Of all people, I never thought I’d find myself empathizing with Chris Brown. In fact, given his Rihanna-beating and general cockiness, I essentially abhorred him. But now, as I’ve read more and more about his recent stints in rehab and in jail, I find myself relating to him — on some odd level — more and more.

Caitlyn Brennan

Chris Brown is 24 years old, and suffers from bipolar disorder. Like him, I am a young person faced with the challenges of the same mental illness.

Bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of depression and mania. The depression side is easy enough to relate to — most people go through at least one depressive period in their life. The mania side is more difficult, though.

I can’t completely accurately describe what mania is like. To lose your sanity, slowly and then so quickly, is impossible to put into words. Like water slipping through cupped hands, no matter how hard you squeeze your fingers together, your sanity just drips through to its escape, leaving you with nothing. The sheer terror and agony of watching yourself melt away and feeling unable to stop it, as you transform into something you don’t recognize — the deep levels of insecurity and uncertainty you are brought to — it’s all so much for one person to handle.

And while experiencing the mania is one thing, managing it is another. From falling into dangerous drinking habits, chasing bottles of Xanax with bottles of wine in an attempt to keep your mind calm, to getting yourself regulated on antipsychotics, often with serious side effects, it’s easy to find yourself in a place you really don’t want to be. The frustration and anxiety brought on by treating the mania can beget worse mania.

It’s for these reasons I find myself empathizing with Chris Brown. While we, the public, don’t know the intricacies of his incarceration, I feel like I know fairly well the intricacies of his illness. The way that the media handles his behaviors is that of a circus act, not that of someone suffering a serious illness. Radio DJs talk about him going into solitary confinement — “He can’t shower except every two days! Ew!” — but not about the ramifications that might have on someone already mentally unstable.

Chris Brown has obviously done some terrible things to merit the punishments he has received, and arguably has gotten off with less punishment than the average person might. Still, I think there is a moral obligation to at least try to understand and acknowledge the mental illness from which he purportedly suffers.

The same goes for someone like Amanda Bynes, who though clearly suffered (is suffering?) a mental health crisis, was turned into the laughingstock of the public. Would someone with an illness like cancer be treated the same way? Would someone with a mental disability be laughed at like she was? This is a person clearly suffering very serious mental health issues, but look at the way she was treated.

As I experience my own extreme ups and downs trying to find a course of treatment that works for me, I find myself constantly on the verge of “crazy.” As I switch medications, trying to find one that doesn’t turn me into a zombie but keeps the mania at bay, there are days I start to feel my sanity slip through my fingers again. And it scares me, because at times, I am only days away from the possibility of being Chris Brown or Amanda Bynes. Would I be laughed at? Would I be ostracized? Would everyone so quickly forget my competencies and achievements as a “normal” person, in favor of reveling in my loss of reality?

I’m fortunate to have an amazing system of supportive family, friends, instructors and clinicians. I’m fortunate to have been raised to not shy away from issues of mental health, but to work to overcome them. Most fortunately, I think, I suffer mainly in privacy, not in the public eye. While I can imagine what celebrities with bipolar disorder go through, I cannot imagine what it is like to go through it publicly.

It’s easy to get caught up in the whims of gossip magazines and TMZ, but I ask regardless — for my sake and the sake of others — that when it comes to issues of mental health, we afford people a bit more compassion as they endure their challenges.

Caitlyn Brennan can be reached at caibre@umich.edu.

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