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This Founder Lived With A Secret Bipolar Diagnosis For Years, Today His Company Tackles The Stigma

As a therapist, I'm continually struck by how alone people feel in their experience. Whether healing a broken heart, recovering from an eating disorder or addiction, or optimizing their mental health in the face of anxiety or depression, my clients experience additional shame and isolation while under the impression they've somehow "failed" at being a human. So, you can imagine how excited I was to learn about Campfire: a merging of various support groups and technology that offers a space to connect and grow with others going through something similar. 

After his experience with Bipolar disorder, Daniel Pourasghar started CampfirePhoto Credit: HanJoon Kim

Particularly powerful is cofounder Daniel Pourasghar's story: As one of the first 40 employees at Airbnb, he hid a bipolar diagnosis for years, afraid of judgment and rejection.

"I thought I could protect myself from those things by keeping it a secret. Yet instead I felt loneliness and shame because I believed a part of me had to stay in hiding," Pourasghar reveals. "Over the years, through plenty of highs and lows, Ive learned how to manage my condition and live a balanced life. What remained difficult was talking about it, which is what I decided to change."

I sat down with Pourasghar to learn more about how his mental health journey ultimately led to the creation of his company, and what hes learned through his experience with bipolar disorder:

Bruneau: Let's hear more about the inspiration behind Campfire:

Pourasghar: Im building the product that I wish I had ten years ago when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For most of my adult life, I kept this big secret due to shame and fear of judgment. Ive always had a desire to connect with people that experience life in similar ways as I do; the problem was that due to the stigma around my disorder, I didnt know how to find them. Eventually, I did and it felt comforting to know that Im not the only one.

Theres a certain kinship I feel when I meet another person with bipolar. Its like meeting someone from your hometown or someone who went to your school but a lot stronger. Talking to a peer is also always a unique learning opportunity for me. With Campfire, were addressing exactly these needs by creating a space for people to connect around a common experience.

Bruneau: How has your experience with bipolar made being a founder challenging?

Pourasghar: Starting a company is hard no matter what your health is like, or what kind of company you start. Because of the stigma surrounding bipolar, it was difficult for me to find a constructive way to open up about my disorder to my broader community. However, I found that when I did open up, I experienced an outpouring of support that I didnt expect.

Being a founder already comes with a lot of highs and lows and navigating these with bipolar can also be challenging at times. On the upside, I get to work on solving my own problem and that gives me the fuel I need to keep going. Im glad to have my cofounder Benjamin by my side who is a mood stabilizer in human form.

Bruneau: How do you find resilience in the face of bipolar disorder?

Pourasghar: Generally, resilience to me means that I dont define myself by what life throws at me but rather how I respond to its challenges. There are a few components that are important to me: One, having a strong support network. For me, that consists of my family, friends, professionals and my community on Campfire. Second, I think resilience really comes from established healthy routines, and that for me is sleep, nutrition, exercise, and mindfulness.

Bruneau: How do you believe your experience has made you more successful?

Pourasghar: For one, if youve experienced extreme hopelessness at some point and came out of it stronger, I think it prepares you for the rest of your life in a positive way. It gives you a deep-rooted confidence. You learn that whatever comes your way you can always prevail, and I think that leads to allowing for more risk in your decisions. It helps me put any fears into perspective.

Also, I think my experiences have opened me up to more vulnerability. Unfortunately, we are usually taught that vulnerability means weakness, especially as men. From my experience, Ive found that opening up to people builds trust. When we bring our whole self to the people around us, we create stronger, more authentic relationships. In general, Ive learned that its possible to turn pain into something positive.

Bruneau: What advice would you give someone going through what you went through, entrepreneur or not?

Pourasghar: Please understand that this is not your fault. Dont blame yourself. We dont tend to talk about mental health in our society, which makes this an isolating experience, but realize that you are not alone. About 50% of us will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime. There are millions out there with stories similar to yours. Even in your immediate communities (family, friends, school or work), there are more people that understand you than you might think. They, or someone they love, may have gone through similar experiences. By taking that first step toward connection, you might find the support you've been looking for.

Bruneau: What's the best advice you've received along the way?

Pourasghar: One piece of advice that stands out as formative was during my early times at Airbnb: I was about to take on more responsibility on my team, but self-doubt kept creeping in. I asked Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia for his advice: Are you sure Im ready for this? His response was simple, Who else is gonna do it? Before starting Campfire, I wasnt sure if I had what it takes, but then I thought of Joes advice. This is something I sorely needed in my world, I was uniquely positioned to create it, so I did.

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