I know a few things about suicide. I’ve never attempted it, but I came close enough.
Still, that doesn’t qualify me to speculate about whether or not actor Lee Thompson Young’s suffered from a mental illness when he allegedly took his own life. But I am disturbed by the conversation surrounding his death — the shock that someone so seemingly successful would kill himself. People with mental illnesses are your neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family - people that are living their lives to the best of their ability each day. People like me.
This summer, I spent a week in a psychiatric ward. Most people do not know that. It’s not information that I include in my everyday conversations. But Young’s story has inspired me to share mine; to dispel the myth that successful people - people that are “put together” - don’t kill themselves.
The day before I checked myself in, I stuffed my overnight bag with two shirts, a pair of jeans and some books. I was only going for a day or two, I thought. Just enough to get over this hump. Making the decision to go the hospital had not been easy. I had a job to think about. I had recently started working as a fellow for a publication I admire. I liked the people I worked with. Now my illness was getting in the way of what I wanted. If I went, I worried that they’d think I was crazy and send me packing before I even settled in good.
But the job wasn’t all that prevented me from going to the hospital immediately. To be completely honest, there was part of me that still thought I could talk myself out of the major depression that was making me indifferent to death.
That was the problem, my depression had made me so indifferent to death, that I started to plan for it. My daydreams had begun to oscillate between “I could slit my wrists” or “Perhaps jumping off my balcony would be better.” I would walk around my Columbia Heights neighborhood in DC and think “If a car hit me, it wouldn’t be so bad”.
The night before I entered the hospital, I called an estranged friend and left her a goodbye message. I set aside all of my important documents, in case my family needed them. I started writing my friends and family goodbye notes. I thought I was on my way out for good. Ever the planner, I didn’t want to leave things undone, even in death. I didn’t want to die, but I wasn’t exactly interested in living either. That’s what depression does — even though life was going as I wanted it to, depression made it impossible for me to enjoy it — or even want it.
I spent five days in George Washington University’s psychiatric ward. After leaving the hospital, I went to the psychiatrist and got a firm diagnosis — Bipolar II Disorder. Being bipolar impacts my entire life. Getting out of bed? Every morning is a struggle. Going to sleep? Sometimes my brain doesn’t shut off. The racing thoughts caused by hypomania can keep me up for hours on end. Losing touch with reality? That has happened. Having Bipolar II Disorder is like being hit by a truck, over and over again, but no one else can see your injuries. Not unlike other mental illnesses, it is not visible and therefore, others do not always empathize.
The stigma surrounding mental illness prevents people from seeking out help and for those already diagnosed, from disclosing their status. In some ways, I’ve lucked out. I am a poet. I am pretty good at it. Enough to get into school to study it. The cards are stacked in my favor — what’s a poet without a mental illness? I’m not interested in living in secret and proverbially “coming out”. I didn’t do anything wrong. If I could bend the chemicals in my brain to my will, I would, but I can’t. Bipolar II Disorder is like a dysfunctional family, I’m never going to get away from it, no matter what I do.
Depression has most often hit me while my life is going as I’d like it to. It’s been two months since my diagnosis, and nearly three months since I checked myself into a psychiatric facility. I’m still learning how to accumulate to life post diagnosis. Part of my self-care is running a blog called Black Girl + Mental Health. I didn’t see myself reflected in the mental health material I was reading online so I decided to create a drop-box of sorts that collected everything I could find on black women and mental illness.
I worry about my peers that are not as lucky as I am to afford medical care or live in supportive communities — those that think they are alone. I can write about my illness because writers like Bassey Ikpi, Danielle Belton and Mychal Denzel Smith have written candidly about their struggles with mental health, and laid the groundwork for me to follow. I would like to pay that forward.