Former performance poet Bassey Ikpi is tired of retelling her story about dark times and struggles with bipolar depression. She wants you to know that it’s worth putting in the work to get healthy and stay there.
Performer & Activist
In the world of Google searches, Bassey Ikpi has two major claims to fame. The first would be her reputation as a spoken word artist, nurtured in slam poetry circles in New York City and cemented by years of performing solo and on Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.
Then there’s her influence as an activist promoting honest discussion around mental health, especially in Black communities in the United States and overseas.
Among her contributions to raising awareness: Sharing the lived experience of coping with bipolar II disorder and anxiety in her impressionistic memoirI’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying. Reviewers favored adjectives like “raw,” “honest,” and “brave,” while People declared that Ikpi “paints a personal picture of the normalcy of mental illness … using visceral snapshots of memories from her childhood to her adult years.”
Now she’s calling a do-over. At this point, she doesn’t want to dwell on the darkness in her past.
“Since my last depressive episode in 2016, and especially in the last two years since the book has been published, I’ve been the healthiest I’ve ever been in my entire life, and the most permanent in the health that I’ve felt,” says Ikpi, 45.
“I started thinking about the stories I’ve been revisiting, and how often people want to hear about revisiting the trauma, and how bad it got before it got better. I was tired of telling that story.”
She has a different message to convey these days.
“It’s OK not to be OK, but I also want people to want to be healthy. I want people to know there is so much more on the other side of their wellness.
“It’s a worthy journey. It’s a worthy destination. It may not be exciting, it may not be all that interesting, but I think of all the times I would have given up and all the things I would have missed out on. It’s so worth it to be a healthy person.”
Ikpi still identifies as a writer, but describes herself as an “ex-poet.” Nor does she plan to work on another book: “I just did not enjoy the process at all,” she reports. She’s bending her efforts toward getting into writing and producing for television.
As a girl, she says, “poetry made the most sense in trying to figure out how to encapsulate what I was feeling and how to make people understand. The healthier I got, the more able I was to be in touch with how I felt, the more I no longer needed that as a brace or a crutch.… I no longer needed the language of poetry to express myself.”
Born in Nigeria, Ikpi came to the US at age 4, experiencing all the emotional upheaval that kind of dislocation imposes. Her family then moved from Oklahoma to a Maryland suburb of Washington, DC, when she was 13. It was while studying English at the University of Maryland that she first got out in front of audiences.
She left college in her final year to join the slam poetry scene in New York City. Starting in 2001, when she was 24, she started doing solo college tours and also appeared on the HBO series version of Def Poetry Jam. A few years later, she joined the touring cast of the Def Poetry Broadway show.
Anxiety, Bipolar Depression, & Insomnia
Combine the stress of getting out on stage with anxiety and depression, throw in insomnia, and the result is what Ikpi calls her “breakdown”—and subsequent bipolar diagnosis—in 2004.
A decade later, after a second major crisis while performing, she decided she was done with the whole gig.
“I always had anxiety, stage fright, but I would push through it and deliver what I needed to deliver. I remember it getting to the point [in 2014] where I literally had a panic attack and passed out on stage.
“I’m learning to be a person who doesn’t just go along to get along. I’m trying to be more intentional about my actions and behavior. If something didn’t bring me joy or make me happy, or didn’t help me in any way or help the people around me, I don’t need to do it,” she explains.
Letting Go of Shame
Ikpi spent some time in Nigeria in her mid-30s and notes that despite progress in understanding the medical basis of psychiatric disorders, some people there still view symptomatic behavior as “a spiritual attack.” She didn’t get that response from her parents, but they did want to keep her diagnosis on the down-low.
At the time she thought that came from a place of shame. Now she can see how much of it was worry about their daughter’s employment prospects and other people’s perceptions of her.
“There were aspects of [my mother] being afraid for me and unable to be clear about why she was afraid, so it came off as angry,” Ikpi recalls. “It was very much, ‘Don’t talk about it, because we don’t want that to precede you.’”
Her father, meanwhile, “was heartbroken because he went through the symptoms and he could check off all these things from my childhood. It does make sense that I was ‘irresponsible,’ that I was ‘lazy,’ that I couldn’t sit still. I was a restless child.”
Managing Emotions & Bipolar Stigma
Ikpi has a child of her own now. She has taken proactive steps to ensure that her son, now 14, knows how to manage his emotions. She returned to Maryland after he was born, where her parents and two brothers provide a strong support network. Her sister frequently pops down from New Jersey to visit, too.
Ikpi admits that she herself bought into the stigma around bipolar for a while. When discussing her mental health challenges in the early years after her diagnosis, she says, she would cop to depression and anxiety “and not go into the bipolar.”
She realized she had to get beyond that, though: “If I carried shame, I would carry that shame into not taking my medication and not seeing my therapist and not taking care of myself.”
By extension, so would others facing the same challenges. By 2011, Ikpi was sharing her truth in essays in the Huffington Post, The Root, and other outlets, as well as advocating for mental health awareness and “candid discussions about … stigma, diagnoses, and treatment options.”
That same year, she also founded the Siwe Project, “dedicated to promoting mental health awareness in the global Black community,” and launched No Shame Day as a way to encourage people of color to open up on social media.
No Shame Day happens on the second Monday of July, which is Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month in the US. (It’s also known as BIPOC Mental Health Month, standing for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.)
“It’s been wonderful to see people who 10 years ago had no idea what [bipolar] was, and then who kept showing up and telling their own stories,” she says.
Ikpi recently stepped back from both initiatives. Other activists and organizations have taken up the work and have better resources, she says. Plus, fading back from the front lines of advocacy better fits her needs nowadays.
“There’s a constant work that I do to stay healthy … the work that it takes to stay mindful, to seek therapy, to take medications, to maintain my mental health as a natural part of my overall holistic healthiness,” she notes.
“I just wanted to be less about this public display and more about mirroring for myself the quiet parts of health and wellness.”
Part of Ikpi’s campaign to normalize psychiatric disorders involves using different terminology to help others better understand what it’s like to live with bipolar. For example, she uses the phrase “brain sprain” as an analogy to an athlete who gets a leg injury that affects their training.
“I don’t feel broken,” she says. “I do feel different.… I do have to work around these limitations that pop up. I don’t have the luxury of someone who just does not think about things that affect them emotionally or who bounces back quickly.”
For example, “I choose to acknowledge that, unlike some creatives, I can’t stay up all night and keep working because I know that triggers hypomania. I know that if something pushes me into a dark place I could unearth things that could trigger depression. I have to be very careful how I maneuver in the world.”
Ikpi embraces all the usual management strategies for bipolar and anxiety, as well as a few unique survival mechanisms. What she calls “touchstones … things to get out of bed for,” give her a way to combat depressive inertia when it arises. She might listen to a song or watch a show over and over because it inspires her in some way, or fixate on a quest of some sort until it runs its course.
“When I lived in New York [City] I went through this thing, ‘I have to eat a waffle at every restaurant that serves waffles in Manhattan.’ That would get me out of bed,” she recalls.
“I used to think it was a problem that I needed those things, because so-called ‘normal’ people didn’t. But it’s the brace, the crutches, until you can run on your bum leg.”
Having lived through suicidal depressions, she also knows not to take everyday achievements for granted. During depressive episodes, Ikpi notes, “every movement forward is worth a celebration.… There were times when I celebrated taking a shower. I wanted to hold a press conference to let people know I had done it, because I didn’t think I could.
“So celebrate all the inches. Celebrate everything that moves you closer to where it feels good to be you—and that, to me, is the ultimate goal.”
• • • • •
What Helps Bassey Ikpi Manage Bipolar
During her bipolar depressions, Ikpi notes, “everything feels so bad right now, and right now feels like forever.” At her lowest points, “there was no room for the next day. I did not know what that looked like. I just couldn’t get there.” She’s learned to trust that there will be a future worth waiting for.
#2 Spot Checks
Self-awareness is key to Ikpi’s self-management. “I take at least a half-second before I do anything to make sure why I’m doing it—that the motivation is clear and not just impulsive,” she says, adding: “Lately I’ve noticed I’ve been purchasing a lot of things and I have to check in with myself: Is it because I’m bad with money, which I am, or hypomanic? Or, am I crying at this TV show because I’m not healthy or because it’s legitimately touching? I’m constantly checking up on myself. Shout out to my therapist, who taught me mindfulness training.”
#3 Bob & Weave
Ikpi knows 30 minutes of daily exercise makes her feel better—but not just any exercise. “I find interesting ways to work out because I don’t really like it,” she explains. “My son has an Oculus Quest [virtual reality headset], and I use it for high-intensity workouts and cardio boxing. I have a lot of fun just punching things.”
Printed as “My Story: Pivot to the Positive,” Fall 2021
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