In 2013, I was hospitalized — and my entire outlook on life shifted. My doctor diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. My mind was spinning; I didn’t think that someone like me could have that illness. There’s no way I could be crazy, I thought, because I am not weak. Looking back, I can understand that I had been influenced by the tropes of people with mental illness as unsuccessful and fragile. Since then, I have developed coping strategies to manage my illness, stuck to a medication regimen and received both inpatient and outpatient treatment with psychiatrists, therapists and support groups. I soon discovered there’s strength in seeking and accepting help.
During this same period, I also experienced major personal and professional success; I earned my master’s degree in public policy before I turned 23, won competitive scholarships, and awards, published my writing and given lectures, interviews and legislative testimony.
I’m sharing my story as a reminder that everyday people living with mental health conditions are as capable of success as anyone else — and our identities range far beyond “person with mental illness.” Sometimes, admittedly, untangling my mental illness from my identity is hard. I see myself as a proud, Black cisgender woman who is also a daughter, writer, college graduate, sister, niece, friend, policy researcher, aunt, basketball fan and avid reader, among other things. Over time, I have learned that I can be all these things and find success while living with a mental health condition.
Feeling comfortable with the wholeness of my identity took time. Honestly, I’m still grappling with identifying as someone with a mental illness, without letting it define me. I know this will take time.
Coping with Highs and Lows
A critical step in accepting my intersecting identities is not letting my mental illness take away from everything I want to be. There are days when I struggle to function — and I have found ways to accept that there will be tough days, but there are ways to ensure that they don’t take over my life.
For example, to be a writer, I need rest so I can focus and think clearly. But there are days where I cannot get out of bed, and other days when I can’t sleep; having a sleep imbalance makes producing essays like this a challenge. But when I use my coping skills, take my medication and, when necessary, contact my support team, I am stable and subsequently productive.
The phrase “three steps forward, two steps back” captures my experience. While engaging and being productive in life, I have also gone through dark days that resulted in hospital stays.
At the beginning of each hospital admission, I would feel crushed. I felt like I was moving backward — that my good fortune had reached the end of its road. But I discovered the same thing about my identity after each hospital stay: I am so much more than my mental illness.
I was eventually able to tell myself that being in the hospital was a mental tune-up, and I was there getting help to get back on track.
I have attended group therapy and outpatient programs where I’ve met people with similar mental health symptoms, and we’ve connected on a level I cannot with people who don’t have a mental illness. It feels like we have built an instant community.
Belonging to a community of diverse individuals who live with a mental illness and also have different — and sometimes overlapping — identities makes me feel less alone and helps me to feel supported.
It also helps to see public figures joining our community. I was encouraged when National Basketball Association (NBA) Champion Kevin Love opened up about his life with mental illness and how he still finds success and joy on the basketball court. His story and many other athletes' stories are a reminder that living with a mental illness is not a recipe for failure. Moreover, these stories remind us that it’s ok to be open about living with a mental illness and to allow it to be one piece of who you are.
Ultimately, I’ve found that having a mental health condition has added unexpected positives to my life; it has provided me with opportunities to build community and meet inspiring people who have helped me to accept and celebrate myself.
Looking Toward My Future
I am not sure what the future holds, which is both frightening and exciting. I am unsure how much my mental health will affect my life. But I will continue to cherish my identities, make them stronger and build a deeper connection with them.
I’ve accepted there will be obstacles to mental stability, but I’ve also accepted there will be more triumphs. I know I am a multifaceted woman who deserves to thrive today.
Next year will be 10 years since I was diagnosed with a mental illness. Despite my humbling success, my personal trials and my inspiring relationships, the real connection between my mental illness and my identity is up to me.
Brakeyshia Samms is a writer and policy researcher living with a mental illness. She has been published in The Huffington Post, The Dallas Morning News and The Austin American-Statesman, among other outlets. Opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of her affiliations.