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Growing Up Black, Biracial, and Bipolar

I was a nervous child. I was never fully comfortable in my own skin. My parents threatened to tape oven mitts to my hands in an attempt to prevent my incessant scratching. Always daydreaming, always quietly humming to myself until my third-grade teacher told my mother I needed to “stop talking to myself.” How could she know that I was trying to keep myself company? Soothe myself through what was an incredibly isolating childhood? Quiet the sounds no one else seemed to hear?

I saw and felt what no one else in my “colorblind” sundown town in Northern Westchester, New York would ever admit aloud: in nearly every class I ever took – kindergarten through senior year of high school – I was the only Black girl in my class. Black, but not fully. You see, my mother is white – my father is Black. They were young when they had my sister and me. Nurses at the doctor’s office would ask my mother how long she’d been our babysitter, or when she adopted us, or where our real mother was. The idea that a white woman could give birth to two Black girls never crossed their minds.

I often think of the time I spent outside when I was little on my own and with my sister, climbing trees and leaving faerie houses at their bases – when the mosquitos left their marks across my legs and arms. That was my introduction to self-harm. Scratching hurt, but it provided temporary relief from itchy feelings, thoughts that made me uncomfortable as a child. The loneliness, not knowing my place in the dichotomy between Black and white, wishing my skin was just different somehow. Or maybe wishing it wasn’t quite so different from everyone else’s. I didn’t mind bleeding; it made me feel as though I’d accomplished something, made some alteration to my skin. I scratched and scratched until I wasn’t thinking of anything at all, until I detached from myself.

Though everyone in my neighborhood insisted that they “did not see color” and my white peers told me that I was “basically white,” I learned early on that my body was a spectacle in my hometown. Strangers touched my hair without consent in supermarkets; teachers would remark on how “exotic” I was; PTA moms would lament over how much they wished they had my body when I was thirteen. I was self-conscious, often covered in scabs. No one seemed to notice. I now think of this in the words of Claudia Rankine: “[t]he inability of white people to see children other than white children as children is a reality that frankly leaves one hopeless about a change in attitudes regarding the perceived humanity of black people.” But I didn’t have those words back then. Back then, I simply felt like I had just fallen short of being a good person.

I remember my first Google search of Bipolar Disorder on my iPod in the cafeteria in 7th grade. Though it would take over a decade for me to receive a diagnosis, my intuition was sharp. Part of me knew this feeling would be lifelong. No stranger to existing and oscillating between opposite ends of a spectrum – Black and white – the deep, sunken lows and electric highs felt familiar.

Some days, I’ve felt boundless. My mind has raced as I’ve paced, new projects seeming to flow from me like water. I’ve forgotten to eat, or felt that I didn’t need to. I’ve spent money I couldn’t spend. I’ve stayed up late chasing a song idea, cleaning, journaling, stripping the bed and tearing curtains from their rods, insisting that they were covered, that I was covered, in bugs – a true callback to those early days spent outdoors, the itchy-feelings. I find stillness stifling. More familiar than mania, though, has been the depression. That sunken childhood feeling of isolation, of being an anomaly, returns. Everything’s washed with gray on days like these. I withdraw; I call out sick; I weep; I lay face down in bed, unable to move, or pace in my room, running through all of the mistakes I have made, all the ways in which I believe I’m a failure, feeling as though I’m slipping further and further away from those I love. Since my adolescence, these moods have washed over me in known and terrible cycles.

Moving to NYC after high school is the best decision I have ever made. Although I went on to study at a predominantly white institution, attending Columbia University for both my undergraduate and graduate studies, living in the city gave me access to something I had never experienced before: relative diversity. In my studies, I learned more about mental illness and began to seek help. I didn’t receive a diagnosis until I was 22: bipolar disorder, unspecified, riddled with anxiety and occasional psychosis. It has not been easy. Inadequate insurance coverage for mental health has had me juggling losing therapists with skyrocketing medication costs. But with time and education, I’ve begun to better understand the space I occupy as a Black, biracial, queer woman living with bipolar disorder.

I find joy in creating – writing music, words, singing in my bedroom. But it’s the potted plants that fill my chest with air, leaves creeping over the edge of the dresser — the tiny birds I see fluttering by my window — sweeping with a broom — snow and red leaves fallen to the floor. Balance comes to me when I dedicate my studies and energy towards uplifting individuals in marginalized communities through mutual aid and community advocacy. And I grow more comfortable and confident in my own skin with each passing day.

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