We Still Don’t Know How to Talk About Kanye

As someone who shares his diagnosis, it’s clear recent coverage misses a big part of the story.

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: PATRICK KOVARIK/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: PATRICK KOVARIK/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: PATRICK KOVARIK/Getty Images

In the months after Kim Kardashian filed for divorce from Kanye West last February, the two initially seemed friendly, going as far as re-creating their wedding onstage at a Donda listening party. But in recent weeks, there’s been a shift. In addition to repeatedly stating that he wants Kim back, Kanye has claimed that he’s been prevented from seeing his children and has encouraged his fans to harass Pete Davidson, who is currently dating Kim. In a rare statement earlier this month, Kim called out Kanye’s “constant attacks on me in interviews and on social media,” writing that his “obsession with trying to control and manipulate our situation so negatively and publicly is only causing further pain for all.” And then there are Kanye’s short-lived posts on Instagram — all-caps missives in which he claimed Billie Eilish insulted Travis Scott when she paused a show to give a distressed fan an inhaler, and shared what appeared to be texts from Kim explicitly asking him to keep their conversation private.

After years of Kanye’s eccentric behavior being treated like a joke in the media, many have raised concerns that some of his recent actions appear abusive, or even dangerous. At the same time, there’s an inescapable sense that the recent coverage of him either dismisses or ignores the context of his diagnosis, missing a big piece of the story.

Kanye, who is now legally known by his nickname, Ye, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after being hospitalized for a psychiatric emergency in 2016. In the years since, he’s spoken about experiencing manic episodes, often tweeting and performing through them. He has famously referred to bipolar disorder as his “superpower,” and spoke candidly about the stigma around mental illness on David Letterman’s show in 2019. “I ramp up, I go high,” he said of his episodes, describing feelings of paranoia and delusions, as well as being handcuffed, drugged, and hospitalized.

Kanye and I don’t have a lot in common — he’s a Black rap star generally regarded as one of the most influential figures of the 21st century; I’m a white woman, and I’m not famous — but we do share a diagnosis. If you haven’t been manic, it’s hard to grasp what an intoxicating and confusing state of mind it is. I certainly didn’t understand what it was like until I had my first manic episode in 2020. I felt like I was on molly: the same warm glow of euphoria, my usual anxieties melting away. Unlike being drunk or tipsy, I felt incredibly sharp. My mind had been blown open, and I was seeing possibilities and connections I never had before. I was full of energy and ambitions: I was going to write a graphic memoir, launch a parenting website, renovate a house. People kept telling me I needed to eat and sleep, but I didn’t understand their concern. From my perspective, I was suddenly the best version of myself: smarter, funnier, less shy, and infinitely more productive. I recognized that I was acting differently, but I still felt like myself. That made everything even more confusing.

This is where people get confused with Kanye, too. Something you often hear is that he has an enormous ego, commonly referring to himself as the greatest artist of all time. In his recent Hollywood Unlocked interview, he said, “Yeah I’m a rapper and obviously I’m a genius too,” and at another point declared, “I am a future president.” Many people, including some close to him, will say that’s just “Kanye being Kanye.” And they might be right. The new Netflix documentary Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy makes clear that from his early days as a producer, Kanye was unnervingly talented and ambitious, relentless in the face of an industry that often doubted him. It’s also true, though I rarely see any mention of this in the conversation around Kanye, that according to the DSM-IV, “inflated self-esteem or grandiosity” can be a symptom of mania.

As a person suffering from mania, it can be tricky to disentangle where the illness stops and you begin. “Sometimes it’s hard to know, Are these symptoms me, and which of these feelings are me?” says Pilar Cárdenas, a therapist who specializes in treating patients with bipolar disorder. She notes that, in milder cases, mania can look like “a little lack of inhibitions and problems with impulse control.” In other words, bipolar disorder is not always easy to pick up on. In Jeen-yuhs, the filmmaker, Clarence “Coodie” Simmons — Kanye’s longtime friend who filmed him over the course of two decades — said that he didn’t fully understand what was happening until he heard that his friend was on an involuntary psychiatric hold. “When I would see Kanye go off in the past, I just thought it was a part of the show,” he says in the film. “I had no idea he was even struggling with his mental health.”

Kanye’s bipolar diagnosis became the subject of headlines after he started making jarring, sometimes offensive remarks. On his 2016 Saint Pablo tour, he began giving long, meandering monologues, which included praising Donald Trump and later asserting in an interview that slavery was a “choice.” His behavior became the subject of fascination, concern, and mockery again in 2020, when he launched a campaign for president and made controversial remarks about Harriet Tubman and abortion. At the time, Kim wrote: “As many of you know, Kanye has bipolar disorder. Anyone who has this or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand.” Calling her husband a “brilliant but complicated person,” she added: “Those who are close to Kanye know his heart and understand his words sometimes do not align with his intentions.”

When you are manic, you are often not fully in control of yourself — so to what extent are you responsible for what you do? According to Cárdenas, “The more severe the mania, the less judgment and less control a person has over their behavior.” In extreme cases, she says, “some people have no awareness of what they’re doing, and afterwards no memory of what they’ve said or done.” Legally, Cárdenas points out, people are still held responsible for their behavior while manic. “You can make the case that they weren’t of sound mind and body, but it’s not a free pass.” She believes the question of personal responsibility is more complicated. “They believe whatever it is they’re being compelled to do makes sense within the state of mind that they’re in,” she says. “The brain is misfiring and really wrecking havoc, so that is their reality.”

On the spectrum of mania, my experience was somewhat mild. I didn’t experience psychosis or hallucinations, though I did get more frantic and irritable as time went on. Eventually, I wound up in the emergency room. But even after I found a good therapist and psychiatrist, it took months to untangle what had happened to me. Once the mania faded, I went through a low period. Depression often follows a manic episode, and this is part of what makes the illness so dangerous: According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, nearly one in five people with bipolar disorder die by suicide.

While I don’t think I was clinically depressed, I was intensely embarrassed and ashamed of the way I’d behaved while I was manic. It wasn’t that the things I’d done were so bad. Yes, I’d acted in ways that were inconsiderate and hurtful towards the people I loved, and yes, I’d overshared and made things public that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and I tried to apologize for those things. But what shook me most was the realization that I’d been caught up in a different version of reality than everyone else. That my version was only slightly off, an exaggeration of my normal life, made it even more difficult to process. I’m thankful that I mainly interacted with a tight circle of close friends and family, plus my miniscule Instagram following, during the month or so that I was manic. When I think of Kanye, I can’t imagine how confusing and painful it must be to go through a manic episode with millions of people watching.

As a creative person, being manic felt so good. I wanted to be a genius, I wanted to get five book deals, I wanted to live in my dream house. I was desperate to believe in that distorted reality, especially when the alternative was to admit that I was mentally ill. Later, when I read that, in 2018, Kanye told Trump that he had been misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was actually suffering from sleep deprivation, I felt a stab of recognition. I had said the same thing.

After some trial and error, I was prescribed lithium. I had heard scary things — it’s toxic in the wrong dose and long-term use can lead to kidney damage — but not long after trying it I started to feel like my usual self again. I was told I’d most likely have to be on medication for the rest of my life. As Kanye explained to Letterman: “If you don’t take medication every day to keep you at a certain state, you have a potential to ramp up and it can take you to a point where you can even end up in the hospital. And you start acting erratic, as TMZ would put it.” Yet it’s common for people with bipolar to resist medication — because of side effects, because they don’t believe they need it, or because the highs of mania are seductive. Psychiatric medication and therapy also carry a stigma for many people, especially in the Black community, says Tasnim Sulaiman, a therapist and founder of Black Men Heal. “People of color are often misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed,” she says, pointing to a range of factors, including African Americans’ history of distrust of medical professionals and cultural barriers between doctors and patients. “We look at therapy as something that rich white people do,” says Rwenshaun Miller, a therapist who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “There’s a sense of, just grit your teeth and bear it and push forward, and everything will be okay.”

Kanye has discussed being on and off medication, telling the New York Times in 2018 that he was “learning how to not be on meds,” and later tweeting “I can feel me again” after being off medication for six months. Kim later told Vogue that for Kanye, “Being on medication is not really an option, because it just changes who he is.” Now, Kanye being “off his meds” is a routine punchline anytime his behavior makes headlines, epitomized by a 2018 Pete Davidson SNL sketch where he imitates Kanye, joking, “This is the real me. I’m off the meds.” (Davidson, it’s worth noting, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2017, and often jokes about his own mental health.)

“THE WORLD IS RACIST SEXIST HOMOPHOBIC AND CRAZY PHOBIC AT OUR CORE ITS CHEAP AND DISMISSIVE TO SAY I’M OFF MY MEDS ANYTIME I SPEAK UP,” Kanye recently posted (and deleted). There are times when I look at some of the things Kanye says and find it hard not to think that he’s manic. Yet I empathize with the frustration of having your every move watched and judged by people who can be quick to assume that if you suffer from mental illness, nothing you say is worth listening to, or that you’re incapable of making responsible decisions about your own health. The first time my husband asked if I had taken my medication, it felt like a gut punch. Even though I knew it was well-intentioned, and even though it was coming from the person I was closest to, the judgment and insinuation still stung.

As Miller points out, “take your meds” is a reductive way to think about addressing mental-health challenges. For many people with bipolar, medication can be lifesaving, but it’s just one tool for treating a complicated illness where episodes are often triggered by and intertwined with stress and trauma. In his SNL sketch, Davidson wore a red hat that read “make Kanye 2006 again.” What didn’t come up was that 2007 was the year that Kanye’s mother, Donda, died following complications from cosmetic surgery, a loss he’s made clear has had a devastating impact on him.

Kanye has said that he prefers to think of what many labeled his 2016 “breakdown” as his “breakthrough.” His references to bipolar disorder as his “superpower” have prompted criticism that he’s glamorizing a dangerous illness. “I feel like it downplays the severity of what this actual illness can do,” says Miller, who has spoken about his own experience with bipolar disorder, including multiple suicide attempts. But I’ve appreciated hearing Kanye speak about his diagnosis with more than just shame. I believe that he truly is a genius and part of a long history of groundbreaking artists with bipolar. As agonizing as it can be to watch him suffer from such a misunderstood illness on such a huge stage, I recognize the way he talks about it with a sort of perverse pride. I found being manic deeply traumatic and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but a part of me is grateful I got to experience it. My mind is fuller as a result.

But watching Kanye’s recent posts about Kim and his children has made me sad. I’ll never fully understand what is happening within their family, and I wish that I wasn’t seeing their private disputes unfold publicly. Some of Kanye’s recent behavior is disturbing: On more than one occasion, he’s been seen out with a Kim Kardashian doppelgänger, and at one point posted what appeared to be private texts with Kim before sending her a truck full of roses for Valentine’s Day. Many pointed out that his actions look like harassment or even abuse — and that it’s increasingly unsettling to see them consumed as entertainment online. “Bipolar can be a debilitating diagnosis, not just for the person experiencing it, but also for the family members around them,” says Sulaiman. Kanye eventually deleted the posts, writing in another, “I know sharing screen shots was jarring and came off as harassing Kim. I take accountability. I’m still learning in real time. I don’t have all the answers.” People joked that his PR team or Kris Jenner had finally stepped in, while speculation continued to escalate on social media with comparisons of the situation to a “Dateline” episode and Kanye to O.J. Simpson.

Watching anyone experience mental illness is challenging and complicated, but Kanye’s identity as a Black man, and as one of the most famous and polarizing people alive, makes it more fraught. “Black men are often seen as a threat in the world. Even when they’re not intending to cause harm, they’re constantly being responded to and reacted to as if they were,” says Sulaiman. Miller points out that mental health is more likely to enter the conversation when a white person behaves badly or commits a crime. “A lot of the time, we as Black people don’t get that grace or understanding that we are dealing with a mental-health challenge, or that ability to correct certain actions,” he says. Kanye has long been outspoken about his experience as a Black man in America, though he’s observed that people often call him “crazy” when he’s saying something they don’t want to hear. In 2005, when he infamously declared “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” many dismissed his critique as a “rant” or an “outburst,” even if history looks back on it differently. “Anytime somebody wants to say I’m wrong about something, hide the truth, lie … they say Ye’s crazy,” he said in his Drink Champs interview last fall. “It’s just the ultimate cutoff to not have to listen.”

Jeen-yuhs ends with footage of Kanye from 2020, around the same time as the reported manic episode that coincided with his run for president. In one scene, Kanye is having drinks with the billionaire investor Michael Novogratz and columnist Dan Barry. “Have you guys ever been locked up in handcuffs and put into a hospital because your brain was too big for your skull?” he asks them. Speaking with increasing agitation, he jumps around between topics before telling them, “I took bipolar medication last night to have a normal conversation and turn alien to English.” Then, in what has become one of the film’s most-discussed moments, the filmmaker puts the camera down. Explaining the choice, Coodie told the Times, “I’ve never filmed him when he’s like that. When I film him, there’s a certain way that he is with me — he’s himself. At that moment, he was not himself.”

Kanye is a public figure, and the media — including this publication — will need to continue to grapple with how we cover his public behavior. He has said himself that he is imperfect. But to me it also seems likely that some of those imperfections are magnified and exaggerated by an illness associated with impulsivity and impaired judgment. I keep thinking about Britney Spears, and how her behavior while she was in the thick of mental-health challenges was also labeled “erratic” and ridiculed, only for it to later come out that her circumstances were far more complicated than we knew. I wonder if some day, we’ll look back at the way we talked about Kanye with a similar shift in perspective. In Jeen-yuhs, when the camera cut away, I felt relief. To me, it felt like the right choice — the human choice. If it were me, that’s what I would have wanted.

We Still Don’t Know How to Talk About Kanye