Coming Out of Closet About Mental Illness Can Be Frightening
I had questions about my sexuality as a young man. I had questions about a wide range of topics, my most pressing concern was, what on earth is going on between my ears? Whatever it was, it was causing, knotted a mass in my being that kept growing and tightening with every passing day.
In 1995 things would finally come to a head in Silver Springs, Maryland; it was a traumatic mental break, but it helped me figure out what was going on in my head that impacted my body and relationships.
Approximately 2.3 million Americans have bipolar disorder. Men and women are trapped in the closet, living a lie, afraid even to crack the door open to see if it’s safe because they’re scared of the stigma, shame, and ridicule attached to mental illness.
I get it! Not too long ago, I was one of those “men” trapped in the closet.
Who wants to be characterized as crazy? Not me!
I’ve used my voice to advocated on behalf of marginalized groups before launching BTW Podcast. I’m encouraged by members of LGBTQ, who walk in their truth everyday. I did not want to be labeled as crazy. So, I remained silent crammed in the closet, afraid to be identified with a part of my being. I am not crazy. I have bipolar disorder, but it doesn’t have me. It took years for me to publicly mention my mental health status, it didn’t happen overnight. My hope is that it will encourage other’s to speak up about their mental health status thereby normalizing the conversation and eliminating the stigma.
The Early Years
It was the best of both worlds, a gift and a curse growing up in Brooklyn during the crack epidemic.
Bed-Stuy was a cross between a gold rush and the Wild Wild West. Turf wars, shootouts, brother’s killing brothers, and I don’t mean soul brothers either. I forgot their names; I remember hearing the news standing in the game room. Yo, did you hear? Hear what? Cain killed Abel! Our collective response was, WOW, DAMN!
Then we went back to doing whatever it was we were doing before hearing the horrific news. The funny thing is, I don’t remember anyone crying though, it was a blip, another news story in the hood.
Tony murdered his mother, bludgeoned her with a hammer, then committed suicide by jumping in front of the A-Train.
Still, no tears.
I asked my mother why Daddy didn’t love me? I shed a few tears that day; it was the first time I cried without being disciplined. I didn’t fit in with everyone, and my mother dressed me funny.
The American ideal of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American ideal of masculinity. This idea has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden — as an unpatriotic act — that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood. ~ James Baldwin
Did you know corduroy pants had grain in them?
I had no idea what the grain was until I brushed the crumbs off my lap in the cafeteria; it felt strange. I wanted to know why. That question piqued my fashion interest. I found solace in music and fashion. Having the ability to sew gave me some cover and a little clot with the boys in the hood.
I realized people treated me differently based on what I wore and how I showed up in the world.
Because I wasn’t sure of myself and who I was as an individual, I didn’t pursue fashion.
I sewed that skill was my side hustle.
Before skinny jeans, there were flair legs-Lee riders were the jeans of the era. My guess is a Sneakerholic somewhere decided they wanted to show off their kicks and that decision gave birth to straight legs. It would take a few years before Fashion Avenue hopped on the wave. During the interim, I filled the need in the market. The word soon spread without having to post a picture or take out an ad in the Yellow Pages.
Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell. ~ Seth Godin
Simply find a need in the market and exploit it. Deliver a killer product or service, and people will spread the word for you. Create a “Purple Cow,” as Seth Godin suggest.
Mr. Pierre was my High School sewing teacher; he worked at Fashion Institute of Technology during the evenings and weekends; he convinced me to apply to FIT’s Saturday program for High School students.
I met my first official crush at FIT. Omg, Michelle was gorgeous. I loved the sound of her voice, and she listened to me-I felt visible. But I was so awkward. Girls looked at me funny-I thought I was ugly. I didn’t know any better, so I thought I was ugly. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the mirror. I met some pretty ugly people along my life’s journey, and I’m not talking about their outward appearance either.
It wasn’t until I got older; I realized beauty was more than skin deep.
I didn’t see many people who looked like me at FIT. I was from Brooklyn going to school in NYC with many artistic types, that was cool, but that wasn’t my thing.
It’s funny. I didn’t know what my thing was, but that wasn’t it.
How do we come to conclusions without any empirical data?
But, more to the point, why did I come to that conclusion?
Anyway, who needs data when you have societal norms to steer you wrong. The same people who told me, “suck it up shorty, real men don’t cry,” were conveniently missing in action-believe me. I went looking. They lied.
Identity is not inherent. It is shaped by circumstance and sensitivity and resistance to self-pity. ~ Dorothy West
I searched for my identity, trying to figure out what type of man I wanted to be? The media likes fairy tales. Stories of self-made Marlboro Men, John Wayne, types are great for selling products. Marketers threw Billy Dee Williams in adds to mix to break up the monotony.
Would I be like Fonzie in a leather jacket? Nah, he was white. Would I be like J.J. Evans? Nope, he was a straight-up fool! How about J.J.’s little brother, Michael?
Yeah, Michael was a brilliant Militant, but being smart wasn’t celebrated where I grew up. I did just enough to keep from being noticed. In the infamous words of the late great, urban literary genius,
Christopher Wallace: “Either you’re slinging crack rock, or you got a wicked jump shot.”
I could shoot, but not good enough to shoot my way out of the hood. And crack, well, crack wasn’t an option for me.
I wonder how many kids believed Biggie.
When I was in High School, Mr. Rubin, a white man with dreads, turned me on to Malcolm X. I sought out examples of manhood, and I found strength and discipline in Malcolm’s example.
During the mid-’90s, there was a groundswell, an awakening of manhood. On October 16, 1995, Louis Farrakhan called for a million men to march on Washington. Two years later, the Promise Keepers, a Christian organization, returned to Washington. Then the men’s movement fizzled out, and I was disillusioned, abandoned left alone in America trying to figure out what to do. By this time, my parents had retired and moved back to Barbados. With no real plan, I did what I saw my father do, which was work.
Men are more than providers.
Where do you go to learn how to be a man? Who do you look to for examples of manhood?
The pendulum swung. We’re now living in a woman’s world. Women worldwide are doing the damn thing, in every industry, leading Fortune 500 corporations, launching businesses, and creating safe spaces for women to thrive, and I’m here for all of it — does that make me gay?
There’s more than one way to be a man. I’m not a dumb jock. I don’t believe all jocks are stupid, nor do I believe in the alpha male theory. I think it’s a myth. I have a phenomenal sense of style; does that make me metrosexual?
Unlike Bill Burr, I don’t refer to women as bit@hes, but I thought his Saturday Day Night Live opening monologue was solid.
-Side note: please don’t cancel comedy.
In 1995, I was diagnosed with bipolar, and I didn’t deal with this news, after years of living with the internal turmoil and carrying the weight of this dirty secret. I finally had a name to describe what was wrong within me. Wrong with me? There’s nothing wrong with me, and I was adamant in my declaration to my family in Maryland.
I didn’t find courage, I ran and hid, I buried myself in my work.
I followed the dumb logic. “Suck it up, man. Real men don’t cry.” It was considered heresy to show weakness; those who did were perceived as tissue paper soft and would become prey in the concrete jungle.
The universe has a way of gentle prodding us in the right direction. I read a post from Jeri Villarreal that transported me to 1995.
Remember that time you failed and it hurt so bad that it almost broke you? Then you told yourself that comforting lie to take away the pain, normalize the experience and explain away the painful result. Then, years later, the only thing that you remember is that lie you told yourself. It becomes your truth. It becomes the foundation that you base yourself upon.
I wasn’t prepared to address my mental illness. My thoughts about mental illness were limited. What I did know with a high degree of certainty was there’s a stigma attached to mental illness, and that led me to bury my diagnosis in the closet.
It’s not that something was wrong with me. I wasn’t t damaged. I wasn’t broken or worthless, but I had no idea what to do. Going to counseling or therapy wasn’t something we did growing up in Brooklyn.
I started reading about Bipolar to familiarize myself with the disorder, and I discovered I wasn’t alone. A lot of people have Bipolar, many of whom are successful. Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire gives several examples of artists who suffered from manic-depressive illness while mourning for their art; what a volatile cocktail.
I eventually started seeing a therapist and taking medication.
I’m a man with feelings. I’ve inflicted hurt and pain to those close to me because of my pride, selfishness, and not knowing how to deal with inner turmoil. Guilt and shame were already spilling out of my emotional suitcase, and now I had to stuff bipolar into one of the compartments; bipolar was already packed. Mental illness can be treated; it’s not contagious. The conclusion of Jeri’s post resonated with me.
I’ve made it my mission to dismantle those lies at their foundation by purposefully doing the very thing that created it. By addressing the fear that started it all and overcoming the challenge, the lie falls away because it doesn’t serve me anymore. That is how I make room for success in life. I remove those lies, those fear-based stories. It is up to us to change our own narratives.
While preparing to interview Alison Mariella Dèsir, the founder of Harlem Run for my podcast, I listened to her speak so freely during and interview about her battles with depression, and it gave me the courage to peek my head out the closet. For me stepping out of the closet came in stages. I stuck one leg out first by sending Alison an email after our conversation for the BTW Podcast, and I let her know; her transparency inspired me to speak out about my battle with mental illness.
Writing this piece is the final stage of me fully embarrassing who I am as a black man in America dealing with Bipolar feel free to join me.