Today is the 5th anniversary of the day I was hospitalized. I’m stronger than I ever give myself credit for. But I also acknowledge when it is necessary to ask for and accept help. I thank her every year but @dianewah literally saved my life. She came to my apartment and took me to my doctor and then to the hospital. I wouldn’t be here if not for her. I wouldn’t be anywhere if I didn’t allow people to care for me. A few people have asked me what I was hospitalized for 5 years ago. I always say, “I was hospitalized for depression.” I’ve written about it. In that great and wonderful way that poets tend to speak of things in flowery abstraction. http://bit.ly/4raKEQ
I never really told anyone the whole story. I barely like to think about it myself.
I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder 5 years ago. http://bit.ly/2RICqM You can go there to get facts about the disorder. I just want to talk about my own experiences. My entire life, I was a little off. My report cards read like, “Bassey is a good student but she talks too much…Bassey’s a great student but she can’t sit still.” My favorite was the note from my 3rd grade teacher, “Bassey has a bubbly personality. I wish it would bubble only at recess.” I was a handful as a kid. I had too much energy and no place to put it. I lost myself in books because they settled me down. Gave me focus. Otherwise, I was all worry and anxiety and panic attacks and frustration and thoughts racing and inexplicable sadness and can’t sit still. I was just too much.
Fast foward to 2009 and I’m pretty much that same kid. Still just a little bit off. I just found a way to make it seem charming. To wrap myself in cloak called “artist” and make it work. 5 years ago, I was on tour with Def Poetry Jam. I’d spent most of my life finding routines and rituals that helped me stay calm. Being on tour, threw my game off. I was in a different hotel, in a different city way too often. I did what I could. But I struggled. I spent most of the time, lying on hotel room floors, waiting for morning. I rarely if ever slept. I rarely if ever ate. Waiting for morning. Waiting for night. Waiting for the next day. Waiting for something to kill me. I was just a shell. Nobody knew what I was going through but our stage manager, Alice. She came to my hotel room one day and asked me if I was ok. I wanted to say yes. I always said yes. I knew how to turn it on but my eyes were cold and dark and empty. She asked me again and I nodded. The words caught in my throat. She asked me a third time and I broke. Told her of the hours spent on floors crying. Wishing this thing would kill me. Told her about how difficult food was. How I was so sad all the time but didn’t understand why. She said, “This isn’t ok. You can’t be like this.” and I nodded, not trusting my own voice. But I swore I was ok. So I tried extra hard to be bubbly and alive at rehearsal. I tried to laugh and smile with the cast. I think I even went to the clubs with the cast that night. I was trying. I can will myself out of this like i’ve done countless times. I’ve read about “normal” people. I would emulate them. Laugh at the same jokes. Try not to laugh too loud. Try to keep from talking too fast. Maybe have a drink or 4. I did this as much as I could until 2 cities later, I was exhausted again. Lying on a hotel floor again. Willing morning to come again. Danese, our wardrobe lady, pulled me aside one day and said, “I keep having to take your clothes in. Are you eating?” I said, “Yes.” The truth was, i was ordering fruit from room service. eating only the grapes and pitcher of ice. My jeans could slide off and on without unbuttoning or unzipping. I was a walking shell.
The cast was invited to New Zealand in January. It wasn’t a mandatory trip so I decided to stay back. I needed to get my strength up. I wanted to use that week to feel better. sleep. eat. I spent that entire week on the couch in my apartment in Flatbush, staring at the wall. Waiting. For what, I have no idea. I was supposed to rejoin the tour in Chicago. I remember the night before my flight. I went to Union Square to get out of the house. I was getting on my roommate’s nerves. She seemed disgusted that I existed. I’m sure she didn’t but that’s how I felt. Disgusting. I spent most of the time sitting in Union Square park in the cold; just watching people. Trying to figure out how they got normal. Trying to see if I could too.
I remember standing at the corner of 14th & Park waiting for traffic. I remember feeling like, if I step in front of this taxi… I couldn’t even finish the thought. It scared me too much. I turned around and got on the train. Went home. Cried in my bed until morning. Next day, I was in The Chi. Sitting in another hotel room. My castmates had stories of NZ and the fun they had. I made up what I did. It was getting more and more difficult to fake it. Alice knew. And she checked in every night. She knew something was wrong. So did I. One night, it was too much. I was always able to keep it together until I got back to the hotel. But one night, I couldn’t stop crying. It started in the hotel, followed me down the hall and across the street to the theatre. It stayed in my dressing room and watched me put my make-up on. I couldn’t stop crying. It was 45 min til curtain and I couldn’t stop. I did everything I could. I tried to dance and sing. Make promises. Prayed. Anything. It wouldn’t stop. When Danese came in with my show clothes, I was folded underneath the sink in my dressing room. I was trembling and sobbing. I could barely breathe. I will never forget how terrified she looked. I told her to go get Alice. When Alice came, she crawled under the sink, held me. Told me her own story and battle. How she lost her mom to “this”. She said, “you’re not ok. You can’t kill yourself like this.” She stayed underneath that sink with me until the trembling lessened and the sobbing slowed to just streaming tears. I couldn’t speak. I just cried. She told her assistant that I wasn’t going on. She took me back to the hotel. She said, “you have to go home. If you stay here, it will kill you.” My brain said, ‘They don’t want you here. They don’t want you anywhere.” It’s what happens in the BP mind. it twists things. Makes you feel like nobody wants you anywhere.
They sent me home the next morning, Alice called and gave me the numbers to doctors. She said if I didn’t call. They’d call me. She said if I didn’t call, I wouldn’t make it. She made me promise to call. I passed out on the plane to JFK from Midway. The next day, I called. But I wanted them to tell me I was normal. So I smiled. I looked nice. Said all the right things. The 1st doc said I was fine. only needed to sleep and eat. the 2nd said you’re normal only havea fear of failure. (Duh). The 3rd, Dr. Tiago had a kind but stern face. I sat in front of her and said, “I’m going to lie to you. tell you i’m ok. so you say ok. i’m too tired. i need help.” and then I crumbled. She offered me tissue. asked the right questions. immediately she said, “You have to see someone for medication. You’re in crisis.” I was scared but she called Dr. Goodman. he saw me immediately. he read me the symptoms. It had a name.bipolar II disorder. I was scared and relieved at the same time. It had a name but it was a mental illness. How the fuck was i supposed to be normal now?
The next few months were a struggle. I had no insurance so I was paying out of pocket. I made money on the tour so then it was ok. I went through every combination of meds. And every side effect known to man. The meds were hard on my body but when they worked, they were great. They just always stopped working. It took 9 mnths for the meds to kick in. By then, the money was dwindling. I was getting discouraged. So many pills. So often. They always stopped working. My docs explained it would take some time to get on the right cocktail. I was tired. I was broke. I wasn’t asked back on the tour. Stan said it was just too high an insurance risk. They were worried that I would break again. They wanted me to feel better. I felt labeled and angry. So I stopped taking the meds. Just stopped. I kept the ambien but didn’t refill anything else. Still went to therapy but only took what i could afford. As the days went on, I started feeling sad. Just sad. It was OK. I was a zombie again. But I felt like I could manage. It took a few more ambiens to get to sleep but that was ok. Sleep was good. My life felt like it was just crumbling. Losing the tour was the last straw. What’s the point of getting well if nobody believes you? If nobody trusts it?
My roommate was annoyed with me so I spent a lot of time wandering around Manhattan and BK. My moods were huge and oppressive, so I didn’t blame her for not understanding. I ran into @dianewah one night. She took me to dinner. I sat there and cried the whole time then left. I got home exhausted. I took an ambien. waited. no sleep. I took another. waited. nothing. I took another. and then another. I woke up on the floor of my bedroom. Achingly disappointed. I was scared. I wanted to die. @dianewah had been calling but my phone wasn’t charged. I heard a pounding on the door. I thought it was the landlady. I don’t really remember what happened next. I know that Diane was on the phone with Dr. Tiago and called a cab to take me to the Upper East Side. Dr. Tiago spoke to me for a little bit. Then called Dr. Goodman. Dr. Goodman called me and said, “You have to got to the hospital. You’re in extreme crisis.” I didn’t want to go but I didn’t know what else to do. Everyone looked so scared. I was tired of people looking at me like I was about to break. I was just tired. I was hoping I could sleep there.
Why am I bringing this all up now? I’m not sure if anyone cares. I’ve just been typing the last hour not checking @replies. It’s important for me to remember. I’ve been acting out the last month (year) saying and doing things without thinking. Afraid, sad, lashing out, begging for forgiveness, trying to sleep, fighting to stay awake, thoughts racing, hurting people, taking it back, acting impulsively, irrationally, feeling paranoid, talking myself down and then doing it all again.
I’m a handful. Period. Very difficult to know or love. This isn’t esteem talking, it’s the truth. And I forget why sometimes. because I like to forget it. Pretend it’s not real. People take it wrong. I hate the stigma. I hate the way people treat me when they find out. I hate that they don’t know what it really means. That it doesn’t mean I’m “crazy”. It only means that my brain works differently. Only means that I have to try harder to get over small hurdles. Only means that I’m too much for most people to handle day to day so I stay away. Stop talking so I don’t talk too much. Stop calling so I don’t call too much. I need to establish boundaries and barriers so I’m not too offensive. And people take it wrong. Think I’m shutting them out. Think I’m closing them or stuck up. Or insensitive. or selfish. And yes. And yes. And yes. But also, my brain doesn’t work the right way sometimes. I’m doing the best I can some days. Sometimes it’s fine. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes I’m “normal”.
I hate the way people act like it’s the worst thing you could possibly be. When they just don’t get it. They don’t get how difficult it is. How sometimes you just have to praise the fact that you were awake today, that you left the bed. That you “tweeted”. It’s a small victory.
It’s necessary. I try to stay positive. I try to say and do all the right things but when I fall short, the blow is too big. It’s like the whole world is crashing down around you. So the small things that “other” people can deal with become insurmountable and anything you can’t deal with become a sign of failure. It’s difficult to break things into pieces. The bipolar minds sees everything at the same time; you can’t take it all in. You try to fix it and the more you try, the worse it gets because you’re so frantic and spastic and impulsive. But leaving it alone is not an option because your brain says, “FIX IT” and that’s all you can hear. All you can hear is that you’re not trying hard enough. You’re not doing enough. You’re not good enough. You have to fix it. And you can’t sleep until you fix it. And then you fail.And you crash and the sadness is so thick it swallows your head, calls you a failure. So you sink even further and you pray for hypomania to drag you out. But you know the high isn’t good either. It’s this revolving door. It makes you selfish. All you think about is you and your hurt and your pain and how to get out of your head. So people leave you. They don’t understand and you don’t have the words or the patience to teach them. They don’t get it. But it hurts like the first time every single time it happens. They don’t understand tell you to pray. Say you’re not trying hard enough. Tell you that it’s all in your head. Like that means it’s not real. Or say, “At least you’re alive.” like that’s a consolation prize for this throbbing thing in the center of your everything.
You just want someone to hug you and hold you and crawl under the sink and say, I want you to be ok. I’ll be here until it happens. I try to be that person for other people. Hoping that it will be returned. Grateful when it is. Terrified and heartbroken when it’s not.
It’s a journey. I have a kid who I don’t want to see or feel this ever. So I try to stay joy for him. Try to let my brain settle for him. But sometimes it’s too much. 2 weeks ago, it was too much. Today, it’s too much. Tomorrow, I hope it’ll ease a bit. I need to try harder. I’m always trying though. I dont’ want to fall back and sink into it. I just want to be ok. So I try. Every day. You think I tweet too much? You think I talk too much? Imagine what my brain is doing. Imagine the alternative; siting here with the noise in my head. I need to move the words around and out. And i hurt people in the process. And I apologize. And then I do it again. And I apologize. And I know that it’s no longer a good excuse. Especially, if they don’t what the struggle is like. I’ve been learning to lean. And I’m grateful for those who lean back. I know it’s bigger than I can handle alone. So I try.
Bassey Ikpi is a spoken word poet and writer. You can read more of her musings here or follow her on Twitter @basseyworld.