Mental Illness Is Not “A White Person Disorder”
Words: Nadiyah as told to Anthonia Akitunde
A 30-year-old nursing student living with bipolar and posttraumatic stress disorder shares her experience.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and all this week we have shared articles and resources highlighting the need for women of color to focus on mental health. We've all heard how our communities are the least likely to seek treatment for mental illness; according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one reason for that is a lack of information and a misunderstanding of mental illnesses. Some people believe mental illness doesn't exist, dismissing and ignoring the pain of those who live with mental health issues.
In order to confront those biases and misconceptions, we talked to two women living with mental illness who were willing to share their stories. (You can read “I Just Want To Wake Up And Not Be Sad Anymore” here.) These are just two of countless stories out there—we hope their stories remind those who are living with mental illness that they are not alone.
Trigger warning: This article discusses suicide attempts and drug use in detail.
For as long as I can remember—as early as four, maybe earlier—there were voices. There were sounds and sometimes there were whispers, sometimes shadows. As a kid I had obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. I was a little neurotic, and I think it was chalked up to me being a gifted kid.
When I would say "I hear voices," people would laugh it off and say, "Ooh, don't say that. They'll tell you you're crazy!" It didn't become apparent until I was 14 that this was serious.
I Was So Sick I Didn’t Realize I It
It was hard to concentrate because I had so much noise and chaos going on in my head. I would act out because I was frustrated.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2002. The thing with bipolar disorder is that it mimics a lot of other illnesses, so it often gets misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. In my case I was misdiagnosed a couple of times before I got the diagnosis. The symptoms had always been there, but they weren't severe until my first breakdown in April 2001. The first breakdown and suicide attempt happened all on the same day. I was 14.
Nothing really set off my first breakdown. [I] was just steadily unraveling for several months to a year. There were a lot of things coming together. It was the extreme noises in my head—the voices were at their peak, there were so many. I got picked on one time too many in class, I was anxious, I wasn't sleeping, my home life had never been good. There was a lot of stress. I didn't know it at the time, but I was going back and forth between mania and depression.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was going back and forth between mania and depression.
September came, along with the second suicide attempt and breakdown, and by October, I was committed again. I was trying to get off my meds because I thought I was well, but sometimes you can be so sick you don’t realize you’re sick. I just continued to go downhill until April of 2002, when it became apparent to me that the medicine I was on was not working. We finally found a place in Charleston where I got the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t come until my 20s.
“You Just A Child”
I had a support system, but it was flawed. The way my family treated me changed. My little brother is 16 now; we’re 13 years apart, so he was really little then. They suddenly didn’t want me alone with him.
I remember cousins telling me, "Ain't nothing really wrong with you. What you got to be stressed out about? You just a child. That ain't nothing but the devil. You need to pray more." And I was like, “I can't will this away. I've tried.”
I don't want to take anything away from my mother because she was supportive. She was on it: finding me help, doctors, some treatment plan. But a lot of times she didn't listen to what I was saying as far as what I thought my treatment should be. She would say, "Well, you don't know. Just do what they tell you to do."
I'm glad I had my family, because I don't know how I would've fared if I didn't. It took a long time to learn how to stand up for myself and how to cope with people not understanding. In high school, I experimented with pills and other drugs, but I had no money so I would huff the butane out of my cigarette lighter.
I wish I could go back and comfort my younger self and say, "There is hope. And it's better than this. There is light at the end." (Tears up) But when you're in the middle of it, it's like standing in the middle of a tornado. All you see is just chaos around you. There is no peace, there is no calm. What they don't tell you is when you have a mental illness, you have to create those things for yourself because your brain has quite literally turned against you. You can't even trust it. And that is something that's very hard to cope with: Your mind didn't mean to turn against you, but you can work with it and learn how to trust yourself and trust your instinct.
A lot of my health now is based on instinct and just a lot of self-reflection over the years and really learning what makes me tick. That took years—I mean years—to get to that point. And even once I got to that point, there are days where I still struggle with that.
Too Close To See The Pain
I recently had to go in for a med adjustment because I was in the early stages of unraveling, and I knew I needed to get a fix on it. My psychiatrist said, "You present so well!" And I said, " I've learned how to hide it."
I do remember times where I would just be so despondent over what I was going through, and I would be told, "Crying and having a pity party—that's not going to help you."
I don’t want to be weak or a bother to other people. I would much rather be in a position of helping others instead of being helped. A lot of times, especially as a teenager, I felt like I couldn't show any of what I was feeling because it made other people around me uncomfortable. I had to bend to them.
I would say I've probably been living the strong Black woman archetype to some extent, but I've never seen myself in it—probably because I was too close to it. I’ve always been expected to just get over it; I’ve never been able to just sit down and say, “I can't do this. I need a minute.”
Guidance Through The Darkness
It wasn't until I got into my 20s and I started meeting different types of people that I was allowed to figure it out. They sat and rested with me.
I have three friends. (Laughs) I have associates, but those three are my ride-or-dies. We would do anything for each other and have. I would not be sitting here if it weren't for them. People use that hyperbole all the time; in my case it's absolutely true. That third suicide attempt was in 2010. I remember the last voice I wanted to hear was my friend John’s*. At the time he was in college [two to three hours away]. I called and said, “John, I can't do this anymore. I'm ready to go.”
I’ve always been expected to just get over it; I’ve never been able to just sit down...
He begged me—”No, don't do this. You've come so far, I need you.” I said, “John, you would be better off without me. I'm tired, I'm going to lie down.” He said, “You're not going to hurt yourself, are you?”
“No, I'm not going to hurt myself.”
That was a lie. I hung up with him, went in my bathroom, and took everything I could find: My prescribed medication, over-the-counter medication—I was determined to go. I remember going down the hall, starting to feel woozy. I called him back and I told him what I did. I said, “I'm calling to tell you goodbye. You're the last voice I want to hear. I love you so much.”
I remember walking into the woods behind my house, and I said, No one is going to find me. I am done with this.
Meanwhile he called the sheriff's department, which notified the sheriff's department where I live, who sent an ambulance and officers out to my house to find me. They found me, and they got me to the hospital. John saved my life from three hours away.
I was entirely irrational, I recognize that, but at the time I was really upset that he interfered with my plans to exit the world. I didn't speak to him for a month. And then when I did, it was to say “thank you.” Thank you for pulling me out of my grave.
When you decide that the pain is too much and you want to leave, that is your lowest moment. A lot of people like to say that suicide is the coward's way out. In a sense it is, but making the decision is terrifying. You're scared as you're actually preparing to do it, and you're scared while you're doing it. In your mind you're thinking death is going to be better, but you're also not sure if it's going to be more of what you're trying to escape from. You're stepping out on faith that it will be better. And that is heartbreaking.
Starting To See The Light
I have so much now; I wasn't well enough to have it before. I have a good support system; I have a psychiatrist that I very much like. A large part of why I'm in nursing school now is because of my friend Julia*. She saw the light when I did not. Little by little, she pushed me toward it. John has always believed that I can do it, and Lisa*—she's that type of person, she just knows, honey. (Laughs)
I do live with my mother and my younger brother. It's not always the best, but she is the first line because she's here. And I really have to give her credit for what she has done in her own way, for the best that she was able to do.
I feel great. I have that apprehension, because every time I announce that I feel great, some shit goes wrong. (Laughs) But in all seriousness, I am at the best that I have been in my life. I'm back in school; my first foray into college did not work out at all. Now I'm at a technical college attempting to get into the nursing program.
The light is out there and it will come to you—it just takes time.
I'm on disability because in 2010 I just lost it and was unable to work. I struck out on a huge leap of faith, applied to school, got in, and started doing well. My GPA is high, I'm in an honor society. I have friends who love me, they are family. I love them. I work in the summers at a special needs camp. Things are good for me. I'm now even strong enough to help my friends who pulled me through my darkest time when they’re going through things. I'm in a very good place. I'm strong and I never thought I would be here.
“You Are Not Alone”
The first thing I would say to a Black woman who is suffering from mental illness is that you are not alone. The second thing I would say is this is real. In the beginning I would say to myself, I don't need these meds, I can be ok. No—it's a real medical condition, and it's serious. And it is not just something white people get. I have heard that in my life: "You're not white, that's for them."
Chemical imbalances in your brain can happen to anybody. It is something that happens to Black women and their families. We can't continue to think that this is a white person disorder because then we don't get the care that we need. And self-care is very important. If you have to say to somebody, “I don't want to be in a situation because it's hard for me,” then you say those words and go about your business.
Hope is possible, but you have to work at it. The willpower is necessary, but you can't will disorders away. What you can do is will yourself to survive, to cope, and to live.
I would say to any other woman going through this that it does not decrease your womanhood, it does not decrease your strength. It doesn't make you any less Black. It just means you're sick. It's no different from having diabetes or cancer; it is an illness, and it can be treated.
Psychiatry and mental health is a black and white situation. If you feel like your therapist or psychiatrist is not for you, then they are not for you. If you can't trust them or if you don't like them as a person, it's not going to work. You have to open up completely to your core and show all of the wounds, all of the scars, all of the brokenness. It is a work in progress; you keep going until you can find somebody that you can trust who is going to help you. If you feel like a medication isn't for you, communicate that with your therapist, and if they're not receptive to what you're saying, then you need to find someone who is. Because it is your body.
The light is out there and it will come to you—it just takes time. I'm doing great, and I will continue to do great. And if I happen to slip, it's ok, because I'm not going to fall very far. And if I do, I can get back up and do it again, because I've already done it.
* Names have been changed to protect the subject and her loved ones’ anonymity.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for international resources to help.
This post is a part of our Mental Health Awareness week. Read on for more stories that address mental health in the Black community.