Tochi Onyebuchi is a Columbia Law School graduate with strong experience in both domestic and international legal work and research. He has studied extensively in France, conducted research in the Balkans, and worked on a team to help secure habeas corpus relief for a man unjustly imprisoned in Connecticut.
As a novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, and columnist, he has covered topics such as international organized criminality and the fall of the Soviet Union. He has appeared in Nowhere Magazine, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and the critically-acclaimed anthology Panverse Three.
In our conversation below, we sat down at a local coffee shop to discuss the perception and reality of bipolar II disorder, alongside mental health issues such as addiction and comorbidity.
So NYU, Columbia, and Yale. That’s it folks, that’s the end of the interview. [Laughs] Given that you’ve had such diverse pursuits, what did you aspire to do growing up?
I discovered very early on that I wanted to be a writer. My background is prose and I stumbled into creative writing in 7th grade. That was the first time storytelling was a part of my curriculum. Not only that, I was halfway decent at it. Fast-forward to high school, where I’m reading voraciously. There’s a fantasy series called “The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan, and I remember finishing book three during Spring Break and thinking, I want to give to another person the feeling I just got. That’s when I realized people could do this for a living.
At the same time, I come from a Nigerian household. [Laughs] It’s doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Mom would’ve been cool if I was just a writer, but she would’ve felt much better if I did something that reliably put food on the table. Looking at what I was good at and the topics that fascinated me, going into law made the most sense. When I was little and had the day off from school, I used to watch episodes of “The Practice,” and Eugene would always wear dapper suits and give eloquent closing arguments. I remember being a kid and thinking, that’s dope. [Laughs] I would imagine that was percolating in the back of my mind too.
I was a Political Science major at Yale, with a focus on political economy and international relations. I knew I was going to law school, but the reasons changed. By the time I was applying to law school, it was because I was really interested in international organized crime. I started taking courses about the legal issues happening in the U.S. when I got to Columbia, and I thought they were very interesting.
Each of the top law schools has their own character and reputation. Yale spits out a lot of academics and future deans. Harvard is a lot of politicians and Supreme Court clerks. NYU has the public interest law reputation. Columbia is the corporate law factory. We spit out graduates that work in the corporate sector and earn $160,000 in their first year out. That’s the path of least resistance when you get into Columbia Law. It was going to be soulless work, but I figured that was what I was going to do. I’d do it for however many years, pay off my loans, and move on to the next thing.
I figured that if I was going on the corporate track, let me do all the human rights and public interest stuff in law school, while I can. I went to the West Bank to work with a prisoners’ rights organization on issues of mass incarceration, and did more prisoners’ rights work when I came back. Then, as I was flying out to Paris to do my third year there as part of a dual degree program, the only things on TV at JFK were the beheading of the journalist James Foley, and the Ferguson riots. I watched this and thought to myself, “There’s got to be some way to get involved.” That was the beginning of my shift from corporate law to public interest and civil rights.
Despite the desire to support family, law grew out of your own legitimate interests as well. Where did that come from?
I felt that if I was going to do this thing to earn money, I might as well enjoy it. If I really wanted to make money, I would’ve been an Economics major and gone into consulting. But political science really fascinated me, and it can be traced back to high school when I took courses on places outside of the U.S. High school was where I took classes on the conflicts in the Middle East, and that blew my mind open and got me reading the paper every morning. I took a lot of that into college with me.
Were you a teenager when you were diagnosed with depression?
Yes, the formal diagnosis happened at some point in high school.
What led you to consult a doctor in the first place?
The day before I turned 11, my dad passed away from chronic myeloid leukemia. I don’t have many memories of that period when he was sick; the disease was very quick with him. And I went into middle school and didn’t notice anything wrong, but part of it was that I just refused to process it. All of a sudden, being the oldest of four, I was “the man of the house.” Part of what that required was rendering myself impervious to slings and arrows, so I don’t think I allowed myself to grieve. When you get to that state of emotional constipation, pain starts to build up, and I would have these severe downswings in mood. I just figured that was part of the fabric of daily life, and engrossing myself in my studies was a very good distractor for me. I went to see the school therapist and that’s when I got the diagnosis, as well as my introduction to talk therapy. The idea of talking to someone who wasn’t family about these issues that never came up in conversation with friends became an invaluable resource.
As a teenager, I was very caught up in getting validation from girls, but I was horrible at it. I used up so much mental energy beating myself up about how bad I was with girls. [Laughs] One of the best parts of about talk therapy was its way of teasing these things out. Why did I care so much about this one particular thing? Or why did this other thing matter so much to me? You wonder if your disease defines you, because it’s made up of your materials. I didn’t know where the disease started and where I ended. For instance, I was seeing someone a while back, and she canceled on me. I felt really shitty, but I wondered if it was because the date was canceled, or if it was the depression tacking onto some sort of trigger.
Right. You can never be like, that sucked, and leave it at that.
Exactly. If I feel particularly ambitious about something, I wonder if I’m adequately judging my own capabilities, or if that’s the onset of a hypo-manic state.
Your diagnosis changed from clinical depression to bipolar II disorder. How did that come about?
I didn’t get diagnosed with bipolar until my first year of law school. I figured the hypomania was just a coping mechanism to fight my depression and make up for the lost time I was paralyzed with grief. I proactively started therapy in the fall of that first year because I knew law school would be very intense. I also struggled with substance abuse issues in college and through my first year of NYU, so I really wanted to get a hold of that and make put together a support system for myself. The night before a fall semester exam, I had a breakdown. One of those “what am I doing here” type of things. I thought I would have to drop out of school, so I checked myself into the nearby mental health unit. Went home later that night, took the exam the next morning. Immediately, I resumed my sessions. As the therapist listened to my tendencies and predilections, she said, “Are you sure your diagnosis is clinical depression, because it’s starting to sound a lot like bipolar II.”
When it started to sink in, there was a huge weight that settled onto my shoulders because it meant the coping mechanisms I relied on were part of the disease. It was like finding out my sword and shield were rusted.
Was it still informative?
Yes, because despite the depression diagnosis, I still had questions and various behavior patterns I couldn’t explain. The shift in diagnosis put all the pieces into place, but the temptation is to use it to explain everything, when human beings are much more complicated than a mental health diagnosis. [Laughs]
But medicine and medication do rely on an accurate diagnosis.
That’s what it was really helpful for, in part because I wasn’t taking medication for depression. Untreated bipolar II episodes get more severe, with an emphasis on depressive episodes. By the time I was in law school, the episodes I had in high school were walks in the park by comparison. As I got older, I became better at articulation and reasoning through what was happening, but that almost compounded the problems when I would form these half-baked theories on why I was as fucked up as I was.
So the new diagnosis gave you a new anchor.
It was lifesaving, because the episodes would’ve just gotten worse.
Hypomania is an interesting topic because when seen separately from bipolar disorder, I think many people would want to be hyper-productive.
There are times when it feels like a superpower. In high school, I wrote a novel a year, between 100,000 to 150,000 words. It was dope, it was me, but it was the epitome of hypo-mania. One of the biggest challenges at this point in my life is being okay saying, “It’s all me.” [The disease] is not an extension that can be amputated and there’s no dividing line. I know that intellectually; it’s just getting the rest of my body to realize that.
There’s this romanticized rhetoric about madness and creativity. What are your opinions about this?
I bristle very strongly against it. It’s almost a destructive stereotype, in part because it’s severely reductive. Not everybody who’s a creative suffers from mental illness, and not everybody who suffers from mental illness is a creative genius. One of the best works I’ve read on mental illness is “An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist and professor who suffers from bipolar I. She’s in the scientific community and she has this disease that has been associated with artistry for so long. That is very illustrative of breaking that stereotype. I’m not enough of a scientist, psychologist, or pharmacologist to note whether there is a special proclivity among artist professions. I do know that supposition will often not come with the desire to be a part of that artist’s support system. How many people tried to help David Foster Wallace, be there for him, or advocate for certain medication, program, or regimen?
It becomes a part of the artist’s backstory instead of something that should be addressed.
Exactly. “He or she is so brilliant!” You see this a lot with substance abuse victims. They found Phillip Seymour Hoffman with a needle in his arm, and that gets caught up in this notion of him being a mercurial, thespianic genius. There may be a connection at times, but the way we talk about it often comes at the expense of the person. One example is Eminem. I think his old stuff is him at his best, in terms of the craft of rapping. But he was on drugs most of the time he was making the music. He was going through divorce and a vicious child custody battle. The stuff he’s putting out now is not bad, but it doesn’t have the same fire. But I don’t think, “I wish he was at the place in his life where he could rap like the old Eminem again.” That’s horrible!
The way we talk about these things is it dissolves the individual. We talk about a phenomenon, trend, or psychological dynamic, but often times the individual person is lost in that. Mental illness adapts to its host. A specific diagnosis is a different experience for every individual suffering from it, so if we get into the habit of conflating artistic excellence and mental illness, it flattens out many people’s experiences. If I’m really into trigonometry, then any existing feeling of isolation is compounded by not fitting into this mold. “I can’t even do stereotypes right!” [Laughs]
What’s something you are trying to improve as far as self-care?
It’s easy for me to be very hard on myself and jump to worst-case scenarios. For instance, I’m doing a year-long fellowship with the Attorney General’s Office in New York. I’m doing work that I love and it’s immensely fulfilling. But it’s a fellowship, which means I’m essentially working for free, and getting somewhat subsidized by Columbia. Right now, I’m in the midst of a job hunt, so whenever I’m at these junctures, my mind automatically jumps to the worst-case scenario.
Transition periods are the worst. They bring out how terrible we are at dealing with uncertainty.
Yes, because part of it is just wanting stability and a reliable income for the foreseeable future. It’d be very nice if my job came with health benefits. [Laughs] Going into corporate law was originally going to be the culmination of 15 years of work. After Dad passed, one aspect of the role I’d assumed for myself was to provide financially for the family. Moving towards public interest law meant letting go of that, and it was one of the toughest things I’ve had to do. The funny thing was, by the time I was in law school, I was the only one still holding onto that idea in my family.
So that’s where being hard on yourself comes in.
Exactly. I was getting ready to do all these horrible things for no reason.
What was your experience like at [NYU’s Department of Dramatic Writing]?
It was a fantastic two years. I’m never going to be able to pay down that debt, but it was absolutely necessary for me. I fired off all these applications to MFA programs and law schools in the Fall of 2009 after I finished college. Then, during my internship at President Carter’s NGO, I got acceptance letters from Tisch and Columbia. Columbia was gracious enough to let me defer for two years to do [DDW], and then go straight into law school. I got to have my cake and eat it too, and pay an exorbitant amount of money that I did not have for the privilege.
It’s really amazing how you’ve been able to infuse all your diverse interests into your life. There’s often this rhetoric of, “You must pick one and focus!”
What I’ve found, particularly in social media, is a comfortable bowl where I can put in ingredients like social justice, writing, legal education, and political analysis. Occasionally, it will bleed out into other outlets where I can put my writing in service of, for instance, mental health activism. These are spokes on the wheel, so to speak.
For a long time, my life had two parallel career tracks: law and writing. At various distinct points in my life, I was applying to jobs that would require me to focus on one over the other. That’s sort of where I’m at now. I’m applying to law jobs, but with my book deal, could that be the focus right now? I don’t know that a job exists that would allow me to do everything I want to do, that I’m good at doing, in service of one goal. But, one day. I hope.
On the one hand, there’s the issue of severe mental illness and the often life-saving usage of medicine. On the other hand, there’s the issue of the pharmaceutical industrial complex and casual anti-depressant use. They are two separate issues but they sound contradictory. What’s your opinion about that?
One of the things battling mental illness has taught me is to sit with my feelings a little bit more. Before, I used to run away from this stuff, whether through drinking or overworking or what have you. Medication allows me to sit still with myself.
After Dad died, I wouldn’t let myself feel things. With regards to casual pill taking, there’s a similar impulse going on, which is the reticence to feel things. “I am having a bad day; therefore, I must have a mood disorder.” That’s an unhealthy impulse and it enhances the stigma of taking medication for people that do have severe mental illness, because then it seems or looks like they’re just running away from feeling sad. But there have been so many instances where I’ve seen people who’ve benefitted from medication go off of medication for one reason or another. Then, they’re worse off than they were in the beginning. Where the two issues intersect is this stigma towards medication. Do we stigmatize Alzheimer patients who have to take particular pills, or people who suffer from heart conditions? It’s personal maintenance.
The danger, I feel, is always letting the rhetoric get too generalized. A lot of conversations I’ve heard about big pharma is like, “Now, I’m not talking about something like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.” And that’s all they have to say about it, when the discussion could greatly impact those individuals.
If mental illness is specific to the person, then so is their treatment. For some people, talk therapy will be the biggest or the only thing they need. For others, it could be mostly medications, or a combination of the two, plus 12-step. It all depends on the person. If we lose focus of that, then we’re just in for more heartbreak and waste. When people believe we should have one specific regimen and stick to it, and it doesn’t work, we risk losing another person.
You’ve touched on your battle with addiction alongside bipolar II. How have you dealt with the challenge of comorbidity?
Part of it is just prioritizing staying alive. [Laughs] When I was into my cups, I was trying to head towards oblivion. The thing about drinking and bipolar II is that bipolar II has a higher suicide rate because you can have what are called mixed states. The combination of the more intense and frequent depressive episodes with the capacity for mixed states, means that you’ll have symptoms of hypomania with the depressive stuff at the same time. When you have the energy and impetus to act on depressive energy, that’s when you get to suicide attempts. A lot of times, that’s what activates self-destructive impulses like over-drinking. I don’t know that I could’ve identified the bipolar diagnosis if I hadn’t stopped drinking. I needed to clear my head out before I could figure out the other stuff.
How did you reach sobriety?
I got in a program. At that point, the drinking had become a tool. It was weaponized drinking. [Laughs]
I have had struggles with addiction, and as with many high-functioning addicts, no one would’ve known.
Exactly! I was a raging alcoholic when I got into NYU and Columbia. [Laughs] I went through four years of Ivy League schooling where I almost drank myself to death. One of the dangers of being a high-functioning addict is because you have your shit together in all these other aspects of your life, you must not have a problem. Alcoholism or substance abuse doesn’t discriminate.
How does the stress of job hunting compare to other challenges in your life?
The only thing worse than this latest round of job hunting that I’ve recently experienced is studying for the bar, and I had to do that twice. It was one of the most persistently discouraging experiences of my entire life. [Laughs] Because there were so many different areas of law you had to study, I’d take assessments on subject one while starting subject number two. By the time I get to subject three, I’m taking subject number two assessments. You’re supposed to be getting better and making progress. I was getting worse. These markers of progress were doing me dirty. [Laughs]
What’s your definition of success?
It’s funny because it’s been changing a lot recently. There have been times when success has equaled elected office, or getting a book published. In the end, I just want to write and be loved. If I could write full-time as a novelist, and be in a healthy relationship, I will have arrived.
If someone else is struggling with mental health or similar experiences to yours, what would you say or do?
More than anything else, I’d try to let them know that they’re necessary. We really need you here. As many things as I’ve been able to do, one of the things I still struggle with is whether me being on this planet accords any positive value for people. There are times when it feels like an absurd thing to wonder, and there are times when it seems like the most logical question I could ask. Who needs me here? More than anything, I really wished that I could be told I was necessary. Not just that I was loved or it gets better, because a lot of times, that was very hard to believe. It gets better? When? How much longer do I have to be in this shitty place? 15 minutes? 15 years? I’ve seen that for a lot of people, it doesn’t get better for one reason or another. Maybe they are not loved, and to tell them that would be to lie to them.
But we need you here, and it may not be obvious what you’re here for, but we need you to stick around until we can find out. If they can, try to talk to someone and get help, but it’s necessary to recognize that not everybody has the same access to resources. I went to a private high school and university, so I had access to all these resources that a lot of people, especially for people coming from communities of color, don’t have.
I know so many individuals who struggle with the healthcare system and paying for the help they need.
And the thing is, that’s an added stressor. Your mental health is already not at 100%, and now you have to worry about how to pay for this medication, which makes you feel shittier. It compounds the problem. But, I’m hopeful that the more people talk about this, the more we can identify blind spots in access to resources. With regards to policy makers, many of them just don’t know that a lot of people struggle along these lines.
Oh yeah. At least with the policymakers inclined towards making healthcare more accessible.
So it’s more abstract to some people.
Exactly. Here’s your healthcare and state exchange. You sign up, pay this monthly premium, and here you go, when really it’s so much more complicated than that. Hopefully, the more stories are out there, the more we can bring these things to light. The first step in getting people to care is getting people to know about them.