I’m not bipolar, I’m just traumatized: What I learned about Black womanhood from my misdiagnosis
If bipolar disorder is defined by a series of highs and lows, then the experience of being a Black woman often mimics it precisely.
By Ashley Young
A narrative was erased for me in the summer of 2017 when I was informed by a new doctor that I had been misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was my mental illness narrative, one with which I had become so strongly identified that, when it was stripped away, it occurred more as a shocking disappointment than a relief.
It was a narrative I’d believed I was destined for. I had a history of hospitalizations for what were categorized as mental breakdowns, and because I expressed symptoms of a manic episode—nonsensical rapid speech, inability to keep track of time, complete dissociation and unawareness of where I was, who I was and how I was—and told tales of past frequent depressions, I was diagnosed. Mental illness also runs in my family and my mother is bipolar, so it was only natural, inevitable and expected that I would follow the same path.
Because this mental illness narrative was predetermined not only in my lineage but in the (dys)function of my mind, being diagnosed was a rite of passage. It was a rallying cry to speak up for those who lived in silence with the illness. As a writer, I often wrote about being bipolar. I chose to speak out on this often stereotyped state of mind, telling the true story of how my highs and lows affected my everyday life. I chose to disclose the cocktail of meds I was prescribed, advising my neurodivergent peers on the side effects and the fractured healthcare system that experiments on patients without a set formula.
Not only was I speaking up for other patients, I was speaking up for my mother. I grew up in the aftermath of her moods, affected by both her hyperactive presence and bedridden absence. Speaking up healed a place in my heart that knew the turmoil she suffered having to hide her illness from her employer for 25 years until retirement, apologize to friends she embarrassed with her ramblings and confront the in/effectiveness of her motherhood that was hindered by moods she still struggles to stabilize.
Being diagnosed made me closer to her because it made me one of her. It made me understand what she went through when I was a child, and our conversations about psych wards, prescriptions and therapy bonded us even closer. So when Dr. Rodriguez leaned in to me in his office, with a face that attempted to hold back bewilderment and sympathy, and told me that I was not bipolar, I was in shock.
He gently told me that my mental breakdown was not a bipolar manic episode, it was a drug induced psychotic break influenced by years of trauma. He informed me I was being severely overmedicated, and he advised I stop taking my Lithium immediately. He questioned how I had ever been prescribed Clonazepam as it mimics alcohol exactly, and as someone in active recovery it should have never been considered for my care.
He questioned why I was taking a number of other medications that are typically prescribed for schizophrenia when I was not schizophrenic. He clarified that my diagnosis of complex PTSD was accurate, that highs/lows as well as night terrors and anxiety, all symptoms I’ve had since childhood, mimic bipolar disorder. He explained how easy it was for private doctors to diagnosis their patients with bipolar disorder, administer bizarre concoctions of meds without supervision and perceived that is what had been happening to me for years.
He looked down at his own brown shade as if in acknowledgement of my own, and made a point to tell me that there are very little studies on how these medications affect people of color with culturally influenced childhood trauma, as well as the trauma they receive in the form of racism on a regular basis as they grow into adulthood.
As he watched my body and my mind attempt to meet on common ground to process this new information, he brought in two other professionals to confirm his conclusion. They all looked as if they had done this before, gathered around a mentally drained and distraught body to tell them who they thought they were, who they were told they were, was not so.
They recommended me to a new therapist, one specializing in trauma—a genderqueer person of color who not only understands trauma but the complexities of race and gender as well. I was to begin to slowly come off my meds and accept that I am not, and have not been, bipolar.
I lost a part of myself the day Dr. Rodriguez told me I was misdiagnosed. I lost the ability to say I’m bipolar. I even questioned whether I could continue to align myself with others who were mentally ill. Should I take back every article I’d ever written about my experiences? I had just finished a collection of poems and essays called “Chronicles of Bipolar Living”—would I have to scrap the title or preface the work with a disclaimer about how it’s what I believed at that time? Could I still advocate for folks with the illness without having it myself? Could I still maintain the same connection with my mother being stripped of something that bonded us?
I beat myself up for quite some time for being upset that I was not bipolar. I no longer had to take meds, a combination of seven pills taken twice daily that I had tethered myself to like my life depended on it. I no longer had to fear a mental breakdown or hospitalization unless I relapsed. I no longer had to worry about running out of my prescriptions, being able to afford copays and taking blood tests every six months to make sure my lithium levels were normal.
Finding out that I was misdiagnosed should have been a comfort. Instead, it made me feel as if I had been stripped of one part of my identity and made to face a part that I still struggle with: Being a traumatized, Black person who is still learning to process feelings of sadness, anxiety and loneliness while reconciling with triggers from my past.
There is a reason why this has taken me a year to write. Now that I no longer live with a bipolar diagnosis, I am addressing the trauma I still do live with. Trauma that lives with me housed in my mind, body and everyday moments. I am in Dialectic Behavioral Group therapy, individual therapy and continue to attend recovery meetings. I have been off all of my medication for a year and I have not had a manic episode, nor have I been hospitalized.
I am a Black, genderqueer being with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a history of sexual trauma recovering from drug addict and alcoholism. I do not need medication. I need intense, ongoing counseling, recovery and coping skills.
The questions I asked myself after leaving the doctors office still linger, but theyare now gathering answers.
Yes, I can still advocate for the mentally ill. I know their lives, their experience, their struggles because I come from them and I am them. Yes, I can still write about having a mental illness. Just because I am not bipolar doesn’t mean that my trauma has not reshaped my brain and doesn’t cause me to feel ill. No, I will not be changing the title of my poetry/prose collection because my bipolar life is still defined by a dichotomy of life paths and truths I am still uncovering.
And yes, I have still maintained my connection to my mother because we lived together through the storms of her bipolarity. She has aided me through the weathers of my mind battles and we are forever bonded by those experiences.
I believe I am only able to write this now because I have began to encounter other people of color, specifically women, who were misdiagnosed. If bipolar disorder is defined by a series of highs and lows, of over-expended energy and states of incapacitation, then the experience of being a Black woman often mimics it precisely.
It’s an understatement to say Black women are stressed out. We are overworked with little support and often crash when we no longer have the energy to go on. We experience mania because we have to in order to do everything that is asked of us and then depression when we realize we have nothing left for ourselves.
Many of us are in a heightened state of paranoia, anxiety, rage and agitation because we are forced to live in a world where our bodies are policed, violated and then discarded. I am not saying this to discredit what could be considered legitimate diagnoses of Black people. I’m saying this because if we are being honest about mental illness, most of Black America would meet much of the criteria due to our trauma.
I could go on and on about the socio-political and economic issues that affect these experiences. Very plainly: I’m fucked up. Being misdiagnosed doesn’t make me any less fucked up. I am traumatized. I am proud to say I’m dealing with it everyday with support. And I am proud to say that being stripped of bipolarity will not stop me from writing about it.
Editor’s Note: May is Mental Health Awareness Month and National Masturbation Month. This is also the month that we celebrate Mother’s Day. At BYP, we will be exploring these topics alongside the theme of Imagination and the Arts, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.
Ashley Young (pronouns: they/their) is a Black, Queer, genderqueer writer, educator and tarot reader. They are a contributor for GO Magazine, have been featured in three anthologies and are working on their first novel.