John Semley's new book, Hater: On the Virtues of Utter Disagreeability, will be published in the fall
“Ain’t no disability!” screams Kanye West on Yikes, the second track on his new album, Ye, which he dropped pretty much without warning on June 1. “I’m a superhero. I’m a SUPERHERO!”
West is describing his bipolar disorder, a mental condition associated with wild vacillations in mood, and one which comes with the ever-present threat of full-blown psychosis. This is not some pop-psychological diagnoses. (He straight-up says as much.) The album’s cover, too, spells it out, proclaiming, “I hate being bipolar, it’s awesome.” Onlookers have long speculated that West – whose persona swings between sad-sack self-loathing and fantasies of Messianic world dominance – was bipolar. On Ye, he owns it.
Kanye West’s Ye is to bipolar as The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds is to depression, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue is to heartache: as much an artistic expression of a mood as an archeological document. Kanye yo-yos between confessionals about wanting to kill himself and others, about his “girl” (wife Kim Kardashian, presumably) standing by him, about how his darkest moods entangle with his most productive explosions of creativity. You’ll still find the narcissistic, knowingly bad dude of 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasies. Here, however, a medical diagnosis elevates this figure to the level of Byronic hero, who knows himself a villain, lone and wild and strange.
The historical entwining of bipolar and creativity runs about as far back as the history of creativity itself. Among those diagnosed, or speculated, to suffer from the disorder: comedian Stephen Fry, philosopher Louis Althusser, actress Carrie Fisher, rock icons Kurt Cobain, Brian Wilson, and Lou Reed, pianist Glenn Gould, poet Edgar Allan Poe, painters Jackson Pollock and Vincent van Gogh, singers Nina Simone and Dusty Springfield, actress Marilyn Monroe, and an extended walk-of-fame of others. That the names include many who fell victim to addiction, self-destruction and suicide is not incidental: an estimated 6 per cent of those living with bipolar disorder die by their own hand, while as many as 40 per cent indulge in less fatal forms of self-harm.
That Kanye would conscientiously situate himself in such a historical genealogy is both a very bipolar thing to do and a very Kanye thing to do. And what, I wonder, is the difference?
In my own experiences as someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder, whose life has been positively and negatively affected by it – and who tries in good faith to stick to a steady regimen of pills, therapy, exercise and emotional support from friends and family to regulate the highs, the lows, the self-harm, the almost metabolically persistent suicidal ideation, the manifestation of such ideation in suicidal gestures both feigned and sincere, the miasma of narcissism, the tendency to walk over loved ones, and to devise paranoiac and mind-destroying fantasies about unloved ones – the most vexing problem is discerning the line between the self and the disorder. Where do I end, and where does bipolar begin?
It is, I have learned, an impossible question to answer. Because the mind effectively structures our relationship to reality, it’s difficult to conceive of an outside; to locate a point from which we can observes ourselves and say, “Okay. That behaviour does not fall within the general realm of normalcy.” It’s like that joke about how fish in water don’t know what water is, precisely because water is their whole experience of the world. Trying to attribute various behaviours to bipolar disorder, and others to some other imagined “true” self is not only pointless, but often arrogant and self-serving. Bad stuff gets chalked up to being bipolar. Kind deeds are pure expressions of “The Real Me.” This is foolish. Something one learns, pretty much first thing, when working through a bipolar diagnosis (or, I imagine, pretty much any mental or psychological disorder) is the importance of accountability. Having a reality-warping mental disorder may be able to explain certain behaviours. But it cannot excuse them. Blaming bipolar is about as lame as claiming, in the words of the comedian Flip Wilson, “the devil made me do it.” (Or blaming reprehensible behaviour on an Ambien script.)
That one of world’s most famous people would so openly address their bipolar disorder would, one imagines, come as a comfort to those considerably less famous people (like myself). At first blush, it doesn’t.
There is no doubt a great deal of uncomfortable honesty on Ye. And certain of its sentiments are scarily recognizable. This is also true of the behaviour of Kanye – and other celebrities who find themselves mired in various fronts of the ongoing culture wars – on social media, where he flirts with Trumpism, makes a giddy spectacle of himself and exploits instantaneous online feedback loops to fuel his egoism, his manic zeal fuelled by attention, like a superhero (or villain) growing more powerful and he saps on the kinetic energy hurled his way. Ye, from its cover art through its lyrical and musical exploration of a very active bipolar mind, presents itself as an explanation. But in its tendency to romanticize the disease – and Kanye’s own realness for owning up to it – Ye feels like more of an excuse.
The combination of celebrity and undue wealth insulates the rich and famous from accountability. The too-easy tendency of a bipolar person to chalk their failing up to their disease compounds this. Bipolar is also tricky because the low-key states of excitement and self-aggrandizement it induces (termed “hypomania”) are highly intoxicating. What’s more, the standard menu of prescription drugs used to level the mind between spikes of mania and bleak pits of suicidal depression tend to further numb it.
Here’s professor of psychiatry and diagnosed bipolar person Kay Redfield Jamison describing her resistance to medication it in her memoir An Unquiet Mind: “I had become addicted to my high moods; I had become dependent upon their intensity, euphoria, assuredness, and their infectious ability to induce high moods and enthusiasms in other people … I found my mild manic states powerfully inebriating and very conducive to productivity. I couldn’t give them up.”
Jamison eventually accepted treatment. One hopes Kanye will, too. Even if doing so chills his creative fires, and sands off the spiky edges of his persona that make him so utterly compelling. But, simply put, people like Kanye West can often afford to be bipolar. He is in the unique position to offer apologies that double, because of his status as the most popular rapper and hip-hop producer on the planet, as cultural touchstones. Others, whose manias manifest in bouts of reckless hyper-sexuality, alcohol and drug abuse, spending sprees or in protracted delusions of being good at guitar, and whose depressions find outlet in self-harm and the oddly comforting fantasies of shuffling off this mortal coil entirely, aren’t so lucky. The risk is that Kanye’s new-found visibility as a famous bipolar creative – if not the most famous bipolar creative – discourages others from seeking the help they need. Not everyone has the opportunity, or the ability, to recast their disability as superheroism. On Ye, and throughout his career, Kanye West has proven himself impressively adept at exploring the wavering contours of the bipolar mind, offering some solace to those suffering in the process. The next step, as any person seeking treatment knows, is not just owning the diagnoses, but its consequences. What comes next is accountability – something which with West has, historically, also struggled.