It’s a month after the 2016 election and I’m cuffed to the bench, fidgeting uncontrollably, looking at a man in a cell. He’s pacing, watching me. I’m white like a cop. Above us, the bluish lights flicker and dim. Another inmate screams, a teenage voice. Somewhere in this jail they’re keeping a teenage boy. The cells are concrete with what appear to be Plexiglas doors. The man smiles at me. I shoot a big, electric smile back. I think He and I are having a really nice moment in this jail. Then he kicks the door and howls Help! Shit-eating ass-eating pigs got my freedom! A cop says, Fuck you too, buddy.
My brain flutters, zaps, mourns our really nice moment. I am sick: manic and unmedicated. I keep trying to stand up to open the man’s cell door, forgetting that I’m cuffed to the bench. The man and I have been here together for five or six hours. I feel it’s my duty to give the man what is owed him, which is the freedom to sit on the bench with a roving-eyed white woman who stole $300 worth of food from a grocery store. Now is not the time to shrink in embarrassment at my crime. I am still riding high on my bold intent, which was to give the food to members of a homeless encampment. I was going to be a savior, stealing corporate spoils for the lumpenproletariat. I was going to lead the resistance by introducing compassionate lawlessness to Chicago. Like anarchy but better.
A friend of color caught doing the same thing I did wrote me, embarrassed of her actions: ‘This was a white girl’s crime.’ The phrase invokes the image of a Kristen Bell lookalike trying to steal a thong from Victoria’s Secret just to see if she can get away with it. The image is funny because in our femme-allergic society ‘girl’s crimes’ are low stakes, foolish and selfish, but also because someone who looks like Kristen Bell typically doesn’t have reason to steal. Centuries of violently exacted economic injustice have seen to it that Kristen Bell should be able to afford an overpriced lace thong from a store in her suburban outlet mall. Furthermore, if Kristen Bell does decide to steal, she won’t be followed, apprehended, and punished. That fate is reserved for someone who can’t afford the thong but wants it still.
Meanwhile, my manic brain has big plans. This arrest could become a watershed event for the left and this howling man could be immortalized as my accomplice. We could tell all our comrades we met in jail. We could write treatises. My stomach jumps at the idea of this, this man and I writing treatises together. I feel like I can write a treatise right then, like I’ve got a lot of important words in my belly. Words in my belly. Is that something I heard somewhere or did I just make that up? Either way, it’s brilliant. My feet are moving close together, far apart, close together. A cop announces that he’s finally processed my paperwork and that we now need to wait a long time for something else to happen to it. The teenager appears: black, fourteen years old, mistakenly housed with the adults. A cop walks him through a door to the juvenile holding area.
The man in the cell is in pain, my brain finds time to tell me. I watch a group of cops inventory the items found on the man’s person. He’d been picked up for selling counterfeit hats. A cop holds up a Styrofoam mannequin head, the man’s hat model, and tears off the bucket hat it’s wearing. Then he drop-kicks it. It rolls across the floor to the door of the man’s cell and the cop says, That’s your head, dumbass. The man howls. I try to stand up again but there’s that cuff situation.
I have done nothing wrong, I think. I should not be in this jail. I should be helming a parade down Michigan Avenue. There should be some kind of celebration of my contributions to the resistance. Maybe a parade would be a little ridiculous, a little fanciful, but at least a party. Like a citywide party.
My cop begins reading to me from the Declaration of Independence to pass the time. He has a Chicago accent and a silver canine tooth. He holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Motherfucking pigs! the man howls. Eyes darting in my skull, I ask the cop why the man is in the cell. Why he can’t be allowed to sit outside, cuffed to the bench. Because he’s making trouble, the cop says, and if you make trouble, you go in the cell. Then he resumes reading from the Declaration of Independence and I resume fidgeting. I think, I tried. I really tried my best. I go back to thinking about my citywide party, about what I’ll do when all my paperwork has been processed and I finally get to leave the jail. My brain is spinning fast, disorienting me, but it feels good. It feels unassailable.
Later, after I’d gotten out of jail, after I’d witnessed a bunch of cops huddled around a monitor trying to find a way to charge the man with a felony, after I’d been hospitalized and dosed with lithium, in crept the anxiety, the depression, the humiliation. My brain’s pendulum swings higher and faster than most, returning on itself with skull-shattering force. Why had I stolen all that food? No one had asked me to. No one had asked anything of me except the man banging on his cell door. He’d wanted help.
I used to wait in anticipation of my manias, though I didn’t know to call them by their proper name. I knew them only as blinding bursts of energy, pleasurable reminders that I was a creative genius capable of greatness in an afternoon. I considered them my superpower, my key to an exceptional life. I wondered how so many people tolerated averageness. I pitied those who didn’t want to live with fire in the brain, ideas at their fingertips, hearts thrumming in their throats. I thought it would be a matter of time until I was famous.
By contrast, I lived my non-manic life in a state of constant self-deprecation. If someone congratulated me on a piece of writing, I assured them the writing had been thrown together haphazardly, something they’d realize if they read closer. If a student told me they’d enjoyed my class, it wasn’t the compliment but their classmates’ blank, bored faces that I thought of as I drove home. I could never do enough, and what little I could do, I couldn’t do right. I was small in the world, imperfect, insignificant. But mania changed that. I became a towering presence. I became someone who was owed something by the world – something I could demand at any point in time.
Shortly after the election, I felt mania returning. By then I had been told by countless professionals that I should go on medication, for my own health and the health of my brain. I remained agnostic about the existence of bipolar, maintaining that the diagnosis was a way to pathologize the ups and downs of highly sensitive people. I felt lucky to have escaped the influence of Big Pharma, shrewd enough to have outsmarted all the doctors and therapists and counselors who wanted me restrained.
The only problem was that I was sick and getting sicker. In the fall of 2016, my world was teetering between bright, Technicolor static and brackish grey abyss. There was no in-between: baseline is what the bipolar person glimpses in transit between two extreme states. All I needed to send me one way or the other was some dramatic event. Like Donald Trump’s election to the presidency.
The ramp-up was slow. I knew I had to use the tools at my disposal (writing, teaching) to contribute to the resistance. I wrote essays at a breakneck pace and published them. I took on reporting assignments I wouldn’t normally have taken on. Things sped up gradually. I missed some sleep one night, more the next. I discovered how easy it was to take a sandwich from a certain high-end grocery chain and give it to a legless man who slept in his wheelchair out front. I took two sandwiches the next day, three sandwiches and a lemonade the next. Then it occurred to me that stealing was more effective than writing or teaching, that material goods, especially ill-gotten ones, had a bigger impact on the comfort of others than intangibilities like imagination and self-expression. I couldn’t stop after that. I thought I had finally found a way to make my mark as a member of the resistance. I would steal and repurpose the goods for those who deserved them. I would peel wrappers off sandwiches, remove noodles from their boxes, fry up meat before any authorities had the chance to track me and my bounty down.
The security officer who caught me shoplifting was a person of color, as was the officer who was ordered to ‘babysit’ me while the first tried to get ahold of the police. I’d never felt smaller than I did sitting in a folding chair in front of the second officer, who played Candy Crush on her phone and rolled her eyes whenever I stood up, informing me that it would be in my best interest to sit down. I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t stay still. I told her that I was very sorry about what I had done and she snorted and said she’d heard it all before, and she expected about as much from someone like me. Someone like me. I’d never been a someone like myself.
When the first security officer returned, his eyes were glassy with hatred. You’re going to jail, he said, smiling. You’re gonna get locked up. I thought about this. Of course I was going to get locked up – that was the consequence of getting caught. I stood up again and the first officer told me to sit back down. He looked at the spread I’d tried to steal – nuts, fruit, cheese, a filet of salmon, hats, scarves, baking soda, chocolate, canned green tea – and asked if I really thought I was going to get away with it. Are you just that stupid? he asked, holding up the bag I’d tried to haul it all off in, Or did you want me to have a good day? Because either way, I get to do what I love, which is send an idiot to jail.
In the police car on the way to the station, my brain was shooting sparks. If I hadn’t been cuffed, I would have unlocked the car door and rolled across the asphalt and into the grass. I would have sprinted down the city street, daring the cops to race me. I put my head between my knees and shook it, trying to get myself to calm down.
Late that same night, I was released under the provision that I wouldn’t leave the county. I was given a court date almost half a year away. I had committed a misdemeanor, so I would be tried in the same room as petty thieves, trespassers and political protesters. Most of us would get slaps on the wrist. Our acquaintance with the criminal justice system would be brief and superficial overall. I would, for instance, spend more time as a voluntary inmate on a psychiatric unit than I would as a demi-criminal in jail.
Whereas mania’s spangly surrealism always made me feel important, depression made me feel insignificant. The depressed world is a hyperreal one: every detail assaults the senses, all facts oppress with their finality. There is no state of discomfort and humiliation greater than the depressed person’s reflecting upon what she did while manic. It’s like the Ludovico technique, except instead of being straitjacketed and forced to watch scenes of graphic violence, I’m forced to watch a magnetic loop of my own erratic behavior. It’s while depressed that I become better acquainted with the facts of my situation. It’s while depressed that I understand how my resistance was undergirded by entitlement, how I’d become a mugshot and a set of prints in a database full of people who suffered at the hands of someone like me. I’d been full of excuses. I’d been above the law until I wasn’t. It was ugly. Sitting in bed in my hospital-issued gown and ankle socks, awaiting a nurse to come get me from my room for art therapy, the ugliness was all I could think about.
Whiteness – the reification of an idea designed to facilitate the oppression of the ‘non-white’ – has made me myopic. It has made my world small. It has deemed me innocent where I shouldn’t be, isolated from the rest of my city by geography and appearance. It has rightly implicated me as a beneficiary of white supremacy, a daughter of genocide, a person for whom the world should not be as simple as it is. Living in the void created by the exclusion and brutalization of others is a good way to render a person totally disconnected from reality.
In my callously depressed brain, I didn’t know quite how to regard myself. I seemed to be a small, flawed, spoiled person, so small it would make no difference if I stopped existing altogether. Word got out that I was having these thoughts and a support network was activated, as it is every time I wake up in depression’s dirty nest. Friends, well-wishers and hospital staff told me I had to keep existing. I had to be something more than this smallness, than this entitlement, than the hate in the security officer’s eyes, than the plastic film around that stolen sandwich, than the little clamshell of pills I had to take every day, than the hospital bed, than bipolar disorder, than whiteness.
I feel strangest when I’m not hovering at one of the two poles of emotion. When nothing’s happening, I wait for something to happen. Surely I’m about to kick into some brain-bending depression or pyrotechnic mania. Surely I’m going to do some impulsive bullshit I’ll be mad about later, or I’ll text all my friends and tell them I’m sorry for being so worthless, or I’ll hole up in my room crying and watch the outside light change until I’ve been in there for days. When my mood doesn’t change, I get nervous.
Nervous, I went about my recovery in an outpatient program, the next step after my stay in the hospital I had checked into after my arrest. I was a member of an extremely white cohort in a recovery facility on the north side of Chicago. The affected ranged in age from 25 to 70 and had come to this place with trauma, substance abuse issues, mental illness. I was counted among the mentally ill, one of two bipolar clients. The other bipolar person and I plodded along in our attempts to get better, sluggishly rewiring our psyches, deciphering with our foggy, post-episode brains which cables led to the manic box and which to the depressed. We were encouraged to be apolitical, though the minutes before every group therapy session were invariably spent panicking about recent executive orders. With the exception of a very few, none of us stood to be impacted by anything Trump said or did.
Outside our bubble, the Trump presidency had emboldened white supremacists to assemble. They’d been posting graphic memes on gaming sites, sharing their bloody stories of racial violence, arming themselves with semiautomatic weapons. They thought of themselves as aggrieved underdogs who’d lost jobs and resources to black and brown immigrants. They wanted a return to things as they were sixty years ago – back when America was great – and they’d decided to get there by any means necessary. When the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee was planned in the town of Charlottesville, Virginia, they descended on the University of Virginia campus carrying tiki torches and chanting ‘white lives matter’, ‘blood and soil’, and ‘Jews will not replace us’. The tiki torches were the kind you’d buy in bulk at Target and set up around your suburban pool. The day after they marched on campus, they marched again. This time they were met by anti-racist counter-protestors. The riot barricade hardly served to protect one side from the other. One counter-protestor, Heather Heyer, was killed by a car driven by a white supremacist.
It was impossible for me not to follow all this, and despite the outpatient program’s efforts to keep us unstimulated, I found myself thinking more and more about our country’s inveterate racism. It seemed to be the duty of every white American to be on the anti-racist side of that barricade, punching and slapping back at the advancing cancer of white supremacy. It seemed to be my duty, too, not just because I am white but because I have firsthand knowledge of that manic entitlement, that revanchist need to restore the world to the way you believe it should be. I could understand the mind of the white supremacist.
We are governed by a president who, to paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates, would not be president if he were not white. We have been forced into close-range viewership of whiteness’s various facets: excuse-making, guilt, inertia, complicity, complacency, violence. The country has split into camps of warring ideologies. And in the midst of all this, I could crack open the skull of American malevolence and peer inside, see how white supremacy looked like white mania with hatred and nationalism thrown in. The spangly, manic brain gives you everything you want to hear about yourself and nothing else. Being in an echo chamber of your thoughts and privilege rots your ego. Your only goal becomes the satisfaction of your grandiose needs. Even when you think you are fulfilling the needs of others you are just acting for yourself. You take big actions and, in your whiteness, are met with few consequences.
The white supremacist isn’t just a racist rube. He is sharp, megalomaniacal, a hybrid of planning and impulse. He is a powerful narcissist whose brain sparks with the deep-felt belief that he has been wronged and must exact revenge. Even as he holds down a salaried job or walks the halls of a university, he thinks how he could have had it better. He thinks he will change the world by helping himself. He thinks he is unfailingly, unquestionably right.
Most white people think the white supremacist is leagues apart from them, but really he’s looking over every white person’s shoulder. To participate in whiteness in America – or to be, as James Baldwin might put it, one of many Americans who believe they are white – is to be more than a little manic, to hold delusions of grandeur and ignore the needs and pain of others in the interest of serving and preserving oneself. It is to develop tunnel vision, to manipulate the world into what you want it to be. It is to act as if you are above the law, a law which values whiteness so much that no white person can be harmed by it anyway. It is to live in paranoia that what you have will be taken away. It is to pit yourself against an Other in preservation of everything you care about. It is high-stakes, high-drama, and never once intersects with reality.
At some point during my recovery, I figured out that no amount of activism, acting the accomplice or abnegating privilege would make the dominance of whiteness and its history of plundering any less real in our country. Violence is sewn into the very fabric of whiteness, and we white people embarrass ourselves when we claim otherwise. Implicated by history, white people want to stay armored by excuses. Maybe the white person’s Irish ancestors really were slaves. Maybe the white person’s European descendants came to America after the Civil War. Maybe the white person is herself not a racist. But the white person stripped of her excuses is exposed for what she is: a profiteer of pain, a member of a fictional race, a cheerful idealist with no working knowledge of reality.
To be white is to benefit from some of the most horrific events of human history. This is an unpopular fact. Nobody wants to be the beneficiary of somebody else’s viciousness. Nobody wants to be pre-judged without the opportunity to make a first impression. Nobody wants to be bad. Every white person will invariably insist upon their individuality, upon the excuses that distinguish their stories from the historical reality of whiteness. Or they’ll turn around and claim racial discrimination on the basis of their skin. But the squeamishness, the outrage, the anxiety are all symptoms of living in denial of the past.
After graduating from the outpatient program, I took my pills obediently, a first for me. I did everything I could to pull my mind out of the void, to stay focused on the simplest, most concrete facts of reality. There were some fat trees with leather-thick green leaves. There was a yellow dog smiling to its ears and panting. There was a toddler running through a sprinkler and then bending into a teetering squat to pick up the hose. There was the moon waxing, waning. Summer would end soon.
I am told the prognosis for the untreated bipolar person is poor: as the patient ages, the manias begin to fade and depression dominates. Then the bipolar person and the depression wage a war of attrition against one another. The chances that the untreated bipolar person will lose are high. And I don’t want to lose. I’ve begun to enjoy stability, to take some comfort in the ease of my moods and emotions. I use what’s left of my manic hyperawareness to decipher the moods of others. Every room I walk into is lousy with moods – sometimes the effect is suffocating, sometimes it’s pleasant – and scanning them makes it easier to know how I should be. The barista may be impatient and lonely, so I’ll organize the napkins in the dispenser on my table and offer a larger-than-usual tip. The man in the corner is getting an aggressive phone call from his partner, so I’ll look briefly at him and nod to indicate that I’ve been there before and can help if necessary. The woman on the bus is holding herself and shaking – maybe she was just harassed, so I’ll sit at a respectful distance from her and offer an inoffensive smile if she looks my way. Nine times out of ten, the mood-havers respond to the little adjustments I’ve made for them. Sometimes I get a smile back, sometimes a conversation. I feel every detail of these situations internally: they make for some shift or bend in my body or brain, send neurochemicals cascading across my synaptic clefts. Gone are the days of mania’s blinkered solipsism. And I’m glad. Just one minute in this world is too full of pain and joy and love and anger and compassion and fear to spend it sealed in a box of your own delusions, insisting you know best and deserve better.
My girlfriend and I have been discussing the future. She and I are the same height, and this is the limit of our superficial similarity. She is a muscular introvert who once had to get a root canal because a punch to the jaw left her with an abscess under her gums. She grew up in Flushing, Queens, surrounded by other families of color, invited over for dinner by empathetic Jewish kids who sensed the enormous stress she was under at home. This experience makes her fond of my Jewish roots. She likes white people who don’t ‘buy into whiteness’, our term for indulging in white privilege uncritically. She is proud of me for getting treatment. If I were to go untreated, she’s frightened to think of what awaits me. Psychosis? Prison? We have bigger plans. We want to have a child together.
We agree that I will carry the child, and that half the DNA will be provided by a non-white sperm donor. I have bipolar friends who don’t want to get pregnant for fear of passing the disorder on to a child, but I have zero compunction about it. If the child is bipolar, I’ll know how to deal with it. I’m more worried about how they will survive as a person of color in our country. Even if we stick to left-leaning cities, there will always be the specter of the police trapping desperate people in cells. And that’s not to mention the hate crimes and bullying that can happen anywhere.
‘We need to get a gun,’ my girlfriend says. ‘If we’re ever driving through a place where they could congregate, we have to be armed.’
She wants to defend the family in the event of another Charlottesville. I understand, but my depressed brain knows only dark rumination and vessel-popping panic.
‘A gun in the house with a child?’ I ask. ‘Don’t you think that’s a little much?’
She shrugs: she sometimes shrugs when she feels unheard.
‘Think about it,’ she says. ‘They arm themselves. They invoke the first and second amendments and no one bothers them. We deserve to be able to invoke those same amendments in protection of our interests. We don’t like the system but we’re living under it, so we may as well survive.’
She reveals that she’s applied for a gun twice before and was denied both times. She’d been waiting to tell me until I felt well enough to digest the information. I’m still not sure I feel well enough, but I nod resolutely. This isn’t about me.
‘I’ll help you get the gun,’ I say.
Image © Franz Jachim