It’s 8am and I feel like I need a drink. I don’t feel sad or anxious; it’s more of an indifference and exhaustion. I am physically present and sitting at my desk filled with a nothingness that overwhelms — and so the cycle goes.
I was 21 when I diagnosed with bipolar II disorder which became a thing that I discussed in my friendship circles or online amidst my episodes. My family is very liberal, forgiving and open to understanding. They have honestly carried me through so much (in more ways than I think I have let them in on). I think the issue of discussion and the comfort that it requires falls mainly on me. Since childhood, I have been notorious for not letting people completely in. I often cite this as the reason my writing came about; I still don’t find myself being very good at expressing myself out loud.
You can imagine how relieved I felt when I could put names to the symptoms I had experienced for years that I had previously ruled out as me acting out or being too dramatic. When I think back, it made sense that I experienced many of my manic episodes whilst I was studying. This was because I was so far away from home, thus far away from having to account for or explain why and how I was so thrown off balance.
I always say it comes in waves.
What we mean when we say someone suffers from bipolar II disorder is that the person predominantly suffers from episodes of intense depression with at least one hypo-manic episode. This is how the term “manic depression” came about; it is a mental illness where one fluctuates between very intense high and low moods.
I go through these phases where I feel convincingly motivated, extremely happy and have very high energy, and then suddenly, I go through these phases where I feel an overbearing sadness and hopelessness. My psychiatrist once described this as; the kind of person who has enough hope to not actively run in front of a moving bus but will not flinch if a moving bus approaches and I already happened to be standing there.
These mood swings from depression to mania cause changes in my sleep patterns, energy, thinking and behavior. This kind of erratic behavior is how I can quickly identify that I am in the middle of an episode, and often times, I am well aware of what might have triggered it.
“In mania, people might spend money they don’t have, seek out sex with people they normally wouldn’t, and engage in other impulsive or risky behaviors with the potential for dangerous consequences”.
Interestingly, as much as I had been tempted to unpack this in depth at many points this week — there was a conversation I had this morning that prompted the following and most notable thought.
The stigma of mental illness in the Black Community
As much as there seems to be progression in terms of understanding, acceptance and access to information with the younger generation, the reality is that mental illness is still heavily stigmatized in Black communities. This is because mental illness is often associated with spirituality. So, instead of me having a manic episode; my “acting out” could be categorized along with being possessed, being an angry Black woman, being crazy and so on. I would be expected to deal or seek refuge in the Lord, as opposed to seeking professional help or taking medication (which is ironically reminiscent of what happened when I was initially diagnosed five years ago).
Using my daily responsibilities as a crutch is what feels so different about my current episode. I do not have the luxury of sleeping it off or choosing to stay in bed right now. I am awake at 5am everyday and in the office at 7am albeit emotionally very far away, but physically, getting shit done.
I think that the labels and misconceptions attached are what lead me to emphasize that I am a Black Woman going through it. I am supposed to be resilient, above it, more mature or whatever the case. There seems to be this unspoken expectation to rise above regardless. There are no excuses or exceptions; there is no leniency. And so, I find myself “managing” my mental health simply by getting through my day and ticking off my checklist. It is a challenging and confusing time. I experienced my cycle twice in a space of 3 weeks which was, quite literally, a physical red flag and I am yet to be alarmed enough to do something about it. My personal life, if any, has shifted to the bottom of this list and I have opted for solitude instead — lest the load begins to take a toll on anybody but the bag lady who is designed to carry it.
Everyday I set these expectations for myself before I allow anybody else to. Whether I’m feeling like complete trash or madly in love with myself in that minute, there is still a sense of empowerment that prioritizes what hasn’t defeated me at the speed and magnitude in which it usually does. I wake up everyday and I forgive myself for the previous one and then I try again.
Being deliberate about going through it and letting what needs to come out at the exact moment it wants to is how I am currently coping.
It’s 10am now. My desire for a drink is not as desperate as it was when I began writing this. I am beautiful, smart, resentfully strong and I am about to get through the rest of my day — unapologetic about the thing I can’t predict or control when it arrives.