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 I have a cabinet of unpublished material that will probably never see the light of day due to the content.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.