What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
In December, I launched a global non-profit organization called The Siwe Project. It was named for Siwe Monsanto, the 15 year-old daughter of a good friend.
I’d known Siwe since she was 4 years old so I was aware of her ups and downs. But, it still came as a shock when in June 2011, she took her own life.
As a black woman, I understood the stigmas and shame that come with mental illness. I know that all cultures have issues dealing with and understanding mental illness, but I also know that the global black community has specific ways of dealing with illness, in that, we rarely deal with it. If at all.
Siwe was lucky to have an amazing mother who dedicated her life to helping her daughter but many aren’t so fortunate. The Siwe Project was born out of a need to help people like Siwe have a place to begin the conversation and tell their own stories.
My reasons for taking on this endeavor were also selfish, I needed a place to feel a sense of community as I manage my own illness. I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder at the age of 27. I’d struggled for most of my life trying to understand who I was and why I couldn’t ever seem to get it together.
I began to notice there was something “different’ when I was 8 years old. For as long as I can remember, I was moody and sensitive. I didn’t fully understand it at that age. I just knew that there was this uneasiness that followed me around. I just knew that I cried sometimes but wasn’t sure why. I just knew that I couldn’t sleep some nights. That I always appeared to be bubbling over with excitement that couldn’t be contained.
I started getting stress headaches around that time, as well. These pangs of pain that would stab random parts of my head. That came with an anxiety that gripped me and punched me in the gut whenever I wanted to try for the cheerleading team or audition for the school play or ask the boy I had a crush on if he had a hall pass. I’d get dizzy and lightheaded and my stomach would rage out of control.
And then there was the sadness. That inexplicable melancholy that sat on my chest from time to time. I’d be fine, nothing was wrong, and then out of nowhere, the tears would start and I couldn’t stop them. I had no reason to be sad, I was in elementary school. My toughest decision at that time was Prince or Michael Jackson (Michael won).
I was constantly heartbroken by the world. In the third grade, the Challenger exploded. We were in Mrs. Zeroski’s class watching it as it happened. I remember the entire class burst into tears, even our teacher was openly weeping. I cried too but something else happened, something broke. I couldn’t drag myself out of the sadness. Days went by, weeks, months and I was still broken.
I stayed up at night obsessed with how I could have stopped it; even wondering if I had caused it somehow. Was it that spelling bee that I fumbled? Was it the track meet I lost?
I didn’t have any examples of anyone going through what I was going through but me. So on top of everything else, I was weird. I tried to mask it by being funny, smart, a great dancer, the kid everyone liked despite it all. People were always commenting on my “bubbly personality” and “sunny disposition” and that’s how I wanted it. Nobody likes the hyperactive, weepy weird girl.
I kept it all together until Middle School. I had some hiccups. Moving from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Greenbelt, Maryland, I was bullied severely and found myself retreating. My “outside” started meeting my inside in that sad and silent place.
In high school, it was easier to keep it at bay. I had figured out what “normal” was and emulated it to the best of my ability. Whenever the sadness came, I pushed it away. When the frantic rush of energy came, I stayed up all night reading my textbooks from cover to cover and writing. It helped my grades. And if my grades were good, then nobody suspected that I was falling apart.
Things got a bit more difficult to negotiate my senior year of high school. I started to slip a bit. I couldn’t concentrate or focus. I was getting more and more frustrated trying to study or read for class. My grades dipped, which in my house meant I was in the low 3.00s rather than the high. That’s when my parents noticed but of course, my dipping grades were attributed to some sort of delinquency and eagerness to graduate -- not my dipping moods.
I told my parents it was Senioritis and was left alone. As long as I passed English. As long as my college acceptance was okay. As long as nobody really asked me what was going on, I could survive this. Whatever this was.
And then college happened and every trick I had stopped working. When my peers were exploring their sexuality and freedoms, I was huddled in my dorm bed a mess of trembling and tears, confused and distraught about everything and nothing.
I still put on the smile and the laughs when I could face people. When I had to retreat, they all thought it was because I was focused and studying. That first semester of college, I returned home with a 0.0 grade point average. I was put on academic probation for the first time in my life. My parents were convinced that I was on drugs or suddenly promiscuous.
What they didn’t know was that since I was 8-years-old, I never let myself see past the next 12 months. I was so afraid that if I planned for the “future”, then lost it and suddenly “went crazy”, then I’d have too much to lose. I was painfully self aware at an early age. I did just enough to get me to next year but couldn’t see past that. I’d have too far to fall. So I made no plans.
I knew I was going to college but I didn’t think about what happened after college. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. I dealt with each semester like it was the only one I was going to get. I wasn’t building towards any future because I wasn’t sure I’d have one.
When college became too much, I dropped out with no plan and no money and moved to New York City. And once again, I was good for a little bit. I made the city work for me. It comforted my insomnia. It celebrated my hypomania. Because of my self awareness, this understanding that “something was wrong” but without any insight as to what it was, I was able to avoid the pratfalls of self-medicating. Not to say that I didn’t, but instead of alcoholism, indiscriminate sexual experiences and/or drugs, I had reality TV, shopping and social media. The jury is still out on whether or not that was really healthier.
Let me explain "hypomania" for you. Remember the first time you were ever on a Ferris wheel? Remember when you got to the very top and kinda just sat there for a little while, the entire world at your feet. There was euphoria, excitement, you could see the entire world from where you were. You felt like you could touch the sky. Your entire body was tingling with this amazing sensation of joy and that good anxiety. You were giddy. Just fucking excited to be alive at that moment.
Now imagine feeling that every day for a week or a month or a few months, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with no break. No "down". No rest. It's exhausting but it also makes every thing you do feel like THE BIGGEST MOST AMAZING THING YOU HAVE EVER DONE IN YOUR LIFE!
The first week or so, it's great. You can't beat it. You’re getting work done. You’re the life of the party.
Then the insomnia sets in, then the inability to settle down and focus on anything for long sets in. Then you HAVE to write the entire book tonight before you can sleep or eat or leave the house or do anything. But first you have to call your friends and the boy you just met and tell them all that you love them. That you've never felt this way about any other human being in the entire world and you're so lucky and so glad and so everything to have such amazing, magical people in your life. And it's true. Until it isn't. That’s hypomania. That's what I have.
This week marks the 2nd anniversary of my hospitalization for depression. It wasn’t my first visit.
My first visit was in late October/early November 2004. I’d had a breakdown that January while on tour with Def Poetry Jam in Chicago. I’d been struggling for months on the tour. I became quiet and withdrawn, I stopped eating and sleeping.
Finally, in Chicago, our wardrobe lady came to deliver my newly pressed stage costume and found me in my dressing room, huddled underneath the sink weeping. I was sent home the next day. Before I left, our stage manager, Alice, who had noticed the changes in my personality gave me a list of doctors to call when I got back to Brooklyn.
I remember how she hugged me and said, “If you don’t get help, Bass... You’re going to die.”
Her words settled into my bones the entire flight back to New York. Over the course of the next 7 days, I had a BPII diagnosis. I’d never heard of it. I’d heard of Bipolar. I’d seen the stories of “crazy people” running down the street naked or forgetting to feed their children. I didn’t see myself in those people so I shrugged off the diagnosis.
I took anti-depressants and a mood stabilizer for exactly one month, I figured I’d be cured by then and allowed to go back on tour and resume my life and career. But, I was told I couldn’t return to the tour. I was a liability. I was too unstable to continue. What I heard was, “You’re broken. You can’t be fixed.”
It confirmed what I’d feared my entire life. There’s something wrong with you and soon everyone will know.
Living with a mental illness is a study in survival. Every day, every emotion is questioned. What is this? Am I happy or am I starting to head towards mania? Is this an honest sadness or is my brain breaking again? Why is it breaking now? What is so different now than yesterday? Why me? Why this?
To say it’s frustrating is to minimize how paralyzing it can be. And then there’s the shame. Having to decide who to reveal to and when. If I meet someone I’m interested in, do I tell them that sometimes I shrink away or do I wait until it happens? Revealing too much too soon can end it before it begins. Waiting too long results in confusing behaviour that ends things as well. No matter how you play, someone isn’t going to understand.
I’ve had legitimate concerns in a relationship and have been dismissed as “getting bipolar again.” I’ve entered 99% of my relationships while in hypomania. I don’t even know what it would feel like to enter one healthy. I wouldn’t know how to act. I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like for “normal” people.
Through it all, I’m currently managing my illness. Daily, I take Wellbutrin, Clonapin and Lamictal, my current cocktail. Occasionally, I need something to help me sleep. Staying on meds has been a problem. I start feeling better and convince myself that I don’t need it or I can skip a day or two or thirty.
A lot of people with mental illness can manage without medication. There isn’t enough yoga and dairy-free eating that works for me. I’m most likely going to be on meds for the rest of my life. I have to be okay with that.
I’m not often "okay" with it but the alternatives are worse so despite how tedious and annoying it is to take the pills, I do it. I pray that one day my brain will settle down for a long period of time and I can feel some of this “normal” that folks talk about.
People often tell me that without this illness, I wouldn’t be the writer or the creative or the personality that I am now. They say it as though I should be happy or comforted some how. I’m not sure how true that is. I am who I am despite the illness not because of it. Just because I manage and have found a way to live with this, doesn't mean that I wouldn’t trade all the writing and creativity and “bubbly personality” for a brain that settles and mends itself like it’s supposed to.
Pay attention to the person in the office that comes across standoffish or cold. The bitch in human resources or the asshole in accounting, you have no idea what people live with or what they struggle to manage.
Yes, some folks are just fucked up but most often than not, these people are trying to figure out their mental health. I’ve been lucky enough to try and contain these explosions so they don’t affect other people but it’s constant work. I’m always checking in with friends to make sure I didn’t do or say something to upset them. I’m constantly apologizing and checking to see if my speech is racing or my thoughts uncentered.
When I’m feeling particularly unstable, I disappear. I stay hidden and silent until I feel grounded again.
There will always be a disconnect. I can only get so close to people. I need to protect them from my whimsy and quirks and bone crushing sadnesses. I lose people that way but I also know who is really in my corner if I can return and they welcome me back.
Like so many physical diseases and disorders, getting it under control is the key. Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health. I wish people could understand that. I wish they could see that mental illness is not who I am. It doesn’t define me anymore than having diabetes or black hair does.
In my small way, I hope my transparency can help someone else come to terms with what they have. And beyond that, if more of us talk about it, we won’t spend so much time feeling disconnected and alone. It’s a constant fight but it’s a fight that I will always take on. If I want to stay alive, I have no choice.