Listening to A Seat at the Table, in my manic mind I was convinced that I was in the process of being spiritually reborn.
Music lovers, we were spoiled rotten in 2016. It was the year of Rihanna’s ANTI, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. There were many more projects that graced 2016, but through innovative promotional campaigns and an unprecedented level of substantive honesty, these particular albums shifted the industry paradigm as we knew it.
While the aforementioned works were transformative in their own ways, there was one album that shook the culture to its core: Solange’s A Seat at the Table, which turns five years old today. By weaving together threads of collective heartache and transcendent overcoming — long-held facets of the Black experience — Solange transfixed listeners and found commercial success, with A Seat at the Table debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. Hundreds of millions (if not billions) of streams later, Solange’s opus is aging gracefully, and widely discussed in the coveted classic album conversation.
I know I wouldn’t be alone in stating that this album legitimately changed the trajectory of my life upon its release. Countless positive reviews and evocative social media posts over the years can attest to that. But my relationship with A Seat at the Table is a bit more complex than most.
In the days leading up to the release of the album, I was in an unfamiliar emotional space. My usual high-strung nerves and intense anxiety were replaced by a deep sense of calm. A wave of irrepressible love for everyone and everything I had ever encountered washed over me, sending me to a place of sheer bliss. This, I thought, is the life I was meant to live. Little did I know, I was experiencing my first bipolar manic episode.
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition marked by manic highs and depressive lows. There are two main forms of bipolar disorder. Bipolar type 1 — my diagnosis — is characterized by extreme mania, which includes erratic behavior, unsustainably high energy, and delusional beliefs. Bipolar type 2 also incorporates unusual mood swings and loss of touch with reality, but is not as dangerous as full-blown mania and therefore attributed to the less severe hypomania. Both versions of the condition include depressive episodes, with those living with bipolar type 2 experiencing more depression than those living with bipolar type 1. Even with the differentiation between the versions, bipolar disorder can look different for everyone.
Undiagnosed, I deduced that I had paid my universal dues, and was being rewarded for surviving the trauma I had encountered throughout my life. I assumed I had made it to the other side of my challenges, and would be continuing the remaining years of my existence in a constant state of spiritual serenity. In actuality, there was an “imbalance of brain chemicals,” according to the American Psychiatry Association, triggered by an overwhelming burden of stress. At the time, I was unemployed, on the cusp of being homeless in New York City, and falling in and out of love in an unhealthy situationship. After speaking to numerous mental health professionals since then, I realize now that my body reacted to these events by overcompensating in the psychological department.
Despite the obstacles standing between me and a stable future, A Seat at the Table made every action and reaction feel sublime. “Fall in your ways, so you can crumble,” Solange sings at the top of the album on the opening track “Rise.” These lyrics leapt out at me on my first listen, as they seemed to reflect the real-time restructuring of my life. The song presented itself as a call-to-action, and it wasn’t long before my all-consuming effervescence morphed into a profound exhaustion. “Fall in your ways, so you can sleep at night / Fall in your ways, so you can wake up and rise.” In my manic mind, I was convinced that I was in the process of being spiritually reborn. All signs pointed to a metamorphosis, and it sounded like Solange was guiding me down that path.
Just days after A Seat at the Table was released, I descended further into the chaotic throes of mania, and completely disconnected from my family and friends, who reported me as a missing person. It wasn’t long before I was rounded up by police, following my attempts to enter strangers’ apartments in a misguided effort to save them from a rapture of sorts.
Considered a danger to myself and other people, I was detained by police and committed to a psych ward — but I didn’t see the environment for what it was. Patients are rarely forced into mental health facilities involuntarily, but my case was an extreme one. Through my eyes, I was communicating with my surroundings in the purest sense of connectivity. I was watching the world evolve and shed its old skin. I was a newly awakened leader for a reformed society, and my “headquarters” happened to be the most unexpected place for a cultural renaissance. I remember saluting God for cooking up such a brilliant plan.
I stayed in that hospital for five weeks, the time crawling by as I did mental gymnastics to figure out what threshold I had crossed to materialize in this unconventional reality. Even showering appeared to be a new adventure: I would rinse my tangled, natural hair under a trickle of cold water, with a hospital staff member banging on the door every other minute. But I felt tranquil as Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” unfurled in my mind like an ancestral reminder. “Don’t touch my hair / When it’s the feelings I wear.”
Upon being released to my family members, who were tasked with keeping me safe and sane, all I wanted to do was be reunited with Solange’s music. No song rejuvenated me more than the poignant single, “Cranes in the Sky.” The first time I played it back after setting foot into the free world, tears streamed down my face without warning. “I tried to keep myself busy / I ran around in circles / Think I made myself dizzy.” I was smacked by depression after the mania subsided, and I spent months healing every void I had previously tried to fill through vices. Brick by brick, I rebuilt my life through nourishing practices with this album as the soundtrack, each song reverberating on a cellular level.
Today, I see A Seat at the Table as my therapist, my friend, and my support system, a supplement to the medication I take daily to keep manic episodes at bay. Solange was my personal, prophetic angel during a time of extreme inner turmoil. I may have been energetically decimated, but through constant introspection and an unabashed free fall into vulnerability, I’ve journeyed back to myself, using A Seat at the Table as fuel. While the album held this one person down, its legacy will be the safe space it created for all Black people to express themselves — no matter the emotion, no matter the state of mind.