The Gift & the Curse

In light of our soror blog Black Girl Nerds' most recent podcast, I thought I'd share a post I wrote a few years back.

“We of the craft are all crazy.”  --Lord Byron

In 2009, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  I’ve always considered myself a bit…different…than others, especially growing up.  My mother always called me hyper or high-strung.  My temper was explosive, as were my crying spurts.  Neither made any sense; sometimes I raged, sometimes I cried, but during each phase, I wrote like a madwoman.  I have a cabinet of unpublished material that will probably never see the light of day due to the content.

After I lost my mother in 2008, my depression was deep and long.  I slept when I wasn’t working, and when I was at work, I’m not sure exactly what I did to get through the workday.  I was exhausted all the time and in this instance, I was too tired to write.  In spite of my consuming grief, I knew something more was wrong and knew I couldn’t handle it on my own. After a really scary episode, I picked up the phone, called my insurance carrier and asked about the medical rider for mental health care. The lady who answered was very compassionate and gave me a list of psychologists in the network after asking, “Do you have a preference?”

“Yes,” I said. “I want a black woman.”

She then commended me for taking the initiative to get some help and wished me well.
Two days later, I met my psychologist. I was diagnosed first with depression and put on Effexor, but in the ensuring eight months, my therapist noticed that I was also experiencing manic episodes.  She asked me a series of questions, which ultimately led to the correct diagnosis and the correct medication.

Clarity is a beautiful, beautiful thing. Peace of mind is even better.

Since that time, I have spent time examining the whole of my life and everything I’d experienced made complete sense.  Everything, especially the unpretty parts, I could understand with total simplicity.  The periods between mania and depression are called shifts, and if you look at the condition as a sine wave, manias are crests and depressions are troughs.  The origin represents “normality,” and you can define that any way you wish.  My particular sine wave is one year long, peaking in late spring/early summer and dipping during the winter months.

I want to be clear:  There is nothing wrong with me.  I was born with unbalanced neurotransmitters, and it is something I inherited from my mother.  Being born bipolar is no different than being born with diabetes; both are a result of chemical imbalances.  Just like a diabetic has to take insulin to regulate blood sugar, I have to take a pill that regulates my dopamine and serotonin levels.  It is by no means a perfect solution; the higher the dosage, the more balanced I am and I’m on a very low dosage by choice.

As an author, I need my mania and my depression in order to write.  I’ve been writing all my life and I have to do it or I don’t think I’d survive.  I lack the lucidity to tell stories when I’m “normal,” but when I’m shifting, I have total clarity and can write several novels at the same time.  I’ve been doing this for years, and I prefer my periods of shifting as opposed to being stable.  Most artists do, and a lot of them stop taking their meds, or refuse to take them at all because they lose the ability to create when they’re not shifting.  Sometimes the shifts are so bad and so extreme that the mind can't take it, and some people commit suicide.  It is a very precarious line that we walk.  I am fortunate in that I am a functional citizen.  Others aren't so lucky.

When I’m shifting, especially towards the low end, I tell my loved ones that I have to go off the grid for a couple of days. They understand what that means and leave me be, as long as I check in with them within two days. They don’t judge me or patronize me; they show me that they care by honoring my wishes.

However, my daily life requires enough stability so that bills can be paid.  Understanding my condition has allowed me to identify triggers of mania and depression and embrace them consequently.  I know what to expect and what to do when they come.  I know that there are times when I’ll cry or rage for no apparent reason, or I’ll find myself writing, painting, or playing with my LEGOs for hours on end without knowing how much time has passed.  I’ll know I’ll be on medication for the rest of my days, and I accept that as the way my life has to be.  Anyone who dares to love me has to accept it as well.  It’s the gift and the curse.

I’m not afraid to share this information.  Mental disorders in the black community have often been overlooked and ignored.  I’ve often heard that mental illness is a “white folks’ thing,” and “Black folks can’t afford to be crazy.”  I’ve also heard that all people like me need to do is “depend on God and pray it away.”

Let me tell you something: You can’t pray away a chemical imbalance. As a woman of faith and of science, here is my $.02: God gives us wisdom and discernment, which means being reflective, objective, and getting help when you recognize that you need it. Black women are expected to be strong.  Knowing that you can’t do it all alone is strength.

I do not believe for one second that I would have graduated from grad school or been able to move abroad had I not taken the initiative and got help.  A long time ago, my pastor told me that my darkness is someone else's light and I received it and am paying it forward.  I can take on the world as long as I've got my prescription, and IDGAF what anyone thinks. As Morpheus said, "There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path."

There are plenty of authors, actors, musicians and artists who have suffered from bipolar disorder, including Virginia Woolf, Linda Hamilton, Charles Schultz, Vincent Van Gogh, Mary Shelley and Ludwig van Beethoven.  Other artists who’ve struggled with the disorder are Charley Pride, Tennessee Williams, DMX, Vivien Leigh, William Styron, and Bobby Brown.  Even people like Jane Pauley, Ruth Graham, Marlon Brando, Abraham Lincoln & Janet Jackson have all had experiences with bipolar disorder.  It is not a black thing, a white thing, or any kind of "thing."  It is an aspect of the human condition—a treatable condition, and the more people know about it and understand it, the sooner the stigma of being crazy can be put to rest.

Suggested Reading:
Touched With Fire An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison


  1. What a telling and powerful testimony.

    Everytime I read stories ,like the one you wrote about you battle with bipolar disorder and depression, it puts a smile on my face. Someone is being reminded that they're not alone and that you have their backs coping with it.

    I can relate to this as one of my nephews has battled with the same very disorder with ADD. The experience with this had been a roller coaster ride in past. There were time where we called the police on him( and hoping that the cops wouldn't do a Michael Brown on him and blessed that they understood his illness and never harmed) when he got out of hand to be sent to the hospital/residential treatment centers or maybe that one of us would get hurt by him..all of that stuff made us wonder and prayed about it. We thought that we and him were being cursed and that god was punishing us but as my good neighbor reminded in the bible that "it rains on the just and the unjust" as you just mentioned bipolar disorder doesn't discriminate against anybody, it can be genetic or induced by unfortunate situations( My mom told me a story about a man who suffered from Bipolar disorder and it was said that his father may have passed it to him by drinking moonshine( called corn liquor these days. I don't know how true it is,but it may cause it).

    Some people are also incredibly ignorant about bipolar disorder and other mental disorders. They assume the worse of them. With my nephew, people thought that he was slow, that he was a discipline problem , that all mentally ill people looked like Charles Manson and would tell us to basically throw him away. Bipolar disorder has nothing to do with your learning abilities and talents. Ironically, I was reading about Chris Brown on the Grio. Not only is he a great recording artist,but he's just a brilliant artist, so much so that one of his paintings sold for 60k. Maybe it's is name..idk,but the boy is a great artist and his work conveys some strong convincing messages behind them. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder/PTSD. It's also great that you named a whole lot of other famous people who also deal with this disorder because people just have this stereotype of what mentally ill people are supposed to look like when they have no idea that the well dressed businessman can also suffer from bipolar disorder or some other mental disorder.

    It's been almost 4 years since my nephew had an outburst. He hasn't been to the hospital/residential treatment center and his medication has been downgraded to the point where his doctors have confidence in him( FTR, I'm sooo glad that they did. It seemed that the side effects of some of them was scary. One created man boobs on him, another made him small and the last one just made him more aggresive). He' sin another high school and seem to love it, he wants a job , is loving school and have a girlfriend .Thankfully, he's always been a socially active kid who never had trouble making friends. He enjoys skateboarding. People would tell us to give him up. That is not an option with my sister or our family. We just don't believe in taking the easy way out of diffuculties. Besides, we didn't want him to hate us for doing it. My sisters best friend is dealing with her son hating her for it( He too suffered from bipolar disorder)

    Again, I'm thankful for this post. While I'm always inspired by your stories, someone else may also need to read this and to be reminded that it's ok and that you have their backs.

  2. Mental disorders in the black community have often been overlooked and ignored. I’ve often heard that mental illness is a “white folks’ thing,” and “Black folks can’t afford to be crazy.” I’ve also heard that all people like me need to do is “depend on God and pray it away.”

    Let me tell you something: You can’t pray away a chemical imbalance. As a woman of faith and of science, here is my $.02: God gives us wisdom and discernment, which means being reflective, objective, and getting help when you recognize that you need it. Black women are expected to be strong. Knowing that you can’t do it all alone is strength.

    This section says EVERYTHING! Too often black women (including me for a while) refuse to get help because they feel it makes them weak. It also affects black men and a lot of others regardless of race or gender. I know too many people who attempt to pray it away not knowing it only gets harder.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Yep..and that cause us more damage than help. What baffles me sometimes I pass by people and they'll have no problem saying they've been in prison/jail and there nothing wrong with being a testimony to someone who has walked down this road and helping them to over come their demons but I just find it funny how you find a lot of people easily telling you about this but when you mention anything about mental disorders, they want to be silent about a subject like this.. smh?

      I think that stereotypes about the " strong Black woman" also hurts us because as you said, it's the expectations we have when it comes to this and pretending that something don't hurt us( mentally, spiritually) hurts us far more than admitting to it. Nothing wrong with being strong because we have to be that way and it's our culture,but we're not superwomen .We also have to be realistic with our strengths and weaknesses and admitting to these problems. Telling people about your problem doesn't make people weak. It's recovery and growth.

      I had a college professor who had a son who was bipolar and while I was surprised she would discussing her family issues with my class, I wasn't annoyed by it. I just seen this as her way of educating others about it and/or as her way of doing therapy on herself. Most people wouldn't have done what she did,but I was happy about it because I was being reminded that someone knows what you're going through and that everything was going to be fine.

    2. @M-I actually hate the term "Strong Black Woman". Personally I would like to see it dropped period. I think it does more damage because women fool themselves into thinking they do not need help. Yes we deal with a lot more bs the most women, but we need to know that it is okay to seek and get help when needed.

      And yes its sad that being in jail/prison is seen as better than having a mental condition.

  3. It's a pity that you weren't diagnosed earlier but I understand why, you explained it well.
    I really agree with you about religion and the medicine. Praying is great, but ignoring the help available on Earth is crazy, like you're praying for a miracle but God has already given you a solution to your problem.

    I don't think I have a disorder so I can't relate on that. But I've dealt with a mix of mild depression, internet addiction and low self-confidence/esteem. I've never told my parents that I went to see a psychologist a few years ago. I don't think they would understand.

    Like M said, it's awesome to read stories like this. I think that people could get more educated on these disorders or at least more understanding if they saw people who are slightly different in the media (especially TV series) more often. Once, I was on a bus and a mother was trying to calm her son down as he was yelling. A woman was sitting next them and said: "It's OK, I understand, I saw a documentary about this disorder last week".

    1. @Myra I think blacks think that by "turning their problems over to God" is all they need to do. I hear that a lot. Sometimes though you need a little more help.

      I can relate to not telling your family about seeking help. The stigma is so strong and like Amaya said its seen as a "white person's thing". I have plenty of women in my family that need counseling, but will never seek it.

    2. My words were harsh. I actually had something bigger (a true story movie on this issue that saddened me) on my mind when I wrote that. I'm a Christian so I understand, even though I think differently. Hopefully I didn't offend anyone.

      Indeed. Some members of my family too.


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