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I just read an article on the Root that shifted something for me. It’s called “Being Bipolar Means Always Having To Say, ‘Um … what’s your name again?,” by Danielle C. Belton (who is also the editor of The Root btw). It just cuts right through to me, and not just because I really do have a hard time remembering names. The thing is, when I was diagnosed with bipolar II a few years ago, I didn’t really have any way of relating that information to myself. In fact, it seemed a little comical how quickly the psych doctor diagnosed me. And I was still not so convinced. I had been reluctant to make an appointment in the first place because to me, from inside the shitty castle of bipolar depression, the real problem was that I was irredeemably bad, and the very fact that I was breathing air that somebody better could use seemed like a good reason to kill myself. In fact, the day before my first appointment with the psych doctor, I called my mom and said, “You know, I think I’m going to cancel that appointment tomorrow. I figured out what’s wrong with me. I’m just really, really stupid. That’s all.”

I had a narrow idea of what bipolar could look like thanks to 1) flat-handed, lazy, manic pixie dream girl-esque characters in movies 2) the fact that every serial killer or baddy in a true crime show is “diagnosed” (even if it’s only suspected by others) as bipolar 3) perzines I read in the ‘90s where bipolar was described as a flattening cosmic force that made it impossible to function in any basic way at all. I couldn’t possibly be bipolar; I went to work on time. I never struggled to hold down a job. I had two masters degrees. None of these things seemed to square with the image I had, so it was hard to think there was any help for me. I only agreed to get help when a friend a lot like me (sober a few years, especially) said, “You sound like me. I’m bipolar, and I always went to work on time.”

Anyway, back to Danielle Belton: She brilliantly lists some of the seemingly small-stakes things impacted by her bipolar, including not being able to remember names due to being mentally all-hands-on-deck for dealing with all these other daily fears which intrude. Or having a debilitating response to an unanswered text message. And for real, I share these experiences and have never considered their possible connection to bipolar. I feel this huge relief, just from recognizing some of myself. It gives me good evidence to treat some of those aspects of my life as impersonal, i.e. not evidence that I’m pathetic and need to be fixed. And for that I need all the evidence I can get, because my brain will manufacture evidence to the contrary, even when I discipline my thoughts. I can imagine this is even more powerful for black people with similar brain issues, given the disparity in stigma, even stigma against therapy.

On a day-to-day basis, I don’t think of myself as bipolar, in part because I have really good access to treatment, and writing full-time gives me the tremendous luxury of being able to do all of the things that keep me well (btw it is a LOT of things), and the ability to deal with depressions without being afraid that I’ll lose my job because I can’t stop crying. And in some ways, I’ve treated that invisibility as a sign of health. (Plus you know those esoteric circles I trifle with are all about “don’t identify with ur disease” and that makes some sense to me, too.) But I still slip back into thinking that I’m desperately fucked up when duh, bipolar might explain some of what’s going on.

More than that, though, Belton’s article opens up this way that being transparent can help somebody else, because damn did she help me today. (Especially about the text messages. God, the panic attacks I have had over no-response text messages, combined with the ruthless self-shaming for being so sensitive.) And me, I’m the queen of seeming FINE. Or better than fine, fantastic. And I am fantastic, but it isn’t because my smile doesn’t crack. Thank you, Ed-in-Chief Belton, for writing this.

Sarah Smith