I, Charlotte Yonga, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder several years ago. In the summer of 2020, I experienced a hypomanic episode and had to be admitted for the fourth time to a psychiatric hospital. But for the first time, I was able to document my stay through photos and share my story.
"My son was born in March 2020. His birth was a turning point. My pregnancy went smoothly. I've known that I am bipolar since I was 19, diagnosed after a manic episode that led to my admission to Sainte-Anne Hospital. Since then, I've had to take medication every day for life. At the end of my first trimester of pregnancy, I decided to stop taking my medication. I wanted to breastfeed my child, which wasn't compatible with the pills I was taking. My son was born during the lockdown, and I felt it was a good thing. I was in a bubble, exhilarated, happy. I was reveling in the experience of having a baby. I didn't see the crisis coming.
Often, the manic phase begins as a great joy, a gradual euphoria. I started to see colors as more vibrant and vivid, to draw more, to photograph more. In my case, it's always very visual. I see colour correspondences more easily, but I also have obsessions, like fetish numbers or the feeling of being connected to nature.
Anything can become a spiritual sign or a guide, but it can also quickly turn into paranoia. I don't necessarily want it to stop. That's the delicacy of bipolar disorder.
I feel hyper-connected and very energetic. It's exhilarating because all my filters come off. I believe in incredible things, as if I have no boundaries. Through the eyes of my loved ones, their concerns, I sense in a floating manner that something is different, but I don't have the tools to end it on my own. It's stronger than me.
My partner finds me agitated, overexcited. I talk a lot, get up early, sleep less... He alerts my family. My bubble bursts, I feel oppressed. I thought I was fully in control when it was an illusion of control. My loved ones bring me back to reality, I know, but at that moment, I resent them for preventing me from living my genius.
In late June and early July, I have an appointment with a psychiatrist. If they suggest hospitalization, I only have two choices: either I accept or I refuse. In the latter case, I will be forcibly admitted under harsh conditions. This has happened to me before during other crises, in 2013 and 2016. If I say yes, it will be more flexible, they will consult me for the choice of my treatment, for example... That's what I decide to do. I am hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital on July 6. No one else but me signs the admission papers.
My main fear is losing custody of my son. In the first few weeks, I am very resentful against my loved ones, even though I know, in hindsight, that it is important to be well surrounded by family and friends capable of understanding bipolar disorder in order to receive treatment. I am angry because I can't see my baby as I would like. I am allowed to be with him for an hour, every other day. I breastfeed him and I attach great importance to this breastfeeding. I have surges of milk in the first days of hospitalization, then the milk dries up gradually. It's a terrible loss.
This hospitalization is nothing like the previous ones. My room isn't locked, I can go out, I have access to the garden. It quickly becomes my Eden, a place where I don't feel monitored. Throughout the day and until 9 p.m. in the evening, we gather there with the other patients. They are a true moral support, a powerful emotional resource.
We're all in a big distress. We share our states. Some are ill all year round, others episodically. Some are bipolar, others schizophrenic, anorexic, or depressed. In those moments, there is no social judgment, you have nothing to lose. You're stripped down, and so are they. The connection is immediate. I am moved and feel supported.
During the first ten days of my hospitalization, I'm not allowed to use my phone, then gradually, I have it for one hour a day, then two... And finally, for the last three weeks, it's returned to me completely. I quickly feel an urgency to express spontaneity. I take photos, it's compulsive.
I want to capture the relationships between people. The smartphone allows me to be in something uncontrolled, unprepared, the opposite of my usual professional practice with a medium format camera. The act of taking pictures becomes a game, a ritual, an intimate journal. With some of my fellow sufferers, we have photo sessions every day. I have never done this before, but I absolutely need to turn this super bad experience into something positive.
I use a filter that saturates the colors. It's very close to what I feel.
When the time comes to go back home, on August 27th, I have tears in my eyes, it's wrenching. But when you leave the hospital, you know you're getting better. The more I reintegrate into my normal state, the more other patients become energy-draining. My head hurts. I realize how great the emotional demand is. And how difficult it is for some people living with a severe illness to realize themselves on personal and professional levels.
My photographic exploration will have allowed me to face this ordeal with less pain and distress. But it is also a way for me to bear witness to a subject in society that is too rarely discussed.
Interview conducted by Ophélia Lamy for Neon, in April 2021. See the publication here.