I first learned of both mental illness and glamour from my great-aunt Mae-Jane, who thought the Lord and his angels spoke to her through visions.
Mae-Jane took a particular pride in her appearance. Every day, she’d adorn herself in DIY regalia: velvet gowns, elbow-length lace gloves, golden turbans, veils covered with glitter. She always smelled of something biblical, like a woody perfumed oil.
During funerals, Mae-Jane paired her outfits with performances. At my maternal grandfather’s homegoing, she flung herself all over the chapel, screeching in tongues. As my 8-months-pregnant mother lunged toward Mae-Jane — seemingly to strike her — my great-aunt danced away, flapping her arms to reveal angel wings she had sewn to her gown.
Severe mental illness runs deep in my family, and we’ve learned to joke about it, but mostly we’ve learned to deny its presence and potency. Despite being mentally ill for most of my life, I used to pride myself on being “different” from Mae-Jane or my other family members.
Even when I started hearing voices and having paranoid delusions, even when my manic and depressive episodes led to several doctors firmly diagnosing me with bipolar disorder, even then, I denied the bond we shared.
But now, after my public suicide attempts late last year, I’m identifying with Mae-Jane in an unexpected way — through my clothes. Granted, my fashion choices are more subtle than hers, but I’m understanding how and why Mae-Jane built a sartorial armor to protect herself from the world. I see that it granted a measure of precious autonomy over not only her own body and mind, but over other people’s reactions to her.
I can only guess what Mae-Jane hoped to gain from her fashion choices, but I know she claimed small victories by determining how the world saw her. She commanded attention, dared us to question her reality and expressed her feelings through her style.
Fashion is powerful. Studies have shown fashion can lift or dampen our moods. In some ways, it can mean the difference between employment and unemployment, romance or solitude, and — especially relevant for those deemed to be “mad” — forced hospitalization or getting to go home. In “The Collected Schizophrenias,” a book of essays by Esmé Weijun Wang, she writes about her experience with Cotard’s delusion, a type of psychosis where the patient believes they are dead. At one point, she describes deciding what to wear to her electroconvulsive therapy consult.
“If I looked too pulled-together for the consult, I figured, I wouldn’t be able to convey that most of the time I was suffering from psychic torture. If I looked like a mess, I might end up institutionalized, and I’d had enough experience with psychiatric hospitals to know that I didn’t want or need hospitalization.”
After my suicide attempts, I knew my worth was being weighed and found wanting. I felt naked, knowing people had glimpsed the most vulnerable parts of my broken brain. I knew many people would think I did it for attention (or love). I knew many people would think I was dangerous (or toxic). I knew many people would pity me (or mock me). I knew they would take the information they were given about me and translate my pain and experiences into something that fit their narrative of what and who I was.
So, I took a page out of Mae-Jane’s book and went shopping. I curated my new clothes carefully, considering the message that each piece sent — not only to the world, but to myself.
I reclaimed my sexual viability and emotional strength through fierce, grunge pieces with low cuts and tight fits. In a society dominated by merit-based competition, I felt the need to assert my occupational identity — accomplished writer — so I picked professorial pieces with plaid.
I know that as a Black woman with a severe mental illness, one of my only avenues to societal acceptance is accessing this aesthetic of intellect and artistry, so I hunted for pieces that were daring, unique and textured. (In this, I am merely a repetition of history. In “This Way Madness Lies: The Asylum and Beyond,” Mike Jay writes that in the 15th century, melancholia — what we might now describe as some mix of depression, delusion, and paranoia — was “a fashionable condition for brooding intellectuals.”)
I picked black and deep-green colors, often reaching for the darkest swipe of red lipstick I could find. I wanted to look exquisite if I could, but I also wanted to cling to some sort of defiant madness, a madness that communicated a challenge: I know what I am, do you?
It was a more elegant form of my rebellious adolescence, when I frequented Hot Topic, the store writer John Paul Brammer describes as the place where angsty teens across America went to proclaim, “I will mold myself into a prickly, jagged being with spikes and chains to sabotage the machine — I won’t let you process me, let you look me over and determine my worth. I choose instead to self-destruct.”
Appearance amounts to more than clothing. I have also become highly invested in my skin care and hair routines.
In the days after my first suicide attempt and leading up to my second, I laid in bed wearing a snot and tear-covered T-shirt, hair tangled and shedding, skin blotchy and eyes swollen. Then, I was deposited into the psych ward, which can be a simultaneously sterile and filthy experience. I felt tainted, unworthy, inhuman.
So in the months after I got home, I went to the steam room at my gym and deep-conditioned my hair. I took biotin obsessively. I bought bath bombs and eye creams. I wanted to be clean, smooth. No roughness. I exfoliated and moisturized and serumed myself back into a person I could recognize.
I’ve fought to maintain this routine during pandemic-imposed isolation. Being shuttered in my room for 25 days has brought suicidal ideation roaring back, making my shelter-in-place behavior feel more like the domain of the mad each day. In the absence of the need for elaborate outfits, skin care is one of the few things reassuring me that I’m not in the asylum, that I’m relatively safe and relatively free.
In “I’m Telling The Truth But I’m Lying,” writer Bassey Ikpi, who also has bipolar disorder, writes of a similar feeling, although she speaks of being dissociated from herself at the same time. “She starts with the dark circles under her eyes,” Ikpi writes. “Her makeup bag holds the witchcraft that will hopefully make her look human again.”
When I pamper and dress myself, I do so to heal, but I never know if I’m performing alchemy or resurrection. I never know if I’m creating an illusion or revealing what was there all along. In a world salivating at the chance to judge me, consume me, conceal me or punish me, how could I ever really know? Is this my true self, or just the self that I think will protect me from you?