I’m Bipolar but I’m Not

Someone who I admire a lot, Bassey Ikpi, has a book coming out next year, “I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying.” (Please pre-order today!) The book of essays resonate deeply with me,  as they come from a black woman who, like me, lives with Bipolar II disorder. She also lives an important aspect of my life, the balance between being healthy, being creative, being a mother, and being an advocate. From the publisher:

Determined to learn from her experiences—and share them with others—Bassey became a mental health advocate and has spent the fourteen years since her diagnosis examining the ways mental health is inextricably intertwined with every facet of ourselves and our lives. Viscerally raw and honest, the result is an exploration of the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of who we are—and the ways, as honest as we try to be, each of these stories can also be a lie.

I often feel like when I’m telling the truth here, when I can tell you today, October 14, 2018, that it was really hard to get up this morning, that it was hard to shower and brush my teeth, that is was really hard to put on my shoes to get out of my house because otherwise I would spend all day in bed — that when I am telling you this truth I am also lying because if that was so hard why isn’t writing this hard? If that was so bad, how do I still have what I have — a great career, a loving husband, three amazing kids (they really do amaze me), friends, family, etc.?

I’ve often had people tell me that they have a hard time believing in my diagnosis. I had a doctor tell me that it was a miracle that I had a third child because women with bipolar simply should not do that. A doctor recently expressed incredulousness at my life — her words, “Well, you must be a genius to have done all of this if your diagnosis is correct.” While I wanted to slap the shit out of her — because who was she, having listened to me for ten minutes, to question my LIFE, my experience? — I started to doubt myself. Maybe you don’t have bipolar II disorder. Maybe you don’t even have depression. Maybe you are just tired. Maybe all of my problems I bring onto myself because I try to do too much.*

Maybe everything I have been saying here and elsewhere is a big lie. Maybe I’m not actually sick, with a life-threatening disorder. Maybe I’m telling you a lie I don’t even know I’m telling.

Or maybe I am a fucking genius.** 

* Which is a symptom of bipolar.

** And this has something to do with Kanye. I’m still working through it.

This is a Story about Coffee

This story will ramble and it does not necessarily have a good narrative arc but it’s been on my heart and I need it to get out.

coffee

This is a story about coffee.

One Saturday afternoon two years ago, my husband and I wanted to get away from our kids. We have three of them, all lovely human beings, but being children, they are needy af. We decided our time out would be about coffee. Again, children necessitated this. We were exhausted. Body and mind.

I love coffee. At my job, at the university, one of the best perks was a coffee machine. Not just a janky little pot, an actual machine that grinds the beans right before brewing. On work days, I would have a cup right when I got in, and again around the 3 o’clock slump. One of the best things about that job was that coffee machine.

Saturday is not a work day, thus my need for coffee needed to be fulfilled at home. In better times, coffee at home was just as good. When I had financial aid money, I bought myself an expresso machine and made lovely soy lattes every morning. When that became burdensome, I invested in a $20 French Roast. When I graduated from my grad program (and my husband dropped my press), my mom bought me a fancy coffee machine. It was the best gift I think I’ve ever received. french press

But times were not better. Times were not even good. Several months before this Saturday afternoon coffee run, on a December Monday, I sat in my office and cried on the phone to a friend about not being able to pay my rent. My tears were about not only my fear that my family would be out on the street, but also about a deep sense of shame. I had a PhD and a law degree from a super-fancy school, I’d had the best professional experience I now counsel my students to take advantage of, and I landed what many consider the best legal academic fellowship. I moved my family from the only home my children knew to a new state in a new city. And my husband left a really good job but was now having a really hard time finding a job.

Thankfully, my friends came through for me, lending me money, sending me care packages. My mom took care of Christmas for the kids. The bill collectors were calling, but my block game on my phone was strong. And my husband finally found a job, at a much lower salary than his previous employment, but a job nevertheless. We weren’t going to be on the street.

But times were still not good. Our budget only allowed a diet of mostly spaghetti. My husband was good at finding the sale meat. I went to the grocery store with a list and a calculator and $100 a week to feed two adults and three children, which was really like feeding four adults and one child. I had a birthday “party” for my four year old with only a party bag of chips,  some oranges, and a homemade cake. I borrowed money from my 9 year old who had money from her birthday. I begged off friends who wanted to hang out because cocktails were not in the budget. Anything besides rent, tuition and groceries were not in the budget.

Roasted_coffee_beansSo on this Saturday, when we wanted coffee, coffee was not in the budget. The budget actually was gone, and we had about 5 days until the paycheck came in. But Dunkin’ Donuts was at the end of our block and coffee was only a $1 a cup. We figured we could find $1, and split the cup.

I hated being broke. I cried all the time thinking about what my children didn’t have, the things I couldn’t have, the financial hoops I was always jumping through, the phone calls I was constantly dodging, watching my credit score flush down the toilet. I hated feeling like I was a failure in spite of all that I’d accomplished, having done everything right, being a good girl, perhaps my only “mistake” was having children young.

But among all that hatred and shame and fear, in that moment, I really just wanted some coffee. So I went to the car to rummage on the floor for coins the kids might have dropped. He went through our pockets for loose change. Our kids watched us dispassionately, like they’d seen us do stranger things.

We found not only one dollar, but two dollars and fifty-five cents.

And so we each got our own cup of coffee, and each with a flavored shot. And even though in better times I can afford to be more discerning in my coffee choices, that day, with two dollars and fifty-five cents, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee was delicious.

To New “Friends” on Facebook and Twitter

I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been accepting friend requests from law professors. Folks perhaps that I met on the market, or just colleagues of other professors.

I talk a lot about mental health on here, in particular my own struggle with bipolar II disorder. It’s concerned me a bit to widen my “friends” on here as I’m the most junior of junior scholars. I don’t want me sharing this part of myself with the wider legal academic to mean fewer opportunities going forward.

So many of you who love me have questioned what I do on here, for the same reasons I’ve discussed above. So I have to make a decision. And Ive decided to keep doing what I’m doing. I know there can be professional ramifications. And it’s not that I don’t care. But it’s because it’s too dangerous to not keep doing this.

Over the past 10+ years of being on here and sharing my story and my challenges, at least once a month a friend dms me asking for help for themselves or someone they love. And I’m so happy to do so. This struggle is so often fought in the dark, by ourselves. And it shouldn’t be.

I share my story bc I want ppl to know that what I’ve done is possible even with what I’ve been through and go through. And I have only gotten here through a lot of therapy and medications and reflection. And most importantly, people. People who call me and hug me and love on me. People who help me strategize. People who help me figure out if I should ask for more time on a deadline, or tell me what I need to do to get my kids into school or read my work and put up with my overblown devastation.

But to get there, I have to be honest. Its not me saying “oh I just need to be myself.” There are a lot of other parts of me that I don’t share on here. But this part is important to me. So if there is a law professor on here that will think less of me either for my mental health challenges or because I share them, please unfriend me. No hard feelings.

Me and Fear and Flying

I’m in fear.

Afraid.

Terrified.

Scared.

I’m supposed to be happy, flying, resting on a cloud of gumdrops and jelly beans.

Celebrating.

Elated.

I have a GREAT job, the job I most wanted when I was on the job market.

For the first time in my life, I can go to the grocery store without my calculator.

I am in the midst of writing something I really care about. (This blog post of course I care about, but I mean my professional writing). I don’t ever again have to write about anything I don’t care about.

I have two excellent opportunities to get this piece published in two different forms and in front of key people in my field.  I know how important it is for me to write this first year in the academy. But the deadlines for these two pieces are very tight.

So today I went all in for the first time since moving to LA — I bought a desk and a chair and a printer for home. For ten hours it’s been me and my computer and my freshly printed pages. I must have gotten hungry, but I didn’t eat. I remember feeling tired, but I didn’t sleep.

New projects are exciting and exhilarating. Waiting for expression are all those thoughts and ideas. In my mind’s eye I can see and feel the paper writing itself. Today, I felt it was my job to get it all done, get it all done today.

For some, that type of intensity might be okay. Maybe the most successful and productive people in the academy work that way. It very well might be okay for someone without my history. But it’s not okay for me.

I know what triggers hypomania for me. When I get stuck on one thing, my mind moves faster than my fingertips. I do what I did today — I stop eating. I stop sleeping. I write one sentence over and over again . . . .  the proverbial perfect becomes the enemy of the proverbial good. When I realize I’m moving but not going anywhere, I crash. And then instead of doing too much, I do nothing. I don’t even get out of the bed.

Does not help that guilt on two (or six) feet are chattering in my ears, bursting through the bedroom door ever so often. I’m hearing… mom, mommy, mama . . . “you never go bike riding with us…” (we just got the bikes a few days ago) and “all you do is work…” (actually not for like the last month) and “I’ve hardly seen you all day…” (that’s because you’ve been in your room watching YouTube with your headphones on, but I’m the one who is ignoring everyone?)… 

My mind is talking too . . .  “if you don’t get it out right now, you’ll lose it” . . . “you know you have a lot of prove, right?” . . . “don’t make these people regret hiring you” . . . “you’re black and a woman and a mom and you have to work harder and longer” and my mind is so much quicker than my kids and I can’t think of any good comebacks.  

I’m being tested. I’ve been here before. Every other time I’ve been here — finishing my dissertation, writing my job talk paper — I’ve engaged in unhealthy behavior and habits. I did work all day. I did forget to eat. I did not exercise. And I let those kids guilt me about not spending enough time with them.

I want to say “not this time.” I want to be just strong enough to know that the idea that’s been there for months won’t disappear overnight. I want to be strong enough to know that I do have more to prove, but I’ve been proving myself my entire life. I want to be strong enough to know that I didn’t get this job by the skin of my teeth. I want to be strong enough to know that kids believe the world revolves around them…and it really truly does not.

I don’t know if I’m that strong yet. I do not know. But instead of working on that paper, I’m writing here. Instead of working, I’m about to paint my toes. Instead of working I’m going to take a long shower and watch Law and Order and eat ice cream.  

And right now, at this moment, perhaps as they felt my energy calm down, as I write this, my three amigos are quietly sitting at the base of my bed, happy to be in my orbit, watching Beat Shazam. And I’ve come in second place as I played on my phone.

As it should be.

Black Boy’s Tears, Part III (the conclusion)

Parts I and II here.

He looks at me, clear-eyed. “Mommy, I have hope.”

***

Now, I have hope too.

Now, I know I have Bipolar II Disorder, a “milder” version on the mania side of Bipolar I disorder, but more intense on the depression side of Bipolar I disorder. Right now, I take three medications, a combination of mood stabilizers and other things to adjust my brain chemicals. But I still get sad, and sometimes profoundly so. The doctor and I will change my medications, although it’s is all a guessing game, changing medications to see which work. When I feel good, we stay with the current cocktail. If I feel too high or too low, we change dosages or medications altogether. Unfortunately, the side effects are constant, whether it’s a persistent nausea or tiredness or random swelling or slowly creeping weight gain. Nevertheless, whatever the combination, I will take medications for the rest of my life. And I am okay with that.

I’m almost ten years removed from the hospital, but over 25 years in the struggle. But I have persevered. I have three beautiful, healthy children. I finished grad school with two advanced degrees. My marriage is amazing. And I’m soon to start my dream job.

My boy, the one who made me a mama, he’s getting there. I informed his teachers of my concerns and got reports from them. They haven’t noticed a change. They note that he’s quiet but always respectful, and that has not changed. I’ve charged them to continue to be vigilant about him.

Why? Because black children under 12 commit suicide at twice the rate of white children. I was one of those black kids who wanted to die. While it’s very rare for a young child to take their own life, to die by suicide, it happens more often among children who look like my son than children who don’t. And a child with a parent with a mental illness is more likely to have a mental illness than a child who does not have said parent. He might be like me.

But he’s also not like me. Sooo unlike me. I obsess about everything; he takes life in stride. I feel pressure to be perfect; he responds to incentives, but if he does not make it, it never seems to crush who he knows himself to be. I’ve strived my entire life to make others happy; he does not, but not because he does not care about other people’s feelings. In fact, he’s one of the kindest people I know. But he deals with other’s disappointments about him as their problem, and not his. I hold onto hurt and pain; he lets things come and then go. He is free.

But he’s unlike me in another way, a more dangerous way. He’s a boy. A black boy. I know how we socialize our black boys. I know that the world tends to see them as older than they are, so that while they are playing Pokemon and fighting about the rules for four square (true story), the world sees my 12-year-old black boy as a man. A black man, someone to be feared.

And we, as parents, as elders, often treat these black boys as adults in pint-sized bodies. We expect them to understand their emotions like an adult would, even though we know adults are terrible at understanding their emotions. We expect them to keep those emotions in check, and we especially want that from our boys. We tell them “man” rules, especially the one that says, “Boys don’t cry.” “Don’t be a sissy.” “Stop acting like a girl.”

In my house, in my arms, my boy can cry. He can cry as much and as loud as he wants to.

Right now, I do not know if he is depressed. Maybe it is depression. Maybe it’s not. In either case, it’s my job to be present, to notice his ups, and to discern a true down. It’s my job to know that if I yell at him because his homework isn’t done and he starts tearing up, it’s likely not depression but rather the knowledge that he’s about to lose his electronics.

Depressed or not, I want him to know that he is protected, that he is cared for, and that I will do anything and everything to keep him safe. That’s what I wanted when I was a sad, depressed kid. I wanted someone to be on that subway platform with me, grabbing me in their arms, making it hard for me to move because of all the loving they were doing on me. I wanted someone to pull me back from that edge. Now, I know how to be that person for me. And, because of it all, now I know how to be that person for my boy.

Black Boy’s Tears, Part II

Part I here.

He’s crying again. It’s not bedtime today, so I grab him and pull him into my arms and sit on the couch with him. I ask what’s wrong, expecting the same, one word: “Nothing.” I get more than that, though. “Nothing…maybe it’s depression.”

“Maybe it’s depression.” When I was 12, I had no idea what “depression” was. I knew what pain and ache and heartbreak were, but not “depression.” So I was surprised to hear those words from his mouth. I asked him how he knew that word, what “depression” was. “School,” he said. School. Right.

One thing I love about my children’s school is their willingness to be honest and direct with their students. They have the conversations that parents are sometimes unwilling or uncomfortable to have: personal hygiene, mental health, sex, abuse. I do my best to make sure I agree with the teachings, not in a moral sense, but more to make sure the messages they are receiving are positive – that sex isn’t a bad thing, but is an experience they should wait to have; that any touch that you don’t like is, by definition, a bad touch; that mental illness is a challenge one that they should take seriously, as seriously as a broken foot, that girls don’t belong to boys and boys need to respect the word “no.” I could tell, from his words, that he knew to be concerned when tears fell without an external reason beyond a general sense of sadness.

I paused and tried to speak. But the only words that felt right to say were words I was not ready to say. But he was ready to hear them. “When you were three and your sister just about a year-and-a-half, I spent a week in the hospital because I was so depressed, I had no hope.”

***

“March, 2009. I drove you and your sister to daycare, came home, and sat on my couch, staring out the window. That morning, like most mornings, I imagined driving my car into the tall, thick trees that lined the route from the daycare back to home. Not with you or your sister in the car, because I loved you too much. But I thought about making that decision but when alone, after leaving you with a woman I trusted beyond belief.

In the months prior, I found myself in a flutter of activity. I was a second-year graduate student, and I was writing a thesis. I also fancied myself a new burgeoning singer, singing background for an up-and-coming artist in Oakland. Twice a week I drove an hour to Oakland and an hour back home, spending 2-3 hours singing. The nights I was not in Oakland, I was at Starbucks, staring at a screen, writing the same two pages over and over, until the coffee shop closed. I was your mother, you were two toddlers at home. But I was always moving, moving, moving.

And then, suddenly, I crashed. I stopped singing, sending a text message apologizing for my mistake. I stopped writing, ignoring the emails from my advisors and my department. I stopped doing everything, everything except sleeping. I stopped washing, brushing my teeth, doing my hair. I got up, took you to daycare, came home, got in the bed, woke up, picked you up, waited for daddy to get home, got in the bed. I dreaded time alone with you guys; you needed so much and I had nothing to give.

By this time, I knew this was depression. I’d been in therapy for years, talking through my issues, beginning at sixteen, through college, and during when I was pregnant with you. But this feeling, this “I don’t want to be here” feeling was not as familiar. It was the “stand on the edge of the subway platform” feeling. But I had two beautiful black little children. And while I wanted the pain to stop, I did not want to leave you. But everything in my body wanted to jump back in that car, slam on the gas, and drive it straight into the closest tree. I was terrified.

So, that one morning in March 2009, I sat on my couch and I decided. I decided to live, but I needed help to do so. I did not trust myself to be alone. So, I canceled my psychiatry appointment. I called my best friend. “I need you to come and get me and take me to the hospital.” Over and over again, I begged her to come and get me. I could not explain why. I just needed to go. She did not understand me. I told her to just come. “Please just come and take me.”

She wanted to stop and get Daddy. I did not think I could face him. How to face a man who loved you beyond belief that you need to leave him with two babies because you are afraid you are going to drive into a tree? How did that make any sense? We stopped on the way to pick up him up anyway. He was so worried, and I could not say anything like, “it’s going to be okay.” Because it wasn’t okay, I was not okay.

The emergency room is the last place I think anyone in a mental health crisis should go. “What’s the problem, ma’am?” I heard from a representative, the person that takes your insurance card and identification. The question came out flat, spoken from someone who has been dealing with “emergencies” all day. “I want to die.” She barely registered that I had said anything. She made no eye contact while she just typed. She took my cards, made copies, gave them back. “Someone will be right with you,” she says.

The triage nurse was not much better. “What’s going on?” she asked. “I want to die.” “What do you mean?” “What I just said.” “Have you thought about how to do it?” “Yes. Please do not send me home. I need to stay.”

My friend went home, needing to care for her own children. The nurse requested a police officer. They place a police officer there to make sure you don’t do anything crazy. He sat and watched me as I sat on the ER bed, surrounded by a curtain for privacy but open so he could see me. Other cops came and went, joking with the posted cop. Although they are probably were not, I thought they were laughing at me.

My psychiatrist, a university doctor in the student health center, came to see me. Honestly, I do not know why. He was not helpful. The graduate family coordinator came to the hospital as well. Their pity was palpable. It made me angry. It made me cry.”

Long story short, I tell my boy that I went to that hospital because I had no hope. I did not think I could be a good mother anymore. I did not think I could be a good wife or a good friend. I thought I would be better off not here anymore. The pain was too much. I had no hope.

He looks at me, clear-eyed. “Mommy, I have hope.”

***

Now, I have hope too.

(to be continued — Part III)

The Day of No Shame

(I usually don’t post two things in one day, but I forgot about putting this here.)

#NoShameDay

Before the day is over, I wanted to recommit myself to having zero shame about my mental health struggles. I have Biploar II disorder, which means less intense manic episodes than Bipolar I disorder, but often even deeper depressions than those with Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar I. I was diagnosed in 2009 after over ten years of battling what I thought was “just” depression. The diagnosis came after spending a week in the psychiatric ward at Stanford hospital, after I had a hypomanic episode followed by a deep depression and suicidal thoughts. I was in the middle of the second year of my joint degree.

Since then, I’ve had other deep depressions with suicidal thoughts. I’ve done intensive outpatient therapy where I went to group sessions every day. The last time I was 9 months pregnant with my third child, attending sessions up until I went into labor. I’ve seen over ten therapists over 20 years. I take 3 mood stabilizers/ anti-psychotic medicines every day to stay stable. I’ve persevered.

Part of that effort has been doing this on here: refusing to allow myself to be ashamed. Of course, many days I do feel ashamed. I’m so sad that I don’t do things with my kids, I feel bad when I sleep more than I “should,” when the papers aren’t coming out right or I have an off day teaching. Right now, I’m lonely on the inside even with so many lovely folks coming out to support me here in LA. That sucks and I feel silly and I feel ashamed. Most people don’t have anywhere near the support I do.

But I remind myself — and I’m reminding you — that mental illness is that — an illness. I have nothing to be ashamed about. I didn’t choose this. It’s not a part of my character. But it has made me more determined to stay healthy. And to have a passion to help others who are struggling.

#NoShameDay