The following is a transcribed text from a taped conversation I had with Angel McKinney, a woman I've known from The Village for over fifteen years.
Sunny: When did you know you were bipolar and how did it start?
Angel: I don't know when exactly it started. maybe sometime in middle school if I have to put my finger on it. Maybe seventh or eighth grade. There wasn't all this conversation about mental illness like there is starting to be now. My family just thought I was quiet and moody from time to time. Then other times I was the life of the party. They called it just being an artist. When I called it anything I called it confusing. I didn't understand how I could go from feeling so good and happy like I could fly then a few days later being so low and hopeless I didn't know why life was worth living. I just didn't get it. I used to ask my sister if she ever felt so sad and didn't know why. She told me to stop talking crazy and that's what I did. I stopped talking about it.
Sunny: How do you cope? Was there one person in particular you spoke with or did you take long walks or medicate with something or something like that?
Angel: I took over the counter meds when I was grown to go to sleep because I could never sleep. I could stay up for days. I got hooked on those things too. I'm on a regular dose of prescription meds now though. Mostly I wrote. I still write all the time. I kept journals filled with stories I made up, dark poems, Bible scriptures, quotes I collected to motivate myself, run away notes when I was a child...
Sunny: You ran away?
Angel: No, but I would get so down and being depressed would make me angry and weepy and my parents and brother and sisters telling me I had nothing to cry about made me feel more alone and sad I thought about running away. Actually I thought about suicide more but I was too afraid of burning in hell for the rest of eternity. I knew a girl who killed herself when we were teenagers. She was a good friend of mine. I never knew she was sad or felt that lonely. We never talked about it. We were church friends. She was two years older than I and we sang in the junior choir together at the church I grew up in out in Hawthorne. St. Luke Baptist Church.
Sunny: How did she do it?
Angel: Somehow she got a hold of a gun and shot herself in the head.
Sunny: Wow! How old was she?
Angel: Only in the ninth grade. She was so beautiful too. It was on a school day and she had gotten home before her mother as usual. They say she called her mother to say goodbye, but I don't know what she said. Anyway, when her mother got home she found her body. Whole thing just tore up the church because it was the Friday before Mother's Day. That Sunday the junior choir was lining up to sing for God and our mothers and the ushers were passing out the programs with Mother's Day notes we had written to our mothers and grandmothers. And wouldn't you know it, there on the first page was the note Carmen had written to her mother. It was a sad, sad day. I just kept remembering that I just saw her the Sunday before and she told me I was beautiful. Imagine that. Carmen taking the time out to see some kinda beauty in me with everything she musta had going on inside her head. Sad people can always pick out other sad people and I guess we know what we need to be for each other.
Anyway, Deacon Combs and his wife were talking to Carmen's mother in the pastor's small office in the rear of the church and I was just behind the room and could hear everything and pretended that I couldn't. I was so shocked that Sis. Johnston, Carmen's mother, even had enough energy to come to church. I just had to know what they were saying to her. Even though I was supposed to be in church. I pretended I was drinking water from the fountain behind the office for as long as I could.
Sunny: What were they saying to her?
Angel: Well, I couldn't hear everything but what I did hear devastated me. Deacon Combs said that murder and suicide were great sins and especially suicide because there was no way of asking God's forgiveness and that Ms. Johnston would never see her daughter again because Carmen was going to hell. I heard Ms. Johnston scream a scream I never heard before. She sounded like a cat with its tail on fire. I had to see her face. I came to the front of the office but the thin shabby door was shut but I could still hear her scream. Then it was muffled. Maybe Sis. Combs was hugging her I thought. I will always remember that sound. I thought it was so cruel of them to tell her that. So cruel. How do they know who God forgives and who God doesn't? When I was old enough to stop going to that church without my family getting on my case, I did.
Sunny: Is that why you never considered suicide?
Angel: I have considered it. But not until I was grown. I never attempted it or anything like that but I sure did think dying might be easier than living on some days. As a child, after I heard that scream, I really didn't know why to believe. So I had fantasies of running away to a place where people understood me. Even when, especially when I didn't have the words to say what was hurting me so badly.
Sunny: Did you ever get close to running away when you were a child?
Angel: Girl, no! I was too scared of neighborhood dogs and the dark!
No, I just wrote notes. Private notes in my journal. Except one time I left a runaway note folded up on the television in the living room while my mother was sitting close by on the couch. I told her in the note that as soon as I was back from the store for her then I was going to run away. I even signed it, Love, Angel.
(Angel laughs at herself remembering the note)
When I got back the note was gone and I asked her if she read it.
Sunny: What did she say?
Angel: She told me that she didn't read it. She just threw it away because she thought the paper was trash. But I knew she read it. I could see it in her teary red eyes. She read it and maybe just didn't know what to do with and emotionally disturbed child. Her baby at that. Bit I didn't know either. I didn't know what to do with myself.
Sunny: Did it get better for you in high school?
Angel: I wrote more. I would say things got better until I was grown. The mood swings kept coming but I have a friend who is a doctor, a psychologist. We were out for coffee once hen I opened up to him about where I was emotionally. He suggested I see a therapist. It was only because he recommended I see one that I did. This made my second therapist.
Sunny: Your second? Who and when was our first and what was that like?
Angel: I was about forty years old when I say my first. She was referred to me by another friend. Her office was close by and her rates were reasonable enough. We talked mostly about the depression. I saw her for about six months.
Sunny: Why did you stop?
Angel: Because during a particularly bad episode, that's what she called them, episodes (I had just called them the crazies) she asked me how bad the pain was on a scale of one to ten. I told her an eight. She asked if I thought of suicide and I told her that I had but had never tried it. She told me to write down some names of people I would call if things ever got to where I thought I would try it. She even told me to include her name on the list. So I did. I sat in her office and made a list of ten people including her.
The next week I told her I was still feeling down and we talked that full hour. Then I came in the next week and I was about to start talking, because that's how we always began our sessions. Before I could open my mouth or get comfortable on the couch she told me that she wasn't going to be able to see me anymore. She told me that this kind of thing happened from time to time between therapist and client and she was sorry it happened with us but she had come to a point where couldn't see me.
Sunny: Did you ask her why?
Angel: Of course. She said she thought we had some similar family issues and she couldn't tell if she was advising me or working out her own issues. Basically I felt like she gave me the "it's not you, it's me" speech.
She said she had another referral for me and that the other doctor would be a good match for me. I didn't want to see anybody. Especially not anybody she knew. I spent six months spilling my secrets to this woman and then I got dumped. And for reasons I didn't and still don't understand. I asked her if she wanted me to just leave right then and there and to my surprise she said yes. I slowly picked up my bag and walked out of her office. I told myself I would never let myself get that close to anyone again. Here I was living my life and she couldn't even hear about it once a week for a fee. I was cool on therapists. And she was a white woman too. I got a thing about white women. The judgment in their eyes, the snotty sing song in their voices. But I put that aside with her. She was about my age and seemed cool enough. I let my guard down and what did I get? Kicked out. And just think, just two weeks before I told her I was thinking about killing myself. Yeah right, put her name on my list. She was on my list all right.
(We laugh again but even through the laughter I could hear see the pain in her eyes)
Sunny: What was her name?
Angel: I forgot her last name. I just called her Beth.
Sunny: Just Beth?
Angel: She just called me Angel, so yeah.
(Angel reaches for her purse and pulls out a cigarette and lighter. In all the time I've known her I never knew she smoked.)
Sunny: No go ahead.
Angel: I told you I got a thing about white women. I can't call another one by title or Ms. If they don't like the sound of their first name out my mouth we can't deal. Especially if they aren't calling me Ms.
Sunny: And how long was it between the last time you saw Beth and when you saw the next doctor?
Angel: About a year. And I liked her too. A black woman. A real sista, you know. I knew I was gonna relate with her right off. She understood things that I didn't have words to say. It was because of her I saw my first psychiatrist.
Sunny: Wait a minute. What kind of doctor was she?
Angel: She was a psychologist. A doctor you talk to. Psychiatrists can issue meds.
Sunny: Okay. How did you come to see the other doctor?
Angel: I had an appointment with my therapist, Marie one day and I showed up about fifteen minutes late, which was not my habit. I was going through another bad episode. I was off. Way off. And she could tell. She told me that I had to give her the number of a friend of mine to call to have me checked into a hospital. Of course I refused. Then she said if I didn't she was going to call the police. After some whining on my part, I gave her my friend, Kiesha's number. As much as I didn't want to go into the mental hospital it was the best thing for me. I was diagnosed as being bipolar with sever depression. I had never been diagnosed before. I didn't like having a label but I did like finally knowing what was going on with me. I spent a week in the hospital and wrote about it in my journal. You wanna see it?
Sunny: Sure. You mind if I publish it
Angel: No, not at all. I know what it's like not having the words for the dark clouds inside. If my words will bring clarity to someone else I wanna do that. I have another journal entry and a poem you can have too. You want 'em?
Sunny: Yep, and thank you so much for being open with me.
Angel: Girl, thank you for the space to be. I hope it will be useful.