A Few Words About Your “Crazy” Friend

Image and video hosting by TinyPicThere’s one on the periphery of every crew: the chick who used to be the homie, but now everyone thinks she’s “crazy.” Whether she has flipped on you at the club or locked herself in (and you and her boyfriend out of) her apartment for weeks, you know exactly who she is. But while we’re all laughing at her antics—or going out of our way not to hang out with her anymore—she may be dealing with a very real illness.
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Sadly, we often feel more comfortable dismissing chicks as “crazy” than we do trying to help them. I can’t say that I ever gave any serious thought to what could really be going on until I met Simone, a 25-year-old Black girl living in Harlem. When I learned that this beautiful, successful lady was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (BPD) at the age of 13, the beautiful, successful ladies in my life were all I could think about. We were at an event about BPD, a mental illness that affects an estimated 8 million adults in the United States (it used to be called manic-depressive disorder, which describes the extreme highs and lows sufferers experience). And when I heard about her depressive periods, episodes of hypomania, suicide attempts and more than a dozen hospitalizations— “Regulating my emotions is often challenging, even with meds and talk therapy,” she told me—I realized that I’ve been doing those chicks a real disservice by not being upfront with them. Sure, we talk about their behavior with our other friends, but we don’t discuss it with the people who matter.

Why? As with many things, fear is probably mixed all up in this one. Within the African-American community at least, mental illness still carries a huge stigma, as if by speaking about that-which-must-not-be-named we invite it into our lives. But we fail to realize that it’s already there, and refusing to shine a bright light into the dark corners doesn’t mean the cobwebs are just going to disappear.

I’m not saying we need to grab sisters and start in on the “woo-woo-woos”; as Simone puts it, “Empathy is one thing, but I don’t need to be coddled.” And you obviously can’t help someone who isn’t ready to be helped. But retelling stories about “Crazy What’s Her Name” isn’t doing anyone any favors (and yes, I’m definitely guilty of doing this). In fact, I would imagine that part of what makes it so hard for women to realize that something might actually be wrong is that we’re all so busy acting like there isn’t. (Seriously. On average, it takes ten years to be properly diagnosed with BPD.)

So here’s my challenge, if you’re up to it: First, read about the symptoms. Then, stop calling your girl “crazy.” Finally, talk to her. Don’t try to diagnose her, or push her to make big decisions or admissions. Just ask if she’s okay, if she needs you. Maybe she’ll say no or get upset with you, but maybe you’ll be exactly who she needs to talk to.

Know exactly who this girl is in your crew? Gonna take the challenge and reach out? Have you done this before? Give us some tips.

—Kenrya

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Last 5 posts by kenrya

  • Diane

    You should weigh a few things before jumping in:

    First, are they ready to accept assistance? Do they understand they are ill? If not, then it doesn’t matter what you do/say – and you’ll have the added angst of being blamed, yelled at, or worse.

    Second, are you ready? Do you know how to approach this in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way? Do you know how to discuss this with someone who may not be fully aware? Do you know enough to know this is likely BPD or similar? Are you ready to be attacked – and are you wise enough not to take anything personally – thus not react? Are you ready to accept that your ‘gift’ may not be accepted? And can you be ok with this?

    Note also many BPD are combined with all sorts of addiction – sex, alcohol, drugs. Addiction can be a part of the BPD, or symptoms similar to, but not, BPD – are an effect of addiction and addictive behavior.

    Are you prepared to research before stepping in?

    And I ask again – are you prepared to not be heard? To not become defensive, heated, agitated. Can you accept the result, no matter what that is?

    Having had people close to me have nervous breakdowns before my eyes, being with addictive/BPD partner, and having schizophrenia within the family – this is not something to take lightly, ever.

    IMO, of course. There is no magic wave of a wand that can fix this/these disease(s).

  • Diane, thank so much for the tips, as someone who has been there. I totally agree; the decision to have this conversation with someone is not to be entered into lightly. I just think that mental illness—whatever the type—is much too serious for so many (young?) people to treat it like a bad temperament or a joke. I’m hoping we can move beyond the fear to just have an open conversation with our friends about how they are feeling; that doesn’t mean trying to diagnose them or force them do anything—just letting them know that you are there if they need you can be a great, supportive first step.

  • Diane

    Kenrya – any time.
    The word shame is apropos. Family shame, personal shame, it’s prevalent for all, but when it comes wrapped up with illness, it’s so much more intense.

    There is no shame in this, or the honesty of knowing it is around. But sweeping it under the rug keeps the shame alive and well.

    Vicious cycles. Young people are naive on the whole. We are cruel in childhood, and we continue that to some extent as we get into young adulthood. Heck, many folks carry it with them their whole lives. So you’re up against generations of denial.

    For me, my young adulthood changed when the nervous breakdown person – college roommate – was taken from the health center by the family without a word to any of us suite-mates. Then we had Thanksgiving vacation. I returned to my suite/dorm room to find half the place empty. I saw the striped mattress that had been covered in a floral comforter. The closet door was open, empty. They hadn’t even closed the dresser drawers. Pictures gone. No note. Nothing. When everyone else arrived, we were told by a Dean that not only was she not returning – the family asked that we not say anything [what did we know…] to anyone. Really? Half our friends knew something was off because we all found her in the middle of a dark field, snow falling, her screaming not to touch her… But we were told nothing. We were asked. We could say nothing.

    How unfair. How cruel – and to boot, her mom was a dr.

  • Thai

    I certainly have had people in my life I labeled as crazy…friends, co-workers, family members. I’ve seen folks go through all the emotions in one day. Quite honestly I have wondered at times if I might slightly fit into the category (but I know now my moods change because of the people around me).

    There is one particular person in my life who has been diagnosed bipolar. She and I have never gotten along and she made my childhood quite difficult. As a child, I took things she did very personal and therefore it kept me away from someone I cared very deeply for, she affected my relationship with someone else. I grew up thinking she was just crazy. It wasn’t until I was graduating from college that someone told me she was bipolar. I still had a hard time letting go of the feelings I had towards her. But in an attempt to rebuild my relationship with someone I tried to be understanding.

    Well, all of that has since changed. She refuses to take her medication now and she’s back to the person I don’t like…the person I saw as a child. As an adult I feel like I should be able to be sympathetic, but she’s an adult too and she’s being irresponsible, so I’m back treating her like she’s just crazy.

    This of course is my own experience and I don’t reccomend this approach. But this is how I have to deal with the situation in order to keep the relationship I worked so hard to repair. I have to ignore her…it’s the only thing that works for me.

    BUT…in the future I will be more aware of others.