I spent most of 2003 on the floor of various hotel rooms, my body balled into a tight fist. Depression was winding itself around my neck, daring me to breathe. Other times, I was lava and mania pulsating from my belly, rising with each moment until my brain was a spinning dervish. Those moments, which occurred while I toured with a Tony Award-winning show, ate at me -- feasted on my blood like the cruelest of vampires. I felt out of control. I was out of control -- never certain who I'd be when I woke up. Would I be the hyperactive, mile a minute, unable-to-stop-talking-or-thinking-long-enough-to-sleep-or-die girl? Or would I wake up the woman already steps from death? There were nights I lay in bed, eyes closed, willing my heart to stop. Anything to bring peace. Depression and hypomania were rude house guests, visiting and leaving without warning or introduction. I had spent most of my life this way. I'd learned to choreograph the moments when the depression hit. I'd use that time to sleep. And when the hypomania came rushing in, I'd use that time to work on the things the depression allowed me to put off. It was a perfect choreography; a scale that kept my life balanced for years. Until it didn't.
One night in January 2004, 15 minutes before my show was to take a stage in Chicago, I was a babbling mess of trembling and sobbing. I had woken up that day, my brain on spin and my body on pause. That would happen sometimes too. Depression and mania all at once. It was something I couldn't balance. Made me feel trapped and hopeless -- a slave to whatever my brain decided it wanted from me from day to day. That day, my brain told me that I was going to die, and I felt helpless to fight the messenger. I was barely eating, so any little strength I had was not enough to will my body to do anything and even if I could, my brain was out of the conversation. My brain was just grateful for the quiet. But I had a show to do and without that commitment nagging around the back of my head, there's no telling what would have happened. What did happen was this: I left my hotel room and made it as far as the dressing room at the theater. The costume designer found me underneath the sink, my body again in a tight fist.
A few days later, back home in New York, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder. After a few weeks, my doctor got even more specific: Mixed-episode, Rapid Cycling Bipolar II Disorder. I was, what I had long feared being, mentally ill. For the months that followed, I was given various medications, then taken off of them -- given others. My body felt like a chemical mill. Every "side effects might include" had my name written all over them; I went through them all: some pills took my short term memory, some made me vomit, some made me tremble so bad that I couldn't climb stairs or sleep. One turned me into a zombie -- had me sleeping up to 20 hours a day and rendered the four during which I was awake useless. I went through it all just looking for a combination that would help settle my brain and convince it that life was worth living. I spent thousands of dollars, saved from my tour, on doctors and medication and eventually hospitalization. I lost my job because I became an insurance risk; the producers were afraid that I might have another breakdown on the road. That sent me on another depressive cycle and it continued like this, up and down and up and down, a horrific roller coaster of emotional instability for years to come.
After a brief hospitalization in January of last year, I've finally found a combination of medication and treatment that works for me. Works enough to keep me balanced and a part of the world. After six years, I'm finally getting my life back on track. Like millions of Americans, I'm without health care insurance. As a freelance writer, I make sure my 4-year-old is insured, but that leaves little or nothing for me. My "perfect" combination of medication sets me back around $200 a month. I advocate for myself by paying attention to changes in my body and in my thoughts. I check in with my doctor, and any sign of relapse or instability I make sure is caught before the curtains close and I'm trapped with the demons of mental illness.
I am privileged.
My profession allows me the space to be mentally ill without worry of being stigmatized or ostracized in the office. I have a platform from which I can discuss mental health awareness without shame or fear. I don't worry that my boss will find out and I'll lose the promotion -- or worse, my job. I'm not afraid that my friends will turn their backs on me once they find out about my storied background. If it has affected my work or relationships, it hasn't done so in any way that I find particularly troubling. I have the luxury of staying in bed and writing if I don't feel like getting dressed and facing the world. Though I'm in a reduced-priced program that allows me to get treatment for relatively nothing, I still pay medication out of my pocket and with a few sold articles or booked gigs, I can handle that. The program isn't perfect, but because I've been here, I can advocate for myself. I don't take any combination of medication until both my doctor and I agree on said medication.
In order for me, and millions of people both in treatment and out, to live the lives that most take for granted, it takes a combination of pills, therapy, trigger avoidance, diet changes, lifestyle changes. You name it, I've probably had to change it in the last six years in order to live a "normal life." And for me and many like me, "normal" means the ability to get out of bed every morning. The ability to sit in traffic and not be seized by crippling anxiety. The ability to have a conversation without checking to make sure my speech isn't too pressured or I'm not laughing too loudly or too inappropriately. These are things that many take for granted every day.
Still, I am privileged. I'm able to participate in dialogues and discourse about the condition of the mentally ill as a mentally ill person and be heard. The same cannot be said for the majority. Those either too frightened to speak openly about their challenges for whatever reason and those who refuse treatment because they don't understand or know what their options are.
After a week of political finger pointing, the tragic shooting spree in Tuscon has finally shifted focus to the shooter, 22-year-old Jared Loughner. When it was revealed that he had been showing signs of instability for months -- even kicked out of his college for his behavior -- it was speculated that he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Not as an attempt to excuse, but merely as an attempt to explain. Once again, mental illness is in the national spotlight, and once again the mentally ill are left out of the conversation. Rather than being included, the catch-all "mentally ill" is being associated with violence and "evil." I find that obscenely offensive and believe blanket all "psycho," "crazy," and "evil" statements make it that much more difficult for people who may not be feeling their best mentally to seek help. Why would you go to a friend or doctor and say, "I'm feeling paranoid and angry and I don't know what to do," if you knew that immediately, you'd be labeled and possibly ostracized?
The national conversation around mental illness and health care must change. Not because we need to target the mentally ill before they cause violence to others, but because we have to allow the space for those who don't feel "right" to be open about their issues. Doctors must be open to listen and to refer patients to psych doctors, rather than falling on the pharmaceuticals and prescribing psych medications they are unqualified to administer, without thought of the harm it's bringing to the patient. Mentally ill people don't want to be mentally ill any more than a cancer patient wants to have a body attacked by tumors. But one ailment is afforded the luxury of empathy and compassion, while the other is filled with derision and offensive commentary and speculation. As though we're no longer dealing with human beings.
If the recent events in Tucson taught us anything, it is that we can no longer afford to minimize the lives of millions of people whose only challenge on a day-to-day basis is to get out of bed and live life without excruciating depression or mind-numbing mania or get through the day without getting exhausted from battling the voices -- in a desperate search for a moment of peace. The conversation surrounding the events in Arizona should not just be about political finger pointing, gun control laws or even the failure of health care. It should finally be an opportunity for an honest and compassionate look at the way mental illness and the mentally ill are viewed in this society. They shouldn't be "watched for signs of violence." They should be encouraged, in the same way those with physical ailments are encouraged, to seek treatment.
The answer isn't "stopping them." There is no "them." There is us. They are your coworkers, your postal carrier, the guy who makes you coffee every morning. The woman sitting next to you at Starbucks, writing this article. Productive members of society who are managing or learning to manage their mental health. Perhaps if the public attitude toward the mentally ill changes, those who feel out of touch with this world won't feel the need to hide in shadows, dealing with the disease on their own. The families of those with mental illness can seek help for their loved ones and there can finally be healing of hearts and minds and compassion and empathy for those who struggle on any front.
Follow Bassey Ikpi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BasseyWorldLive