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Natasha Pierre

Daring to dream again

Natasha_pierre

Natasha Pierre had it all — brains, creativity, confidence and stunning looks — until denial of bipolar disorder dismantled her life for 15 years

Listen to Natasha’s Story

Natasha Pierre had, by her own account, a charmed childhood. She grew up on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, “a small island with great people and great pride” where a beach was never more than five minutes away. The middle child of three sisters born to parents who emphasized education, she was exposed early to a plethora of experiences, from helping in her mother’s clothing boutique to doing work for the local newspaper and television and radio stations. Christmas presents always included books, which broadened her scope of reference and set fire to her aspirations.

When she and her older sister teasingly complained after her mother named her clothing store after their youngest sister, they were encouraged to open their own store – which they did, selling items like t-shirts and suntan lotion to tourists every day after school.

“I had an amazing childhood,” says Pierre, whose charisma and bright smile instantly invite familiarity. “I was always challenged to do and be my best.”

By the time she graduated from high school, she felt eager for a bigger arena. At Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where she was considered an “international student,” both the climate and the culture were foreign; many of her new peers had never even heard of St. Thomas. She went from being “the top banana in my high school” to being surrounded by 10,000 other students, many of whom had also been the cream of their high school crop. Still, she embraced the challenge.

“It was entirely different,” she recalls, “but I was ready for the opportunities. Through my reading, I was familiar with what the environment could bring and I was excited about it.”

Then came her sophomore year when, within a six-month period, she experienced the loss of a dozen people, from classmates and friends to her grandfather. One day, she was found in her room, catatonic – not speaking, moving or reacting to inquiries. Soon after she began experiencing fainting spells, which were initially assumed to part of an asthmatic condition.

She was given no medication or diagnosis. For the next month, she had daily therapy sessions with a school counselor intended to help her through the grieving process. Everything was directed toward allowing this “great student” to get over a temporary hurdle and remain in school. When, after taking the remainder of the semester off, the immediate crisis resolved, Pierre went back to classes with every intention to leave what she saw as an isolated incident far behind.

“I was over it, it was done,” she says. “I was on to the rest of my life. For me, it was just a minor speed bump. I completely ignored it, as many people do, and just moved on with my life and put it out of my mind.”

She never even told her parents, then still living in St. Thomas (though they thereafter moved to New York). In fact, it would be many years before she would admit — first to herself and then to her family —that “there was something going on with me.”

“I did not share it with them because, baked into any mental health challenge is self-stigma,” she admits. “I was in the top of my high school class, I was at a prestigious university, I’m smart, I’m articulate…What do you mean I can’t get out of bed? What do you mean I can’t go to class? I’m not sharing that with anyone!”

In June of 2001, shortly after graduation, Pierre moved to New York City, flush with the excitement of embarking on a budding modeling and acting career. She didn’t attribute the frequent insomnia and anxiety she continued to experience to depression or panic. She just complained of “having a bad day.”

Less than four months later, while living with extended family in Queens, she prepared early one morning to head to Manhattan for a 9 a.m. meeting at her modeling agency, located around the corner from the World Trade Center. When her young cousin asked if Pierre would walk her to school first, she called her agent to say she’d be a little late. On her way back, someone waved her over and told her a plane had just flown into one of the WTC towers.

The horror of 9/11 – as well as her “survivor’s guilt” conviction that “I was supposed to be there” – unleashed and ignited the panic and anxiety Pierre had sought to suppress. Shortly thereafter, the fainting spells resumed and she found herself “waking up all over New York City with EMS standing over me.” That, in turn, triggered agoraphobia; she didn’t want to go anywhere for fear of passing out in public. She stopped taking modeling and acting assignments and relied on family to bring her meals morning and evening.

She made the rounds of doctors – primary care, neurologist, cardiologist – who all said she was physically fine. Finally one, suspecting the fainting spells were, in fact, panic attacks, suggested she see a psychiatrist. Her first reaction was: “I don’t think I need that – because really, who wants to admit that they do?” But she went anyway and by the end of her first session was given a term she’d never heard before: bipolar disorder.

“It was bittersweet,” Pierre says. “Sweet because I finally had a term to explain how I’d felt for so many years. But bitter because, well, does this mean I’m crazy? Does this mean I’m defective and sick? What happens to my goals and dreams and plans? Do I have to abandon them? And how will people treat me if they find out?”

The questions spiraled her into a depression and self-enforced isolation. She still refused to share her struggle with family members or friends, but was hungry to learn more about the challenges, prospects and language of her condition. She found information and solace in an underground online blogging community where she could share her questions, fears and confessions anonymously.

“I’ve always journaled, but I was afraid if I wrote it down, what if someone found my journal?” she says. “If I told someone, they would for sure think I was crazy. So this community, which was all people with various mental health diagnoses who shared tips and talk and things relatively unknown at the time, was great. It was my introduction to living life with a mental illness.”

Yet Pierre continued to fight her diagnosis for the next 15 years, riding the “on/off medicine rollercoaster” and quitting or being fired from jobs for years due to her erratic behavior. She says she’s lost count of how many times she tried to “start all over again.”

“I am so talented, I am good at so many things,” she says, “But for myself and so many others with mental illness, there’s that self-saboteur. It’s a wrestling match we go through every day of thinking, ‘I’m going to outsmart this diagnosis. I’ll show you.’ And then the crash happens and you’re once again faced with the aftermath. It took a long time to understand not just what this diagnosis meant, but what it meant to me, with my birth order, my experiences, my life.”

In 2013, still unstable but missing the warm climate of her native tropical island, Pierre precipitously and impulsively moved to Tampa. She admits now to being unprepared for the impact of a new state, city, culture, weather and employment arena. A month after arriving, her severe anxiety and panic attacks resumed. Driving over Tampa’s many bridges was terrifying, as were the frequent lightning and thunderstorms. She resumed medication and was doing relatively well until a physical setback – an adverse reaction to medication she was given to reduce swelling after her wisdom teeth were removed – put her in the hospital, and off her pysch meds, for three weeks.

That precipitated two more years of instability that resulted in at least two Baker Acts (an involuntary hold for evaluation of someone believed to be a harm to themself or others). She looks back now on June 5, 2015 – her last Baker Act – as a turning point.

“Sitting in the psych hospital, I made a promise to myself and God that if I got out of there, I would never return to a psych hospital again,” Pierre says. “I got there because I felt, ‘I’m smart, I have degrees, certificates, potential. I don’t need meds. That’s for people who are crazy, not me.’ But I had to admit that if I’m in a psych hospital again, everyone I’ve spoken to prior to this point couldn’t be wrong. It was time for me to take 100 percent responsibility for my life.”

The next day Pierre, a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) actress, put on an “Oscar worthy performance” to convince the staff psychiatrist to release her from the crisis unit. She was sent to an intensive outpatient treatment program, one she knows well would not have been available to her without private insurance. There, she began to establish a strict routine and became “very militant” about self care, setting multiple alarms to remind her to take her meds and practicing meditation and affirmations daily. The in-patient program granted her the time to address the healing she needed in all areas of her life – from resolving the relationships she’d decimated when she was manic or paranoid to repairing damage to her esophagus and teeth from an eating disorder.

She also filled out the paper work to obtain government disability insurance. But just before the deadline to file, she withdrew her application. Though she has fully accepted that she is not to blame for her illness, she still couldn’t embrace an identity as a “disabled” person.

“Everyone in my life told me I needed to do this, but I just couldn’t,” she recalls. “I know it’s a pathway for some people, but I was like, let me just give if one more go. And if I can’t sustain it, then I’ll file.”

Since then she had been on an ever-evolving “journey of recovery,” mindful every day that taking care of her mental health must always be her first priority. Part of that journey has been allowing herself to dream again of the possibilities for recreating the successful, fulfilling, contributive life she’d imagined in her younger years.

“My professional background is so opposite of my mental health journey,” says Pierre, who in addition to acting and modeling has been a political strategist, a publicist and a business owner. “There’s a lot I had to remember I could still do. I had to tell myself, ‘Natasha, just because you have this diagnosis doesn’t mean you lost your skills and education and training. Just because someone breaks their leg doesn’t mean they can’t sing.”

When Pierre first moved to Tampa, she’d tried to contact the Hillsborough County affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only to discover that it was essentially defunct. In 2019, she reached out again and found a group of others eager to reignite the chapter. They worked diligently to resurrect the organization and celebrated with an open house in March 2020 – just as the coronavirus pandemic was moving into high gear.

“Since then it’s been nonstop,” says Pierre, who serves as the chapter’s executive director. “And I’m grateful for the conversations that have come from Covid, because many people are realizing that they have either been dealing with a mental illness for a long time or they now have a better idea of the mental health challenges that living in a pandemic has ushered in.”

Given her lived experience, Pierre believes she is uniquely suited for her current position.

“I know this intimately,” she says. “I know what people need, so I can lend my voice, my work, my experience. I’m there. Being able to insure there are resources not just for myself but for anyone affect by mental illness has given me a greater sense of purpose. And the work aligns with my skill sets, my education, my passions and my interests. So it’s like a dream come true for me.”

While she’s been encouraged by the increased attention to mental health wrought by the pandemic, she’s fully aware that “we’re not there yet.” One of the biggest hurdles that remains, she believes, is the societal- and self-stigma of a diagnosis, something with which she is all too familiar.

“Without stigma, there’s would be no self-stigma and without self-stigma, there’s no shame,” she says. “But even now, the stigma still shows up for me…It’s the ‘Well, how sick can she be if she’s on TV? Does she really have a diagnosis? I think she’s just doing this for attention.’ That’s the way stigma shows up in my world, the discounting of my ability. Yet every day I have anxiety. Every single day. What people are seeing is that I have learned to manage my symptoms.”

That’s why she so frequently shares her story — to help people understand that the one in five people who deal with a mental health condition include “your accountant, your attorney and your hairdresser,” as well as that smart, articulate executive director at NAMI who looks like she hasn’t a care in the world. In the conversations that follow her presentations, she urges people to “Not make it weird. Let’s just talk.”

“These courageous conversations are what we need to turn to,” Pierre says. “Conversations entirely devoid of judgement. And our language needs to be not only inclusive, but empathetic. Because people may think they don’t know someone living with a mental illness, but they do. And your language might be why they’re uncomfortable seeking help.”

Her acceptance of her own diagnosis has allowed her to re-embrace the passions. skills and confident identity she once thought she’d lost. Because she’s always considered herself a writer “before anything else,” she recently published a book — “Provoking Thoughts: 101 Affirmations for Daily Living,” — which includes some of the “divine downloads” she still turns to every day. She plans a follow up with more affirmations, and is working on two other books as well — one on grief and one on “taking 100 percent responsibility for your own happiness.”

As for a return to stage and screen, Pierre says she’s “open” to the possibility. And though she rules out a run for public office, she looks forward to using her skills to help elect others who share her advocacy for effective legislation to help and support people affected by mental illness and substance abuse.

“I look forward to doing more of that,” she says. “I know one thing for sure. After living for so long in so much pain, living that way again is unacceptable to me. I want my life to have meaning, to be purpose- and passion-filled. And definitely to be in service to others.”