Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian-born poet, writer, spoken word artist, and mental health advocate. She has been a cast member of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam and is the founder of The Siwe Project, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote mental health awareness throughout the global black community. Both Ikpi's work and her advocacy reflect passion and social consciousness, woven together with raw and fervent honesty. In this interview, Ikpi shared with me her story.
A Stampede Inside
If I’m really being honest, I can go back as far as 3 or 4 years old. I know for certain, at the age of eight, there was definitely a problem with me. Something just didn’t feel okay. I sort of remember, always, but specifically then, looking at people to see how they acted. I didn’t feel I was acting normal. I mimicked and mirrored a lot of things people did, just so I could pass for okay.
I had insomnia very early. I just would not sleep. I remember being up at night just looking out the window. I would go through two or three books a day, because I would be up a lot and would just read.
Things just always felt heightened. They always felt “more.” The regular disappointments and triumphs kids would go through would hit me times 10. If I didn’t do well on an exam or spelling bee, it was absolutely devastating. If I did well, it came with a lot of anxiety and not really as much joy. I thought about things way too much. Nothing was just what it was. It was always something else.
I remember noticing other kids didn’t do that, other kids weren’t like that, other kids slept. Other kids didn’t feel like there was a stampede inside of them. Even if I looked perfectly still, I didn’t feel like I was sitting still. I was completely lit all the time. The flipside was these random bursts of inexplicable sadness that would come out of nowhere. I didn’t know what I was so upset about. I just knew this thing was upsetting me.
I tell this story, and it’s funny, but when I was eight, I figured out The Cosby Show wasn’t real, that Cliff and Claire weren’t really married. I found that so upsetting. It’s so stupid. All these little things that you’re like, “Oh, okay. That makes sense” and you keep it moving—it was betrayal. I took these things so hard.
I also remember there was always a running commentary in my head. I didn’t hear voices. It was definitely me. I just spoke to myself a lot. Most of the time, it was just me, in my own head, having a conversation with myself, making observations. It ended up helping me later as a writer, but at the time, it was just, “Can you be quiet? Can I sleep?” As I got older, that turned into negative self-talk, which was unbearable. I had this voice, my voice, telling me that I wasn’t good enough, tall enough, pretty enough.
I just always felt like a very strange child, always. I thought it was because I was black in a white town, and African in an American setting. Those contributed, of course, but it was also something else.
I found ways to adjust early. Before, I didn’t sleep, so I read my textbooks from cover to cover. I did a lot of outside reading as well, so I knew things, and in elementary and middle school, it was just about knowing things, memorizing things, being able to test. I learned to make it work for me, and because my parents were so busy and came to this country so we could have a better life, as long as I got good grades and didn’t get into trouble, everything was fine.
I’m lucky, in a sense, because on the spectrum, I’m on the lower end. I didn’t have the violent outbursts, or off-the-wall drugs, sex, and rock and roll kind of behavior. It was always my version of those things. To the casual observer, it was, “Gosh, she’s got so much energy,” which made me great on the dance team, running track, the basketball team. On report cards, “Bassey’s a great student. She’s got a bubbly personality, but she talks too much.” I had to learn how to pretend to look calm.
Nigeria to Oklahoma: a Gap in Language
I was in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I was born in Nigeria, moved when I was four. I didn’t live with my parents. My dad was in the states going to school. My mom was in a different part of Nigeria, also going to school. I was raised in the village, just different family members, going from house to house. I felt really unsettled for a really long time. When I was four, my mom came back from wherever she was and said we were moving to America, whatever that meant, to live with my dad.
[The transition] was very difficult. I do remember it, because my early love of language and writing and words came from that period. I couldn’t speak English, and the part of Nigeria I’m from is not well-populated. Even though there were other Africans and Nigerians, they were from a different group and spoke a different language. My parents worked multiple jobs and were going to school, so they said, “Look, you need to learn to speak English, because you’re not going to survive. We need you to learn to speak it quickly.”
They stopped speaking to me in our native language. I was four, so my vocabulary was already kind of limited. So there was this gap, where I had lost the language and hadn’t found English yet—so I didn’t talk at all. I was very confused by everything. I remember that causing a lot of anxiety—what I know now to be anxiety.
I’m the eldest in my family and the first in my village to be raised in the states. There’s a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure, there. I was learning about American culture at the exact same time my parents were. There were certain things I couldn’t participate in, because they just didn’t get it. They didn’t know what it was.
It’s funny. My mother has a psychology degree, but I don’t think she really put it together. After I was diagnosed, they were like, “Oh my gosh, that makes so much sense,” but at the time, you can’t name something you’ve never heard of. You can’t just pick it out of the air and decide that’s what this thing is. They’d never heard of it. I never heard of it.
I just forget people. I forget things. There’s actually a friend of mine who’s not speaking to me now, because apparently we hadn’t spoken in nine months, but I don’t remember it being nine months.
I have a best friend. She was the first person that I told when I was first diagnosed. If she doesn’t hear from me in two or three weeks, she’ll send a message or call. If she’s trying to get me to remember something, she knows what to say to trigger my memory. If you say, “Hey, do you remember that—“ no, I don’t know anything about that. But if you say, “Around the time when—“something that almost feels unconnected, but it happened around the same time, that helps me pinpoint. She knows how to do that, which I really appreciate.
I just thought I had a bad memory, but it’s a lot worse than just bad. I just think that whatever’s happening in my head at the moment, like, there’s all this activity. I’m hardly ever present. I sometimes zone out. Now I try as hard as I can to make memories of things.
Here’s the flipside. I remember things in absolute minute detail, too. There are things I remember from when I was two I can tell you every single aspect of. When I was in Nigeria, the first time I went back like three years ago, I saw the room, the walls, the tree outside the window. I remembered all those things. In writing, I’m able to recall whole dialogues and the way the air smelled, the way that things shifted. I know how to do that.
But if you and I have an argument and you say, “You said this or that,” I’m like, “Honestly, I don’t know if I said that. And if I did, I’m sorry.” I can’t advocate for myself with that, because I just do not know. A lot of people take that as not being important enough to remember, and that’s just not the case. It’s really not that at all.
When I was in the 3rd grade that The Challenger exploded. All the kids, everyone, watched it on TV as it was happening, and it exploded. It was this traumatic event. Everyone started crying. The teachers started crying. It was a terrible thing that happened, and the entire country was grieving.
But I took it personally. I was obsessed with what I could’ve done to prevent it. Maybe if I hadn’t walked to school this way, I could’ve gone that way—all sorts of irrational stuff, but I was convinced I could’ve done something. A week, two weeks after people settled down and got on with their lives, I was still completely shattered. I remember the teacher, I wondered about her kids, and if I could write them.
I remembered that as the 3rd grade, and I was writing something about it not long ago. I was like, “Let me get the exact day it happened.” Then I find out it was in the 5th grade, not 3rd grade. I always remembered it as being in the 3rd grade. I remember it was my 3rd grade teacher who was there. I don’t know how my memory works, because it just decided it was 3rd grade, and that’s the end of it. Even though I remembered everything else to such detail, I got that wrong. I still don’t get it.
A Futureless Existence
I’ve always sort of lived in a futureless existence. There’s a post-it on my wall here that says, “Allow yourself morning.” That was always my thing. Get to morning. Even if you have to stare at it from the wrong side, just get to morning, and everything will be okay. That’s how I survived the depression parts. Just get to morning, get to morning.
But when I got to high school, people were expecting a future for me, from me. I had never considered that for myself. I just had the next day to get through. Senior year, people are making plans. I didn’t know what that meant, and it really terrified me. That’s when my grades started to fall. What am I supposed to do after this thing is over?
My grades fell. My parents stepped in, vice principal. I had to do this horrible thing where I had a progress report everyday. Whenever I got to class I had to sign, write homework. It was like I was in Kindergarten. It was awful. [The academic perspective] was the only thing that mattered.
I didn’t have the language to [communicate that I was struggling]. I knew on a spiritual level what was going on, but didn’t know how to communicate it. Especially the 17-year-old, where all you hear is “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. The world is yours.” I’m just like, “No I don’t. How? How is it possible I have an entire world? I don’t know the end of the day. I don’t know the next morning.” I just knew that, if I can wait for morning, I can figure out that day.
Again, I was lucky, because usually that living day-to-day manifests itself sometimes as drugs or recklessness. Luckily, I never went through that, but I understand how people do.
I just soldiered through. I chose my college because it was far enough away for me to be able to live away from home, but close enough—and this is the exact thing I remember—close enough that if I fell apart, I could just come home. I didn’t even know what that meant, “fall apart.”
"Home Rarely Feels Like This"
After the disappointment of the appearing morning, she thought about what would have been written if she hadn’t woken up. Nobody would have known the story. They would say she didn’t go to church or was old and unmarried or couldn’t settle on a real career or there was a spiritual attack. Those would be the stories.
No one would ever understand that the moment she left was a mix-tape of a life. Of a trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and winning and then fucking it up again. This towering inferno of disappointments and lost potential and a brain that could no longer mend itself. She stood at the mirror attempting to see what the world would see. She saw fatigue. It had entered her soul and perched there waiting for instructions.
An excerpt from "Home Rarely Feels Like This," by Bassey Ikpi (courtesy of the artist)
I started college—fell apart. Depression, I don’t know if it was waiting for me, but it became the crying all day, can’t get out of bed, can’t function. That first semester, I had a 0.0 Grade Point Average.
I couldn’t do it. I had learned, when I’m up, to do everything I can, and when I’m down, to just rest. And I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t read all those books. When I was okay, I could go to class and participate, but when it came to going back and reading the text and writing the paper, I didn’t know how to do that. I’d never learned. On top of that, my brain was just not working. It wasn’t working on that. It was working on trying to stay alive. It could give a damn about my English paper.
Even then, I didn’t tell my parents. They thought I was being promiscuous, sex, drugs, alcohol. I didn’t drink until I was 21. I had my first boyfriend when I was 20. None of those things were the issue, but those were the only things they could understand to be the issue—and just me not trying hard enough. It was always down to me not trying.
I went to the counseling center on campus. I was like, “Look, there’s just something wrong. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something wrong.”
She was the kind of counselor I’ve learned to dislike, which is the one that just listens and just writes things down, and then is like, “Well, the session’s over.” And you’re just, “What the fuck? I need things. I need answers. Just tell me something.” I went twice and then stopped going, because I didn’t feel it was helping, and I thought maybe whatever it was I had was—I don’t know—too boring for her? Too strange? Not in her book? I felt unimportant. It felt like, “Just get it together. What’s wrong with you? Get it together.”
I did a bit better second semester, but still ended up on academic probation. I left for a semester and went to a community college. But I really wanted to go back. I felt I was better. I thought, whatever it was, it was just that first year. I can do this. I’ll be better. It wasn’t the right fit for me, but I went back. I didn’t know I could go anywhere else, and I was afraid to go anywhere else.
I don’t remember, really, what happened then. I just know that, more than the depression, I was very irritated a lot, very irritable. Just agitated, which was new, because I’d always had a pretty bubbly personality, so me being a very grouchy person, I didn’t like it and didn’t understand it, but that’s where I was.
I remember going to class one day, something happening, and then I left class, found a friend of mine, asked her if she wanted to go to New York for the weekend. She was like “Yeah, let’s go.” We went to New York, and then I never came back. And that was the end of college.
I meant to just go for the weekend. I just needed a break. I remember feeling happy, real happiness, not the fake one I was used to. I just felt okay there.
New York supported the illness I didn’t know I had yet, because it’s literally the city that never sleeps. You could always find something to do at 3 AM, 4 AM. That supported what I know now to be my hypomania and the insomnia that came with it.
And the depression—people left you alone. “Alright girl, well, call me when you’re ready.” It wasn’t until later that people started checking in. And in the beginning, I didn’t have a lot of depression. Most of it was just this euphoria. That week turned into a month, turned into a summer, turned into a year, turned into Def Poetry Jam and my career. And that was it. For me, there was no reason to go back.
In New York, I was around other artists. I was around artists in Baltimore and D.C., but they were all very self-congratulatory. It got to a point where I could do anything and get applause. I knew I wasn’t amazing. I knew there was more to it. When I was in New York, I had people pull me aside and say, “Look, you can write, but you’re writing in a very basic way,” or “You should read this person.” Or Roger, who’s a really good friend of mine, said, “Next time you write, don’t rhyme, because I think you’re writing for the rhyme rather than for the meaning”—and that just changed my entire approach to writing.
Writing for the "Me, too."
Since I was eight years old, I’ve read. In reading, I was able to find people I could understand, and who helped me understand myself. Anne of Green Gables was my spirit animal, because she was just all over the place, and I got it. I understood. Pippy Longstocking was all over the place, and I got it.
And that gap where I lost a language before finding another one—that inability to communicate really shaped my need to communicate. Having this thing going on in my head and in my body I didn’t understand, I needed to write it out to see, if I wrote what I was feeling, I could somehow figure it out.
Pages and pages of journals. I think I threw them away. I started doing it again in college, and actually have them on my bookshelf. I don’t know why I kept them, and I don’t look at them, because I have terrible handwriting and I’m also a little afraid of what’s in there. But writing was always what helped me understand myself and understand the world a bit better. I still didn’t have the language and still didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it was something and that I needed it. It’d always been that comfort.
I call it writing for the “Me, too.” I just did not know what was going on with me. I just didn’t know, so if I could write it down and explain it, I just needed somebody else to say, “Oh, me too,” so it wasn’t just me going through this thing that I didn’t have any words for.
Def Poetry Jam and the Problem with Touring
I was on tour from 2001 to 2004 with Def Poetry Jam and a concurrent tour of colleges and universities. At one point I only had less than 24 hours off in a month, because I’d finished a university and the next day had to start a Def Poetry tour.
The problem with being on tour was the tricks didn’t work. I had to be in rehearsals at four. I had to be backstage by seven. Curtain was at eight. These were things I could not “Bassey” my way out of, and I’d learned how to “Bassey” my way out of a lot of things. I’d learned to talk my way out of things, turn in other things.
But I couldn’t do it. It got to a point where I would get to my dressing room at seven, put my makeup on, do the show, get back to my hotel room, call room service, and order a fruit bowl, a pitcher of water (no ice), and a pitcher of ice (no water). And I would just lay on the floor and cry, all night, until the next morning. And then, if we had to travel the next morning, I would put my sunglasses on, my sweatshirt, my hoodie, and just zone out. Everyone thought I was stuck up, “God she thinks she’s so famous now, she can’t talk to anybody.” They had no idea what was going on. I didn’t socialize at all.
And that was the routine. I’d get to the next city, check into the hotel, cry until it was time for curtain, get backstage, do what I needed to do—over and over and over again.
The stage manager, Alice, was concerned because she said I’d changed since the beginning of the tour, since she’d known me. I just wasn’t myself, whoever that was. She asked me if I was eating. I think I told her I was working out a lot—I was not the kind of skinny that meant I was working out. I was the kind of skinny that meant I wasn’t eating.
I’d broken up with a boyfriend, so I told her that was the reason. I still didn’t want to say, “There’s something wrong with me, and I don’t know what it is, and I need some help.” I didn’t know that was a thing that could be said. I didn’t want to get fired. I didn’t want to get labeled crazy. So I spun this story about broken hearts, whatever. I know she didn’t believe me, but what was she going to do? She couldn’t force me.
I can smell the heat as the temperature in the shower changes. I pull free the tucked ends of my towel and drop it on the floor. You should really treat your things better. When I bend over to pick it up, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I move quickly away but what I did see was skin pulled tight, from a struggling, poking collar bone. I resist the urge to look again and step gingerly into the shower.
The bathroom is clouded by steam. I watch as it fills the room and covers the mirror. I pull the curtain closed.
I want to own something ugly and destroy it.
I stay in as long as I can. Wash every part of my body more than once. The space between my toes and the curve behind my ears have never been so clean. When there is nothing left to scrub raw, I sit at the bottom of the tub and let the water beat me.
I wish I could sleep like this.
An excerpt from "Hasaan," by Bassey Ikpi (courtesy of the artist)
“If you break your legs, you won’t have to do this anymore.”
There was a trip to New Zealand, but it was optional. I opted out, because I needed a break. I was determined to use that week. I was going to eat. I was going to sleep. I was going to just be normal.
It didn’t work. I was crying a lot. I tried to keep it confined to my bedroom, but I felt like I was suffocating, so I would go to the living room. My roommate—we spoke a lot afterward, and she said she was just worried, but I felt she was annoyed. It’s part of that paranoia: everyone hates you, you’re just bothering everyone with your existence, why are you still here? I’d get on the train at two in the morning, just go into Manhattan, walk around, then get on the train, and then come back into Brooklyn.
I remember the day before I was supposed to fly into Chicago for a show, I was in Union Square, on the corner of 14th and University. It had snowed, so it was all that dirty New York slush. It was really cold out. There was a lot of traffic for some reason. I remember the Christmas village display at Union Square.
I remember standing on the corner. These cabs and cars were going by. I was trying to decide if I should just walk around the East Village or get back on the train, because I had to pack and get ready to leave. And then I had this moment where I had this thought in my head: “If you break your leg, you won’t have to do this anymore. If you slip on ice and fall into the street, and a car runs over your legs, you’re free. You don’t have to do this anymore.”
I remember being terrified by that thought. The fact that I thought that scared the shit out of me. I remember turning around and getting on the subway, and standing as far away from the tracks as I could until the train came, and then running into it—so that some other thought wouldn’t jump into my mind.
I got home, packed, went to the airport, held it together, got to Chicago. Chicago was a trigger, because my ex lived there. We had a really bad breakup. Really messy, really, really bad. Chicago was the wrong place for me, and I should not have gone.
Underneath the Dressing Room Sink
I did one show, and I was okay. The next day, it was time for me to get up off the hotel room floor and get backstage, and this time, the tears wouldn’t stop.
I was like, “Oh God, come on.” I’m talking to myself in the mirror, washing my face, like, “Come on. You can do this. Get it together. You can come back and continue this in three hours, but right now, you gotta, you gotta, you gotta, you gotta.” But I just couldn’t stop.
This was winter in Chicago. I remember trying to find what shoes to wear, and that stressed me out so much that I just put on flip-flops, my trusty black Gap sweatpants, and a University of Kansas purple hoodie—and just left. Grabbed my bag and left. I looked like a crazy person. It was winter, and I’m walking around in flip-flops. But I needed to get out of the hotel, and I couldn’t allow myself to find an excuse not to.
I got to my dressing room, and I just couldn’t stop crying. I’m trying to put my makeup on, trying to talk myself down. I used to do these ballet turns and spins to try to get my energy back, but I could not stop crying. I kept trying to do my makeup. The tears would ruin the makeup. I was getting really frustrated.
I figured out a way to calm down, because I needed to do my eye makeup—good reason. I reached for my makeup bag and couldn’t find my eye shadow. I looked everywhere. I dumped all the makeup out of the bag, and it was not there. I started freaking out. Wardrobe came in, and I think I screamed at her. I don’t remember why.
I finally found the eye shadow. It was in the bottom of my bag, fallen out of my makeup bag into my regular bag. I started to put it on. I’d learned to do my makeup without actually looking at myself in the mirror—because it was triggering. I was really, really skinny. Painfully skinny. My eyes were sunken in, dark circles. I saw myself, and I looked dead, or dying. I started crying, ruined my makeup again. Tried to stop crying.
I don’t remember how, but I remember ending up underneath the sink in my dressing room. Wardrobe came back. I didn’t say anything. Finally, she opened the door and sees me underneath the sink, just sobbing. She drops the clothes, runs to go get Alice. And I’ll never forget: Alice crawled in underneath the sink and pulled me onto her lap, and started rocking me back and forth. She started telling me she knew something was wrong, and if I don’t get help, I’m going to die.
I’m just like, “What?” But I knew she was right. She just sat there until I stopped. She said, “We’re pulling you out of the show tonight. Go home. Rest. I’ll call the director, tell him what’s going on. You’ll be back in New York tomorrow morning. I’m going to give you a list of doctors. You’re going to call them, so that they will call you to make an appointment.” She knew, but she didn’t know how to let me know that she knew.
Let's Cure This
I ended up seeing four or five doctors in a day. I lied to most of them. I walked away with an anorexia diagnosis, a fear of failure diagnosis, a sleep disorder. I put on face. I knew what to say, because I knew what I wanted to hear.
But the final doctor: I started my spiel of being normal and just tired. There was just a way she looked at me; I knew she knew I was lying. I told her, “Look, I’m just going to keep lying to you, but the truth is there’s something wrong with me, and there has been, and I don’t know what to do.” She asked me a few questions. Then she got up and called Dr. Goodman. They both treated me for a good three years. They were amazing. She said, “He’s on 58th St. He can see you right now. I need you to go to him.” And that’s where I was diagnosed.
After a five-, 10-minute conversation, he said, “You have Bipolar II disorder.” I’d never heard of it, so I was like, “That’s not true.” But the more he shared the symptoms and what it meant, the more I couldn’t deny it. I was like, “That’s exactly what I have.” It all made sense.
Once I got the diagnosis, I was all in. I was like, “Fantastic. Let’s cure this. Let’s cure me. Let’s fix it.” It had a name. It was a thing. It wasn’t something I’d made up, or something just me. It was a thing other people had. I always wanted to know what was wrong. I just didn’t know how to go about it.
I thought I could be cured. I was going to take the medication for a month, like antibiotics, and I’d be cured, and I’d get back on the road and start my life, except now, I’d be cured. That was the plan.
Passive Suicidality: Broken on My Own Terms
It doesn’t work that way at all. I ended up in the hospital.
I’d been taking the medication four or five months. It took a lot of up and downs, trial and error, to get the right cocktail. I continued the therapy, still went to the psychiatrist once a week. I just felt better. I was like, okay, this is great. Life resumes now.
But they took me off the tour. I became an insurance risk. They were afraid the pressure and stress of the tour would cause a relapse or be detrimental to my health and safety. I was kind of taken aback. I think I was naïve. I felt, “Everything’s going to be okay now. Honestly, clearly. I know what it is. I’m taking medication for it.” Everyone is telling me I can live a normal life, but now people are removing normality from me, or what I know to be normal. So what’s the point? Why am I doing this?
Relationships got weird. People started treating me like I was made of glass. I was like—no. I want to be normal. I want to feel normal. I don’t want to be treated like a sick person. That was my fear, and that became the reality. So I stopped taking my medication, cold turkey.
I of course crashed. Went through a really, really bad depression.
That’s when I hadn’t slept in two weeks, and I needed to sleep. I took an Ambien and waited. It didn’t work. I took another one and waited. It didn’t work, so I took another one. And then I fell asleep, but then I woke up because someone was pounding on the door.
What I’d forgotten was the night before, I’d been doing my wandering around the city and ran into a friend. I can’t remember what I talked about. She tried to feed me. I started crying, and left. Apparently, she was worried and called my doctor, who said she should check on me. She came that morning, and had she not, I really don’t know what would’ve happened.
She took me to my doctor and immediately said, “You need to check into a hospital tonight.” I didn’t want to, but I kind of didn’t have a choice. I was like, “If I can sleep there or rest for a little bit, I’m good.” I was diagnosed with passive suicidality, which is, basically, losing the will to live.
I felt I was enabling people to treat me like that because of the way I was handling things. It was still a secret. I had a pretty popular blog at the time, and I’d never mentioned it. You can tell that I had my ups and downs, and people could read that, but when I was diagnosed, I didn’t say anything. When I left the tour, I didn’t. I can’t remember what excuse I gave, but I didn’t tell the truth. I felt very alone. I felt broken. I didn’t like that. I felt, if I’m going to feel alone and broken, then I should at least do so on my terms.
"I Can't Get to Sleep"
I can’t stay here too much longer. He wants to take my blood pressure again. The nurses have commented on how high it’s been. They wonder out loud if something is wrong.
There is: I'm scared.
He studies my chart and asks me if I have a history of heart problems in my family. I nod and say, "Yes, but only the broken kind."
He doesn't look up but throws a low, tired laugh in my direction. The nurses don't smile. But I imagine that he is 16 hours on an 18-hour shift; that he has been yelled at and threatened in the last hour alone. "At least this one makes jokes," he will think. He will tell the others how I'm different. He will tell them that I have a spark. He will say that there is nothing wrong and let me go. I'm so lost in my fantasy that I am startled when he turns quickly to face me.
"Tell me what brought you in today."
An excerpt from "I Can’t Get to Sleep," by Bassey Ikpi (courtesy of the artist)
The Turn to Advocacy
I was watching a show called Girlfriends. At the time, it was the biggest show in black households. There’s a character who’s very flaky, stereotypical artsy, couldn’t keep a job, terrible with money, flighty. She’s adopted and finds out her biological mother has bipolar.
But the way they wrote the bipolar was that she had some sort of mental delay and multiple personalities. It wasn’t bipolar, but that’s what they kept saying it was. That really bothered me. I was like, this is an opportunity to educate millions of people. You can still mine it for comedy, but at least be honest about what this is. Don’t call it bipolar, then. Call it something else.
There was a part where the character was really upset. She was like, “Is this why I can’t keep a job? Is this why I’m so this, so that?” I’m sitting there like, “Yes, probably. Yeah. That is why.” But on the show, it was like, “No. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re perfect. Just because your mother is that way doesn’t mean you are.”
It distanced her from being damaged, and that really hurt my feelings for some reason. Here I am doing my best to live with this thing, trying to figure out if people are ever really going to understand it, being shown this opportunity where somebody could’ve explained things and helped me. The next day, when there’s a conversation about the show, I could’ve said, “Me, too.” It made me want to go even further inward, because I didn’t want to use that word and have people associate it with something it wasn’t.
Instead, I decided I had an audience. I’d been lucky enough to do this thing where I’m on stage sometimes, and television. I write things and people read. I can do it. That night, I went to my laptop, and I wrote. I just told people what was going on. Hit send and went to bed, like, “I hope at least one person can understand.” I woke up the next morning to hundreds of comments and responses, people who got it, and people who had been diagnosed, people who now felt they needed to get diagnosed. It started this whole thing, and once I got back on my feet, I started talking about it on stage.
Afua Pili Busisiwe Ayo Monsanto, An Amazing Little Girl
Four years ago, a little girl I knew when I first moved to New York—her family became my family. I babysat her and her brother. Her mother, Dionne, and I became fairly close. Around the time of my diagnosis, Siwe was about four. I’d just gotten out of the hospital. Dionne took me to lunch, and she says, “I feel like there’s something going on with Siwe. There’s just something. I’m watching her, and I see she’s a lot more emotional in a different way than most kids her age. She gets into these very quiet moments.”
I found it remarkable that she was in a place as a mother to notice something like that in a four-year-old. As it turns out, the older Siwe got, the more symptomatic she got. She was a cutter. She tried to commit suicide about three times before she was 15. At the age of 15, she succeeded.
I remember just driving home thinking, “God, I’m so happy the treatment’s starting to work.” Then three months later, she’s gone. I remember thinking that I wasn’t doing enough. If somebody that close to me could slip away—and I’d just seen her three months before. And she looked great. And she was telling me about all the things she was going to do. She’d written all these things. She’s an amazing little girl.
That’s when I started The Siwe Project. I just realized I needed to do more, give people the space to say what they felt, without that chain, that stigma. Especially in the black community, the global black community—taking away that shame, so people would get help. Having people understand there are people out there who will not judge, who will not stigmatize, who will not make you feel responsible. The big thing in Nigeria is that it’s a spiritual issue. You’re not close enough to God. That’s the big thing. And removing that, taking the power away from those things, really encourages people to at least talk to somebody.
Therapy and Medication
I was lucky enough to have this tag team therapist and psychiatrist who worked together early to help me, to the point where I’d have a bad reaction to a medication at two in the morning, and he’s calling the 24-hour pharmacy. Or I mentioned something to my therapist, and she would shoot it over to the psychiatrist. It was really just a great team.
But I left New York, and I’ve never been able to find a therapist. It’s so hard to keep telling the story. It’s like dating. I just don’t want to tell the story again. I don’t want to tell you what my favorite color is. I just want someone who knows, and then let me take it from today, or yesterday.
I do think therapy is absolutely necessary. You can’t have one without the other. I always make the analogy: medication is like moving from an old, rundown house to a new house. Therapy is, “Okay, well, this time the bathroom is on the left, not on the right.” It helps you relearn the bad habits you picked up when your brain wasn’t functioning the right way. There are these coping mechanisms we have that work when we don’t know any better, and when we do know better, it’s difficult to stop. I think that’s where therapy comes in, to help you reset those things. If I could stay put long enough to really search and find a new one, I would.
If I was ever on a medication that made it so I didn’t see the world the way that I felt the world, that’s not the right medication for me. It’s supposed to enhance and make you feel better. It’s not supposed to change who you are completely.
Medication saved my life, but it doesn’t have to be about medication. I am not advocating medication. I am advocating whatever treatment means to you from a medical professional. That’s what I’m encouraging you to do.
As a Black Girl in the World
I don’t want to generalize, but there’s so much black people, especially now, have to deal with. Adding another thing is not something people want. They don’t want another thing.
I think as a black girl in the world, my behavior is attributed to my blackness, and not so much to anything else, really. I think that’s the fear for black people: it’ll be on your permanent record. They already see you as a black person first. Now they’re going to see you as a crazy person, too. And that’s already two things that are going to make life more difficult.
[If I grew up a different race], I think I would’ve been able to recognize and have the conversation much earlier. At least in high school, somebody would’ve noticed something. A teacher, a coach, a tutor. Especially the depression, because the hypomania became a personality trait. Even I didn’t really deal with it. I was like, “That’s just the way I am.”
As a black person, there was still this element of, “Even if there is something, we don’t discuss it.” I remember watching Lady Sings the Blues for the first time with a friend in Brooklyn. There’s a scene where she’s in an insane asylum, and I remember being terrified of that. None of my episodes looked like that, but the fear was always, at some point, that could be it. At some point, it could turn into that.
I didn’t know who I was going to talk to, who I was going to tell. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how they would take it. I didn’t want to go to the hospital. I didn’t know what would happen, and I was too afraid of that. I was more afraid of that than what was happening to me, because I’d lived with me all of my life. I knew it would go away eventually. I knew it would stop. I knew pretty soon, the high parts would come, and I’d get all this work done, be the best friend ever, life of the party. I’d be the best, and everyone would love me again. I just needed to wait it out, just wait until morning, and it would come—even if I never slept.
[Once I became more open], if anything, it became, “It can’t be true because you’re black.” Somebody once told me I’d accomplished so much at a young age. By the time I was 27, I’d done a lot. I was supposed to go on and do greater things, and instead I was diagnosed with bipolar. I’d been too successful, too talented, too whatever. Too intelligent, too able to carry on a conversation—for it to be true.
We Strong Black Woman ourselves to death sometimes, rather than admit we can’t handle something, rather than admit that something is too much for us, because we are expected to carry it. And I just want to live my life dismantling that.
The Honest Side of Advocacy
I did lose some people. I also have trouble getting people to see me, rather than the disease. Especially in relationships, they decide for me: like, you just did an awful thing, and I’m upset about it, but you’re saying I’m being bipolar. No, I’m being normal. I’m having a normal reaction to something fucked up you did. It’s been hurtful. There were people I thought understood, and it turns out, somehow, they’ve proved they don’t understand.
I am open about what mental illness is and how it affects my life, but I’m not intimately open about it. It’s outward. It’s an advocacy, and this is how I push it out there. It has been far too hurtful to allow people to the Bassey part of the illness. In order to protect myself, I’m very careful about what surrounds me and how, but I keep that outward projection in order to do what I set out to do.
I don’t know how to differentiate who I am as Bassey and who I need to be as an advocate for mental illness. It sounds so crazy. I have to be careful how I present, because I’m still trying to get people to accept and understand what this illness is, what any illness is.
We need to ease people into it. You have to get people to empathize. Once you do that, you can ease them into all the illnesses, into mental illness as a whole.
There’s a show, Empire. Andre, one of the characters, has allegedly been diagnosed with bipolar. What he actually has is not bipolar. It makes me mad: to amp the drama, they distort the illness. A lot of people don’t know what bipolar is, but they can reference Andre. What I have to do now is un-Andre. Take down the drama, so people will know that is a false representation. Everyone presents differently, but that drama is not accurate—so let’s put you to over here, where you can understand a bit better.
I’m honest about where I am, if I’m going through a depression. I will be open about it, talk about it. I’ll also talk about how quickly it descends. I’m open about those things, but it’s also a very deliberate openness. It’s one side of the picture, not the entire picture, because the entire picture can be too much for people. People are still trying to get it, so let them get what they can.
Sometimes, the conversation becomes bigger than me. It becomes what defines me, and that’s something I definitely never wanted. That was what I was hoping to avoid. I don’t get as much random people saying terrible, disrespectful, or incorrect things. But I think the more time passes, the older I get, the less comfortable I am with the publicness of it.
“No Shame” is definitely true. I’m not ashamed of it. I do talk about it, but I also know it’s affected business relationships, personal relationships. No matter how many times that’s happened, it’s always hurtful. It’s always, always hurtful. Especially personally, I’ve resigned myself to the possibility that I’m going to be alone, relationship-wise, for the rest of my life. I’m okay with it, but at the same time, sometimes, it’s not okay—but it is what it is, and I go on with my life.
"Now that you know the truth / will you please love me anyway?"
There’s a poem called Choices I wrote during one of the worst moments of my life, watching morning from the wrong side. This is before I was diagnosed, trying to figure it out. There’s a line that means a lot to me.
It’s because of the work that people think I’m super strong, that I don’t get nervous, or don’t get anxiety. I get anxiety all the time, like in the grocery store. This is my everyday. Everything I do from morning until night is influenced by this illness. I have to be careful about how I navigate the world and how I negotiate the things in this world, because the illness doesn’t allow me to function and take certain things for granted.
People were like, “You’re so strong. You’ve done this. You’ve done that.” Not giving you permission to be vulnerable, to be broken. Words are really important to me. I know a lot of people take offense to the word “broken,” but there is a break. It is a break that needs to be mended.
The Myth of the Martyr
I think a lot of artists, especially artists who live with mental illness, feel some need to allow the illness to make them a martyr. There’s some sort of appeal. I tell people all the time—you have to resist the myth of the martyr. Your job is to find how your art works within the illness, not let the illness become the work.
Because it’s dangerous. Because it’s seductive. You want to be immortal. The 27 Club—I’m looking at their histories, their drug use, the recklessness of their lifestyles. I’m seeing untreated mental illness. I’m seeing self-medication. And that age, 27—I was 27 when it hit the hardest. These people died during that time. It’s not a romantic thing. It’s not this mystical, magical, wonderful thing. It is an illness that will kill you if you don’t get ahead of it. You create art despite illness, not because of it.
I’ve had people tell me they wish they have what I have so they could write. If you need that to write, you’re not a writer, or a dancer, or a painter. If you need that, then you’re not that, so find something else to be. That’s blunt, and that’s it. I refuse to allow people to romanticize this illness in a way that makes it even more dangerous for people who are living with it. Once that idea gets in, it’s difficult to pull.
There is an element of being able to access certain parts of the ocean or parts of perspective, because of the way I’ve learned to view the world through this prism. I know how to write to the minute detail of reflections and shadows, because I’ve had to live in that space where that’s all I could see. It doesn’t mean if I remove that, I’ve also removed the ability to create.
No, most great artists are great artists despite their mental illness, not because of it. I’m not going to romanticize it in this quest to normalize. Because it sucks. If there was a choice someone gave me at age seven, I’d be a dancer. I’d do something else. I would not choose it. Because it is a terrible thing. I am not ashamed of it, but it doesn’t mean that it’s made my life better.
"When It Hurts So Bad"
"Yes, Sugar?" She smiles. How'd I know she was going to call me sugar? "Can I help you? You lookin' for someone?"
"No." My voice comes out in a hoarse whisper.
I clear my throat and try again, 'No... " I decided to add a "ma'am" to compete with her "sugar.”
She smiles as she waits for me to finish.
"I'm here for the Behavioral Health Unit", my voice is thin. "I think that's what they call the Psych Ward now."
"Who are you here to admit, darling? And why?" She has her pen poised to fill out the forms.
I bite my lip to keep from sobbing, haphazardly brushing the stubborn tears off my face.
She asks again, "Who are you here to admit?"
"Me. I'm here to check myself in. I need help. And I’m afraid that I won’t make it alone."
An excerpt from "When It Hurts So Bad," by Bassey Ikpi (courtesy of the artist)
Let Tomorrow Get Here, and Then We'll See
I have a better relationship to the illness than before, because I live with it. It’s routine. I get up. I keep a bottle of water on my vanity, take one of the pills, go about my day. Nighttime, take the other three, go to sleep. Every once in awhile, I’ll have “I don’t want to do it today,” and I won’t. “And I don’t want to do it tomorrow, either,” and I won’t.
Even then, sometimes I still fall. Sometimes I still get this feeling of “not-rightness,” despite doing everything right. I think in the back of my mind, for a really long time, I really did think one day I’d at least be able to live without medication. A lot of people do get to a point like that, but I’m not one of them. That becomes difficult sometimes.
I don’t ever want to give the impression, “Yeah, just get on medication and therapy and you’ll be okay.” I let people know I struggle with it. I struggle. I don’t suffer, but I do struggle at times with the idea that this is my life. I’m tired. It’s been 10 years of this thing. People e-mail or message me, like, “How do you live and do all these things? I can’t even get out of bed.” I’m like, “I can’t even get out of bed.”
I get out of bed, though, and it’s because the little bit of “I can still live” that I have—has to carry me pretty far. There are plenty of times I’m lying in bed I don’t want to get up, and I improvise. It might mean I don’t leave the house that day. It might mean I don’t get out of my pajamas that day—but I’m out of bed. I have to start keeping my laptop on the desk, because if I left it on the bed, I’ll start feeling this need, like, “I can just stay here.”
There’s a safety in falling into the illness that I don’t talk about a lot. There’s saying, “My brain does not work the way ‘normal’ people’s brains work, so why should I behave like normal people? Let me just stay here.” I have to have another conversation, because I’ve built up the counterarguments from when I’m doing okay, when I’m doing really well. I’ve built up the counterarguments.
Yesterday, I was sitting at my desk, just minding my own business, and then I just felt this shadow. I could feel my heart start to race, and then my eyes, and I’m about to start crying, and I’m just like—what’s happened? You were literally okay three seconds ago. I have that conversation now, because I gave it to myself when I was feeling better.
I can counter it. “Feel what you feel, but stop, and then go do something else.” And the medication helps with that. If I wasn’t on the medication, I wouldn’t be able to just stop or talk myself down from it. It’s a process. It’s every single day, I have to come to terms with it again. Every single time I take the first pill, I have to be like, “Yep, this is what you do now, everyday. Unless they invent something else, this is it.” It’s like, I gotta brush my teeth, too. Let tomorrow get here, and then we’ll see. Then let the next tomorrow get here, and then we’ll see.
Interview by Caitlin Shih
Caitlin Shih is just another millennial with a B.A. in English and a deep-seated interest in the human experience. She lives on Long Island, New York, and currently struggles with spending too much time out of her home and not enough time with her cat.