There are some episodes you barely notice and others that change your life forever. At the end of my last life-altering episode, I was married, pregnant, and a prospective PhD student at NYU. My entire world recalibrated. I lost beloved friendships. I accumulated a sizable amount of debt. I became a revolving door ER patient and I expanded my repertoire of traumatic memories, intrusive thoughts, and disturbing flashbacks. Not to mention, I was thrown into the COVID-19 pandemic as soon as I began to recover. Life after my major episode in 2019 would never be the same.
Up until 2019, I was moving through the world blissfully unaware of the extent to which untreated bipolar disorder could rock my world. Under-medicated, I rode the waves of the highs and lows gracefully enough to fulfill my social, financial, and academic obligations. I performed well in school, maintained (most) of my relationships, and (when not depressed) I had energy for my creative pursuits. Since I didn’t know anyone who had my diagnosis, I navigated my social circles as a lone bipolar wolf. My symptoms were kept in check just enough to mask them and feign normalcy, but I often maintained my hypomanic flavor. Hypomania added extra spice to my personality, making me a gregarious social light, the life of the party, the first one on the dance floor, the beguiling stranger, the empathetic and over-accommodating friend, and the wild lover. But I can’t say this was ALL bipolar. It’s still tricky to discern where the bipolar ends and where Nadia begins. To give just one example, I wonder when is speaking fast and loudly cultural, a habit of my days as a theatre kid, or a sign of mania? Given that I couldn’t grasp the subtleties for years, it’s no wonder my closest friends and family didn’t pay much attention to it, not at least until it escalated to the point of being impossible to ignore.
When I found my first bipolar support group, I was completely floored. I had just come down from my last big manic episode in 2019, gotten back on a mood stabilizer, and I was in my second trimester of pregnancy. Although the people in the room were mostly white, a Black man sat at the head of the table as the facilitator. Other than a meeting with Ntozake Shange* who disclosed her diagnosis to me, I had never meet a Black person with bipolar disorder who spoke about it publicly. I remember showing up to the group slightly elevated and decked out in my flamboyant clothes I bought during my manic episode — my neon orange and rose tinted prescription glasses and a constellation of planets printed on my black button down shirt. Coming down the tail end of mania, I perceived the contrast in my energy and that of everyone else in the room. Their silent sullenness before the meeting made be feel as if I was in the wrong room, as if I had stepped into the unipolar group. However, what I later discovered is that I was witnessing what a medicated bipolar affect actually felt like in contrast to my up energy which was still leveling out. Despite being slightly disoriented among a group of strangers, I kept going back to group. It was mind-blowing to discover that certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors I’ve had are not unique to me, but are the traits and quirks that belong to a larger bipolar family.
My first support group was a bittersweet experience. I thought to myself, “How would my life be different if I had found a group like this in 2012 when I first received my diagnosis?” Although I have found my tribe of psychiatric survivors now, it felt like my younger self was robbed of the opportunity for education, care, and community. But I know ruminating about “what ifs” is not a healthy headspace to inhabit. Although I had to figure things out alone, I need to give myself props for getting this far in accomplishing my goals and dreams, learning independence and resilience, and finding the relationships that are truly supportive.
I have so much more to say about peer support, support groups, finding allies in academia, and other topics related to my healing journey, but I’ll leave you with this nugget for now.
*I’m saving this for another Healing Journey post. I met Ntozake Shange, writer, dancer, and author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf at Barnard College where we are both alums. The conversation I had with her changed my life. Expect a link to the blog post soon.
Featured image by Monis Yousafzai
A dark-skinned brown hand resting on lush green grass under nightfall caressed by the glowing light of yellow picked flowers