Kanye West wasn’t totally wrong when he called bipolar disorder a superpower. This phenomenon of seeing invisible, connecting pieces come together that don’t even sit in the same puzzle box – that’s real. He just forgot to mention the other bits.
I’ll never forget receiving my diagnosis. It took less than 15 minutes. Dad had wrangled the appointment with one of the more eminent psychologists in the country, which was very difficult to procure. The office was large and imposing. The professor had a nose like a hawk and a similar demeanour. He’d already consulted my case file, and I sat cowering in the corner as he circled me, firing off questions. Little about that traumatic afternoon at the institute struck me as the makings of a Marvel origin story.
In Kanye Westian philosophy, bipolar is a superpower not in the sense that it taps into a new skill, but rather that once you take off it optimises an existing skill so intensely that the edges start to shimmer. In this sense, I know what he means. When I’m elevated and there’s a pen nearby, ideas drop into the slot and the arcade game in my subconscious hums to life. It glows and pulses like a neon sign that I fly by on a dark Parisian street. Hidden mysteries emerge in a complex harmony that’s utterly perfect but frustratingly difficult to explain. Not that I didn’t try.
I’m not racing. I’m just excited.
Do you remember where you were when Kanye dropped All of the Lights? How it made you feel? The critics called it “maximalist”. That’s a word deployed by someone to describe a sensation they can feel but can’t understand. Whenever I hear this song, I am taken by its manic beauty. The frankly staggering process behind its creation. They said it was all-encompassing. Symphonic. Unparalleled in its vision. A “magnificent high”.
And indeed, All of the Lights is all of these things. It is also the by-product of being phenomenally, catastrophically Up.
There are 14 additional voices on All of the Lights. That line-up includes Elton John, Rihanna, Charlie Wilson, John Legend, La Roux, The-Dream, Kid Cudi, Alicia Keys, Drake and, still inexplicably, a full rap verse by Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas. The arrangement is a fever dream; it lays waste to poor-quality headphones. There are so many layers of backing vocals on it, all blended together with such ferocity that it can be difficult to pick out which superstar singer you’re actually hearing.
All of the Lights is exactly what the inside of my head looks like when I can’t come down; bombastic, free-associating and helmed by a conductor wearing purple kicks that hasn’t slept more than a few hours a night in the last 10 days.
I heard All of the Lights very early on in the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy campaign. The label had sent me an advance copy, the kind you used to get with big FBI warnings slapped all over it. It was 2010, and instead of helping Dad in the garden I was stopped in the middle of my street with my headphones on, suddenly blinking back tears. My internal thermometer couldn’t make up its mind; a minute ago I’d been shivering, now I felt sweat pooling in my jeans. I had recognised something deeper in this modern parable about the pitfalls of fame. Kanye was still two albums and as many name changes away from being able to articulate exactly what it was, but I knew.
That gorgeous, volatile superpower.
All of the Lights is a song that took two years to write and two months to finish. Rihanna got the call to do her vocals at two in the morning. Much of it was recorded in Hawaii, but West wasn’t there for a holiday. He’d exiled himself after a miscalculated display of bravado at an awards ceremony had blown up spectacularly in his face. A pattern in the outbursts not yet established, a diagnosis not yet procured, West, still smarting from being labelled a “jackass” by the first Black president of the United States, promptly disappeared.
Nobody creates good work when they are depressed. The myth of the tortured artist is just that. You don’t manifest brilliance like Jeff Buckley or Nick Drake when in the throes of a Down episode. No musician records intricate orchestral pieces when they can’t even get themselves out of bed to face the mirror. If mania is the turbo boost, then depression is the brick wall you slam into at high speed continually. If art floats, retains any sense of buoyancy, this is a balm self-applied after the agony stops. It emerges in spite of it, not because of it. I understand this now.
Depression is nothing. It is a feeling of nothingness, to the point where I cannot tell you a single thing I have said or done over the multiple protracted periods of it in my adult life. The stories of my behaviour are Midrash, commentary, observations. They are passed down to me by my family, friends, ex-lovers. Depression is a fugue state in which nothing is achieved aside from the eventual decision to get better, which is not one that anyone else in your life can truly force upon you.
“Nobody creates good work when they are depressed. The myth of the tortured artist is just that.”
Though Kanye appears stupendously prolific, he must also be accustomed to this sensation. There must be periods where he flames out, burning through all the nitrous that’s kept him achieving at such a high level, and shuts down. We hardly ever hear about this. For the most part, hip-hop and mental health go about as well together as its track record with homosexuality. Kid Cudi, Kanye’s musical next-of-kin, has been far more upfront. “Sadness eats away at me sometimes,” he wrote in 2016, before checking himself into a facility to get help.
Of course, we know Kanye also gets sad. Fifteen years on from her passing, he is still grieving the loss of his mother. When he feels misunderstood by his peers or the public, he tends to process this shame by exiling himself: to Honolulu, to Paris, to Wyoming. Kanye is such a singular, exuberant overachiever that he has no poker face. When he’s down, when he’s hurting, it’s impossible not to see it. There is an entire corner of the internet dedicated to this.
I was prescribed lithium a decade ago and it’s been the only medication that’s stuck. Like bumpers in a bowling alley, it hovers around the outer limits of my mood, protecting me from descending too low or catapulting too high. Though my quality of life is immeasurably better, I can’t help but feel like this chemical padding muffles the more glimmering parts of my self-expression.
Whenever I have writer’s block, or can’t communicate a concept, I return to the professionals to state my case. I need to access the highs to get this work done, I wind up explaining in some variation to a concerned doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist, but I also can’t live with them. There has to be another way, a different configuration of pills.
Some of the things I’ve done while I’ve been Up you won’t even believe. The stealing, the lying, the f…ing, the drugs, the violence. I’m not sure I even believe it. It’s an honest-to-god miracle I’m not in jail. Do you know, one night I lay down in the middle of a four-lane road just to see if a car would stop? I was already stable; they were tranquillising me every night. I was 22. What happens when I’m 42? My dad will not be there to save me anymore.
“Bipolar is a superpower, but these superpowers need management. Sometimes it’s like I can’t press the eject button as the Batmobile is about to crash into a skyscraper.”
Bipolar is a superpower, but these superpowers need management. Sometimes it’s like I can’t press the eject button as the Batmobile is about to crash into a skyscraper; other times I can’t even find the energy to get into the suit. There is a difference between accessing stardust and living on another planet. At some point, those of us lucky enough to have dealt with this pinball personality long enough realise how to flag when the rocket looks like it might be leaving Earth. We know we have to use it sparingly, lest we inadvertently burn the atmosphere around us.
West said it himself to David Letterman: “This is like a sprained brain, like having a sprained ankle. If someone has a sprained ankle, you’re not going to push on him more.”
Kanye West ran for president in 2020, which is honestly something I have considered a good idea at various points in my life. By that point his diagnosis was out there, his even more famous wife was pleading for compassion, and it was hard to know where to look. It felt like the wheels were coming off one of the most innovative musicians of his era; everywhere you turned there were sparks fizzing out as metal grated against steel. Kanye had lost control of his suit.
His politics veered so far right they ended up in oncoming traffic; having once declared that as a Black man he could buy his way out of jail but he couldn’t buy freedom, Kanye was now on air saying slavery was “a choice”. At one point he broke down during a rally, plainly terrified of the position he’d found himself in, and it was captured by an attendee and beamed around the world. The Sad Kanye meme suddenly wasn’t funny any more. It was horrific.
When I was diagnosed at 21, bipolar wasn’t presented to me as a superpower, but a disorder. A disaster, even. I started psychiatry sessions within the year, only after I cycled through all of the dud therapists that somehow managed to make me feel worse than I already did. Everyone cast bipolar as something wrong with me; it needed to be monitored, adjusted and continuously refined to bring this alleged chemical imbalance back to normal. I bristled, I fought back, but eventually I did what I was told. There will be no Grammy Awards or Pulitzers in my future. I will probably never call a key collaborator at two in the morning. Stability has ensured that 80 per cent of the time I lead an entirely regular and vastly uninteresting existence.
It’s taken me a long time and more than a few deaths to realise that the definition of balance, like my definition of good work, is relative. There is a huge spectrum between out of control and passively existing. Though I embrace life with all the tools available to me, that last 20 per cent is uncomfortable. It is exhausting and it wears me out. But it is a gift. It is knowing you need 14 backing vocalists, these specific people in this specific arrangement, without having to explain why. It is the reason Kanye West released All of the Lights instead of giving it to another artist as he’d originally planned.
There are three French horn players, two trombonists and a flautist on the track. A chorus of golden cornets offset Jeff Bhasker’s driving synth bass line. It is quite literally bursting, so heavy with the weight of living life the way a bipolar superhero does. And yet, it soars.
This is not how people were trained to view my condition around the time we finally figured out what was going on with my uninhibited mood swings. Bipolar disorder was “the new attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”, Mum said. They were just handing out diagnoses willy-nilly, like orange quarters at half time. You could tell she wasn’t crash-hot on raising a young maniac. It was far easier to chalk my behaviour down to growing pains; after all, I hadn’t acted out much as a teenager when compared to some of my friends.
After that appointment at the Black Dog Institute where I was first diagnosed, I stood shell-shocked at the gate, shaking uncontrollably, crying. Dad was out there with me, holding me close in his hairy bear arms, trying out different ways of consoling me. None of them was working. I wasn’t having it. I was convinced that I was tainted forever; that I’d never get a stable job, find a wife, experience prolonged periods of happiness. I’d heard the stories, seen the movies. I knew what this shit was and what it meant for me.
Psychiatric disorders were approached differently in 2008. I was actively encouraged by those around me to keep this new information to myself on the very real presumption such knowledge would impact my personal or professional life. While Kanye West was letting blood across 808s & Heartbreak, my girlfriend at the time sat bolt upright in bed and walked out of the house when I told her what was wrong with me. It’s almost unbelievable to imagine that now, when caring about mental health is so virtuous and such a monetisable cause for brands. Even depression was still on the fringe then, but bipolar was very much a no-fly zone.
Eventually, I calmed down, though I can’t remember how or why. Dad took me home and sat me down in front of the family PC, making sure I watched as he googled “famous people with bipolar disorder”. He couldn’t have anticipated the length and breadth of that list, which is probably twice as long when you factor in the writers, actors, musicians, designers, directors and cinematographers still not talking about it. Say what you like about Kanye, the guy really kicked that door wide open.
“Look at all these incredible people. Look at what they’ve achieved. It isn’t a life sentence.”
I love this memory: Dad and me in the upstairs study, talking it out, stopping at detailed entries for Stephen Fry, Virginia Woolf and Lou Reed. It’s as if we’re co-conspirators in this secret club full of cool members with great ideas. I’m wiping snot from my face and trying to focus on this, ignoring the word “disorder” blasting out from every Wiki page. Most of these people are excellent, I reason. Surely it can’t be that much of a curse.
Dad’s stressed out, too, realising I’m now officially more like him than just our looks, and that this is going to take a lot of work to get under control. I don’t clock it at the time, but when he looks at me he’s not just seeing himself and the depression that’s been dancing around him since he was a boy. He’s also seeing his father. I can bet he’s really f…ing regretting giving me Marcell as a middle name. Probably thinks he’s set this entire disaster on its course from eight days old, the moment the mohel took my foreskin for safekeeping.
We don’t talk about any of this. In fact, we never really do. For now, Dad is protecting me as he always has, selflessly. “See?” he said, scrolling past Jimi Hendrix, who once sang that manic depression was searching his soul. “Look at all these incredible people. Look at what they’ve achieved. It isn’t a life sentence.”
Depending on your experience, the lights Kanye refers to can mean many different things. As he explains in the song, they can be oppressive, seductive, revealing or disarming. Those bright lights can be cameras, police cars, strobes, flashlights.
What’s more difficult to approximate is the thin ring that hovers above your retina after the bulb flashes and the temperature dims. It’s the imprint of a low that follows every high, serving as a silent warning. Blinding lights may be over in a matter of seconds, but living with bipolar means having to handle what comes next. We get the sense Kanye understands this. It’s why he hands the last 30 seconds of All of the Lights to Elton John, who voices his angst: “I tried to tell you, but all I could say was oh.” And just like that, the suit runs out of oomph; a mere man now falling helplessly through the sky.
To you, this change at first might be imperceivable. Much of this relies on whether you are endowed with a particular superpower that, for the briefest moment, lets you truly see everything.
Lifeline 13 11 14.
This is an edited extract from It’s A Shame About Ray (Allen & Unwin, $33), by Jonathan Seidler, out Wednesday.
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.
https://www.smh.com.au/national/kanye-and-me-dissecting-bipolar-s-highs-and-lows-20220726-p5b4k9.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_national For Kanye West and I, bipolar can be our superpower