Living With Bipolar Disorder: One Black Woman Shares Her Story

I have always been a person that was sort of flighty. I never wanted to conform to anything or any group of people when I was younger. I always fought hard for my independence from my family and from friends as well. For carrying out this attitude and way of thinking, I have had the sign of “CRAZY” placed around my neck by a number of people, be they family or friends. I never thought of myself as crazy, until a few days after I had my daughter.

I gave birth to my first child when I was about 21 years old. I loved being pregnant and had a ball with thought of being a new mommy and starting a new life with my then fiancé. I finally gave birth after being over 3 weeks past due and had my little girl that I knew I was going to have from the first moment I was told that I was pregnant. The second night in the hospital, I found myself crying like a mad woman, for apparently no good reason. During that same night, I had my first panic attack. I requested that only certain nurses touch my daughter, and that my fiancé sleep when I was awake and vice versa. I should have known something was wrong with me then, but was constantly told that it was just the “baby blues” and that it would all pass when I got home and got some rest.

After being at home for a month with my baby, we had a very violent thunderstorm in my town. I remember the storm because I had to take my fiancé to work and had my new baby in the car. The next thing I remember, I was pulling up to the hospital parking lot looking for a spot to park in. The fear of the storm drove me into some seriously dangerous and irrational behaviors. I would have moments in time, when crying was the order of the day and in some cases, the order of the week. I would then get bursts of energy that would lead me into doing things that were both silly and in some cases dangerous and destructive on a personal level. I would become a daredevil in my car, driving at speeds that would make anyone question my sanity. I would drink dangerous levels of alcohol and because I was on this “high” I never felt I was drunk or could get drunk. I paid dearly for that each morning I awoke. I went on for two years doing things like this, all while taking care of my daughter and preparing to get married.

After the wedding and learning that I was pregnant with my son, the highs and lows got worse. I started hearing voices and became extremely paranoid. At my lowest point, I spent three weeks in the bed, with my head under the covers, only coming out to have my husband give me a bath or shower and to attempt to eat. It was at this time, that he made the hard decision to put me into the hospital for observation. We were blessed to have his mother, who took both of our children and kept them until we found out what was wrong with me.

After being evaluated, I was diagnosed with severe depression and bipolar disorder. It was at that moment, that every voice I had ever heard call me crazy came back to me. I started to look at that word in a totally different manner. Did they see this in me before I did? Did they know I was not mentally well?

The road of mental health treatment has been a rocky one for me. I have been on just about every mental health medication known to man. Some of them lead me to feel better on a temporary basis; others made me even sicker than I already was. Today, I take nothing and instead opt for behavioral approaches to modify my swings of mood. I have also learned my triggers and have worked very hard to get over the irrational thoughts and fears that haunted me all of my life, but especially during this 12 year time span.

It was during that time, that I learned a few things about dealing with mental health issues.

1. You cannot pray this away!!!!!!!!!!! I know people will get mad at me for saying this, and that’s fine, but the fact is that you cannot pray depression away from you. Prayer and meditation have been known to work to help clear the mind for some who are dealing with depression and other mental health issues, but prayer alone will not cure you.

2. Listening to people tell you that nothing is wrong with you will set you up for failure in treatment. My mother was convinced that I was “just acting” and I needed to pull myself together. Even as I sat in the hospital in the psych ward, she was convinced that it was all an act and that “we” don’t have all these problems. She also managed to make my weight an issue as well. (I eventually had her removed from my visitors list!)

3. Black folks have to drop the attitude and stigma behind mental health care. I found that a number of the nurses on the psych floor who were black acted as though the white girls in my ward were actually sick, but gave me a totally different set of treatment. I guess their attitude is that, white women are supposed to be weak, but we are supposed to be stronger than this. The fact is that we suffer from mental illness in our community in large numbers and we tend to go untreated because we dismiss things as being crazy. That word is dismissive and a great way to not have to deal with someone or their issues.

4. Good alternative treatments our out there, but you have to be your own advocate. I know a great deal of people have issues with taking pills and I am one of them. There are a number of really wonderful techniques that are designed to treat depression and other mental illnesses that have nothing to do with medication. Medication is needed in some cases, but there are other options that can be used to help you need less medication. Being your own advocate and educating yourself is the key.

5. THIS IS A REAL ILLNESS!!!! Mental illness is just like high blood pressure, diabetes and any other physical illness that we suffer with in our community. We must realize to better serve our own needs and get the adequate help that we need.

Today, I am studying different methods of treatment with out medication in order to assist myself in coping with day to day issues. I still have my highs and lows, but they are not nearly as dangerous to me or my family. I have learned to notice when they are coming and deal with them before they happen. I still have to take medication for anxiety, but that is on an as needed basis, which is a far shot from where I was 12 years ago. Every day, it gets easier and easier to live and laugh and mean it.

I share this story to let black women know that there is help for you. If you feel you need assistance, there are a number of really good web sources you can turn to for help. The first step is reaching out for help, as with any other illness, you need to consult your doctor and start the process. Things will get better, with hard work and determination, you can learn to live with this and still have a productive and wonderful life.

Michelle is a Midwestern girl, with a Southern heart and a bit of an eccentric streak running through her. Along with being a wife and mother of 2, she also wears the hats of student, counselor, life coach,cook, friend and occasional matchmaker, all while keeping a Zen like approach to life and all that comes with it. Balance and comedy are the keys to keeping life interesting and livable and she has ALMOST mastered both.

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