10 Things Bipolar Disorder Is Not

I attended a dinner party the other night. Nothing fancy. I was a friend’s plus-one and was excited for free food and light conversation. The room was mostly filled with my friend’s co-workers, people who I’d met once or twice.

I’d found this particular group loved to gossip … and gossip they did. An uninvested audience to the venting and storytelling, I silently munched on cheese and crackers. Then, the focus shifted to someone they all knew, someone who’d been going through a tough time.

“Oh, her? She’s a complete mess.”

“Yeah, she’s off her meds again. Hahahaha.”

“Ugh. Right!”

They talked so much crap about this woman, highlighting her shortcomings as if they were all perfect and without fault.

More laughter. Knee slapping. Me feeling increasingly agitated. Whatever excitement I entered with had dwindled.

At some point, the topic of Kanye West came up. No one directly mentioned his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, but I gripped my chair tightly and slowed my breathing, bracing myself for the topic to arise, and for the rap superstar to be regarded as someone else ​off their meds​ ​again​.

I often coach myself to “toughen up,” or “let it go” when I’m at social events. I rarely go out much anymore now that I’m a stay-at-home dad. Also, a lot of my friendships burned down during my manic episode last year. I’m aware everyone isn’t actively fighting mental health stigma, but words can hurt. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much for a phrase or a story to snap us back into a negative feeling or down a shame spiral, especially if your life has been impacted by mental illness.

Back to the dinner party. A majority of the people dining that night knew all about my manic break last year because I shared so much of the experience in real time via social media. They’d never brought it up in my presence, but I couldn’t help but wonder: ​have they talked about me like this and the mess I am? Did they make me into a hated pariah when I was at the height of my episode, destroying everything in my path? Have they jokingly referred to me as being off my meds?

I found myself silently defending myself. I assumed no one would turn to me and flat-out ask me about my bipolar disorder, but what if they did? What would I tell them?

People say inaccurate things about mental illness all the time. We live in a world of armchair therapists. So for starters, I’d challenge the misconceptions around it. I still struggle with a lot of these lies about my illness, and you might, too. But, it’s important to face what we’re up against and name the places where we get stuck, the places where we believe things about ourselves that aren’t true.

Here are 10 lies about bipolar disorder we can stop believing.

Bipolar disorder is not:

1. An invitation for anyone to call you “crazy.”

​The word “crazy” is trite and dismissive. It’s a word that’s been used to other people and push them out. It invalidates your experience, and in turn, suggests you’re invalid.

2. How anyone gets to define you.​

I’ve opted to use people-first language as much as possible. For example, I wouldn’t call someone an anxious person. I’d say they’re someone living with anxiety. Saying someone lives with an illness gives them their power back, and allows you to regard them with dignity. People are complex. We’re multi-dimensional and layered. So, it doesn’t make sense to boil a person down to one trait they have, even if it might seem like their most salient quality.

3. An excuse for how you’ve hurt anyone in your life.​

For many people, mania has left a wake of hurt and destruction in its path. But, it’s not an excuse. It doesn’t absolve you of the pain you’ve caused. So, I’ve found it both liberating and important to apologize and take ownership for the things I’ve done that have negatively impacted the people in my life.

4. As an invitation to treat you badly.

Yes, your actions may have caused harm, but you are not a “bad” person. There’s a difference. Guilt says, “What I did was wrong.” Shame says, “I am wrong.”

5. Something that makes you undesirable.​

You can still date if you live with bipolar disorder. Swipe left. Swipe right. You still have qualities that people will find interesting, intriguing and awesome.

6. Something that makes you unlovable.​

You get to have the relationships you want in your life. People might take a long time to completely forgive you, but know that healing takes time. Still, I hope you’re able to open up to the people closest to you, and feel seen and heard.

7. Grounds to call you untrustworthy. ​

My therapist taught me a technique to use when I find myself buried in guilt. She told me to ask myself: “Is this true?” Someone recently told me a lot of people don’t trust me anymore. So, I asked myself if that was true (it wasn’t) and I realized a more powerful truth: I trust me. I take my meds. I go to therapy. I know I’m a reliable person.

8. Always easy to live with.​

Some days are better than others. Sometimes the meds don’t work or have adverse effects. Living with bipolar disorder can be a real struggle bus.

9. Widely spoken about in an accurate manner. ​

This is part of the reason it’s so hard to fight and end the stigma around bipolar disorder and mental illness in general. In addition, each person has a unique experience with bipolar disorder, even though some of the symptoms may be similar.

10. A sign your life is over.

​Keep showing up. We need you. You will get through this. I’ve found group therapy to find to be a helpful reminder that others face the same challenges I do.

As we continue to challenge the misconceptions around bipolar disorder, let’s also remember to rest and to set boundaries. Every battle doesn’t need to be your battle. And every fight doesn’t need to be your fight. You’ll never be able to change everyone’s mind about the illness you live with, but you can certainly work on unlearning your own false narratives. That’s what I’m working to do every day — even at dinner parties.

How to Apologize When Bipolar Disorder Ruins Everything

Years ago, I learned about making amends. I know a few people who’ve gone through Alcoholics Anonymous and they’ve shared how powerful it was for them to do the hard thing of apologizing to the people they hurt. They talked about how it’s important to go into these conversations with zero expectations. Their purposes are to share what they did wrong and sincerely admit responsibility and remorse for it.

When I heard this was even a thing I thought, “Wow, that’s intense!” But, I never thought I’d be on my own journey of forgiveness.

Last fall, I experienced one of the scariest and most isolating events of my life. I had just turned 31 and was going through my first full blown manic episode. Everything burned down. I hurt a lot of people because of my disorder and left so many tears and broken relationships in my tracks. This year has primarily been about healing — which is a lifelong process. Because I’ve always been committed to personal development and growth, I took it upon myself to reach out to people I’ve hurt, and apologize for my actions.

This hasn’t been an easy process. Typically, I’ll text or email the person, and once I hit send, beads of sweat begin to collect on my forehead. My heartbeat quickens and my mouth dries. I panic. What if this person is still angry with me? What if they don’t accept my apology? What if they stigmatize bipolar disorder so much that they don’t believe me?

These fears are all valid, and if you’ve ever apologized to anyone, you know what I mean. It’s hard to be vulnerable and put yourself out there. But, it’s important to remember that making amends is for you as much as it is for them. For me, it’s about freedom, owning up to my stuff and allowing myself to move forward.

Whenever I reach out to someone, I make sure to get right to the point. I acknowledge and point out my actions, I take responsibility for what I did and I share my diagnosis.

There’s a reason I do it in this order. First of all, yes, I know in my heart and mind that I didn’t purposely hurt them, but this isn’t about intention or fault. For example, if you accidentally step on someone’s toe, they don’t want to hear about how you were distracted, they want to hear an apology. They want to know that you recognize the impact of your actions, even if it was an accident. So that’s what I do. This is the hardest part for me because I didn’t intend to hurt anyone.

Mania can take over you and wreck everything in it’s path. Still, taking responsibility for the impact of my actions has helped me have so much peace and freedom. I take the last step of sharing my diagnosis so they have context as to what happened.

As far as responses, most people either:

  1. Tell me they forgive me. This one rarely happens.
  2. Ask me how I’m healing and what I’m doing to heal.
  3. Hit me with the “hope you’re doing well.” This is honestly annoying because I’ve poured my heart out only to receive a message that essentially says “good luck” with nothing else in it. But, this is why it’s so important to continue to drop expectations when apologizing. I can’t get anything from anyone that I don’t get myself.

My life truly has begun to change and I’ve reached out to so many people this year. Yes, it still hurts to think back to all the things I did. Yes, I’ve lost friends, business contacts, customers, followers and family because of my disorder. And, yes, this is only the beginning of my healing.

But, I’m a better person for even attempting to make amends and I feel more and more empowered every single day.

The Weird Way I Describe Living With Bipolar Disorder

You’re on a bus.

It’s en route to New York from your home in Baltimore. The other passengers are silently listening to music, catching up on work or asleep. None of them have any idea that you’re completely out of control. That your mind has been hijacked. It’s as if an evil reckless spirit has overtaken you, made you more confident, less inhibited, bent on destroying your life as you know it.

There are $10 in your bank account, which is spent on dinner once you arrive to the city. You have nowhere to sleep for the night, but you’ve asked a new friend to help you find a place to crash.

You’re on a beach. Someone you’ve known for a while graciously invited you to meet with them in Long Beach, New York. You ended up finding a place to sleep last night, but you weren’t afraid you wouldn’t because everything has to work out for you — you’re the chosen one.

That’s what this all is, you’re being tested for something greater. That explains the homelessness, the joblessness, the undue criticism from everyone; the savior must go through pain.

The beach is quiet, except for the sound of waves, the birds and your screaming. You’re yelling at the top of your lungs and running as fast as you can into the ebbing tide.

Moments later you’re on your knees, your body covered in sand. You tell yourself that you’ve “finally arrived.” For the next several months you’ll say this same thing to: anyone who crosses your path, your social media followers and the people who love you who miss the actual you.

You’re in an apartment. It’s drafty. Baltimore is covered in snow. Days ago, your psychiatrist confirmed that you have bipolar disorder. It’s difficult to digest this.

You’re beginning to come down and the depression is setting in. You tell your wife that you feel like you’re sleepwalking through wet cement. It’s hard to get out of bed and you feel absolutely hopeless. You’re in a dark night of the soul, in a tunnel of mirrors that only reflect shame and despair.

You’re in an improv class. It’s only a 20 minute drive from home. The theater community lovingly accepted you back and invited you to do something you loved again. The teacher explains a comedic concept through an analogy. He says, “Comedy is like Mario Kart. Heightening a joke is like hitting one those ramps on a course. Once you do, you’re flying.”

That’s me, you think to yourself. That’s my bipolar disorder. Hypomania is me driving towards the ramp, mania is me hitting the ramp and flying high, and bipolar depression is me crashing in my car, and completely wiping out.

You’re in your bedroom. It’s time to take your meds. The pillow feels cool against the back of your head. You think about all you’ve been through, and how all you want is a boring year. Free of savior complexes, free of dark nights, free of wiping out.

5 Pieces of Advice for Anyone Recently Diagnosed With Bipolar Disorder

“I was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and I don’t know what to do.”

My inbox and timeline have been filled with messages like this over the past year. It’s heartbreaking. Being met with a new diagnosis, especially bipolar disorder, can be like getting hit by a train when you didn’t even know you were on its tracks.

I remember being diagnosed back in January. I begged my wife not to tell anyone. I begged my psychiatrist not to tell anyone. I was struck with fear and didn’t want to prove people right. A lot of my family, friends and followers thought I was acting manic (which I was) — and I was so resistant to their armchair diagnosis. I felt they were making me into an enemy and something to be hated. I felt pushed to the edges of society where other shamed and labeled people exist — convicts, murderers, felons, liars, thieves, all of them.

I reassured myself, “What others viewed as recklessness wasn’t actually recklessness, right?”

“I was acting from a place of being liberated, right?”

I was free. I was wrong. When I got my diagnosis, I was afraid.

For me, one of the most challenging things about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder is the weight of the stigma surrounding it. Oftentimes, it’s not something that’s talked about in the kindest of ways. A lot of othering takes place. Inaccurate statements are made and people living with this illness are often labeled as untrustworthy, unpredictable and incapable of ever making rational decisions again. What a terrible way to boil down a person’s entire existence!

Another thing that’s hard about hearing the words, “You have bipolar disorder” is the uncertainty that consumes your mind. You worry about the pills you’ll have to take, how you’ll break this news to friends and family and how you’ll feel about yourself in the coming days. It’s so overwhelming and so much to carry.

When I was diagnosed, it happened in the midst of me coming down from my mania. Depression was beginning to drown me and getting out of bed was a chore. So bearing the burden of living with this new information wasn’t something I felt equipped to do. I cried so many nights. I vented. I lamented. I found it hard to rest or feel relaxed. I had begrudgingly begun this new journey I never wanted to be on.

When someone reaches out to me because they just found out they have bipolar disorder, I’m already with them in their fear, their pain and their despair. No, I don’t know exactly how they feel but I readily tap into my suffering and see them fully. I share my suffering. I tell them that their feelings are valid. I invite them into my story. I share the hope I eventually found and let them know how dark things were and can still be for me.

There aren’t a lot of, “You got this!” or “You’re going to make it” in my initial responses because I know those messages might not land. Instead, I seek to be present to the story they’ve let me in on and just be with them in their moment.

If you’ve recently received a bipolar disorder diagnosis or if someone close to you has, I want to make a few things clear:

1. How you feel right now makes sense.

There’s really no right way to feel about something so life changing. And no one can tell you how to feel.

2. There’s no rush when it comes to healing.

Regardless of what anyone tells you, healing is your process. Will meds help? Maybe. Will support groups be effective? Maybe. Is journaling the best way to process your emotions? Maybe. But you don’t have to figure that out right now.

It’s OK for you to just sit with this new information and breathe. And I mean actually breathe. We often hold our breath when faced with impossible things that require us to be brave. So I invite you to do the brave thing of breathing.

3. Ask all the questions you need to.

There’s a great deal of research being done regarding bipolar disorder and so much has been discovered thus far. Still, you get to ask questions about what you can expect, what your new normal might be, what caused you to be manic in the first place or how your depression might impact your life. You get to ask about how the meds will affect you and what the common side effects are. Question as much as you’d like to.

I spent a lot of time asking my psychiatrist and therapist these same questions. I didn’t feel amazing when I heard their responses but I was able to rationalize some things and come up with plans of action to help me move forward.

Also, know that some questions won’t be answered. You might need to wait to see how different meds affect you. You might have to wait and see how seasons or different foods affect your moods. Uncertainty is part of this and knowing that can be helpful.

4. Try no to isolate yourself.

Personally, I burned down a lot of relationships since I was manic last fall. But I’ve held on tight to the people who have continued to fight for me and reach out to support me. Without them, I don’t know where I’d be.

On my own, my thoughts take over and I’m not in a good place at all. I hope you have at least one person you can bring your wounds and scars to, even if all you say is, “This is me right now. I don’t know what to do and I just needed to tell someone.”

5. Just do the next right thing.

I got that from author Glennon Doyle Melton. In her book, “Love Warrior,” she talks about the importance of showing up as best as we can to the little things that lie before us — especially when the pain of what we’re experiencing has become unbearable.

So think about it. Is eating lunch the next right thing? Maybe it’s showering. Perhaps it’s turning off the lights and resting for a moment or watching “The Office” on Netflix because it’s one of the greatest shows of all-time. Your next right thing is your next right thing and you get to do it — no matter how small it is.

Here’s to us doing the next right thing, even if the bigger picture looks bleak and impossible.

Enough is enough: how to identify and manage burnout

Everyone was where they were supposed to be: in class, in an office, in bed. But, I sat in my 2014 Toyota Corolla with the air conditioner blasting and gospel music filling me up. 

If I got out of my car and walked quickly to the office, I’d get to the staff meeting in time. But I didn’t want to attend another meeting that could have been an email.

I didn’t want to see my coworker’s faces or hear my boss give updates. My workplace was toxic. You could feel the disappointment when you walked into the office. Some people job searched during meetings, openly, unashamed. 

We had a reputation around campus. 

How is it in your department?

I heard Jack is leaving soon. Wow! He just got here.

You guys aren’t able to keep anyone for long, huh? 

They weren’t wrong. Our office had more turnover than a hipster bakery. It was bad. I was getting sick. The kind of sick Urgent Care couldn’t do anything about. It was the kind of sick that made it hard for me to breathe, to actually show up and do my best work.

Quitting felt like the only option, and that wasn’t an option because I needed that job. 

I was burnt out. Have you ever been there? Are you there now? 

Burnout is you when you are: 

  • Snapping at people more often than usual
  • Very easily frustrated by others
  • Tired of showing up 
  • Lacking any shred of motivation 
  • Overly sensitive to anything that’s said to you 
  • Ready to call it quits 
  • Inclined to settle for less
  • Far from being aligned with your values
  • Repeatedly making a lot of avoidable mistakes
  • Feeling isolated in your distress

And it’s not just at work. You can be burnt out with the significant other who keeps disappointing you and breaking promises, with the friend who seems to intentionally go against any sound advice, with a project you’re working on, with being a parent or guardian, with unreliable members of your church small group, with your government, with your life.

All of us hit a wall at times. Burnout is like hitting that same wall over and over again and feeling like you’ll never get around it, over it, under it, or through it.

It’s when you’re at the end of your rope, you’ve lost all hope, and you’ve said enough is enough for the last time. 

Step one: Get clear on your goals.

So, what can you do about burnout? Well, first you need to get clear on your goals and you need to be realistic. 

Keep in mind, stress is at the center of burnout. You can’t breathe and you’ve told yourself that you don’t have time to even figure things out.

Your goal might be to have more head space. It might be to have better boundaries in place. Maybe you want to be reassigned to a new team or group. Perhaps you want more help with the kids and it’s time to actually ask for help.

It’s going to look different for everyone.

The question to ask yourself is: If I had a magic wand, what would all this look like? 

Step two: Identify what’s in your control.

Who can you work with to give you leverage at your job? Have you been clear with your partner about your needs and frustrations? Are you continuing to pile too much on your plate, thus getting in your own way again and again? Are you playing therapist with your friends when it’s really you that needs to book an appointment?

Be honest with yourself. 

Step three: Take action.

I suggest taking one small action, then another, and building momentum. When you’re stressed out, it’s overwhelming to make big changes. Remember the last time you wanted to clean your house, but didn’t because it all felt like too much.

Don’t try to fix it all at once. Instead, pick one thing to tackle first. 

Whenever my computer desktop is cluttered with files, I create a folder titled Old Stuff and a folder titled Current Stuff. Then I sort everything into the two folders.

My desktop is now clear and I feel better.

Your small step might be to put up an away message and close your office door. It might be requesting a few days off in the next month. It could be cancelling a meet up with a friend who can be extra draining.

The key here is to take a small, simple, and effective step. It needs to be something you can get done in less than 10 minutes. If not, you’re just adding more to your plate and falling even deeper in to burnout. 

Final step: Get accountability and support. 

If you’re overwhelmed or feeling over it, you might be keeping all this in your head. It’s time to vent and share your frustrations with someone you trust.

It’s also wise to let this person know what you plan to do and to ask them to hold you accountable. If your plan is to set up a meeting with your boss to have a difficult discussion about how you’re doing all the work on your team, your accountability buddy should be following up with you to make sure you’ve actually had said meeting. 

Putting it all together.

Get clear on your goal, identify what’s in your control, take action, then seek accountability and support. You might find that it’s time for you to change jobs or leave a relationship, and if that’s where you land that’s okay.

But, sometimes, we’ve just got to a point where we don’t know which way is up. Where leaving isn’t the only option, and where things can be reconcilded and improved.

There aren’t always easy answers. 

You can do this. 

You don’t have to let burnout win. You can dig yourself out of this no matter the size of your shovel. Stepping back and getting a different perspective can make all the difference. It can give you a chance to see what’s been stressing you out. 

Next week we’ll be talking about worthiness, and cultivating a practice of self-compassion.

But for today, I invite yourself to take that first small step. You might like where you end up. 

An Open Letter to First Time Black Fathers Anywhere

Dear Brothers,

I won’t begin to assume what you’re going through, for there’s a spectrum of Blackness and man-ness and person-hood that exist, but I just had to write this as I sit in the delivery room hours before the arrival of our firstborn child.

I’m mostly writing to connect, reach out, and encourage.

To let you know that you’re not alone, and to remind myself that I’m not alone.

See, there’s this perception that a lot of black men aren’t there for their children. That a lot of us are either dying, killing, being killed, imprisoned. But, we know the truth: we’re not a monolith and a lot of us are here for our children, our families, our communities, our world.

Some of us are graduating from college. Some of us are owning businesses. Some of us are the best gamers, chefs, delivery men this world has ever seen. And some of us are struggling to get out of bed because of ancestral pain and trauma.

We come in so many shapes, sizes, belief systems, and lived experiences, but there are some things that connect us:

  • Many of us will have the talk with our child, especially our sons. We’ll let them know how different they are and what to do when they’re pulled over and how they’ll feel the need to be two steps ahead of their peers.
  • Many of us have experienced some type of othering in our lifetime. Personally, I was called too white and not black enough as a child. That’s part of what led to the self-hate I’ve been working to unlearn in my 30s.
  • Many of us had fathers or father figures who were really really tough on us. Who hit us, or swore at us, or made us feel like we were worthless in order to help us survive a cold world. They inherited much of that from their fathers and so on. If this is your story, you may often find ourselves at the crossroads of restoration and resentment.

And many of us are trying to figure out what type of dads we’ll be, and we’re doing everything we can to break generational patters and curses, and do better.

I know I am.


For we are enough and we’re exactly where we need to be: in the life of someone who we mean the world to, before we even utter a word.

Sinclair P. Ceasar III, First Time Black Father

I feel the pressure to do well with this baby that will come any hour now. With this black baby that will live in a world that often weaponizes, sexualizes, brutalizes their body (see Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates).

A world that doesn’t understand what it means to “always be thinking about race” or to “often be wondering if we’re code switching or actually saying the right thing for the moment”.

I will make an assumption now.

I assume that some of you are reading this and going, “Oh, no. This author clearly isn’t in touch with his true self and his roots. He needs to read up on his history and learn.” And you’d be correct. I have a lot to learn and ways to go, and also, I’m right where I should be — that’s a big takeaway I hope most new dads have from this letter.

photo x allee illyse photography

We are exactly where we need to be.

We are ready as we are to be stewards of this new life form that is before us.

Who can say what a whole, sound, and perfect black man looks like? I’m sure someone can, but what matters most to me is being a father — a parent — who shows up every single day to his child.

As someone was raised by resilient and loving grandparents with middle school educations, one of the best things they did for me was be present.

Present to invite me to sleep on their bedroom floor when thunderstorms rolled through. Present for the tears I cried after bullies had their way. Present for the times my hands couldn’t stop shaking after my own father stopped by to berate and abuse.

Presence.

That’s what’s required, dear brothers. And if you can, some grace, love, and patience.

Grace is the space we hold for someone to be imperfect and unfinished. Love is the acceptance and validation we fill that space with. And patience is what we give ourselves to do better at the former at the latter.

My heart both panics and smiles as I think of holding my newborn child.

What will become of them, what will they dream of, will I be enough for them, will we succeed in keeping them safe?

What will they accomplish?

How will I ruin them?

How will I help them thrive?

And so, I find myself overwhelmed with favorable and unfavorable outcomes, and it’s imperative for me to give myself the same grace, love, and patience my child will require. The same you require. The same we all are so desperately needing as we parent, teach, lead, and guide.

For we are enough and we’re exactly where we need to be: in the life of someone who we mean the world to, before we even utter a word.