“Reparations and rematriation of the land worked.” This was the fictional New York Times headline I wrote during a near-futurism exercise at an Impact Experience in Montgomery, AL, February 2020. Impact Experience’s mission is to increase collaboration between impact investors, local leaders, artists, and marginalized communities to address pressing social issues.
Earlier in the day, we had walked through the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum, a museum that honors the history of enslavement, racial terror, and mass incarceration in this country. Walking through this museum depicting centuries of violence against black bodies, I felt a painful resonance. I saw the faces and stories of people I love, and I fell apart.
In a closing exercise after the museum, we were asked to imagine what headline we would want to read in 3 years, if everything we did went according to plan. The near-futurism exercise was meant to support us in manifesting the world as we want to experience it.
My vision was to heal all the pain I had witnessed and was holding in my body. “Reparations and rematriation of the land worked.”
As a scientist at Stanford SPARQ, a “do tank” that uses behavioral science to affect positive social change, my mind jumped to how to make this a reality. Inspired by the work of Black and Indigenous-led organizations, such as Soul Fire Farm and Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, I imagined conducting studies to examine the benefits of reparations and returning land to indigenous people. I had a host of hypotheses about how these effects would unfold, expecting to find reductions in toxic stress and improvements in wellbeing, a flourishing of entrepreneurship and traditional cultural practices, and the revitalization of local ecosystems.
The thing with near-futurism is that you need to believe it is possible. In that moment, as a Stanford researcher sitting in a room full of people who controlled immense amounts of wealth and influence, that future felt within reach. I even dreamt that Nikole Hannah-Jones would write the article.
I spent the next 4 months working to bring about a research project that could result in that article. And the world continued to signal both its need and its receptivity. George Floyd’s murder catalyzed mass protests, the pandemic meant many people were at home with time to pay attention. Reparations were on the table. Parts of Big Sur were returned to the Esselen Tribe.
I felt enlivened, motivated, and like we were on the cusp of the kind of healing I felt so desperate to see in the world. Yet this idea that I could conjure healing outside of myself was also taking its toll.
I wasn’t sleeping regularly; I was losing weight from a disinterest in eating; my speech patterns changed. I began making loose associations and using metaphors from quantum physics, Buddhism, Catholicism, astrology, and the popular TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender. I was speaking with strangers as if they were family, going on about waves and particles, waterbenders, and prophets.
My loved ones recognized the mania in my behavior. In July, I was taken to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation and was hospitalized with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
For those of you who don’t know much about bipolar disorder, I think about it as fluctuations in energy. We all fluctuate, I just happen to fluctuate a little higher and a little lower. When I’m manic, things feel hotter, more heightened. I’m speaking and thinking more quickly, I’m making loose associations, and I feel euphoric and enlightened. When I’m depressed, things feel heavier and slower. I lose the will to do anything, including be alive sometimes.
While manic, I thought I had all the answers to how we could heal the world, and the right team to make it happen. The hospitalization and subsequent aftercare was a time to slow down and refocus my attention on what was within my control. In the depressive episode that followed the mania, I was humbled, transfixed by what I saw as my shortcomings — my sense of powerlessness against generations of harm and destruction, the burden of my “illness” on my loved ones. Healing became a deeply personal struggle.
Today I take medications and no longer experience extreme fluctuations in my mood. This means that I am able to dedicate my energy to my new role at R&G Insights Lab at Ropes & Gray. In my position as Senior Lab Consultant and Behavioral Scientist, I focus on nudging us all toward more authentic and evidence-based conversations about culture and diversity. It is a new community and one where I have already discovered a sense of belonging and acceptance.
Though I still hope to read that headline in The New York Times in February of 2023, I no longer feel that it is all on me to develop the evidence. I imagine there are researchers documenting how ecosystems revitalize under the stewardship of indigenous people; how reparations and guaranteed basic income are repairing generations of harm and theft. I imagine that, in many ways, the article could already be written.
I’m sharing this story because I consider my “disorder” to be a natural expression of human diversity, and during Mental Health Awareness month, want to do my part to help normalize neurodiversity. I’m also sharing because I want to normalize conversations about how to be in right relationship with ourselves, each other, and the land. Doing so requires conversations not only about #diversity, #equity, and #inclusion, but repairing past and ongoing harms.
My psychiatrist gave me a surprised look when I told him I had “outed” myself as bipolar to my boss. He was even more surprised when I told him the reason: I was seeking my boss’s blessing to out myself publicly for Mental Health Awareness Month.
I had only ever been told by psychiatrists that I should hide my identity as bipolar, and that it was my legal right to do so. This psychiatrist seemed genuinely surprised when I told him that my friends and family had been supportive when I outed myself to them earlier this year.
My own reputation had never factored as a concern — I’m content to be neurodivergent and stoked to be raising awareness about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
I was concerned about the reputations of my loved ones — would they want me to be public about this piece of our lives? Before each step I took, I checked in with my mom, partner, and friends to get their blessings.
Once I hit up against the professional, though, my concerns about going public began to take on a new shape. I was concerned about my boss’s reputation and the reputation of the entire Lab where we work. I thought about my last employers and whether they would want to be associated with me. I was asking myself, by going public, what are the social and business risks I am asking everyone to take with me?
I can’t know the answer to this question, but what I do know is that not everyone has the privilege or safety to share as I have. It is for this reason that I feel the responsibility to do my part to destigmatize mental health. I couldn’t be more grateful for my network and each person’s willingness to be on this journey with me.