‘Beautiful and Bipolar’: An Interview With Erika Dennis

Erika N. Dennis ‘Maternity Shoot’

I came across the blog ‘Beautiful and Bipolar,’ just over one year ago, in my own search to learn more about bipolar disorder — to know specifically how Black women manage this. That is when I stumbled across Erika’s (ED) blog, subscribed and have been reading ever since.

Over this past while I have had the smallest glimpse of what a young, career-oriented woman goes through, reading about her struggles and challenges, triumphs, relationship with God as well as her other interpersonal relationships. In the post when Erika announced her pregnancy, it underscored an area for me that I had begun to try and make myself more aware of — how bipolar disorder impacts infant feeding choices. Months later she would introduce her audience to her first-born daughter, Erilyn. I asked Erika if she would be interested in sharing some of her insight on infant feeding and Bipolar Disorder, to place in this blog carnival and she agreed. I had the privilege of gathering some responses from her via email, which are below:

Q: Thank you so much, Erika, for agreeing to speak with me today about this very important topic. Can you explain, for any of us who may not be aware or who may not have a full understanding of it, what exactly is Bipolar Disorder – which, to my knowledge is most commonly referred to as ‘bipolar’?

ED: No, Thank You, for allowing me to be a part of this very important cause. Bipolar Disorder which is also known as Manic-Depression is a mental illness that is categorized by severe mood swings that last for long periods. It is called bipolar due to the two opposite spectrums that a patient deals with. One can “cycle” from depression to mania (hyperactivity). It affects a person’s physical, mental, emotional well-being as well as everyday activities and relationships. There are also two forms of bipolar: Bipolar one and Bipolar two. A person suffering from Bipolar one has more manic episodes that last longer than one who suffers from Bipolar two. I have Bipolar two; which means that I am more depressive than manic.

Q: Tell me about being formally diagnosed? What was your experience like before this, how have you been impacted since, and how do you manage bipolar?

ED: I was diagnosed in 2009 while living in Biloxi, MS the same year I graduated from college. Before being formally diagnosed, I was aware that I have several family members who exhibited Bipolar symptoms. I also knew that as a child I was very depressive off and on. While in college is when I experienced the majority of my mania phases. I became diagnosed after I was sexually assaulted which caused me to fall into a tailspin. I was cycling back and forth between depression and mania to the point of high severity. A colleague at the time insisted that I get an assessment after going downhill for some time and I was diagnosed Manic-Depressive with PTSD.

I continue to suffer from the disorder as there is no “cure” for bipolarism. One can manage it with effective medication, psychotherapy, and adequate coping skills. The manic symptom of Bipolar causes one to not want to stay on medication because quite frankly, mania “feels good.” Its not the dreaded feeling of depression. So, it’s a struggle to stay medicated. I also attend therapy both clinical and spiritual often. When I can, I also attend support groups through the National Association of Mental Illness. Since my initial diagnosis, I have created some of my own coping skills that help. I explore this more in my memoir “Beautiful & Bipolar: Life, Love and Mental Illness.”

Q: There is a very large stigma that is placed upon mental illness in this country. This, combined with being a Black woman in this society, and the idea that Black women are supposed to be ‘strong’ regardless of the various challenges, means that disclosing such information about mental illnesses, we would undoubtedly be looked at as having a greater ‘deficiency’. I would say that in this context you are quite brave to be so open about your struggles – and also your triumphs. What inspires you to be so vocal about your journey?

ED: You are absolutely right there is a HUGE stigma attached to being a single, African-American Woman with a mental illness. I have been viewed by both family and friends as “weak” during a depressive phase and “irresponsible” while manic. It can be confusing and upsetting when people feel like I “want” to be this way. This can also feel like a huge character flaw when in fact it’s just the illness. Due to this, my illness has caused me to lose some friendships and relationships. I decided to be vocal one because there is no voice for this issue and I KNOW that others are riddled with illness. I feel like we all need someone to feel that “ah ha” moment with. Everyone needs to feel like there is a time when you need someone who just understands and can empathize. As a social worker, it is my plight in life to advocate for others including myself. I feel that the more exposure and information provided, the less negative my disorder is viewed as. I loved the combination of Beautiful & Bipolar because people only see the “ugly” or the “crazy” in mental illness. When I think of my illness, I see, the creativity and the beauty in my acceptance in being different.

Q: Congratulations on the birth of your first child. You recently wrote a blog post about her — ‘Erilyn Full of Grace,’ where you shared some information regarding her birth and although there were several things that stood out to me while reading this post, two of them were 1. That directly after she was born, Erilyn needed to be taken into the neonatal unit to detox from the medications you had been taking during your pregnancy,and 2. that you are bottle feeding. Can you tell me what the conversation was like internally and with others – your primary care physician, for example, about how you would feed your newborn? What were your thoughts about breast or bottle and did having bipolar influence this?

ED: Thanks…Erilyn is definitely my “Saving Grace.” When I became pregnant my OB GYN formed a treatment team with a psychiatrist who specialized in women with mental illnesses. We also utilized my psychologist that was familiar with post partum depression and bipolar. I was not medicated before I became pregnant. In fact, I had been manic for months self-medicating with alcohol. I was literally falling off the cliff and frequently suicidal. When I discovered I was pregnant I refused to take the medications because there was no scientific evidence that the medication would NOT harm the baby. Plus the feedback from my family made me second guesses being medicated. I didn’t want to be responsible for lasting effects on my baby as a result. So, initially, my team took me off work as a child abuse social worker at 6 months because I started to decline with the added stress. For example, I did not sleep and/or intake food/drinks. I would not get out of bed and had trouble concentrating and battled suicidal ideations. It was then that I frequently became dehydrated which caused me to go into false labor often. After months of feeling depressed to no end I was afraid of what Mania would look like while pregnant so I took the advice and began a low dosage of a mood stabilizer and sleep aid. This was the hardest decision that I made; however, I was told I was more of a danger to my child un-medicated than taking meds.

Once I decided to become medicated, my team each saw me once a week. I had weekly ultrasounds to monitor the baby’s growth and to look for any abnormalities. In my opinion, the medications worked somewhat at keeping me baseline, but the depression never really lifted. I suffered guilt which made me feel even more depressed coupled with the fact that I was going through the pregnancy alone. Immediately I was informed that I would have a bad case of post partum and that I would not be able to breastfeed. For me, I was indifferent. It was society that made me feel inadequate because I could not breastfeed. I was motivated to bottle feed because I no longer wanted to “pump” my baby with medications because after all it was not her fault. I was told that my daughter would not have the same benefits as a breastfed baby. I was told I would have issues with bonding because of this which was very detrimental to my psyche at the time. In my ninth month, I became very suicidal and depressed. As a result, I had my father move in, but I still did not feel…..”safe” to be alone. I was stressed about the delivery and everything. I ended up being hospitalized in the perinatal unit for three weeks before being induced. I chose the perinatal unit over a mental institution where my treatment team monitored my medications and the baby around the clock as well as attempted to get me to intake foods. The delivery itself was difficult as I cycled into mania, and did not dilate. I ended up having an emergency c-section. My daughter was delivered safely, but then began to exhibit signs of withdrawal 9 hours after delivery where they “whisked” her from my arms and put her into the neonatal unit. That was the most scariest and overwhelming 4 days of my life. Though Erilyn came out perfectly fine….it killed me that she was in the NICU because of me and my decision to be medicated. I got tons of backlashes from people I knew, and beat myself up. In retrospect, I don’t regret the decision one bit.

Q: Both your blog and your book are called ‘Beautiful and Bipolar,’ which in my mind is an attempt to show that these ideas are not mutually exclusive, but can exist and converge where many folks may believe that they cannot. Truthfully, you appear to have it quite together – a formal education, a thriving career in social work, a mother. Also, in your book you state that since you’ve been medicated, people don’t believe you when you disclose about your illness. How does this underscore any day-to-day challenges that may exist, in light of being seen as someone who may not be suffering and/or surviving from a mental illness? What challenges lay beneath the surface – especially now in motherhood?

ED: I used the title Beautiful and Bipolar for those exact reasons. Mental illness isn’t a look. There is no way to look at someone and just know. You can be successful and lead a “normal” life with bipolar if you take an active role in managing it. My day to day routine has to be stable. I cannot function properly in chaos. The thing is there are going to be stress filled days especially while in grad school, with a newborn and working full time. I have to ensure I get adequate sleep, because when you are sleep deprived it can trigger mania. I also have to truly utilize my supports. Managing an illness alone is almost impossible because something will suffer and in my case I cannot allow anything to suffer knowingly as all my responsibilities are equally important as a single mother. Being Beautiful and Bipolar is who I am. I am a regular self-proclaimed Southern Belle who loves to read, write, watch college football, hang out with my sorority sisters, and spend time with family. There are times when my bipolar gets in the way, but I take a more active role to ensure that I MAKE myself get out of bed. I MAKE myself interact with my baby, and on those low days were it seems impossible, I do not hesitate to use my supports. It’s my goals to ensure that I don’t stay in the depressive state long and that I reach out. I wanted to use the word Beautiful because though my diagnosis may seem like I am flawed there is beauty in being flawed.

Q: These days there are many sentiments in favor of breastfeeding. The positive and negative is that more and more women are breastfeeding but there is also a greater level of intolerance for feeding methods aside from the breast. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen and heard many negative sentiments about Black women, explicitly, who are not breastfeeding. Have you faced any negativity or judgments when people see you or learn that you are not breastfeeding – especially without knowing your entire story? How does this make you feel?

ED: In the beginning when Erilyn was first born, most women especially older women asked if I breastfed. I would get weird looks when I answered no. It felt that I was being judged. I took pride in knowing myself that it was the healthiest thing I could do for my baby. I stood by my decision and voiced that everyone parents different and that we are all entitled to CHOSE what type of mother we want to be including feeding methods. Now that Erilyn is a little older, I rarely get asked that question. Or when I am asked, I don’t even pay attention to how the people react because I know how it feels to see your baby withdraw and that’s not an option for me and my baby. I am an advocate for CHOICES. If a mother wants to breastfeed for the immune system benefits then Kudos! That’s just not my situation.

Q: In your opinion, how do you feel those of us who are Black lactation advocates and activists can better inform ourselves about bipolar disorder and other mental health areas, in our desire to strengthen our work in Black breastfeeding support and to work towards a great level of understanding?

ED: I believe that in those parenting classes that difficult pregnancies are discussed. Not everyone will have a “normal” pregnancy and that should be brought to the forefront. I also think that there should be some appropriate studies about the affects of being medicated and breastfeeding/being pregnant. I remember researching literature about being pregnant and bipolar and found nothing….zilch. This cannot be an appropriate representation. So, I believe that the medical professionals need to educate all of us from the OB GYN offices, Mental health clinics, lactation classes, and Lamaze. With those measures in place, word of mouth will take effect because that’s how knowledge is spread in our community in my opinion.

Q: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you would like to share? Or anything you feel needs to be highlighted or addressed in this area?

ED: I think that we just need to share empathy instead of anger and sympathy when it comes to mental illness among our people. We shouldn’t feel shameful for being who we are. It should not take a famous celebrity to succumb to mental illness for it to be discussed in a “roundabout” way. We need to learn how to be supports and be willing to support. You never know what a conversation might do for someone tinkering on the edge. Also, post partum needs to be discussed. As new mothers, we sometimes feel ashamed that we are having issues with bonding in fear that we will be misunderstood or judge. Post partum depression is real and lasts well beyond the six weeks. I still have issues and it’s imperative that we are educated on this topic as well so that we can be supports. It truly takes a village, especially with the rise in single parent homes. As a child abuse investigator, most babies are harmed in infancy as a result of post partum depression. I did not want to admit in this post that I still struggle to bond. To not just be a caregiver, but develop a relationship with your newborn because you don’t get that time back. It took me writing the word Post Partum on an actual post it note for me to admit that I still suffer from it…and that its okay. It’s only been three months into single motherhood. In fact, it affects women who are married and/are in co parenting relationships as well. Post Partum and mental illness does not discriminate.

As someone who suffers from mental illness, it has become easier for me to talk about it because that’s not all I am about. Bipolar does not define me…..it is a part of me. It’s genetic. Though I pray that Erilyn is not diagnosed, I am prepared to be a support for her. As she gets older, I will educate her myself about why mommy might be a little different. It is up to us to educate ourselves. Thanks so much for this opportunity. Advocacy is what makes the world go ‘round and makes our villages……expand.

Erika DErika Dennis is a licensed social worker and Alum of Auburn University who resides in Atlanta, GA with her infant daughter Erilyn Olivia-Grace. As a strong advocate seeking a voice for mental health, Erika is the author of  the novel “Beautiful and Bipolar: Life, Love, and Mental Illness” and the blog Beautiful and Bipolar. Follower her on Twitter

This post is part of the Black Breastfeeding and Mental Illness: Struggling with & Surviving blog carnival.

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