I was today years old when I realized the new term for manic depressive disorder was bipolar disorder (BPD). In 2017, my therapist, a Black woman, diagnosed me with “high-functioning clinical depression and bipolar disorder with manic highs and depressive lows.”
The clinical depression spawned from experiencing tremendous loss. Within an 11-month period, I lost my stepfather, father and maternal grandmother. Words couldn’t begin to articulate the devastation that shook me to my core. I didn’t feel grief. It enveloped me. Couple that with attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and BPD and it’s a cocktail for a chemical bomb and explosion in my brain.
I completely ignored the bipolar part of the prognosis because I thought ‘fuckouttahere… I ain’t crazy.’
For me, bipolar disorder looked like Brittany Spears shaving her head, swinging an umbrella at an innocent car, losing it in front of the world and painting my face with red lipstick instead of my actual lips while babbling nonsense under my breath. We were not the same.
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Suffering from mental illness is a challenge. Intersect that with being a Black woman in a world bent on misogynoir and it can be damn near impossible to live with. An estimated 23 million Americans have bipolar disorder (BPD). Although Black people aren’t less or more likely to have the condition than other races or ethnicities, we are less likely to be diagnosed and receive proper treatment.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines bipolar disorder as “a mental disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.”
I’ve not seen Black women with BPD verbally express what it feels like for us. Not saying it hasn’t happened–I just haven’t seen it. So, this is my moment of transparency. Full disclosure: I’m in a spiral as I write this. However, I’ve pushed myself to share, to be in community, to let other Black women know they are not alone. Sharing feels necessary.
Here’s what BPD looks and feels like for me:
My thoughts, emotions and feelings have never been even keel. I experience life, people and moments in extremes.
My moods shift in evocative hues like crimson and maroon for anger, the deepest indigo for sadness and chartreuse and marigold for joy. It’s an odd comparison, but sometimes colors can describe my feelings better than words.
If something is funny or makes me happy, I scream with glee or laugh until my face hurts. It can be weird and awkward.
Somberness and fury evoke rivers of tears- it’s an intensity that’s indescribable if you’ve not felt it. I’m known as a crier, but it’s the only physical manifestation that can express what I feel. It feels like a possession. I love my family and friends with that same furor, and it can be stifling for them. Sometimes, it comes off as obsessive or dramatic. It’s not. It’s what my head and heart feel for them.
I am incapable of pulling it back. On the contrary, I’m absurdly indifferent–maybe even borderline sociopathic, for those with whom I’ve no personal connection. Situations unrelated to me that I know should elicit compassion or sympathy– do not move me. Gray areas don’t exist for me either.
As a child, I charged the shifts in my mood to being a Gemini, and when my sister told me I was temperamental, I had no idea what she was talking about.
To reset my brain, I go through periods of being extremely social to becoming incommunicative (if you know me, I cut myself off from loved ones–including my family). It’s not personal.
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When I’m in the manic phase of bipolar disorder, I feast on rabbit holes in lieu of food. I run on 3-5 hours to sleep. I manage my work, my family and my spiritual life. Spending hours on the phone with family and friends brings me joy. On the outside looking in, I have my shit together. I am brilliant, neurotic and creative at the same time, and although it sounds good, it puts me at greater risk of having addictions and detrimental vices. I don’t drink or do drugs. The downside is I’m ferociously aggressive, restless and will deny that this dope-like high will eventually send me to an equally dreadful abyss of despondency.
When my husband called me bipolar a few years ago during a manic phase that lasted an astounding two years, I wanted to fight him physically. I lost 40 pounds during that time because I didn’t remember to eat or I couldn’t finish food. My mind made my body feel satiated even though I was essentially starving myself. As a woman who constantly battles with my weight, I admit I looked good. Never mind that I had dizzy spells, practically passed out and risked falling down a flight of cement stairs and had intense headaches.
The anticipation and search for a new house triggered my depression. I was obsessed with moving and being in a pandemic did not help. I confined myself to my bedroom. I ate and worked from my bed. I packed on 50 pounds in a five month span and never saw it coming. The flip side is that I slept for hours and lost motivation to go anywhere, do anything else or see anyone.
I couldn’t break myself out of the funk. Now, here I am feeling the manic phase creep up again. For the past week, I’ve gone to bed every night between three and 5 AM. And everyday, I wake up at 9:50 AM on the dot. I’ve lost my appetite and five pounds. For any given reason, people in real life and on social media trigger me. I want to fight.
I’m holding grace for myself, now that I am better at identifying the deviations from manic to depressive—but I am contemplating therapy again. It feels necessary.
Today’s color is hot pink