Now he's spoken openly about it, I'm going to treat my bipolar disorder like Kanye treats his

Bipolar is a frightening and sometimes lethal disease. But the idea that there may be some sort of consolation prize for all the suffering, in the form of emotional clarity or heightened compassion, is a great comfort

Kate Leaver
Thursday 07 June 2018 15:44 BST
Kanye West on his 'mental issues': 'It's not a disability, its a superpower'

We’ve been speculating about Kanye West’s mental health for years – diagnosing him from afar with each of his outlandish tweets. His rants have sometimes had a seemingly manic quality to them. He often seemed to have illusions of grandeur and a disassociation from reality, both of which are typical of people who live with bipolar disorder. I could recognise that as someone who lives with the condition too, but I never felt comfortable speaking with any certainty about West’s mental health problems because he hadn’t disclosed them himself.

Until this week.

With the release of his new album, Ye, West has finally gone candid about his mental health. Until now, at which point he is obviously ready to talk about it openly, even the most famous rapper on the planet deserved privacy where his psyche was concerned. In several interviews, he’s spoken about his mental health status. He also rapped about it in some of his new songs – on the track “Yikes”, he says: “That’s my bipolar shit, n***a what/That’s my superpower, n***a ain’t no disability/I’m a superhero! I’m a superhero!”

Believing yourself to have a superpower is not just a typical trait of bipolar disorder (mania can cause someone to think they are untouchable or superhuman, increase the volume and pace of their speech, reduce their need to sleep, convince them their ideas are the greatest of all time and make them feel invincible). It is also a powerful, enchanting way to reframe an otherwise harrowing illness as something positive and empowering.

I have often thought that my bipolar disorder feels like a superpower – and not just during a manic episode. I know precisely what West is trying to say here. Bipolar disorder is a power of sorts: the power to see the extremes of human emotion.

The condition is characterised by an alternation between highs and lows; between mania and depression. A person can function, with the right treatment – I do, with medication, therapy and a huge amount of emotional support from friends and family. But knowing that you are susceptible to mood change, because of chemical reactions in your brain as well as external triggers, puts you in this state of constant emotional suspense, waiting to feel either ecstasy or numbness. It can be debilitating and dangerous, but it can also increase your empathy, make you see the world differently, trigger your creativity and make you an emotionally intelligent person.

Perhaps that’s why, in a moment of peace, quiet and introspection, you could think to yourself: “Hey, if someone asked me to return my bipolar and function as a chemically balanced human being, I might feel conflicted.”

Of course, we shouldn’t glamourise the illness – but I don’t think that’s what West is doing here. Nobody wants to have bipolar disorder; it is frightening and sinister and time-consuming and expensive and exhausting and sometimes lethal. But the idea that there may be some sort of consolation prize for all the suffering, in the form of emotional clarity or heightened compassion, is a great comfort. I find West’s lyrics fascinating and appealing, even comforting. Having him speak about it at all feels like a triumph.

It is a great thing when someone so high profile reveals their diagnosis; it has a way of diluting the stigma we have against people who live with mental illness. When Mariah Carey and Demi Lovato spoke about their lives with bipolar disorder, it seemed to give us permission to talk about it ourselves.

Disclosing that you live with a mental illness is a deeply private decision and can be extremely fraught, but I would suggest transparency helps people live more openly and truthfully and comfortably. I hope that is the case with West. I also hope we will stop calling him crazy now and try conscientiously to understand some of his behaviour.

We can take a cue from him about how to speak about his bipolar disorder: it’s not a wholly negative experience, if you’re extremely lucky. It’s nuanced and complex and sometimes elucidating. If we allow ourselves to think about people with mental health issues as complete, multidimensional human beings, we might see that sometimes, in beautiful, scary moments, their illness can feel like a superpower.

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