When I Realized I Couldn't Fix His Mental Illness
Climbing up switchbacks and taking hair-pin turns way too quickly and listening to The Beatles' White Album. It's nurturing someone who is running from their demons--holding them on the side of the road while you huddle under a blanket and look at the stars on the edge of a mountain lake, and concurring the darkness and greeting the morning sun while inhaling your victory into burning lungs and gazing into sleepy eyes that radiate relief that the night is over, only to take a new adventure the next night to divert the memories again.
I fell in love with a boy who was officially diagnosed with extreme bipolar disorder, but it took two years to get a diagnosis. We were both 19, young, selfish, and ignorant to the details of mental illness. There were numerous nights when I would get a phone call and the only sound on the other line would be heavy breathing and a shaky, "Help...me." I would instantly jump out of bed and drive to his apartment and find him in a puddle of puke and reeking of alcohol. I would clean him up and put him to bed and pray that he would be "better" in the morning.
I continuously told myself that I could fix him. My touch would erase the dark circles that formed under his eyes from the impossibly long nights that he couldn't sleep. If I held him long enough his anxious, tight, wiry muscles would relax. If we partied and had fun we could be a normal couple like the rest of our friends. We could laugh and drink and be silly, not everything had to be so dark and dramatic. I did not understand that when he was on a manic high that it was not his "normal" self. The extreme happiness would not last and inevitably the other ball of fear and anxiety would swing and the Newton's Cradle that was his personality would slam back down again. The constant swing of emmotion was torturing him. I was in a perpetual state of fear that he would die and I was frustrated because I knew that I was not helping him.
He was constantly self-medicating. He drank... a lot. He cheated on me multiple times. Our relationship was crushing me and I was already working and attending school full time. During the year and a half we were together he ran away more times than I can count, stopping all contact completely. His illness was causing me to have severe anxiety and there were days when I desperately wanted to ignore him, leave him, and forget about him. But then he would call and I would criticize myself for being so selfish. I could never voice my worst fear out loud, especially to him:
What if I'm not there and he dies...
He was finally brought to a rehabilitation center where he was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The words schizophrenia, manic, and depressed, were tossed around like common cold and a possible ear infection. The smell of bleach and ammonia was such a sterile contradiction to the moldy, dusty appearance of the neglected building. There were cracks on the tiled floor and an eerie silence that trailed behind my reluctant footsteps as I followed a nurse to see him. I walked into a florescent cafeteria and to tell you the truth, I don't remember a single word we said. I know, I'm sorry for the let down, but I honestly can't think of what we said to each other. I remember him being very sedative and his eyes were incredibly sad. I distinctly remember going home and eating some banana cream pie only to expel it into the toilet 15 minutes later. I still can't eat banana cream pie.
Shortly after, I went off to Western Washington University to finish my four year degree. He went through more rehabilitation. We began to drift apart. I went to visit him at one more facility that was much nicer than the last. I didn't know how to tell him that I had found someone else. We weren't together, but I still felt heavy with a guilty heart that I was moving on. I made the incredibly cruel and stupid decision to tell him the day he was sent home that I was dropping out of our relationship. I will never forget the sound of his voice when he whispered in an exhausted tone, "Why would you tell me that today, the day I get to go home?" I selfishly decided that day that I was done; I wanted to leave our relationship in the past. I was bailing hard because I wanted to enjoy my two years of university life.
We have hardly spoken since that final goodbye where we literally hung up the phone and ended the conversation of "us." From our brief interactions following our breakup, and the gossip mill of Facebook, it sounds like he is doing incredibly well for himself. He went back to school and we now share the same alma mater. Without my help or influence he picked himself up and made a new life. In my vanity I thought it was me that was holding him together when ultimately he was always in control of his own life and didn't need me backseat-driving for him. His battle ultimately had to be fought with the aid of professionals and a loving family.
He has a new shotgun partner now. When I think of them driving through life together I feel a surge of emotion that hurls itself through the timeline of "us". I fiercely want her to be the one for him. I want her to stand strong where I crumbled under the weight of his illness. I won't ever get a chance to tell him that I am proud of him. Even though we shared soul-wrenching truths about ourselves, there is the ever present barrier that holds steady when lovers decide to take different directions. After speeding through the dark tunnel of time that was “us" and the discovery of illness, I hope he basks in the light on the other side.
Have you ever dated someone with a mental illness? Share your story below.
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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Understanding The Silent Battle Of PMDD
For many women, the severity of our menstrual cycle can make us feel foreign in our own bodies.
From physical symptoms like bloating and fatigue to emotional waves brought on by mood swings and irritability, 3 out of 4 menstruating women have experienced some form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) in their lifetime. However, what separates normal PMS from a more debilitating variation of these conditions lies in the severity and impact of these symptoms and how it impairs a woman’s ability to function in their daily life — and such is the case of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD).
WHAT IS PMDD?
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) is a severe type of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) that brings about a variety of emotional and physical symptoms during the week or two before menstruation. It is often recognized as 'severe PMS’ and typically occurs during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, which spans from ovulation to the onset of the period.
“PMS and PMDD are very similar but also very different,” says Dr. Ashanda Saint Jean, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York Medical College.
“In terms of PMS syndrome, it is characterized by both physical and behavioral symptoms that occur prior to the onset of menstruation,” she tells xoNecole. “Whereas PMDD is the severity of the symptoms, which then can be characterized by depression, anxiety, mood changes, and sometimes even suicidal ideation. It's the severity of the symptoms which then require medicinal therapy.”
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF PMDD?
One of the main distinctions between PMDD and PMS is how it impairs or disrupts the daily functions and quality of life of the women who experience this condition. “Some of the signs of PMDD can be depression, irritability, and anxiety,” Dr. Saint Jean explains. “You can have the severity in the form of breast pain, bloating, swelling, headaches, but once you have your period, these symptoms usually remit or stop occurring.”
While symptoms of PMDD may vary on an individual basis, they typically show up with PMS symptoms and can be broken up into two categories:
- Mood swings
- Experiencing sadness or tearfulness
- Fatigue or decreased energy levels
- Crying spells
- Less interest in activities you normally enjoy
- Feeling hopeless
- Suicidal feelings
- Feeling angry or irritable
- Feeling anxious, tense, or ‘keyed up’
PHYSICAL AND BEHAVIORAL EXPERIENCES
- Breast tenderness or swelling
- Bloating sensation
- Changes in appetite, including overeating or specific food cravings
- Sleep disturbances
- Muscle and joint pain
- Increased anger or conflicts with others
- Strong emotional response to perceived rejection by others
Although the specific causes of PMDD are yet to be fully understood, research suggests that there is a connection between PMDD and heightened sensitivity to the typical hormonal fluctuations that take place throughout the menstrual cycle.
“It's your body's response to estrogen. There’s a cycle to how your brain sends out signals and that influences your ovaries to produce hormones,” she says, “It’s hypersensitive sensitivity to the elevation of the hormones that can make the body and mind experience symptoms of PMDD.”
HOW IS PMDD DIAGNOSED?
Women who suspect to have symptoms of PMDD can begin their self-screening by taking the International Association for Premenstrual Disorders (IAPMD)’s online screening assessment. Your medical provider will then look for five or more PMDD symptoms, including one mood-related symptom to determine the diagnosis.
Because PMDD is diagnosed based on recurring symptoms, it’s helpful to keep track of your symptoms for at least two full menstrual cycles by using a journal, notebook, or tracking app.
“One's agency is very important and our patients know their bodies,” Dr. Saint Jean says. “It can be something that you may suspect that you have, but I will always advise patients to then have that conversation with their provider (gynecologist or primary care physician).”
“If you’re having any of these symptoms, it’s always a good idea to bring them to the forefront and discuss with your provider and see together how you can arrive at the appropriate diagnosis for you,” she continues.
WHAT ARE TREATMENT OPTIONS FOR PMDD?
Once a diagnosis is made, there are a variety of treatment options that can be prescribed. Many patients may require a mood stabilizer such as a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), which is a category of medication that increases the levels of serotonin in the brain. Dr. Saint Jean also shares that there is the option of continuous oral contraception, which “increases the intervals of your menstrual cycle,” and allows you to have fewer periods throughout the year.
In all, treatment solely depends on the severity of your symptoms is the advice from your medical provider.
“Not everyone requires to be on an SSRI, but it is helpful for some, especially some patients who have suicidal ideation,” she shares. There are also a variety of lifestyle changes, exercise, and dietary modifications that can aid in decreasing these symptoms. “You may crave salt and sugar, which then can contribute to bloating and water retention; so we advise you to stay away from sugary and salty foods prior to menstruation.”
Struggling with PMDD can feel like a silent battle when you’re experiencing it alone or never knew there was a name for the symptoms that you endure. Thankfully, with the proper tracking and advisory from your primary care physician, PMDD doesn’t have to be something that you suffer through unsupported or untreated — and with these tools, relief could be closer than you think.
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