Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative
Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative
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What It’s Like to Be a Black Woman with Bipolar Disorder

Editors note: We’re thrilled to bring you a guest post from Fightress Aaron, a Black woman living with Bipolar Disorder I. You can find her blogging, advocating and speaking her truth at www.beautifulblackandbipolar.com

When I received my Bipolar Disorder I diagnosis five years ago, I felt a sense of relief. I was relieved to finally be able to identify the cause of symptoms I’d been experiencing for years. Looking back, the manic episodes peaked during my college years. I excelled in pretty much everything I attempted. I graduated high school in the top of my class with honors. During my collegiate years, I was an English major, Student Government Association President, Resident Assistant, and the reigning beauty queen. Life was grand. Until, it wasn’t.

Early Symptoms and Mania

Now that I look back on my college days, I recognize the symptoms of mania that contributed to my downfall. For instance, the time I moved out of my suite at 2:00 AM because my roommate wanted to sleep during that time. Late nights and early mornings were the norm for me then and remains the same now as I type this at 1:32 AM.

Although I hadn’t received a professional diagnosis at the time, the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder were causing the best days of my life to become my worst. Friends weren’t friends anymore. Those who previously thrived under my leadership, resented me and plotted for ways to overthrow my collegiate reign. By my Senior year of college, all I had left was the student loan debt that still burdens me today. Previous titles now belonged to someone else; someone less ‘bitchy’ and ‘mean’.

At 21 years old, I’d had my first experience of what it was like to be a Black Woman with Bipolar Disorder. I was the poster child for the ‘angry Black woman’ stigma and not by my own choosing. It was easier for my peers to label me than to think there may be a rational explanation for my sudden and sporadic change in behavior.

Life After College

A few years later at 24 years old, I worked as a call center manager. I contribute those who disliked me to my ‘get it done’ attitude. I was so efficient and productive that they couldn’t afford to operate without me.  They tried replacing me several times, only to find that no one would work as hard as I would and with as much efficiency for the same pay. Not even my White male counterpart who was my ‘supervisor’ on paper. I knew my worth and thrived on it.

During a recent social event, I ran into an agent that used to work with me. It’d been over five years since I’d seen her. I immediately asked to speak with her in private and had the opportunity to share the apology that’d been on my heart for years. I apologized for my behavior when I was her manager and jokingly contributed my behavior to a lack of medication, which was true.  She simply smiled and said it was okay. I believed her and knew she’d forgiven me.

I felt an immense amount of relief, but also guilt. Black women are notorious for taking on more than that which is ours to bear. Even now that I knew the cause of my behavior was an untreated mental illness, it still wasn’t enough for me to forgive myself. Being a Black Woman with Bipolar Disorder is feeling the need to constantly apologize for your behavior when the illness contributes to you not being as pleasant to be around.

Stigma in the Black Community

There is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness in the Black and minority communities. Since other races, predominantly Caucasians, are more receptive and educated regarding mental illness, a woman with the same diagnosis and different skin color than mine wouldn’t be met with the ‘angry Black woman’ syndrome. Instead it would be explained that she is having a manic episode and experiencing some irritability which should subside with the proper medication.

However, being a Black Woman with Bipolar Disorder, I am expected to cope and pray away my illness. This despite Bipolar Disorder being the result of a chemical imbalance. It’s still not reason enough for me to catch a break. The only break a Black woman with Bipolar Disorder gets is the one she experiences, i.e. psychotic break, emotional break, mental break.

Hard Work Isn’t Enough

I experienced this firsthand this past summer. Being in a severe manic episode my psychiatrist gave me two options. Either stop working and focus on recovery or choose to recover in a psychiatric facility. I chose to stop working full-time and pursue consistent treatment in order to recover from the episode. Being a Black Woman with Bipolar Disorder is experiencing your employer validating how disposable you are despite years of hard work and commitment to their cause.

Last year, despite explaining my situation, I was dismissed as being ‘lazy’ and having ‘performance’ issues. I was in the middle of a hypermanic episode. My medication wasn’t working to treat my symptoms, and I was missing therapy appointments because of having to work! This still wasn’t enough.

Labels and Misconceptions

Fast forward 9 months later and I am unemployed. Ironically, I still face the same label of being ‘lazy’ that I experienced while employed. Only this time it stems from my being a stay at home mom while in treatment. I have only met two Black stay at home moms in the past 9 months. I know there are more than two Black women, out of the hundreds I’ve met, who statistically speaking suffer from some form of mental illness. However, they press on and continue to work outside the home and struggle with managing their mental wellness. Being a Black Woman with Bipolar Disorder means continuing to work. You place your financial responsibilities above your health, no matter the cost.

Being a Black Woman with Bipolar Disorder is challenging and painful at times. The mental and emotional strain and stress from the symptoms begins to take a toll on you physically, which feeds low self-esteem. Feeling of inadequacy and ‘less than’ consume your thoughts and you’re constantly questioning your worth and existence. It is for these reasons and more that I choose to live my life as Beautiful, Black and Bipolar. I choose to redefine the expectations we as Black women with mental illness set for ourselves.

I challenge us to live from a place of empowerment. To stop apologizing for things which we cannot control. I challenge us to forgive ourselves for the things we can control, but don’t because of the symptoms associated with Bipolar Disorder. I CHALLENGE US TO LIVE AS BEAUTIFUL, BLACK AND BIPOLAR WOMEN!

Fightress Aaron is the founder of the Beautiful Black & Bipolar blog and brand. She was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and ADHD in the fall of 2013.

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