Bipolar disorder is complicated. That’s how we talk about Kanye West

“‘Crazy’ is a word that will not be used freely in the future. Understand that it is actually a condition that people can find themselves in, being born into, being pushed into and going in and out of.

It’s been two years since Kanye West said that in a Interview with Forbesbut people still call him crazy and everything else — imbalance, mad, psychotic. These are the terms I’ve seen used to describe it over the past few weeks. When news spread about the details of the legal separation between him and Kim Kardashian, I braced myself every day for social media reactions to the growing chasm between them. I knew it was only a matter of time before the words used to label him would start to sting me too.

Now known as Ye, the versatile rap star, producer and author has never been one to conform to cultural norms. But his recent actions have drawn heavy criticism from his fans and critics. Thanks to sporadic and abundant postings online and showy IRL efforts – including a van full of roses sent on Valentine’s Day – Ye tried to bring the mother of his four children back into his life.

While this may be a divorce between two of the most famous American celebrities of the past few decades, it is just that: a divorce. Kardashian and West are used to the spotlight, but this very intimate affair is taking place in an extremely public and unusual way. The lack of privacy is particularly concerning, given that Ye revealed in 2018 that he was living with a mental illness: bipolar disorder. It is a diagnosis that I share.

I shared the glib attitude on bipolar disorder. For most of my life, I, like many others, have casually invoked the condition to put down someone who is rude or has the day off, or to kick something that is malfunctioning or broken. After years of ignorance, I would come to realize just how flawed that characterization is.

Bipolar disorder consists of two contrasting ends of a mood spectrum: mania and depression. Mania is an unstable mental state, described by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) as having telltale symptoms, including “grandiosity, over-optimism, or impaired judgment”; it may also include hallucinations or delusions. Depression, on the other hand, is described as “a state of persistent low mood and decreased energy and activity”. Although it is possible to switch between mania and depression for short periods of time – an event called rapid cycle – people diagnosed with bipolar can remain in these states for months or years at a time.

I experimented my first manic episode in 2016 at age 27, and was diagnosed as bipolar type 1 the following year in a later episode. Of the seven types of bipolar disorder, type 1 is identified by extreme mania and extreme depression.

Since sharing his general diagnosis via his 2018 album you, West’s opinions are divided, to put it mildly. Even I left back and ahead between admiration and disapproval, according to Ye’s antics. Right now, I feel compassion for his situation. I know all too well the ups and downs of this disorder.

In February I tweeted a wire about the various similarities I share with the artist, and why I hold space for him, emotionally. I have received support from people living with bipolar disorder, as well as people who have no direct or indirect experience with the disorder. I have also received criticism from people who seem to think that Kanye does not deserve compassion because he is allegedly refuse treatment in the form of drugs. I have always taken an antipsychotic and a mood stabilizer for the past two years, but I understand Ye’s position.

Before my fourth and final manic episode in october 2019 i used drugs selectively. While I couldn’t afford it in some cases, in others I willingly sacrificed my stability for the chance to experience the euphoric highs of mania. It can be more addictive than any drug; in fact, falling back into a manic (or depressive) episode after a period of well-being is called a relapse.

Ye’s spiritual experience of bipolar disorder – saying he feels deified – is also familiar to me. In my early stages of mania, I feel unstoppable: like the main character, swept up in the universe and lovingly carried through every intense second of my life. During state heights, I tend to become deeply invested in religion and spirituality. I feel like I’m on God’s team, a chosen one sent here to save the world from itself. It’s intoxicating.

Music can become a centerpiece of the experience; I feel like God is talking to me through the bars of my favorite rappers. The lyrics sound like directions, leading me to my next cosmic adventure. In a cover story for The fade in 2008, Kanye said he felt like a vector of creativity sent from above. “I’m like a vessel, and God chose me to be the voice and the connector,” he said. “I can’t be responsible. I’m good, but I’m not that good. So my job is just to be in the studio and make videos, and I stay here and let God do the rest.

Kanye West and Julia Fox in Paris in January 2022.

Ye and his now ex flirt with Julia Fox in Paris in January 2022.
Getty Images

Ye has yet to say if and when he is going through a manic episode. My own experience with the state leads me to believe that its recent impulsive behavior social media posts can be attributed to this element of bipolar disorder.

When I soar out of control, I pronounce blessings on people and cursing them in the same breath. I obsess over the people I love and simultaneously express hostility towards them. It’s that kind of built-in duality that could cause Kanye to hover in the space between the secular and the sacred too.

I’ve done my fair share of what I like to call “apology visits,” when I ask forgiveness from people I needlessly verbally attacked or otherwise hurt during uplifting moments. Most of them understand that I was going through something that I couldn’t control. Having to fix maladaptive actions is a heavy burden to bear, and it comes with substantial pressure, in addition to the recovery process. But I will always do everything in my power to let people in my life know that I am not the person I am during mania.

Over the years not everyone accepted my apology and I learned that I had to be okay with it. It took a while, but I got past every broken relationship. I have lost touch with various loved ones because of this illness, but one person I will never find solace in through this ordeal is my mother.

Kanye’s latest outing, DONDA 2, is the second album he carries in honor of his mother, Donda West, who died in 2007 of heart disease and complications from cosmetic surgery. My mother died two years later of a heart attack. In my situation, I self-medicated and avoided heartbreak for years by getting into academia. In Kanye’s case, he continuous tour and creating just weeks after her mother passed away.

Both of our parents were the definition of encouragement. In the first part of the recently released Netflix documentary Jeen Yuhs, Donda West showcases her nurturing approach to Ye by rapping one of her earliest rhymes from memory and amplifying her voice and talent in front of the camera crew. My own mother motivated me to take my passions seriously, whether it was taekwondo or the marching band. “Take it home!she would shout at the top of her voice at competitive events, both embarrassing me and filling me with immense pride.

Losing the dominant source of inspiration in your life is something that seems insurmountable; the real grieving process can take years to surface. To this day, I feel like my mom is with me through my toughest times, especially during manic episodes. Kanye’s strong focus on keeping Donda’s name alive seems to indicate he might feel the same way.

There were celebrities who came before Ye who lived with bipolar disorder; the late actress Carrie Fisher, who spoke long in his life on the need to destigmatize mental illness, is just one of many public figures who have grappled with the difficult nature of bipolarity.

While it’s important to acknowledge his predecessors in this regard, we’ve yet to see someone as prominent as Kanye take to social media in the midst of a manic episode. It has been extremely online long before social media, dating back to the early days of its innovative website Kanye Universe City, which he used as a blog in the 2000s.

Since 2016, it has intensified the frequency of its “Rants” on Twitter and Instagram which many have just attributed to his powerful personality. I’ve been through similar times where I’ve jumped on the internet and railed against everyone who’s ever wronged me, and even those who haven’t. I also posted things that made no sense. The difference between me and Ye is that I received grace and understanding from the vast majority of people who saw me in the grip of mania or depression. Nor do I have the whole world watching me – friends, family and strangers – in one of the most vulnerable positions a human can find themselves in.

So when I see people discussing Kanye using intentionally derogatory tones and language, it gives me pause. It makes me wonder what the difference is between us, besides the millions of dollars and the many Grammy Awards. It makes me wonder if the support I’ve received has been genuine.

My goal is not to be the person who defends Ye at every turn. I don’t always agree with his actions, so it’s a role I can’t commit to. What I’m here to do is make sure no one with this condition, including one of the most famous people on the planet, feels alone.

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