’m just glad I’m fucking alive.
Are all entrepreneurs mentally ill? Hello no. Are some? Definitely.
Of course. So are a lot of people.
So let’s stop stigmatizing it — everywhere, but especially in the business world, where it remains anachronistically verboten for reasons that feel hopelessly outdated. Let’s just deal with mental illness — openly, transparently, medically, chemically, in the mirror and in living rooms and conference rooms, boardrooms and family rooms and bedrooms, and, yes, rooms with trained therapists and psychiatrists. Let’s, for everyone’s sake, stop pretending that the Ghost is not here.
Andy Dunn co-founded the e-commerce-driven menswear brand Bonobos in 2007 and served as CEO through its 2017 acquisition by Walmart. This essay is aadapted from “Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind” by Andy Dunn. Copyright © 2022 by Andy Dunn. Published by arrangement with Currency, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.