She defies her bipolar diagnosis
Charita Cole Brown remembers being “weepy and clingy” as a child, but she didn’t experience her first significant bout of depression until high school.
She rebounded from that and went on to college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where she majored in English. But during her first semester, she suffered another round of depression and withdrew from school for a semester.
“I always knew I would return [to school],” said Brown. “I’m a fighter.” But while finishing her final semester, Brown had a psychotic breakdown so severe that doctors predicted she would never lead a normal life and would eventually require custodial care. Her diagnosis: bipolar disorder.
Formerly called manic depression, bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings, including emotional highs and lows. It affects nearly 5.7 million adult Americans every year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
The symptoms and their severity can vary. A person with bipolar disorder may have distinct manic or depressed states, but may also have extended periods — sometimes years — without any symptoms. A person can also experience both extremes simultaneously or in rapid sequence.
Brown, now 59 and residing in Baltimore City, has recently published a book, Defying the Verdict: My Bipolar Life (Curbside Splendor Publishing), that she hopes will help shed light on the disorder itself and lessen the stigma that surrounds mental illness in general.
The median age at which bipolar disorder begins is 25, although the illness can start in early childhood or as late as one’s 40s and 50s. It is found in all ages, races, ethnic groups and social classes, and in men as often as women.
More than two-thirds of people with bipolar disorder have at least one close relative with the illness or with major depression. Brown’s maternal grandmother and maternal great-uncle also suffered from the condition.
Succeeding in spite of it
Despite the diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the bleak prognosis, Brown went on to marry, raise a family, earn a master’s degree in teaching, and enjoy a career as an elementary school educator.
She emphasized that bipolar disorder, while not curable, is highly treatable. She said her success was possible because she sought treatment and has continued to “work her plan.”
“However, more than half of Americans living with the disorder won’t seek treatment,” she noted. “The fact that the U.S. suicide rate for people who have bipolar disorder is 20 times higher than that of the general population is even more sobering.”
Brown, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Maryland chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and is a mental wellness advocate for numerous other programs, said she felt compelled to write her book to encourage people living with the disorder to seek treatment.
Bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition and, Brown admits, a difficult one. “If I had an enemy, I wouldn’t wish this on him or her,” she said.
Treating bipolar disorder
Treatment is available to manage symptoms. It may include lifelong mood-balancing medications, day treatment programs to provide support and counseling, substance abuse treatment if needed, and hospitalization if one is behaving dangerously, feels suicidal or becomes detached from reality.
Brown said she has been in remission and recovery for 25 years with the aid of medication, counseling, and learning what she needs to do to keep her illness in check.
“I don’t drink, I don’t stay up late, I do deep breathing exercises, I meditate, I pray, I do my best to manage stress, and I have friends and family members who can recognize if my mood starts to change,” she said.
She has also learned that there’s no shame in putting herself first. “If I need to lie down and rest, that’s what I do. If I already have enough scheduled for one day, I say no to doing anything else, without feeling I need to offer a reason.
“I’ve learned that ‘no’ is a complete sentence.”
The title of her book was inspired by a quote from Norman Cousins, author of Anatomy of an Illness, who wrote, “Don’t deny the diagnosis, defy the verdict.”
Though Brown herself hasn’t denied her diagnosis, once when she was hospitalized a psychiatrist tried to change her diagnosis to schizophrenia.
“He didn’t believe that African Americans were intelligent enough to have bipolar disorder,” she said, adding that subsequent generations of medical students are being trained to understand cultural norms and not put patients in a “box.”
“The medical community is trying to do better,” said Brown, “but there’s still a long way to go. It’s important for psychiatrists and therapists to know who their patients are, and not just from a medical standpoint.”
Need for more diversity
Brown observed that when she speaks to medical audiences, she’s all too aware of the need for more clinicians of color — not just African Americans but Asians and Hispanics as well.
Brown also hopes that her book and her advocacy work will educate people about who can have mental illness.
“It’s not just the guy who shoots people in a movie theater or a school,” she said. “It can be a creative, articulate, intelligent African American woman — like I am. I am not an anomaly.”
While writing the book, Brown read numerous memoirs, many of them about bipolar disorder. All but two of them, she noted, were written by Caucasian women.
That’s another reason she wrote the book — to share her story so that other women, and women of color in particular, will know that they’re not alone.
Despite living with a mental illness, Brown said she considers herself a “positive” person who doesn’t live her life “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“As long as I’m in touch with my illness, I expect to be healthy,” she said. “I never lose the understanding that I might have lived my life with a custodian and not had the life I’ve had for the past 25 years. My life is a gift.”
Brown will be appearing at the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St., as part of the Writers Live series on Thursday, March 28, at 6:30 p.m.
For more information, visit www.calendar.prattlibrary.org or call (410) 396-5430. Her book will be available for purchase. It is also available at Barnes and Noble, the Ivy Bookshop, and on Amazon.com.