I am a black lesbian with bipolar. Coming out as a lesbian was easier than coming out with bipolar. Although my friends were surprised and queried whether or not I was bisexual, they never had the audacity to tell me that I wasn’t a lesbian. But I have had to struggle to convince my loved ones that I am bipolar. One of the misconceptions about people with bipolar is that we are in a constant state of mania. But most manic depressants are chronically depressed. Additionally, mania manifests differently for people: some might get euphoric and avoid sleep for nights on end and others just rage with poor impulse control.
I spent thirty years battling suicidal depression, mood swings, and fits of rage. My parents watched cautiously as I went through the house punching out windows with my bare fists. They never spoke with me about my flare-ups. The only time they reacted was when I was too depressed to get out of bed. They were distraught that I was not performing my chores, so my father was sent to pound on my bedroom door, threatening to break it down if I didn’t get up. My teachers knew something was troubling a seventh grader who pounded her head with textbooks when she was stressed, yet they brushed me aside like broken glass and tagged me as a behavioral problem. It’s common for blacks with a mental disorder to be misunderstood. A psychiatrist at Howard University interviewed for a story in The Washington Post about black men and mental health noted, “They are much more likely to be viewed as having a behavioral problem rather than a mental disorder.” In fact, by the time blacks are diagnosed with a mental disorder they are in prison and the diagnosis is erroneous.
It wasn’t easy accepting my diagnosis. I denied it for a long time. But when I finally did, I realized that to shed the lingering shame I had to come out to my friends. The stigma of mental illness was so intense that many of them fell silent. I felt like I was a child again. And the ones who spoke, stunned me with their responses: “Oh, you’re not bipolar!” and “I know somebody with bipolar and she’s really crazy.” What really bothered me was their unwillingness to accept that I was bipolar—especially since they were all aware of the chaotic trajectory of my emotional life. What was it about this illness—or me that made them think I couldn’t have it? Why couldn’t I be black and bipolar?
I read an article in the Austin Weekly News that set me on the path to understanding the widespread misconceptions about black mental health. The story was about a theater company in Chicago using theater as therapy to minimize the stigma of bipolar in black communities. After one of the participants told her mother she was hurting herself because she had a mental illness, her mother retorted, “This is not something black girls do. This is something white girls do. If you want to do this, if you want to act crazy, then fine: you’re grounded.” The notion that mood disorders are a white person’s illness is a racially biased phenomena created by white psychiatrists in the U.S. and it has an insidious history that has been difficult to defeat.
There is a considerable body of research on the racial and cultural disparities of misdiagnosing blacks with mental illness, dating back to the 1970s. The most pervasive trend is the systematic misdiagnosis of blacks with paranoid schizophrenia rather than bipolar and affective disorders. Misdiagnosing someone with schizophrenia when they are bipolar has many risks. When the appropriate treatment and prescription is delayed, the symptoms become chronic and can lead to rapid cycling, which is a very difficult form of bipolar to treat.
Though there have been numerous investigations on the topic, they have not been comprehensive. Some argue the misdiagnosis is caused by racial and cultural biases among white clinicians, others say it is the stigma of mental illness in black communities which causes blacks to avoid seeking treatment and when they finally do, their mania takes on a schizophrenic appearance. And, the rest claim, that since the DSM does not consider the connections between culture, race, and mental illness, the instruments used as sign posts for symptoms and classifications are warped.
However, the most disturbing pattern in these interrogations is the inexcusable lack of data on black women. I could barely find any studies on black women and mental health, regardless of their sexual preferences. In fact, this trend of excluding black women exists in studies about mental health in LGBTQ communities as well. Most of the focus has been on gay black men. The information that is available about black women and bipolar or mood disorders comes mostly from personal testimonies of public figures: a model Dawn Montgomery spoke about being Bipolar in Essence Magazine, the late writer BeBe Moore Campbell wrote a book about a story of a mom with bipolar disorder, “Sometimes My Mom Gets Angry,” and actress Jenifer Lewis came out about her bipolar on Oprah.
Perhaps, as June Jordan once wrote, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” If we don’t sound off, who will? Our silence and shame will not protect us, as Audre Lorde echoed so eloquently. So, that it why I am speaking. I am sharing my story to break the silence and challenge the stigma and to broaden the discourse on black women’s mental health and the realities of being a black lesbian with bipolar, which has its own distinctiveness. I often wonder if I didn’t present as a tough masculine woman, would my friends be less invalidating of my life-long illness. Or will I always have to endure the chorus of, “Oh gurl, you’re not bipolar! You just need to meditate.”