From a Psych Hospital to Harvard Law: One Black Woman’s Journey With Bipolar Disorder

“I am a successful dual-degree student who is smart like you are, capable like you are, kind like you are and feeling like you are. I just also live with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.”

“Ooh, this is the case about that crazy guy!” my classmate at Harvard Law School squealed with glee. We were engaged in a class role play featuring a client who had bipolar disorder, whose erratic behavior had endangered the company where he worked.

I froze. She didn’t realize it, but she had implicated me, and now I didn’t know what to do. Should I disclose that I have bipolar disorder too?

In the end, I did nothing, but it still didn’t sit right. That’s why I wrote this piece—to educate, to reduce stigma, and ultimately to disclose that I am a JD/MPH student in my third year at Harvard Law School and at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health with bipolar disorder, severe type I bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. I’ll tell you how I got here.

Krista L.R. Cezair gives a speech to the Harvard Law School student body about how her journey with bipolar disorder.

For reasons that will become clear in a bit, I’ll be incorporating my poetry on this journey.

First, did you know that being depressed is a property problem?

Being Depressed Is a Property Problem

Who owns the thoughts of a depressed brain?
Surely, not I,
For, what is there to do?
All there is:
Pluck my brain from its stem,
Despair, decry the discoveries
No one hears.

I had been depressed for years—at least since high school and probably before, if my memory loss of that period is anything to go by. After regular bouts of intense suicidal ideation, cycling through different plans but luckily managing to continue on without any attempts, I finally reached my first rock bottom after graduating from college and working for Google for one year. They had free, on‐site counselors, one of whom saved my life when she diagnosed me with bipolar II disorder, a form of bipolar disorder with longer and deeper periods of depression and milder forms of elevated energy and mood (called hypomania).

Unlike the popular mischaracterization of bipolar disorder where a person’s moods change from one moment to the next, bipolar disorder’s mood swings and disturbances range on a spectrum, from deep depression to the dizzying heights of mania and can last for weeks, months, even years at a time.

Starting in October 2017 and continuing for close to the next year, I slid from deep depression, past hypomania, to full‐blown mania—although I didn’t and couldn’t realize it since it was my first experience.

Relatedly, did you know that being a manic is a torts problem?

Being a Maniac Is a Torts Problem

See, mania is like
Handing a restless, reckless, rebellious
Teenager the keys to your home
For as long as it takes
To completely raze it,
Only the home is your life
That you built over decades.

The lawyer in me asks:
Have I been contributorily negligent?
Who’s responsible here?

Mania is characterized by extreme levels of energy without the need for sleep, elevated mood and/or agitation, a flood of new ideas, a grandiose attitude, engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, and increased religiosity, among other symptoms. To be diagnosed as a manic episode, these disturbances must be severe enough to require hospitalization or accompany psychosis, like delusions or hallucinations, both of which were true for me. The experience of a full‐blown manic episode is what differentiates bipolar I from bipolar II, so my diagnosis changed to bipolar disorder type I with psychotic features.

By February 2018, I had to quit my job because I could no longer manage to sit down and complete the work due to the extreme restlessness and excess energy I felt. Struggling to manage my law school applications, I almost missed my Harvard Law interview as well. I hopped out of bed 10 minutes before the interview, threw on a designer sweater, which I had at hand because I was buying so many things I didn’t need, and bluffed my way through the interview and into Harvard Law School’s admitted class.

In the throes of mania, I felt compelled and pressured to talk for hours on end to anyone who would listen. I also failed to sleep and would manage only an hour a night while maintaining super high levels of energy.

One early morning around 3 a.m., I managed to refrain from calling anyone, though I desperately needed to express myself. I bypassed the phone icon and instead opened the notes app. I dumped the contents of my brain into the app. When I was done, I saw that I had written a poem, my first one as an adult.

As is evident, I continue to write poetry to this day, and I will always be grateful for my creative awakening while manic. A vestige of my mania, my poetry is the best way I know to express how I—and by extension, my moods and my metacognitions of both—feel. That is why I share it with you.

There are few upsides to being in that state, but there is a demonstrated and historical link between bipolar disorder and creative genius. Many artists are thought to have had bipolar disorder, including some of my favorites—Vincent van Gogh, Sam Gilliam and Frida Kahlo. Britney Spears and Mariah Carey also share the condition.

Only a small handful of lawyers have disclosed their struggles with bipolar disorder publicly. That is because there are a number of structural barriers inherent in the profession that discourage law students and lawyers alike from seeking treatment for mental illnesses.

Thirty-seven states and Washington, D.C., include questions in the ‘character and fitness’ section of the bar exam that refer to the mental health of the applicant. This is a substantial barrier for me and for other potential lawyers with mental illnesses that do not diminish our ability to practice law who are then required to divulge private health information to bar examiners who will make a decision without medical training.

To avoid this obstacle, law students delay or avoid seeking treatment for their mental illnesses and substance abuse problems, so that there is no paper trail for them to hand over and explain, endangering their lives by going without needed treatment.

Everyone in my community supported me in my decision to defer law school for a year to give myself time to recover—but would Harvard do the same?

In the spring of 2018, I was so sick that I simply couldn’t consider my future performance on the bar exam. I desperately needed help. I had very little insight into my condition and had to be involuntarily hospitalized twice. I also had to make the decision of which law school to attend between trips to the psych ward while ragingly manic. I relied on my mother and a former professor who essentially told me I would be attending Harvard. Knowing my reduced capacity for decision‐making while manic, I did not put up a fight and informed Harvard that I would be attending. The next question was: When? Everyone in my community supported me in my decision to defer law school for a year to give myself time to recover—but would Harvard do the same?

Luckily, the answer was yes, and that fall, the fall of 2018, as my admitted class began school, I was admitted to the hospital again, for bipolar depression this time.

While there, I roomed with a sweet young woman of color who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and PTSD and was pregnant with her second child. She was unhoused and had nowhere to go should she be discharged from the hospital, which the hospital threatened to do because she refused medication. She worried that the drugs would harm her unborn child. She was out of options, and the hospital was firm. She was released before me. I wondered where she would go. She had expressed to me multiple times that she had nowhere to go, not her parents’ house, not the child’s father’s house, nowhere.

It was then that I decided I had to fight—for her and for myself. I had access to resources she couldn’t dream of, least of all shelter and a support system. I had to use these resources to get better and embark on a career that would make life better for people like her, like us.

After getting out of the hospital, I started to improve, and I could tell the depression was lifting. Unfortunately, a rockier rock bottom lay ahead of me as I started to feel too good, and the depression lifted too high. Recovery is not linear, and it seemed I was manic again.

I was out to eat in South Beach Miami one night in the spring of 2019 when an impulsive thought zipped through my brain like lightning: I should get a face tattoo, right between my eyes, just like my favorite rapper in high school Lil Wayne! Right there at the dinner table, I sketched the design you can see on my forehead. I had to have it, and I left dinner to find a tattoo shop that would execute the design that night. You can tell that I succeeded.

Do I regret this permanent mark that reflects my manic impulses? No, I don’t. In some alternate dimension, where I am a full-time poet or a rapper, like Lil Wayne, or something like that, this tattoo makes perfect sense, and that Krista would have gotten it without it reflecting her illness.

Later that month, I flew alone to Boston to visit Harvard’s campus. On the final day of my trip, right there on campus, I became so manic and my behavior became so erratic that campus police were called, and I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. I spent a week there, recovering from the flu, walking pneumonia, and my manic episode, and I was devastated to realize that I was mentally unwell again. I then spent over a month in five different institutions before being released to my family. And I had to see if Harvard would allow another deferral.

The school was perfectly accommodating, and I had the time I needed to recover. This time, I stabilized, and by the fall of 2019, I was able to attend a local HBCU in Florida, majoring in psychology in my gap year of recovery to keep me occupied.

Right before the pandemic in March of 2020, I went to visit Harvard’s campus again. I was terrified, worried that I would be triggered by memories of my experiences the prior year. Although I was triggered, I survived, and I knew I could survive my matriculation, especially given the post-traumatic growth I had experienced since my episodes.

I’ll leave you with this final poem for you to ponder ableism and consider those like me with health problems, both invisible and visible:

Health Is Wealth

If health is wealth,
Consider me bankrupt
Disability, a thief in the night,
Comes for my silver spoons
Replaces them with pills
Crammed down my throat

If health is wealth,
Know that I live paycheck to paycheck
When I am feeling healthier,
I know it’s only a matter of time
Usually a fortnight, biweekly,
Until I don’t or can’t or won’t

If health is wealth
My family hasn’t passed on any assets
But the debts remain
All my ancestors left me was a(loan)
Too much trauma,
Too much anxiety,
Too many emotions in the blood

If health is wealth,
Then what do I have to show
For a life lived
From psychiatrist visit to
Therapist visit to
Hospital ward, over and over again?

I am a successful dual-degree student who is smart like you are, capable like you are, kind like you are and feeling like you are. I just also live with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. So next time you think, as one of my professors did, that there’s no one at Harvard Law School whose brain works “like that” and that people who plead guilty by reason of insanity are “not like us,” please remember this piece, and know that we are among you, your friends, loved ones and community, contributing to society.

Up next:

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Krista L. R. Cezair is currently a third-year law student at Harvard Law School and a master of public health candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her work exists at the intersection of lived experience, identity, and educational training and can be found @klrcezair on Instagram and Medium.