Transforming Madness, Motherhood and Self-Censorship
Nadia Mbonde on Perinatal Bipolar, Mothership Studies (and some recent news)
One of my greatest concerns and fascinations is how to keep my work multidisciplinary. The message out there is: narrow your interests, do one thing, and do it well. I focused on theatre, but I was interested in teaching, writing and singing. Nowadays, I have so many interests and job titles that it seems ludicrous when I write them all down.
Throughout these roles and transformations, I kept telling myself, one day I have to choose, thinking that a continual division of the self would result in disaster. I told myself that it was why I suffered, and it was why I would never excel at anything. Now, thankfully, I realise that what made me suffer was the opposite - not allowing myself to see how it connected so wonderfully.
I am deepening the brushstrokes of my interests, noticing that theatre exists in the live performance of music, the synergy of the relationship between teacher and student (we can be both), making films (writing in images), improving my penmanship (painting pictures with words), understanding my body and brain better through scientific research, or healing through flamenco dance and classical guitar.
It is not easy to be ill or disabled in a world that believes that you won’t amount to much, but which also equates rest with laziness.
On top of that, what we do must be categorised and sectioned off, so that it can be grasped in a sentence. It is difficult to make the discovery that, by defying these narrow pathways, and opening ourselves to everything, life is more fulfilling.
Mother Scholar, Mental Health Doulah and artist, Nadia Mbonde certainly operates on this level. Through her lived experience as a bipolar mother, Nadia is pursuing a doctorate in anthropology, studying the relationship between perinatal mental illness and maternal mortality. It is a subject that is critically under-researched, particularly for black mothers.
Nadia had, what she calls, “a full-blown breakdown” of her mental health whilst pregnant with her child, alerting her to the inadequacies of support for perinatal mental illness. She was diagnosed as bipolar when she was 18 years old, but mostly experienced the highs of her illness, meaning that she excelled at everything.
For years Nadia didn’t know any other bipolar people. Not having a common language to describe her experiences was isolating. During her perinatal mania, she describes waking up one day and no longer being manic. It was then that she was able to seek specialised help. After giving birth in January 2020, she stabilised, though recovery was slow.
What is a mother scholar and what is a mental health doulah?
We were so engrossed in other topics that I failed to ask Nadia about her practice as a mental health doulah. Luckily, Nadia, who runs a fantastic blog, has a post answering exactly this question. Her practice as a mental health doulah is a crucial part of her research methodology in Mother Studies.
MotherStudies was a concept first coined by Cheryl Matias, a US based academic and mother. In 2017, Anna CohenMiller launched the MotherScholar Project from Kazakhstan, which is now a global movement. It seeks to erode the distinction of ‘mother’ from ‘scholar’, and the taboo of including your children in your academic work.
The community grew exponentially during the pandemic, sharing resources and experiences about being a caregiver during a pandemic. Nadia tells me: "I wouldn’t be a scholar if I weren’t a mother”. The community encouraged her to feel more comfortable in merging both identities. She would save time by pumping whilst in class.
After majoring in Africana studies along with dance and experimenting with photography, Nadia’s interest in wellbeing and fitness grew as she trained to be a yoga teacher. From here she began investigating medical anthropology, hoping to combine her interests in social sciences and the arts.
Nadia’s PhD arose from a need to address the fact that black mothers in the US are three to four times more likely to die in pregnancy than white mothers. Shamefully, research in the UK has revealed similar statistics. In New York state, where Nadia lives, the rate is horrifically nine to twelve times more. Nadia says the problem is the silence surrounding mental illness in pregnancy and the stigma of being called an unfit mother. Suicide is one of the leading causes of mortality in maternal mortality.
Therein lies the difficulty with mental illness, and any illness for that matter. The counterproductive attempts to bury its existence, the lack of conversation that only leads to more suffering, which impacts marginalised groups significantly.
Nadia says that finding a community of bipolar people empowered her to share her experiences. She also found a community in the MotherScholars, yet neither group adequately dealt with those intersections of her identity. To address this, as of January 2022, Nadia is starting up her own Perinatal Bipolar Support Group.
Our discussion got us thinking about the evolvement of language in the mental health space, and what ‘madness’ means today.
Is It Okay to Identify as Mad?
Nadia experiments with the language she uses to describe herself, seeing what fits. For example, is it better to talk about, ‘psychosis’, or ‘altered states’? Nadia acknowledges that identifying as ‘mad’ is polemical right now. There are discussions in the mental health community about discarding terms like ‘crazy’ and ‘mad’, whilst others fight to reclaim them. Nadia is often challenged by countercultural strands of the wellbeing community to move away from the language of the psychiatric model.
Although Nadia agrees that many ideas and terms are outdated, she is troubled about dismissing vocabulary that has been useful to her. She identifies strongly with the categorisations of ‘bipolar’ and ‘depression’ because they describe her lived experience. She can now recognise the differences between her anxiety, depression and altered states, as well as their triggers and how to treat them. She also adds that it was this countercultural movement that encouraged her to go off her medication, causing a serious mental health breakdown during pregnancy.
Nadia is concerned about the popularity of self-censorship, provoking the idea that we are adopting ‘a police state mentality’ by policing other people. Being of Guyanese, Tanzanian-Indian heritage and having been educated in Europe in her early years, she is hyper-aware of this. If her mental illness or cultural background are not immediately obvious, is it correct to enforce the type of language she uses to describe herself?
Self-Identification in Art
Let’s return full circle to the beginning. I talked about the limitations of self-categorisation, but the paradox is that it can also be freeing. Whilst understanding that traditional psychiatry is problematic, we can also be empowered by the categorisations that describe our symptoms.
Nadia says that knowing the biological aspects of her illness improve her quality of life. One of her biggest inspirations and sources of support is her daughter. Nadia mentions the fact that bipolar people can get addicted to the highs of their illness, describing her mania as, “being grabbed by the head and swung around”. Yet Nadia has a huge motivation to keep stable - that is, being a mother, and also a better academic and artist.
I strongly identify with this. There is a myth that artists live best in chaos, or that creativity comes from extreme highs, followed by extreme lows - ideas mainly fuelled by Hollywood biopics. Like Nadia, although productive parts of my life were a result of frantic activity, they ultimately led to burnout, which has huge repercussions for chronically ill people. Nadia says that what helps her creativity is being grounded, disciplined, adhering to the “slow grind”. She affirms that rest is one of the most important factors for managing her illness. I couldn’t agree more.
My burning question for Nadia throughout the interview was – how do you manage it all? Nadia has a huge array of interests, including playing the guitar, dancing, and creating art (some of which are interspersed throughout the newsletter).
“Having a child has shown me that life happens in phases” -
Nadia tells me. Remembering that everything is cyclical keeps the panic at bay. Nadia says that being a mother forces her to pause and think, “what needs my immediate attention now?” When you can’t lurch to the next stop or the next hit, what is it to be present? What is it to be playful? Both states are necessary for creative thinking.
The conversation I had with Nadia helped me to connect a few loose threads I had in own life and practice. For example, letting go of the idea that my interests should be separated. Or indeed, that I can do less because of ill health. Whilst we all may not have the same 24-hours in a day, we have our own unique ways of thinking.
Understanding my struggles empowers me to define who I am and what I need to thrive. I do not need to fill each moment of each day with activity. I do not need to dominate others, nor distract myself. Knowing what I am also gives me the freedom to challenge the labels and categorisations thrust upon me. I can dream beyond my body, or narrow perceptions of my discipline. As Nadia reminds us, life happens in phases - not all at once.
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