Nicole Cowie in her family library at her Tunapuna home. Makeup by Shenelle Escayg, photograph by Mark Lyndersay.
Originally published in Express Woman, March 26, 2017
My name is Nicole Cowie and I thrive with bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression). This is a revolutionary idea in a country that so heavily stigmatizes mental illness. The core and basis of my activism and indeed my life is that you can live a good and productive life with a mental illness with treatment and hard work at your recovery.
I wasn’t always an activist though, much less comfortable with the idea that I had a mental illness. When I began to have depressions at 18 in Bishop Anstey High School, all I knew was that something was wrong. I would go in and out of depression between 18 and 21. I went to counselling for the depression but I was totally resistant to the idea of medication. I thought if I took the medication, it made me “mad”.
By the age of 21, I spiralled out of control and ended up being admitted to St. Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital for three months. It was there that I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I finally gave into the idea that I had to take medication but I hated it. I still hate taking medication but I do it so that I can live the life that I want.
After I was discharged from St. Ann’s Hospital into the care of my parents, my life was in a mess. I had no job and I felt all the shame, guilt and stigma associated with having a mental illness. Only a few people really stuck by me as friends. The rest basically abandoned me.
My parents were the ones who stuck by me. I remember asking my deceased Mom if life would ever be the same again. She told me that my life would never be the same again. It would be better but not the same. And so, I said to myself, “My life has hit rock bottom. I guess the only way out of this is up.”
Once I was stable enough, I began the journey by taking YTEPP classes. One thing lead to another and eventually, I ended up being accepted into UWI to read for a Bachelor’s degree. However, I was still very ashamed that I had bipolar disorder and did not want anyone to know on or off campus.
A huge turning point came for me when I enrolled for a course called Disability Studies. In that interactive and exciting course, I learned for the first time that I was a person with a disability – a psycho-social disability. I also found the courage to disclose for the first time in public that I had bipolar disorder.
My contributions to the class were heard and valued. It was also a turning point for me academically. I fell in love with the academic discipline of Disability Studies. I ended up winning the prize for the Best Overall Performance in the course. Less than a year later, I was awarded the Government Scholarship for Persons with Disabilities. From this course, I also learned that there was a Unit in UWI to specifically cater for the needs of students with disabilities.
I registered at what is now called the Student Life and Development Department (SLDD). I cannot begin to describe the tremendous support that this Unit gave to me as a student with a psycho-social disability. I graduated with a B.Sc. Sociology with a minor in Social Policy.
However, my journey upward was not without its challenges. I faced prejudice, stigma and discrimination. Society’s general view is that once you have any mental illness you are thrown in the dustbin of life. You can’t have a job, have a family, have friends, have a life, hell, you can’t possibly have an intelligent and coherent thought. This is “the bigotry of low expectations.”
A psychiatrist once told me that “UWI might be too much for my brain” and that I should quit my studies. I ignored him and got my degree anyway. Someone told me I should just graduate from UWI and remain single. I ignored that person too. I am now happily married to a supportive and loving husband.
I have had mixed experiences on the job market ranging from my illness being a non-issue for time off to get treatment to having horrible experiences on the job.
The way I have always felt about the discrimination against me is this: I did not walk into a store and buy bipolar disorder nor did I ask for it. Bipolar disorder started for me at the age of 18. I had no control over that. What I can do is live each day with bipolar disorder with grace, wit and dignity.
For the past fifteen years since diagnosis, I use strategies for a mentally healthy life. These include: practicing my Catholic faith, the support of family and friends, medication, music, laughter, books, good food, therapy and I recently added Latin dance to the mix.
Through the grace of God, I have not had a relapse of my condition or been back to the hospital for fifteen years. I am not perfect, nor is my life. I have good and bad days just like everyone else does but I work hard and I am blessed with the support I need to remain healthy.
I decided to go into full-time activism two years ago, to give persons with disabilities like myself hope and to combat the discrimination that prevents them from living their best lives. On any given day, I could be giving a speech on life as a person with a disability, doing policy-level advocacy for persons with disabilities or just peer counselling a person with a mental illness.
I also have a Facebook page called Activist Chronicles where I share my journey and my own views on life, activism, disability and mental health. I choose and keep choosing to light that candle of hope so that persons with disabilities will be fully included as productive members of our society.
The production of the Footsoldiers segment of the Lioness Project series, highlighting the experiences of 12 workers in the disability field, is supported by the Cause an Effect Organisation, the Massy Foundation and A Very Special Disabilities Forum.