I'm Zeba, I'm Black And Bipolar But That's Not All I Am

I thought that like mayonnaise and Celine Dion, depression was a white thing.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a personal blog post that for me was a kind of “coming out,” sharing with my friends and followers that I have been dealing with depression for the last fifteen years. It was both nerve wracking and empowering to reveal the details of my reality: my constant negative and suicidal thoughts, my tendency to avoid going outside for weeks on end, my panic attacks and crying fits that seem to come out of nowhere.

“I’m Zeba,” I wrote in the post. “Sometimes, I feel really sad, and it sucks... But that is not who I am.” It felt good to walk in my truth, to acknowledge my illness but also assert that it didn’t define who I am.

A month later, a visit to a doctor threw my little “A-ha” moment into a confusing new light. After a two-hour evaluation during which I answered question after invasive question about my daily routines, medical history, and my mental state, the doctor looked at me and casually said, “So, it looks like you have Social Anxiety Disorder. Also, Bipolar II.” Suddenly, what I had convinced myself was my “truth” had changed, taking on a lot of connotations that I wasn’t fully comfortable with.

We all know there’s a stigma around mental illness, but what’s rarely discussed is how there are levels to that stigma -- especially when you’re black. For years, I grew up with the unspoken understanding that to be a black woman meant to be strong. I’d watch my single mother work three jobs, struggle to pay bills, to feed me and my sister, and simultaneously wonder why I couldn’t muster up the same stoicism and grace. I’d watch my older sister, a beautiful, bubbly and outgoing overachiever, and wonder why unlike her, I often found being around other people terrifying and debilitating.

Around the age of twelve, a doctor at a clinic told me that I was depressed after a twenty minute conversation, gave me a prescription to an SSRI medication and sent me on my way. I didn’t get better, and because I didn’t get better, I began to view myself as weak. I stopped seeking treatment and blamed myself for how I felt. I began to view my illness not as an illness, but a kind of performance, a delusion I had convinced myself of in order to cope with the fact that I wasn’t “strong” enough to deal with life in all its complexities.

And deep down, part of the reason I felt that I wasn’t really sick was because subconsciously I bought into this idea that having depression wasn’t a black thing. Like mayonnaise and Celine Dion, it was a white phenomenon, a Western construct that simply didn’t affect black people. That belief was only compounded by how my family initially reacted. My mother, well-meaning but perplexed by my illness, would often pray over me with a rosary, splashing drops of holy water on my forehead in an effort to cast the demons out of my body.

Of course, that didn’t work, and I found myself easing into my illness because I had no other choice. I had no real references for what I was going through, no one who looked like me and could validate my experiences, but by finding a community online I thought I had gradually come to terms with my mental state. It’s taken me years to accept depression, to accept this daily battle to maintain balance in a life that I have often simply not wanted to live. But the doctor’s diagnoses strangely changed everything.

Depression is one thing, it’s a palpable word, one that people can connect with even if they don’t know all that it entails. Everyone, at one time or another has been depressed, or felt “really sad.” I’ve told friends in the past that I have depression, and they’ve said things like, “I’m really sorry to hear that. I’ve been having a really crappy week, too. I know how you feel.”

They’ll ask me what’s bothering me, and while I do have my triggers, I struggle to explain that the insidiousness of it all is that there’s often nothing inherently wrong in my life, yet it still feels like I’m drowning. Others, although they have only a vague idea of what depression, only barely understand it, can at least connect on some level.

But the preconceived notions of bipolarism or anxiety are very different. Suddenly, you’re not just really sad, you’re crazy. Suddenly, you’re not just an awkward black girl, you’re racked with all sorts of backwards neuroses. And these prejudices conjure up for me the same feelings I had when I was younger. As silly as I knew they were, my thoughts echoed the thoughts I grappled with years before: Black people aren’t bipolar. Black people don’t have social anxiety. Why are you making this up? Get over it. What is wrong with you?

Of course, there is nothing wrong with me, or with anyone else like me. Forty million Americans struggle with mental health issues. Statistically, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to report mental illnesses than white people. And these are illnesses of all kinds, illnesses rarely discussed in the narrative of black mental health, including bipolarism, schizophrenia, phobias, ADHD. And yet, compared to every other race, black people are far less likely to seek treatment.

It took me over a decade to accept that I was sick, and to get help. What amazes me most is that while my symptoms haven’t changed, I initially felt as if I couldn’t claim the new diagnosis as bipolar the way I had ultimately claimed my depression. Even now, as I write this, I feel extremely uncomfortable, and afraid.

I’ve kept the new diagnosis a secret since I received it. I feel worried about how my friends, family, and colleagues might look at me if they read this. Will they feel weird around me? Will they avoid me? Will they think I am crazy?

I have a lot to learn about my illness, and a lot to unlearn -- the hazy web of stereotypes and misconceptions that I always thought I was above. Most importantly, I have to remind myself of the words I wrote in that blog post a month ago, the words after “I’m Zeba,” and realize that they’re just as true now as they were when I wrote them:

“Sometimes, I feel really sad, and it sucks. Sometimes, I feel suicidal, and that sucks even more. But that is not who I am. That is not why I’m here. And I plan to share my story, my truth. I plan to educate myself, to write, to continue to work to build community for others like me, to enjoy my life. And my story is only just beginning.”