Are you sad, having problems sleeping or eating, having thoughts about hurting yourself, or experiencing difficulty concentrating? Or maybe you have mood swings between euphoria and irritability? These are just a few symptoms of bipolar disorder, which affects more African-Americans in this country than most would expect. Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is a mental health issue that causes extreme highs and extreme lows in a person’s mood and behavior. Ask Dawn Montgomery, the model who was involved in T.I’s Akoo’s NJ billboard and controversial advertising campaign some months ago. The working model and full-time mother was diagnosed with what some people refer to as “the crazy disease” when she was 16, and has been managing the disorder for the last ten years of her life. Montgomery explains how the disorder has affected her, why it isn’t a weakness in character, family or faith, or something you can resolve on your own. She urges our community to get help and not to let the issue go unresolved. ESSENCE.COM: Good to talk to you again. Please explain what bipolar disorder is. MONTGOMERY: It’s a mood disorder. There is a chemical imbalance in your brain that severely affects how you feel. There are two different types of bipolar disorder — you can have more of the mania side, or more of the depressed side. Both come in episodes, more than four episodes a year is called “rapid cycling” and at this point, I track them to know when the next episode is coming. ESSENCE: Do you have type I or type II ? MONTGOMERY: I have bipolar I, more mania than depression. Mania meaning I have racing thoughts, hyperactivity and very strong impulses. Often I do retail therapy, going shopping to cover up something I was upset about, and that for me is a form of mania. Because of the mania, I also have seasonal affective disorder. When it rains, I’m out of it. I feel like I can’t move, my mind is cluttered, it’s extremely hard. ESSENCE.COM: Retail therapy equals mania? That sounds like me and many of my friends. How do you know the difference between mania and just being an impulsive person? MONTGOMERY: It comes down to acting totally outside of a person’s character. ESSENCE.COM: What was the first indication of you having bipolar disorder? MONTGOMERY: During high school I had viral meningitis, and when getting treated in the hospital they began to notice my mood swings. At first, doctors thought it was a result of the medication for the meningitis, but when they saw it wasn’t, that’s when they brought in therapists to find out I really was dealing with bipolar disorder, an illness that would affect me for the rest of my life. ESSENCE.COM: So ten years later, how do you manage it? Are you on medication? MONTGOMERY: No I’m not on medication, and many people aren’t going to believe I manage without medication, but that’s what works for me. I write in my journals to document when and why my mood changes. That’s not to say as I get older I will never need medication, because most studies show it does get worse in later years. ESSENCE.COM: Has the disorder made you so moody you’ve done something you shouldn’t have? MONTGOMERY: Back when I was first diagnosed, that particular psychiatrist put me on anti-depressants. I’m not sure if was the amount of milligrams I was taking but it set me off even worse. I had attempted suicide at least three times in high school, the worst time being when I tried to binge drink myself, and overdose on any pill I could find. ESSENCE.COM: I remember when I interviewed you last time, you mentioned you had a son. Has it affected him or other family members? MONTGOMERY: It has. My son just turned five. There is a book by BeBe Moore Campbell, “My Mom Gets Angry,” a story about a mom with bipolar disorder, so he is aware. There have been times when it has been raining, when he’ll ask me, “Mommy are you going to be okay?” I’m open with him so he can understand what mommy is going through. ESSENCE.COM: What is the biggest misconception about bipolar disorder amongst Black women? MONTGOMERY: The Black woman feels like she is supposed to be consistently strong when there are really times when we need help and we have to reach out. Black women don’t talk about the disorder as they should because they don’t want to seem weak. Besides prayer, there are also professionals out there to speak to. It’s about actually knowing when you need help, instead of the “Let’s just pray about it,” or “let’s have a girls’ night and drink over it.” ESSENCE.COM: Why is addressing mental issues like bipolar disorder so hard in the Black community? MONTGOMERY: Many people in our community don’t understand mental disorders and illness. Many don’t trust clinical professionals. However, educate yourself and acknowledge that you may have a problem. Education is definitely one of the biggest things holding us back… get help.
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