On Jesse Jackson Jr. and Being Bipolar

On Jesse Jackson Jr. and Being Bipolar

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 (The Root) -- It's important to remember that for Jesse Jackson Jr., it didn't have to be this way.

There were choices made and choices that would have to be lived with, and there was no chance for continued procrastination. And he'd seen both the right and wrong paths, demonstrated in his passionate, charming but heavily flawed father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.

He had a choice.

But denial is the worst of all false coping mechanisms. It convinces you that the problems aren't problems. That they're "What problems?" And you find yourself lying to yourself, saying that Uncle Sam will understand why you spent campaign-finance funds on Bruce Lee memorabilia. Or maybe he won't. But it doesn't matter, because it's not really happening.

I'm totally in control. I'm always in control. And I know exactly what I am doing, and I can always go back and fix it later.

The worst that could happen can't happen to me. Can it?


I know what it's like to live on borrowed sanity and to infuse my disasters with bipolar logic.

My name is Danielle Belton. And just like Jesse Jackson Jr., I have bipolar disorder type II.

Keeping Up Appearances

Jackson Sr. had good reasons for hoping his son might succeed where he had failed. Jackson Jr. was viewed as bursting with promise. In 1997, two years after he won a special House election, Newsweek named him one of "100 people for the new century … whose creativity or talent or brains or leadership will make a difference in the years ahead." But by 2008 he was in counseling with his wife over an extramarital affair. --Jill Lawrence at National Journal

I'm sure at the time it made sense.

A $43,350 Rolex watch here. Some Michael Jackson memorabilia worth thousands there. A $4,000 cruise; $60,000 dropped on restaurants and nightclubs; and more than $7,000 for two taxidermied elk heads.

But someone was bound to notice. A congressman's annual salary of $174,000 can get you to the upper-middle-class range only if you don't have bothersome things like "a spouse," "personal debt" and "kids." Blowing more than $100,000 on a Rolex and restaurants goes beyond living above your means. Jackson Jr. and his wife were living in someone else's means, someone for whom money wasn't an object. Maybe Chicago rapper Kanye West's means, although Kanye can probably purchase quite a few Rolexes before it becomes financially debilitating.


Maybe they were trying to keep up with the Obamas? But more than likely, they were trying to keep up with an appearance, both real and imagined.

The Jackson name is a famous name, associated with civil rights and public service, but it's not a name like "Kennedy" or "Bush" that comes with a compound and generations of family wealth. But Jackson was now in the world of those sorts of people, being the son of a former Democratic presidential contender and Martin Luther King Jr. confidant. He had to mingle, network and move in the same circles.

Now, some are able to keep themselves rooted once they step foot in Washington, D.C.'s mecca for the well-dressed, power-mad nerd. Others rent their houses, put all their money on their backs, threaten whom they have to for inaugural-ball tickets and live in fear of their cars being repossessed.

Still, for those who typically showboat their way into the poorhouse in Washington, they got there honestly. They took out loans and blew through credit cards thinking they could pay it all back if it led to a political windfall down the line. Jackson Jr. chose a different route -- outright fraud -- and deluded himself into thinking it wouldn't come back to get him. He sustained this delusion even though he had the same target affixed to his back as every political scion of a civil rights legacy who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

I'm sure what hurts the most is that he knew better and did it anyway.

Being Bipolar

"Sir, for years I lived (off) my campaign," Jackson Jr. told U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins when entering his plea. "I used monies that should have been used for campaign purposes, and I used them for myself personally, to benefit me personally. And I am acknowledging that that which the government has presented is accurate." --the Chicago Tribune

 
I lived and worked in Bakersfield, Calif., as a newspaper reporter for five years, and other than some great friends and wonderful work experience, I had nothing to show for it. I was broke, again. And I couldn't tell you where the money went. Restaurants? Clothes? Prince records? It made me long to have a substance abuse problem.

It's easier to explain how you can blow your salary on nothing if cocaine is somehow involved.


I returned to my parents' home in 2007 with only three pairs of shoes and two tons of self-loathing that I pushed around in some Sisyphean quest to accept defeat. My mother told me that living with me when I was alternating between being hysterical and completely comatose was like living with an alcoholic who wasn't drunk.

All the selfishness with a lot less booze.

Bipolar sufferers, when at their lowest and most self-pitying stages, are like smarmy reality-show contestants -- we aren't here to make friends. Depending on how it manifests (because everyone is awful in his or her own special way), you might be alternately too smelly, rude, angry, sad, violent, neglectful, selfish or obnoxious to love. Which is tragic, since typically the best indicator of being able to survive this disease is being able to care about something or someone bigger than yourself and how horrible you feel.

Even though I feel unconditional love, I always fear no one else does. Therefore I believe I have to earn the love I receive from others. I'm like a houseplant that lets you know it needs to be watered by throwing an elaborate party in your honor, then cleaning your house.

The only thing that kept me from being an a--hole was that I was convinced my mother and father wouldn't put up with it and would abandon me.

Even though they explicitly said they never would.

I still pulled myself together by 2009 anyway. Just in case.

Not an Excuse

At a press conference following the hearing, Jackson Jr. attorney Reid Weingarten said Jackson's health problems contributed to his crimes. "It turns out that Jesse has serious health issues," he said. "Those health issues are directly related to his present predicament. That's not an excuse, that's just a fact." --the Chicago Tribune

When it was revealed that the Great Missing Jesse Jackson Jr. Mystery of 2012 was about the Mayo Clinic and bipolar disorder, I heard my fair share of people scoffing. And that was to be expected. People often conflate mental illness with the word "excuse" instead of "explanation."

You don't have to be bipolar to spend money that isn't yours, lie to those closest to you, cheat on your spouse, be grossly irresponsible and blunder your way into one of Illinois' many corrupt governor scandals, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

And you can be bipolar and hold down a job; be a productive citizen; help many people; be brilliant; and be successful, envied and admired.

Bipolar and success. Bipolar and failure. They aren't mutually exclusive. One doesn't cause the other; one is simply present no matter what environment surrounds it. One simply provides the shades of color the other comes in


Some people deal with failure by saying "better luck next time." Others drown themselves in alcohol. Others cut themselves. Others only think about cutting themselves constantly until they become too afraid to own knives.

That's what the disease is. That extra paintbrush that covers even the prettiest of pictures in shades of bull crap.

It's the great party ruiner. It makes perfect the enemy of the good. Then that perfect is poisoned by a mind that loves to lie to you.

It Never Gets Easier

Asked whether he understood what was happening, he answered, "Sir, I've never been more clear in my life." Leaving the courtroom, Jackson Jr. told a reporter, "Tell everybody back home I'm sorry I let 'em down, OK?" --the Chicago Tribune

February has always been a bad month for me. Even when I was a child. Anxious for school to begin each year, I would hit the halls in late August with ferocity, taking on extracurricular activities, acing my classes, pushing myself with the hope that the feeling of invincibility and possibility would never end.

By Christmas break I was burned out. And by February, all the ferocity and optimism was gone. I was exhausted, and school would become an endurance test as I tried to keep it together until spring break and then, finally, a welcome summer vacation.

My aggressive hand in September was always writing checks I wearily couldn't cash come the winter.

I've done this dance all of my life, and it never gets easier. With every year, it only gets harder. I spent the fall of 2012 in New York City, working 12-hour days on a TV show, barely sleeping or eating, then having it all go away as quickly as it came.

Talking to a close friend who knows my situation, he worried that my career was what was making me sick, and said I needed stability and to live in a city that didn't trigger my crippling anxiety. But when it comes to my career I'm like a child, up long after her bedtime, still playing, promising my mother I will go to bed in a few minutes.

A few minutes become an hour. An hour becomes four years since my last hospitalization. And I realize this February isn't like the Februarys of my youth, or even recent ones during which I was moody and bleak but fine by the time spring came. This was an old "bad" February from before I was diagnosed, the kind that would give way to severe depression by spring, insomnia by summer and a complete breakdown by fall.

I promised myself, when I was hospitalized in 2009, that it would be the last time for a long time. Forever, if I could do it. I owed it to my parents.

So you spend your last $200 on the doctor and get back on your meds. And you're not a drunk, but you think like one, so you go through the Big Book and make your amends. Even if they're just to yourself.

I'm sorry I let you down.

Danielle C. Belton is a freelance journalist and TV writer, founder of the blog blacksnob.com and editor-at-large of Clutch Magazine Online.
 

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