Kanye West, bipolar disorder and me: When I hear Kanye's rants, I remember my own delusions

Afraid of being laughed at, called crazy or attention-seeking, I kept my diagnosis a secret from almost everyone

Published August 8, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

Kanye West attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 09, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California. (Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)
Kanye West attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 09, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California. (Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

I was spooked, running around New York City trying to dodge death. Little blue men were falling from the sky trying to kill me. I'm from the hood, where violence is as normal as crack addiction, and crack houses. I've had knives held to my neck. Once, I fought off an armed robber. I've found safe hiding places during shootouts. I even saw some New Orleans body snatchers hogtie Bobbie, a local dope boy, and throw him in the trunk. I've seen and participated in a lot of violence, and folding wasn't an option. Yet, here I was losing my mind over some Force that came to me in the form of little blue men. I was bugging.  

Had I really lost my mind? I'm reminded of that day now as the controversy around Kanye West's recent erratic actions continues to swirl. 

Recently, West shared an extensive monologue at an event after he announced his presidential bid. He touched on everything from abortion to Harriet Tubman, and after even accused his wife, Kim Kardashian, of trying to "lock him up." West's disquisition came on the heels of announcing his upcoming album, "Donda," which led many to believe that he's simply creating publicity for himself in the name of album sales. Others say that he's "going crazy." But I believe it's neither of the former. After hearing this latest monologue, I teared up because I understand what I think Kanye is going through. It's no secret that Kanye was diagnosed with bipolar disorder back in 2016. I know how scary it is to fall into a trance and exercise manic behavior that can be harmful to yourself and to those you love. 

It was summer 2017, when Future's "Mask Off" bullied the Billboard charts. Maybe the little blue men falling from the sky weren't trying to kill me, but instead were attempting to unmask me. Either way, I wasn't trying to find out. My agenda was to stay alive.

Midtown Manhattan was bright-eyed with sunshine, and smoldering The City with disrespectful loads of heat. At 1 p.m., the Big City of Dreams was busy with taxpayers' speed-walking to their respective destinations, quietly cussing the tourists making sudden stops to snap pictures and stare at landscapes. Grill smoke emanated from food trucks like crack smoke filtering out of smokers' rooms into the living rooms of crack houses, where hustlers lounged in sinking sofas with guns, weed, rusty razors, and frontos sitting on dusty coffee tables. If it wasn't for a vicious cocaine addiction depriving me of my sense of smell, I would describe the fumes from the food trucks, but I can't.

I felt invisible, akin to the high school basketball game when I cashed in on 31 points. I felt alone on the court, and I moved as such, unbothered by defenders. The stupor experienced on this particular day in Manhattan operated on demon time, an accumulation of years of cocaine use, violence, manipulation and dishonesty, as well as a family history of mental illness. At 2 a.m., I was still in the streets, frantically watching the sky and holding back tears.

This manic, euphoric, hyperactive trance that I was in is what an episode of bipolar disorder looks like. I wasn't high on cocaine, either. But I was dealing with a lot. I'd been grinding as an intern for years and had recently graduated college, but I hadn't landed a job yet. I had been accepted into a graduate program at Fordham University after being turned down by every Ph.D. program I applied to. After so many rejections, I wondered if I was intelligent enough to prosper at a competitive Ph.D. program. I'd recently had a fight with a guy from my neighborhood. I wasn't sure if the situation would escalate to gun violence. Also, my cocaine habit was weighing on me. I'd been carrying that secret for nearly 15 years. Stress, drug use, or things as simple as rain, taking a break from work, could trigger a bipolar episode for me. Literally, anything can be triggering. 

"Darryl, where are you," my friend Shannon texted. "What's happening? Send us your location, so we can send the police to help you."  

I ignored the text.  

Shannon and her mother Sylvia had been concerned about me. I showed signs of sickness. I started talking about death. I'd disappear for days, and weeks at a time. When I feared death, I'd seclude myself. When I used cocaine, I'd disappear with one of the girls that I used cocaine with. 

"Hey Darryl, you need help right now. Where are you? We're going to get you some help. But you have to tell us where you're at?  "

In 2015, Anthony Hill, a U.S. Air Force veteran, had  a bipolar episode. He was running around his apartment complex naked. The police arrived. Hill, naked and unarmed was shot twice. 

"Darryl," my friends texted. "Where are you? We want to help you. We will send the police to help you. They will get you the help you need."

In 2017, Muhammad Muhaymin was at a local community center with his dog, what he used for emotional support. Wanting to use the restroom the manager blocked him, an argument ensued, and the police were called. At the conclusion of the police presences, Muhammad died as a police knelt on his Muhammad's neck.  

I felt like Shannon and Sylvia were conspiring with the Force to kill me. So, I fired off a fusillade of belligerent texts and threats. My text messages were non-stop, similar to Kanye's tweets when he goes on a rant. I was totally convinced that people wanted me dead. So, I zeroed in on that. At the time, I hadn't been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so none of us understood what was really going on.

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition characterized by distinct changes in mood, energy, and activity levels. People diagnosed with bipolar disorder can experience shifts in mood, hallucinations, depressive and/or manic episodes. When triggered, an episode can last for days or weeks at a time. 

When Kanye's bipolar disorder is triggered, as he told David Letterman"I ramp up, and I go high," and sometimes we get those long musings from him as a result. For whatever reason, he zeros in on controversial language. "It can even take you to a point where you can even end up in the hospital," which it did in a 2016 episode which he describes as "hyper-paranoid." As for me, I turn my focus on death. Another person may focus on dogs, or birds, or become afraid of getting punched in the face. Looking back, there was a time where Kanye would end his concerts with long-winded rants. It was shortly after these rants that Kanye was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 

* * * 

"You gangbang? You Billy?"

Tizz, shirtless, and standing 6'2" with an upper frame ripped like a He-Man action figure, greeted me at the entrance of 4 Upper, a cell block at Rikers Island's O.B.C.C. unit. He wanted to know if I was in the Blood gang. My threats to Shannon, a fight, and a missed court date landed me on Rikers Island. 

"Nah, I don't gangbang," I answered. 

"Aight, let me show you how shit goes around here," Tizz said, leading me through the 60-man open dorm. Shirtless men with hard stares, unaddressed trauma, and untold stories watched me closely, looking for signs. Any clue as to what I'm about.

"This phone, right here, is Blood's phone. This is the Spanish phone. This is Mase's phone. And this is a neutral phone, it's open until slot time. Slot time is at 7 p.m. After 7, nobody gets on these phones, unless you ask one of the brothers." 

Tizz did the same thing for the televisions and chairs inside the day room. After getting settled, another inmate asked if I wanted a knife. I was confident that I'd be safe without a weapon, so I said no. Also, I recognized that I had a lot to lose. I later became friends with the guy who asked me if I wanted a knife. He told me where he kept it hidden in case I ever needed it.

I was honest with the medical staff at Rikers about my disorder. In return, they offered medicine, but I refused. Being doped up in a violent environment like Rikers Island was not part of the plan. 

The cellblock, 4 Upper, was alive with the everyday mundanity of the Island. Inmates draped in beige Bob Barker-made tops and bottoms engaged in a heated dice game in the back corner near the window. Scottie, a chocolate-complexioned, solid-built, Brooklyn-bred man who took special care of his waves shook the dice with his hand just above his ears. With his other hand he pointed at each man wanting a side bet. Inside the dayroom, two men focused on their chess game as inmates yelled at the television. One guy was on the phone yelling at his girl. Across the cell block, toward the back, near the opposite window where the dice game took place, a group of men shared K2 and weed. The C.O. sat glued to this chair, looking bored.  

Peeping the scene from my bed, I grew fearful thinking about the 2-4 year prison sentence the assistant district attorney recommended. Paranoia followed fear before the little blue men appeared on the ceiling. They had come to kill me. My fellow-inmates started looking like ghouls who were trying to kill me also. Go get the shank from the bathroom, I thought to myself. Instead, I hopped on the phone to call my ex-girlfriend. She provided comfort until she couldn't. 

Vincent wasn't as lucky as me. While in Rikers, his mental illness took over, leading him to strip naked in the wee hours of the morning, sexually assaulting men while they were asleep. As opposed to getting Vincent help, or putting him solitary confinement, he was moved to another cell block. The night he was moved, he stripped naked and assaulted a woman correctional officer. He's facing multiple felonies. He was initially charged with the violation of an order of protection. 

There is difficulty acknowledging mental illness. Negative stigmas associated with bipolar disorder lead many people to believe that people with bipolar are seeking attention, or we're "crazy." Mental illness is also perceived as a personal weakness due to negative stereotypes of instability. To be fair, it's not always clear when one needs help for a mental illness. This can be confusing, and adds to the difficulty of acknowledging the illness. 

For fear of being called crazy, laughed at, or being seen as someone "looking for attention," my bipolar disorder has been a secret to 99 percent of the people in my life. 

Although Kanye has been open about his diagnosis, it's not clear if he's fully accepted what it means. Since my release from Rikers, I have freaked out on a former lawyer and his colleague, as well as their families. Once I finally accepted the fact that I may make unhealthy decisions during an episode, my loved ones and I developed a plan to take away my phone during an episode. Bipolar disorder isn't anyone's fault. It's a combination of genetics, and physical changes in the brain. In managing bipolar disorder, it's important to reduce stress, have open conversations, and accept the facts that come with the diagnosis. It's totally fine for consumers not to support Kanye's business endeavors, because he has said hurtful things to people who have supported his career. But people who are uninformed about bipolar disorder should be mindful when discussing Kanye's public rants. As stated earlier, anything can trigger a bipolar episode. 

By Darryl Robertson

Darryl Robertson is a Harlem-based writer, and J.I.E. Scholar at Columbia University. His research interests include hip-hop and understanding how the Black Panther Party serviced its communities. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Black Perspectives, VIBE, XXL, Ozy, among several other publications.    Follow him on Twitter @dvrobertson88.

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