In the words of Henri F. Amiel, “You desire to know the art of living, my friend? It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering.” Writer and poet Bassey Ikpi has done just this, taking a stigmatized diagnosis, learning its intricacies and using it to make her life richer. Def Poetry Jam alum, proud Nigerian, blogger, traveller, daughter, mother…Mental health advocate also belongs on this list, but not as a dark shadow. It’s another part of her existence that gives her experiences that she chooses to share in the hopes of getting others to the light.
Sevan sat down with Bassey over lunch at Rumba Cafe in DC…
Sevan: So, how long have you been in Maryland? You moved from Oklahoma to…
Bassey: To Greenbelt, Maryland. And then I went to college in Catonsville, Maryland–a suburb of Baltimore–but I also lived in New York for seven and a half years.
Sevan: Did you like New York? What did you do there?
Bassey: Loved it. Brooklyn was the best place on the planet as far as I’m concerned. My entire New York story is all about lucking out and being in the right place at the right time. So, the day I decided I was going to live there I was talking to a friend of mine at Brooklyn Moon Café and the guy at the table next to us said, “I’m leaving for Portugal next week and I’m desperate to sublet my apartment.” And so I said, “I’ll take it.” Then, I was hanging out with a friend of mine as he went on a job interview and we were on the elevator with some guy and we were just clownin’ and cracking jokes and I thought he was a UPS guy or a delivery guy or something. And then we go up and my friend goes to his interview and I’m sitting there and this girl comes up to me and says, “My boss wants to know if you’re looking for a job.” And I totally was because it was either get a job or leave New York because my lease was up. And I said, “I am, but I don’t do anything. I’m a writer and I left college to live in New York for the summer.” And she said, “Well, he really likes you.” So I asked, “Who is your boss?”
It turns out the guy I was in the elevator with was the CEO of the company. He was just this regular, kinda overweight black dude wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. It was an entertainment startup…this was in 1999. And I ended up being the assistant to the CFO. That didn’t last long…I failed. I am not good at administrative stuff. I’m too flighty and flaky. I thought…I suck at this, but at least it’s kept me in New York a little bit longer. I was an executive assistant for two or three weeks and then they promoted me to assistant producer and writer. I did copywriting and wrote a couple of scripts for these Internet shows that they were doing. They were way ahead of their time. If the company would have started maybe five years ago, it would have been like Hulu. And the CEO, he passed away about a year after I started working there. He had a stroke. His name was George Jackson. He produced New Jack City, Jason’s Lyric, Krush Groove. The company just went bankrupt. And I didn’t do any work after that. I fully admit that I did not work. I’d come in whenever. I’d take 4-hour lunches and it was while I was on a lunch break that I auditioned for Def Poetry Jam and got that.
Sevan: How long did you do Def Poetry Jam?
Bassey: I was on it for five seasons. I was in Edinburgh, Scotland with them for a summer and then I did the national tour where we hit every state except four or five.
Sevan: What was that experience like?
Bassey: I loved being in Scotland. I had a really good time there and I learned a lot about myself as a performer and as a person. The national tour was very, very difficult. I didn’t realize how much I needed a home space. Being on tour and being in a different city almost every night, it wore on me and it triggered a depression. And I was actually diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder while I was on the road.
Sevan: What triggered the depression?
Bassey: I definitely have always had something. I remember college was really difficult for me. I’d stay in my dorm room forever. In my first year of college I had a 0.0 GPA. My parents thought I was partying and I wish I was partying, but I was miserable the entire time. I just wasn’t used to anything. Well, let me backtrack. I was used to taking care of myself in a very specific way. If I wasn’t feeling well, I’d stay in bed. If I was feeling great, I’d do all the work I had to do in an hour or in a day and then I would crash. And then I would rest and then I’d pick myself up and then I’d crash again. It was this cycle and that happened all through college. That’s part of the reason why I moved to New York. I went just for a weekend with my roommate. She came back and I was like I’m staying here. I felt the energy and I felt I wasn’t depressed there. But what I hadn’t realized until the tour was that I had figured out a way to deal with my ups and downs and being on the road made it impossible to deal with them because no matter what, I had to be backstage at 7 o’clock doing my makeup and ready for curtain at 8 o’clock.
Sevan: What exactly is Bipolar II Disorder?
Bassey: It’s the lesser known version of Bipolar I. They call Bipolar I the sexier version because it’s the one that everybody knows, the one they talk about on TV. It’s very external. You’re acting out. Whereas Bipolar II is when you’re sort of falling apart internally. Instead of mania, which is what you have when you have Bipolar I, you have hypomania. So, you’re not sleeping, you have what they call pressured speech — you’re talking really fast, you’re talking a lot. You’re normal, but you’re just on that other side of doing too much. The depression part is the same. You crash just as hard. Hypomania is like on a scale of 1-10, 1 being depression, 10 being mania; Bipolar II is like 3 and 8. And one of the things that I learned was a lot of the stuff that I thought was just my personality was part of the illness. I would have a paycheck: pay rent, pay bills. The next paycheck: shoes, clothes, handing it to people on the street, like blown completely. And then it got to where I wasn’t paying bills and rent, I was just blowing it. People think that you’re just really flaky and irresponsible and it’s part of the illness.
Sevan: How do you cope with it?
Bassey: I’m on medication now. I’ve been off and on medication since I was diagnosed in 2004. What happens is a medication can be working great and then all of a sudden it’s like I’m taking sugar pills every day. And I think it’s because I need a cycle on and cycle off. Because I’ve been in the hospital twice and I figured out my body, it’s easier for me to advocate for myself. Even if you have great insurance you still have to advocate for yourself because I have found that a lot of doctors are very clinical and they don’t listen to the nuances of what you’re going through because they kind of just want to throw pills at you. And that’s OK because they see a lot of patients and they don’t have time to get to know you personally. But at the same time, it’s important for you to know what works for you and what side effects and medications don’t work for you. It’s a lot of trial and error and that’s where people get discouraged because they think they can get a pill and that’s it. But the end of it is worth it because the moment when everything clicks and kicks in, it’s frickin amazing. I would never trade that feeling for the opposite. Your entire world changes.
Sevan: How do you feel about the stigma of mental health?
Bassey: Hate it. People are definitely very insensitive and cruel about it. One of the things that I’m grateful for is the fact that I don’t work in an environment that makes it difficult for me to be open. If I worked in an environment where if I said something it would affect how people thought I could do my job or if it affected promotions or raises, I probably wouldn’t be as open. And I understand why people aren’t as open, which is why I feel like it’s almost — at the risk of sounding hella pretentious — I feel it’s almost my responsibility. I think it would be one thing if people didn’t talk about it because of the stigma and then still got help, but people don’t talk about it and they don’t want anything to do with it. So they just suffer. I’ve seen too many people lose their lives for that to be OK with me. People who aren’t able to write and talk about it can find a connection to somebody else who is relatively doing well. It’s enough to say that your life isn’t over if you seek help, get help and stay in treatment. Because I think that what people know of mental illness is very slanted towards the dramatic and the full-bodied; like on TV, if somebody has a mental illness, they don’t have it a little bit, they have the very pinnacle of it. They go from zero to it. There’s no process. That little bit that you are could be difficult enough for you. And I think that people need permission to accept it and permission to feel it and permission to do something about it without feeling like they’re going to be judged negatively for it.
Sevan: Do you feel added pressure, since many Black communities are in denial about mental illness as an issue?
Bassey: I feel added responsibility because of it. My parents had a really difficult time with it and it wasn’t until I was hospitalized the second time that they were like, “Wait a minute, what’s happening?” When I was hospitalized the first time, I was in Brooklyn. They didn’t see me, they got a call that said that I was in the hospital and they took the train up and they were like, “What are you doing here?” But the second time was January 2010, just a couple years ago, so they were there for it. They saw what it looked like. And they realized this is not a “snap out of it” thing. This is not a, “Oh, she must not be able to pay her rent, that’s why she’s upset. Let’s just write her a check.” They really got it and I think that one of the things I’m lucky about is the fact that I’m able to articulate it through writing, through speech, so that people get it. Because 9 times out of 10 when it comes out people are like, “What? Really? You?” And I think that does something. It takes away the notion that it’s just the mad person running around the streets. A really good friend of mine’s daughter committed suicide last month. She was 15 years old and I had known her since she was 4. And her mother did everything she possibly could to get her help. She was lucky, in a sense, to have the mom that she did. It kept her alive until she was 15. And she would have left a lot sooner if it wasn’t for her mother. I think that a lot of young girls in the Diaspora aren’t lucky enough to have moms like that. Their parents are very in denial and if I’m able to articulate what happens and a 15-year-old can’t, I think that’s something that I kind of have to do.
Sevan: How long have you been writing?
Bassey: I wrote my first poem when I was 8 and I wrote it because I could not draw. I was really bad and I was having all these experiences that I couldn’t put anywhere. And I read Ego Trippin’ by Nikki Giovanni and it was like, “Oh my God! It’s awesome!” and we did a little stint on Robert Louis Stevenson in my third grade class and I just fell in love with words. And I’ve always read. I think I learned to speak and read English at the exact same moment. And I liked what words did and I wanted to do that.
Sevan: So, are you writing now?
Bassey: I was working on my book and I’m taking some time off of it because the publishing industry is really strange right now and my book agent wanted me to change the concept of it too much. If you’re not a reality show star or willing to give up mad dirt on your life, you’re not going to get a book sold. Number one, I don’t have a lot of dirt and number two, the dirt that I have I’m not willing to put out there because that’s not what it’s about for me. I think I’ve lucked into a lot of situations that were really good for me and good for a writing career and a performance-based career, but if I sat back and really thought about what my passion was, at least for a couple more decades I want writing to go back to being a thing that I do and not the thing that defines who I am. And I will be doing mental health advocacy. So I’m putting the book on hold in order to redefine my career so that the book will come as a supplement to that.
Sevan: Is it nonfiction?
Bassey: It is. Anecdotes about my life, about my life story, about being hospitalized, about being diagnosed, about living with it, but also having space for the conversation to help reduce stigma. How do you tell your parents that this is what’s happening? How do you get help if they don’t want to help you or feel like you need anything? Resources. If your mom or your dad clearly has something, how do you talk to them about it? How do you live and protect yourself if they’re not going to get help? Just different things that I think people need to know that a lot of agencies don’t really deal with. Because like I said, doctors have a ton of patients and they can’t tell you these kinds of things and I think that it’s important for people to hear it from somebody who has gone through it.
Sevan: What do you think will be your biggest challenge?
Bassey: Changing perception. Just from personal experience, I’ve had people be completely understanding and wonderful and great until something happens that they don’t like. And even with people who think they understand, always at that split second they revert. There’s that, and then there’s also the fact that I’m not a doctor. People get really offended that I’m not a doctor…, “Who are you to be telling people…” Well, I lived it. People are looking for a reason not to hear you. So, I have to do a lot of fighting for permission just to be heard or just for people to listen. I could be the Oprah of mental health; that’s never going to go away. And I’ve dealt with shame, too. A couple years ago I stopped saying bipolar and just saying depressed because I felt like people could understand that better and they wouldn’t judge me based on it. And even now, if I meet somebody I’m like, “What do I say, have they Googled me…” I start getting all worried about that. Basically, it’s all about letting people know that as OK as I am about it, I still face the same back and forth every time I meet somebody. I don’t think it’s ever going to go away because I’m always going to meet new people, but I think I’ve resigned myself to knowing that’s a reality. Because it’s not who I am, it’s what I have. If I had diabetes and you treated me a certain way because of it, then you’re an asshole and we just can’t be friends anyway. It hurts like hell and it’s painful when you discover that’s what you have to do, but at the end of the day that’s what it boils down to.
Sevan: Have you always been this open?
Bassey: My writing has always been very personal. I’m very sensitive, so I write about the things that move me very openly and very honestly. It’s just the only way that I know how to do it. I’m trying to think of what was before this that I could have been open about and I’m not sure. Broken heart stuff, but not really…this definitely put me in a different place. I wanted to normalize it for myself and for other people. I think that black people are so into suffering. Like you’re not living life and you won’t be rewarded in heaven unless you’re suffering. And that idea just never sat right with me. You’re supposed to feel good. You’re supposed to feel great and if you’re not, whether it’s because you hate your job or you hate your husband, you can do something about it. And if it’s your brain making you not feel well, you can do something about it.
Bassey can be found at her blog, Tumblr and Twitter. Use these to stay updated about her new non-profit organization, The Siwe Project, which launches December 2011. Also be sure to check out the hilarious details of life with her wise-beyond-his-years son at The Boogie Chronicles.