I recently watched stand up-comedian Taylor Tomlinson’s Netflix special: Look at you. In this special, Tomlinson is candid and hilarious in her discussions around therapy and mental health.
What I found to be especially interesting, however, was her discussion on bipolar disorder. As a therapist, I see first hand how difficult it is to manage the symptoms of bipolar disorder while also making sense of what this means for you as a person. Are you bipolar? No. You have bipolar disorder.
The subtle nuance around it is often lost under the weight of the diagnoses. It was refreshing to hear Tomlinson talk about bipolar disorder in a way that made it relatable.
What stood out for me the most was her discussion on how she felt being diagnosed because she essentially diagnosed herself. She talked about going into therapy thinking she had anxiety and depression, only to one day Google the medications her psychiatrist had prescribed and learn that the mood stabilisers she was on were used to treat bipolar disorder.
Taylor discusses how she told her psychiatrist that she didn’t know how she felt about the diagnosis, to which her psychiatrist responded “well if it makes you feel better you don't have to say ‘I am bipolar,’ you can say ‘I have bipolar.’”
Taylor goes on to discuss how when she first found out about the diagnosis, “it was a tough pill to swallow,” because there was the question of if she should be open about her mental health.
She shared that she hilariously asked herself, “Am I hot and or talented enough to be an inspiration?”
She contemplated this after being told that Selena Gomez also had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which gave Tomlinson some relief. “That does make me feel better, she is very pretty,” she said.
The part that I found most interesting was when she talked about how it would feel to have the disorder and be open about it.
How would it feel to share her diagnoses, and in doing so, would it help anyone else?
While it is encouraging to see Tomlinson being so open about her diagnosis, discussions like this make it feel as if being bipolar needs to be palatable in some way. She felt relief to see that someone like Selena Gomez also shares her struggles, because Selena Gomez is someone who appears to be high-functioning and relatable. Gomez and Tomlinson aren’t just coping well—but they fit the bill of having it all together. Tomlinson’s discussion about her experience highlights how in some way, we need mental health to be palatable.
But what makes mental health palatable? Is it only palatable when the person is high functioning? How do gender, race and class play into this?
And why are only high functioning people palatable?
Is it because if we’re watching someone struggle then we might have to confront the reality of our own struggles as well? It’s like having a baby, seeing all the supermodels bounce back physically and using them as the point of reference. If they can do it, so can I, right?
Taylor was able to digest the news of her diagnoses using Selena Gomez as a reference point but what I think this discussion leaves out is that not everyone’s management of bipolar disorder looks the same. While it’s great to see someone like Gomez not just functioning but succeeding, she is a white woman who was able to share her story on her own terms and that makes a significant difference because this is not the reality for everyone.
Take Kanye West for example.
Back in 2020 Kim Kardashian publicly addressed Kanye’s diagnoses of bipolar disorder. According to NBC, this was right after "West delivered a lengthy monologue touching on topics from abortion and religion, to international trade and licensing deals before a crowd in North Charleston, South Carolina."
This was also right after he announced he would be running for president.
Kanye struggling then and Kanye struggling now aren’t that different, but the discussion around his illness has certainly changed. Current news headlines about Kanye center on how he has been dropped from the Grammys for his "concerning online behaviour".
In case you missed it, Ye made racial slurs against Trevor Noah that resulted in him being temporarily banned from Instagram. After the incident, Noah made a statement that this incident was an example of how "one of the most powerful, one of the richest women in the world is unable to get her ex to stop texting her, to stop chasing after her, to stop harassing her,"
While Kanye’s treatment of Kim is concerning and completely out of line, the issue is more complicated than that. When you consider Ye’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder there is a very real possibility that we are witnessing a man in the throes of a manic episode.
And yet there is little discussion around whether he’s okay or if he is possibly struggling with his mental health.
Kanye’s not palatable, he’s loud, outspoken and controversial. He’s not the “pretty” kind of bipolar.
For anyone who has experienced a manic episode, you know that reality is not your friend in these moments and struggling through this with family and friends is hard enough.This is magnified exponentially as a celebrity. In his documentary jeen-yuys, Kanye’s friend and director reminds the viewer that "even though West is worshipped the world over, he’s a real person, and he’s going through something”.
When Taylor discussed her diagnoses and coming to terms with what this meant for her she had the luxury of privacy. Sure, she’s a public figure, but not one constantly being hounded by the media. She’s a white woman who received the diagnosis after a struggle that was not up for public consumption or discussion.
Kanye and Taylor both have the same diagnoses, but how they have been able to come to terms with it and how "relatable" we find them —this has a lot to do with how we choose to react to their story and struggle.
How we talk about Kanye sets the stage for how someone else is going to look back on their struggle. It’s going to set the stage for someone who is newly diagnosed and isn’t the palatable kind of bipolar. They might not have it all together and might feel more like a Kanye than a Taylor. It should be okay to be either one.
We need to hear people like Taylor discuss and share their story as a reminder that bipolar disorder looks different for everyone and it’s important that we acknowledge each story for what it is; a personal experience of that specific person but not an expectation that everyone’s struggle should look the same.
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