Almost a year ago, I started this blog as a challenge to myself to come out the of the proverbial bipolar closet in my personal and professional life after my last, most traumatic, and embarrassingly public episode. While I started this blog writing for an imagined audience, it was primarily an act of courage and self-love. I had no sense of the extent of this blog’s growing readership until this week.
On Monday, I was a guest in an undergraduate anthropology class on “Culture, Psychiatry, and Mental Illness” at Rice University. The professor, my colleague and friend Dr. Helena Fiez, put my blog posts on the syllabus! When she initially extended the invitation to speak during her class, she intended to feature my single published piece of academic writing Visions of Black Futurity in Somatosphere, a Science, Medicine, and Anthropology site. However, little did I know Helena was reading my blog. Later, she asked for permission to include a list of various posts on the syllabus. Flattered, yet uncertain that the rambling on my personal website merited such an honor, I welcomed the idea. Little did I know that I would get such positive reception from the students that it would eclipse attention towards my “academic” article.
Given that the class was only 50 minutes, I only spent 10 minutes introducing myself and my work. I was forthcoming about my bipolar diagnosis and how it impacted my journey to motherhood and my work as a scholar and a mental health doula. The students asked questions and shared from their own lived experiences for the remainder of class time. My time with them felt like a homecoming. I really felt as if I were meeting with peers, kindred spirits — understanding, compassionate, and insightful people I wish I had known and befriended when I was in college navigating major life transitions on top of contending with a new life-long diagnosis of mental illness. Not only did we discuss the journey of gaining self-knowledge and community as college students navigating new diagnoses, but we touched on what it looks like to have an academic and intellectual life that engages the totality of who we are — the fantastical, the unseen, the inexplainable, and the magic of riding the waves of altered states that accompany our neuroexpansive scholarly lives.
It brought me so much joy to witness how Professor Fietz is cultivating a space within the classroom for students to show up as their full selves. Not all of us had this privilege in our college days. I was the only person I knew with bipolar in college and there were little places for me to go and seek refuge. I had to create spaces for students to express themselves and feel safe, seen, and heard. Most of my college experience was spent groping around in the dark doing my best to get from one day to the next. I did not have the education or the self-awareness to know the difference between high achievement driven by hypomania and what it meant accomplish my goals without sacrificing my mental health. If I wasn’t excelling because of the increased energy, drive, and creativity from my ‘high’ states, I was struggling to simply remain in school.
I was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar in the first few weeks of my first semester at Pepperdine University. I took a medical leave of absence and never returned like many students who are not given the support to complete their studies when they have a mental health crisis. Convinced that the structure provided by staying in school would be a big part of my recovery, I reapplied to universities “close to home” in New York where my family recently relocated (from Switzerland). The following school year I began at Barnard College, manic, only a few weeks after being discharged from my second hospitalization. If it weren’t for my mother’s support as well as the advocacy of the Black director at Disability Services on campus, I probably would not have completed my freshman year.
After all that I went through, having graduated college and now working towards my PhD, I showed up to that virtual Rice classroom as the person I wish I had when I was in college. I am so grateful for the students’ honesty and vulnerability in disclosing their own experiences with mental health challenges and the unique ways in which they navigate an academic terrain that is oftentimes hostile to our unique ways of knowing and being in the world.
I feel incredibly validated by the whole experience at Rice that these blogs are in fact a form of theorizing and knowledge production that might even be more edifying and accessible to the general public than my conventional ‘academic’ writing. What a gift!
Thank you to all my readers — past, present, and future! I would be happy to be put on more syllabi, visit more classrooms, and continue to get to know this incredible generation of learners 🙂
Image Description: A dark-skinned Black woman wearing an orange turtle neck top smiles at her laptop clenching her fists in victory. Her laptop and open notebook rest a desk and behind her is a white book shelf against a white wall.