In this post, I’ve decided to highlight a fear that is well understood by many black people and extends to the mentally ill. I also detail why I felt it was important to center the black female experience in this blog. I’ll take you through one of the first experiences I had of being symptomatic in front of others and why it made me want to hide.
Growing up as a black girl in a predominantly white town, I grew up carrying the burden of representation. Atlas style, I felt any public misstep could lead to a white person reconsidering their stance on the KKK. (It’s a phenomena known as the burden of representation, I’m not making this up). So I had two selves, my public self and my real self. I dialed back my blackness to a palatable grey so as not to scare the white folk. That meant no public sightings of me eating watermelon, tempering my voice to a quiet medium (even when the story called for bolstering laughter), and making sure that everyone knew I listened to Lil Wayne AND Paramore. I was made to fear being myself in public because people wouldn’t understand. They could assume the worst and I could end up hurt, arrested, or dead because of it. I grew up with this fear and I learned to live with it. A protective measure.
When I first experienced the symptoms of bipolar disorder my freshman year of college, that learned fear morphed into something darker.
Late in my first semester of college, I was having what I now know to be a mixed episode. For those who aren’t well versed in bipolar terminology, a mixed episode is when you experience depression and mania symptoms at the SAME. DAMN. TIME. Anyway, I was really going through it in my dorm room and my roommate saw this. She was white, from a small town in the south, and we’d already had a number of ‘close calls’ with racism. Now, to be fair, I looked bat shit crazy. I was crying and I had a razor in front of me when she walked in (I was still in my cutting phase). We were both on the soccer team and were supposed to go to practice but I was in no state to sprint on that huge ass field. Cut to three hours later, after practice, my mood was elevated and I was jumping around talking to my sister on the phone. My roommate comes back except this time she’s not alone. One (or two) of my teammates had come with her and started to pack some of her things. I just remember their faces, etched with fear. They were terrified of me. Me, the girl who had cried when I saw a bird with a broken wing drowning in a puddle. Scared of ME, the girl who has apologized to walls after walking into them on more than one occasion. But they weren’t seeing me, they were seeing my illness. And to them, that erased all the other parts of me that they had come to know. The worst of it was, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out if they were that scared just because of my mental illness or if my blackness had sealed the deal.
One of the first stories I heard about a black man with mental illness, ended with his death. He had an anxiety attack that caused him to crash his car. He then, still in crisis, knocked on the door of a stranger to see if he could get assistance and instead of help he was met with a bullet. That story danced in my head when I saw my teammates fearfully packing to get away from my crazy. I bet the man who shot Jelani Manigault felt as justified as they did.
It was then that I realized that I now had two bullseyes on my back. One for my blackness, the other for my mental illness. And that’s when I started to hide. I kept to myself not wanting to give people the chance to misinterpret my crazy as dangerous. And I lied to everyone; doctors and therapists included about symptoms and the like because I didn’t trust them to use that information for my benefit. It was exhausting.
For some, to be black and mentally ill is to know what it’s like to be afraid to be feared, in more ways than one.
To anyone that is experiencing the same fear, I say to you that I understand. Battling mental illness requires vulnerability that, as a black women, I don’t always have the luxury of offering. I haven’t trusted a doctor since the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, and I wasn’t even born yet. I say to you that fear is not unfounded, but it is wholly unhelpful to your treatment.
You need to be vulnerable and truthful in your care but you also need to be in a safe space that allows for it. At some point, I will share with you the tips and tricks I have for curating your care team with varying levels of resources.
PS. Follow my instagram page @bipolarblisss if you haven’t already. I’ll be more active on that platform soon!