I have bipolar disorder.
This is not uncommon for someone with my background. I have a generational history of familial dysfunction; abuse (substance, emotional, and domestic), divorce, broken relationships, and suicide. I am confident that there is also a generational history of undiagnosed and untreated mental and emotional disorder – something that is not uncommon in the African-American Community.
Like a lot of women who grow up in the Black church, my go to method for many years was attempted prayer. I mean that to be read like the term attempted murder; my intention was to kill the chaos in my mind and soul but I failed. I spent so many years thinking that if I could just ‘get right’, ‘do right’, fast more, read the Bible more, go to church more, quote more scripture, then I would be fixed. I wasn’t convinced but I tried to believe that my depression, suicidal thoughts, promiscuity, and risk-taking behavior remained because I was “in sin”. And if I could just get out of sin, by believing, praying, and all the other things on the list of good Christian behaviors, then I would be made well.
On one side, God could take away my depressive and manic episodes and the behaviors associated with each mood swing if I prayed hard enough. But the other side of the theological coin is that my manic and depressive episodes are what God uses to keep me dependent on him as he is the only source that can heal me when he sees fit and provide grace to me until he does. I tried to live between these two pillars of belief but they are both painfully unrealistic. Either it’s my fault for not being worthy by word, deed, or belief, of God helping me. Or, God in his or her* infinite wisdom and compassion has intentionally created a co-dependent relationship that requires me to never get well just so I will talk to him.
Bipolar disorder is estimated to affect 5.7 million adult Americans (about 2.6% of the U.S.). Like any other illness, bipolar disorder is not a respecter of persons; it happens to good people. We are not all like those characters you see on Law & Order episodes or those murder mystery shows. And our disorder is not the scapegoat for people behaving badly. People living with bi-polar disorder, diagnosed or not, want to get better. Most of us have the long list of medications and doctors we’ve tried to prove it.
Living with and managing any kind of emotional disorder is work. You have to work through the consequences of your highs and low moments. There’s more work in getting the right diagnosis, then there’s more work in finding the right mix that will enable you to just keep your head above water. And then there’s the work of managing your relationships, your career, physical health, self-esteem and energy – all of which are impacted by the disorder. To quote Rihanna, “It’s work, work, work, work, work,” The good news is that life with bi-polar can actually work; for many of us it is possible to go beyond just surviving bi-polar to enjoying a fully productive life.
Here’s a list of a few well-known celebrities and leaders who have found success while living with bi-polar disorder:
- Jane Pauley
- Jim Carrey
- Charlie Pride
- Demi Lovato
- Ted Turner
- Jennifer Lewis
- Brian Wilson
- Mike Tyson
- Nina Simone
- Robin Williams
- Richard Dreyfuss
- Sara Silverman
- Jean-Claude Van Damme
- Stephen Fry
- Frank Sinatra
- Catherine Zeta-Jones
- Margaret Trudeau
- Carrie Fisher
- Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest
I am not a celebrity but I am actively building success on my own terms. While living with bipolar disorder, I also graduated from Masterman, one of the top public high schools in the country and have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education. I worked my way from serving with Americorps, to teaching 5th grade, to a six-figure salary with a Fortune500 company before leaving corporate America to start my own business. And after lots of lessons learned, I’ve been able to build a healthy marriage and raise a smart, compassionate, and self-confident daughter. Do I still have highs and lows? Yes, but I also contentment, peace, and self-compassion as I work my way through life.
I have bipoloar disorder. And I am tired of not talking about it. And I am ready to let go of feeling like it’s something that needs to be connected to weakness or shame.
Growing up in the church, one of the sayings I heard a lot was, “Tell the truth, shame the devil.” I hate that saying – I don’t think telling the truth should be connected with shame, but with change. So one of my mantras is, “Tell the truth, change a life.” I’ve started writing and speaking about the intersection of mental illness, the black church, and spirituality because I believe that this is a way to ignite change. And even though I have more questions than answers I am confident that my story can help someone else get a little more free whether they are an attempted prayer or not.
*I imagine that some of you are jumping to a conclusion that my implying God could be feminine contributes to my problems, since biblically God is referred to as masculine. But if we are indeed made in his image and women are the ones that give birth, why is it so far fetched that God would have similar feminine attributes as well as masculine attributes?