05 Jun Silent Superheroes’ James Pratt: A Journey through Bipolar Disorder
James Pratt, VP of People Development at Gravity Payments
Photo credit: Jessica Dho of Gravity Payments
“Asking the right question at the right time is all it takes to change a life”- James Pratt
By Nidhi Khurana, Sung-Soo Devine, AbdulShakur Ali, Connor Haney, and Daniel Zhuge
Substance Abuse Despite the American Dream
James Pratt, VP of People Development at Gravity Payments, has an impressive resume. He began his career as a consulting company technical lead in 1998. By 2003, he was hired at Microsoft as a Product Manager. In 2010 he joined HTC, where he held a variety of leadership positions from Director of Program Management and Operations to Executive Director of Software Engineering.
Talking with Pratt, we learned about his struggles with mental illness and substance abuse that wasn’t apparent from his LinkedIn. By the mid-2000s, Pratt appeared to have it all: the American dream, a great job with promotional opportunities and a happy family. However, there was something missing all this time. At times, he would feel a great rush, as if he was invincible. At others, he would simply feel as if he had nothing. He would notice his focus and creativity disappear.
In hindsight, it’s easy for Pratt to see that drinking became a way to self-medicate. He recalled a night when he had come home intoxicated, wound up in a shouting match with his wife, and eventually ended up at a dive bar.
While he was getting kicked out of that dive bar that night, Pratt can remember giving a stranger his business card. In retrospect, Pratt believes he was attempting to “prove” that he was a well-respected man with a stable job, despite his inebriation. Stumbling home, Pratt fell and stabbed his leg on a garden spike. That stumble turned to a stagger and he crashed on his own couch.
“James, do you think you were trying to hurt yourself?”
Next thing Pratt remembers, he’s being carried on a gurney into the hospital. His blood alcohol level was 0.35% – more than four times the legal limit. The doctor diagnosed him with alcohol poisoning and chemical dependency. The doctor asked him, “James, do you think you were trying to hurt yourself?” This question stunned Pratt. Pratt realized how unhappy and overwhelmed he was and how he tried to drink himself to death without even realizing it. That question changed his life.
Pratt sought therapy for his addiction. Therapy helped Pratt understand that he had a dysfunctional childhood. He began reading self-help books, attending A.A. meetings and couples therapy with his wife. Pratt was healthy, sober, and optimistic.
By the end of 2014, Pratt once again felt life had become bleak and unhappy. Pratt went to Taiwan on a business project, where he contemplated jumping off a building. The thought of his daughters stopped Pratt that day.
After the incident in Taiwan, he went to a couples counseling session with his wife. When their counselor asked Pratt if he believed that this wife loved him, he couldn’t say yes. After 20 years with his wife, he had a hard time saying that he believed that his wife loved him. His therapist was encouraged by the progress Pratt had made working through his addiction with alcohol, but this insight into his marriage revealed that there was something else missing. Even though the counselor couldn’t diagnose a mental illness, he proposed there was one: dysthymia. Pratt followed his counselor’s recommendation to see a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist diagnosed Pratt with bipolar disorder, which explained why he had these ups and downs. Pratt discovered through this diagnosis why operated in a different way. There was a reason for the times where he would feel invincible, and why other times he contemplated suicide
Pratt still has ups and downs. Mania, Pratt explained to us, causes you to take dangerous risks and is often followed by a period of depression. This is why people with bipolar disorder commit suicide at higher rates than people who live with major depression. For Pratt, it is exhausting to go through constant mood swings. Bipolar disorder makes people take serious risks and people put it all on the line. Since then, Pratt’s psychiatrist prescribed him with medication and behavioral therapy and it has helped him manage his bipolar disorder.
K’s Suicide and Silent Superheroes
During our discussion Pratt mentioned a close friend, whom we will refer to as “K” going forward. Pratt was introduced to K, a UW grad, in 2017 by a mutual friend. At the time, K was struggling with depression as well. Pratt and K talked about their struggles together and became close friends.
A few months after they met, K’s depression worsened. There were days when it was extremely difficult to get out of bed, and even if K did, she didn’t feel she could do anything worthwhile. She sought treatment, but got caught up in a mix of traditional and natural paths of treatment. K felt lost and died by suicide in late 2017.
When Pratt attended K’s memorial service at UW, he listened to the eulogies and stories about her. The stories told were about her “up” times. In a two-hour long service, no one talked about K’s depressive times; the days when she did not feel like herself. Pratt was frustrated that no one mentioned her mental illness because he remembers her as someone who put on a happy mask to function. He agonized that perhaps K would be alive today if she had experienced more acceptance and understanding of her mental illness and her struggles.
It was K’s death that inspired Pratt to start a podcast called Silent Superheroes, a series that features professional men and women who live and work with a mental illness. He hopes that this series will open more dialogues about mental illness and help to eliminate stigma in the workplace.
Busting the Mental Health Stigma Through Leadership at Gravity Payments
Pratt has been at Gravity Payments for 6 months and says that he loves the transparent, purpose-driven culture. For example, Gravity Payments’ conference rooms are designed to look like clients’ businesses: Thai restaurants, hair salons, and bike shops. This interior design provides a constant reminder to the employees that they are serving someone every day. Pratt appreciates the cultural and financial emphasis Gravity Payments places on mental health – every employee earns at least $70,000 annually. Gravity Payments believes their employees can lead healthier and more productive lives without worrying about money.
Gravity Payments’ office design is modeled after their clients’ workplaces.
Photo credit: Nidhi Khurana
As VP of People Development, Pratt loves that he can apply his own experience with mental illness to ensure that Gravity Payments is a place where individuals living with mental illnesses do not have to hide their diagnosis to succeed. Pratt loves that every employee at Gravity Payments is understanding and accepting of individuals with mental illnesses, and hopes that through his work with NAMI Seattle and Silent Superheroes, he can help lead the way to kinder and more accepting workplace norms for those with mental illnesses. After the life that he has led, Pratt says that Gravity Payments serves as the perfect fit for him.
James Pratt is a computer scientist from Sussex, UK. Gravity Payments is a credit card processing company based in Seattle and the Vice President of People Development at Gravity Payments. Pratt is also the founder and host of Silent Superheroes, a podcast that tells the stories of people working with mental illness.
Nidhi Khurana, Sung-Soo Devine, AbdulShakur Ali, Connor Haney, and Daniel Zhuge are students in Professor Laura Umetsu’s Spring 2019 UW Bothell business writing course. As part of a writing partnership project, students from Umetsu’s class wrote a series of organizational press releases featuring the work that NAMI Seattle and their community partners are doing for the local mental health community.