Selena Gomez wearing a black suit looking serious.
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Like Selena Gomez, Accepting My Bipolar Disorder Means Finding New Strength

In this op-ed, Devi Jags explores how she relates to Selena Gomez in her new documentary, and what being diagnosed with bipolar disorder means for her.

My senior year of high school was filled with insurmountable pressure: To solidify college scholarships, to run for Division I in the NCAA, to fulfill my running team’s goals, and to do it all oftentimes at the expense of my physical wellbeing. On the day of what would be my last high school track meet, I ran one of the slowest races I ever had as the crowd watched my body break down before them. In the days that followed, I learned I was running on a fractured hip, femur, and groin. If I had kept running, in one week's time, blood would have stopped circulating into my leg — ending my running career for good. Looking back, it’s no wonder that I experienced my first panic attack on that day.

My perfectionism may have been an early indicator of the anxiety and manic depression — a form of bipolar disorder — that I would later be diagnosed with, after a mental breakdown in college in 2017. So, when I watched Selena Gomez’s new documentary, My Mind & Me, I recognized myself in her story, particularly in how she struggles to accept her bipolar disorder diagnosis. The film examines her darkest and most vulnerable moments between the years 2016 and 2020. Directed by Alek Keshishian on Apple TV+, the film gives us an alternative narrative to her stardom, one that many of us who struggle with our mental health can relate to.

After finishing a rehearsal for her Revival tour, viewers are introduced to a version of Selena different from the radiant woman on stage. Through tears, she says, “It looks so bad. I have no idea what the f*ck I am doing,” while she continues to criticize everything from her outfits to the voice in her head. She explains that performing “sucks the life out” of her to the point she does not want to do it, and we see footage of her admitting the mounds of pressure on her shoulders. In between staggered breaths, she manages to say, “the pressure is just overwhelming because I want to do the best I can, and I am not —” while she continues to shake her head in distress. She experiences many happy moments on tour, but eventually we enter into arguably Selena’s darkest point in the film: After dozens of performances, the Revival tour was canceled and Selena checked into treatment for anxiety and depression.

In interviews with Selena’s friends and family, we gain insight into her symptoms of “not wanting to be alive” and not being able to explain what she was feeling. Selena’s friend, Raquelle, remembers it being very “chaotic” to try to understand what was going on in her head.  I cannot understand the immense pressure Selena faces in her career and life, but I am all too familiar with living in a chaotic, unexplainable mind.

The film skips to 2019 when we learn Selena had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She says, “when I first got out [of treatment], I didn’t know how to cope with my diagnosis. I needed to keep learning about it.” 

There was no singular, identifiable event that led to my hospitalization just like I’m sure there wasn’t one event that led to Selena’s. Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings that can cause emotional highs and lows. The highs, according to the Mayo Clinic, are marked by mania that leads to racing thoughts, increased energy, poor decision making, among other symptoms. The lows are often major depressive episodes that an cause feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in normal activities, fatigue, suicidal ideation, and more. The cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, but periods of high stress can trigger episodes.

Selena Gomez in partial profile, smiling.
"I’ve probably been the happiest I’ve ever been.”

When you are a woman representing a brand or an industry (in my case, a school and team), you often learn to ignore your needs as you try to cope with the pressure. For people with bipolar disorder, this can lead to the chaos we see Selena describe. In the film, Selena reflects on her own moments of self-sabotage, and her misconstrued perspective on chaos being normal. For me, learning about my bipolar diagnosis helped me understand the emotional rollercoaster that plagued me for years. This newfound understanding helped me come to realize that my bipolar disorder is arguably my biggest strength. Back then, my reactions and self-sabotage were a product of feeling like I didn't have agency over myself. The strength in it now is knowing when my mind is asking for help. Accepting my bipolar disorder means accepting that I need help, and that's absolutely powerful.

It would be years before I learned that the day of my first panic attack was a signal that was attempting to keep me safe, telling me to walk away from the track meet that was compounding all my stress — physical and mental. In fact, I sometimes wonder if it was a reaction trying to save me from enduring physical pain. I wonder if someone listened to Selena when she said “it makes me not want to perform,” that maybe she didn’t have to continue for dozens of more performances before reaching her breaking point.

Throughout the film, we watch Selena grapple with all kinds of feelings, excelling in some places and struggling in others. But as we witness her growth, the acceptance of her bipolar disorder represents an acceptance of herself. With a voiceover narration, the film concludes with Selena saying, “I’m at peace. I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m confident. I’m full of doubt. I’m a work in progress. I am enough. I am Selena.” In this, we see her triumph in curating her own narrative not based on survival, but fulfillment in the things that make her happy — her recent accolades speaking for themselves.

Knowing that being bipolar is always going to be a part of who I am makes me grateful for the powerful feelings I have the ability to carry. It is and will continue to be, an aspect of myself that helps me achieve everything I want while being authentically me.

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