Someone who I admire a lot, Bassey Ikpi, has a book coming out next year, “I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying.” (Please pre-order today!) The book of essays resonate deeply with me, as they come from a black woman who, like me, lives with Bipolar II disorder. She also lives an important aspect of my life, the balance between being healthy, being creative, being a mother, and being an advocate. From the publisher:
Determined to learn from her experiences—and share them with others—Bassey became a mental health advocate and has spent the fourteen years since her diagnosis examining the ways mental health is inextricably intertwined with every facet of ourselves and our lives. Viscerally raw and honest, the result is an exploration of the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of who we are—and the ways, as honest as we try to be, each of these stories can also be a lie.
I often feel like when I’m telling the truth here, when I can tell you today, October 14, 2018, that it was really hard to get up this morning, that it was hard to shower and brush my teeth, that is was really hard to put on my shoes to get out of my house because otherwise I would spend all day in bed — that when I am telling you this truth I am also lying because if that was so hard why isn’t writing this hard? If that was so bad, how do I still have what I have — a great career, a loving husband, three amazing kids (they really do amaze me), friends, family, etc.?
I’ve often had people tell me that they have a hard time believing in my diagnosis. I had a doctor tell me that it was a miracle that I had a third child because women with bipolar simply should not do that. A doctor recently expressed incredulousness at my life — her words, “Well, you must be a genius to have done all of this if your diagnosis is correct.” While I wanted to slap the shit out of her — because who was she, having listened to me for ten minutes, to question my LIFE, my experience? — I started to doubt myself. Maybe you don’t have bipolar II disorder. Maybe you don’t even have depression. Maybe you are just tired. Maybe all of my problems I bring onto myself because I try to do too much.*
Maybe everything I have been saying here and elsewhere is a big lie. Maybe I’m not actually sick, with a life-threatening disorder. Maybe I’m telling you a lie I don’t even know I’m telling.
Or maybe I am a fucking genius.**
* Which is a symptom of bipolar.
** And this has something to do with Kanye. I’m still working through it.
This story will ramble and it does not necessarily have a good narrative arc but it’s been on my heart and I need it to get out.
This is a story about coffee.
One Saturday afternoon two years ago, my husband and I wanted to get away from our kids. We have three of them, all lovely human beings, but being children, they are needy af. We decided our time out would be about coffee. Again, children necessitated this. We were exhausted. Body and mind.
I love coffee. At my job, at the university, one of the best perks was a coffee machine. Not just a janky little pot, an actual machine that grinds the beans right before brewing. On work days, I would have a cup right when I got in, and again around the 3 o’clock slump. One of the best things about that job was that coffee machine.
Saturday is not a work day, thus my need for coffee needed to be fulfilled at home. In better times, coffee at home was just as good. When I had financial aid money, I bought myself an expresso machine and made lovely soy lattes every morning. When that became burdensome, I invested in a $20 French Roast. When I graduated from my grad program (and my husband dropped my press), my mom bought me a fancy coffee machine. It was the best gift I think I’ve ever received.
But times were not better. Times were not even good. Several months before this Saturday afternoon coffee run, on a December Monday, I sat in my office and cried on the phone to a friend about not being able to pay my rent. My tears were about not only my fear that my family would be out on the street, but also about a deep sense of shame. I had a PhD and a law degree from a super-fancy school, I’d had the best professional experience I now counsel my students to take advantage of, and I landed what many consider the best legal academic fellowship. I moved my family from the only home my children knew to a new state in a new city. And my husband left a really good job but was now having a really hard time finding a job.
Thankfully, my friends came through for me, lending me money, sending me care packages. My mom took care of Christmas for the kids. The bill collectors were calling, but my block game on my phone was strong. And my husband finally found a job, at a much lower salary than his previous employment, but a job nevertheless. We weren’t going to be on the street.
But times were still not good. Our budget only allowed a diet of mostly spaghetti. My husband was good at finding the sale meat. I went to the grocery store with a list and a calculator and $100 a week to feed two adults and three children, which was really like feeding four adults and one child. I had a birthday “party” for my four year old with only a party bag of chips, some oranges, and a homemade cake. I borrowed money from my 9 year old who had money from her birthday. I begged off friends who wanted to hang out because cocktails were not in the budget. Anything besides rent, tuition and groceries were not in the budget.
So on this Saturday, when we wanted coffee, coffee was not in the budget. The budget actually was gone, and we had about 5 days until the paycheck came in. But Dunkin’ Donuts was at the end of our block and coffee was only a $1 a cup. We figured we could find $1, and split the cup.
I hated being broke. I cried all the time thinking about what my children didn’t have, the things I couldn’t have, the financial hoops I was always jumping through, the phone calls I was constantly dodging, watching my credit score flush down the toilet. I hated feeling like I was a failure in spite of all that I’d accomplished, having done everything right, being a good girl, perhaps my only “mistake” was having children young.
But among all that hatred and shame and fear, in that moment, I really just wanted some coffee. So I went to the car to rummage on the floor for coins the kids might have dropped. He went through our pockets for loose change. Our kids watched us dispassionately, like they’d seen us do stranger things.
We found not only one dollar, but two dollars and fifty-five cents.
And so we each got our own cup of coffee, and each with a flavored shot. And even though in better times I can afford to be more discerning in my coffee choices, that day, with two dollars and fifty-five cents, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee was delicious.
I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been accepting friend requests from law professors. Folks perhaps that I met on the market, or just colleagues of other professors.
I talk a lot about mental health on here, in particular my own struggle with bipolar II disorder. It’s concerned me a bit to widen my “friends” on here as I’m the most junior of junior scholars. I don’t want me sharing this part of myself with the wider legal academic to mean fewer opportunities going forward.
So many of you who love me have questioned what I do on here, for the same reasons I’ve discussed above. So I have to make a decision. And Ive decided to keep doing what I’m doing. I know there can be professional ramifications. And it’s not that I don’t care. But it’s because it’s too dangerous to not keep doing this.
Over the past 10+ years of being on here and sharing my story and my challenges, at least once a month a friend dms me asking for help for themselves or someone they love. And I’m so happy to do so. This struggle is so often fought in the dark, by ourselves. And it shouldn’t be.
I share my story bc I want ppl to know that what I’ve done is possible even with what I’ve been through and go through. And I have only gotten here through a lot of therapy and medications and reflection. And most importantly, people. People who call me and hug me and love on me. People who help me strategize. People who help me figure out if I should ask for more time on a deadline, or tell me what I need to do to get my kids into school or read my work and put up with my overblown devastation.
But to get there, I have to be honest. Its not me saying “oh I just need to be myself.” There are a lot of other parts of me that I don’t share on here. But this part is important to me. So if there is a law professor on here that will think less of me either for my mental health challenges or because I share them, please unfriend me. No hard feelings.
I’m supposed to be happy, flying, resting on a cloud of gumdrops and jelly beans.
I have a GREAT job, the job I most wanted when I was on the job market.
For the first time in my life, I can go to the grocery store without my calculator.
I am in the midst of writing something I really care about. (This blog post of course I care about, but I mean my professional writing). I don’t ever again have to write about anything I don’t care about.
I have two excellent opportunities to get this piece published in two different forms and in front of key people in my field. I know how important it is for me to write this first year in the academy. But the deadlines for these two pieces are very tight.
So today I went all in for the first time since moving to LA — I bought a desk and a chair and a printer for home. For ten hours it’s been me and my computer and my freshly printed pages. I must have gotten hungry, but I didn’t eat. I remember feeling tired, but I didn’t sleep.
New projects are exciting and exhilarating. Waiting for expression are all those thoughts and ideas. In my mind’s eye I can see and feel the paper writing itself. Today, I felt it was my job to get it all done, get it all done today.
For some, that type of intensity might be okay. Maybe the most successful and productive people in the academy work that way. It very well might be okay for someone without my history. But it’s not okay for me.
I know what triggers hypomania for me. When I get stuck on one thing, my mind moves faster than my fingertips. I do what I did today — I stop eating. I stop sleeping. I write one sentence over and over again . . . . the proverbial perfect becomes the enemy of the proverbial good. When I realize I’m moving but not going anywhere, I crash. And then instead of doing too much, I do nothing. I don’t even get out of the bed.
Does not help that guilt on two (or six) feet are chattering in my ears, bursting through the bedroom door ever so often. I’m hearing… mom, mommy, mama . . . “you never go bike riding with us…” (we just got the bikes a few days ago) and “all you do is work…” (actually not for like the last month) and “I’ve hardly seen you all day…” (that’s because you’ve been in your room watching YouTube with your headphones on, but I’m the one who is ignoring everyone?)…
My mind is talking too . . . “if you don’t get it out right now, you’ll lose it” . . . “you know you have a lot of prove, right?” . . . “don’t make these people regret hiring you” . . . “you’re black and a woman and a mom and you have to work harder and longer” and my mind is so much quicker than my kids and I can’t think of any good comebacks.
I’m being tested. I’ve been here before. Every other time I’ve been here — finishing my dissertation, writing my job talk paper — I’ve engaged in unhealthy behavior and habits. I did work all day. I did forget to eat. I did not exercise. And I let those kids guilt me about not spending enough time with them.
I want to say “not this time.” I want to be just strong enough to know that the idea that’s been there for months won’t disappear overnight. I want to be strong enough to know that I do have more to prove, but I’ve been proving myself my entire life. I want to be strong enough to know that I didn’t get this job by the skin of my teeth. I want to be strong enough to know that kids believe the world revolves around them…and it really truly does not.
I don’t know if I’m that strong yet. I do not know. But instead of working on that paper, I’m writing here. Instead of working, I’m about to paint my toes. Instead of working I’m going to take a long shower and watch Law and Order and eat ice cream.
And right now, at this moment, perhaps as they felt my energy calm down, as I write this, my three amigos are quietly sitting at the base of my bed, happy to be in my orbit, watching Beat Shazam. And I’ve come in second place as I played on my phone.
Before the day is over, I wanted to recommit myself to having zero shame about my mental health struggles. I have Biploar II disorder, which means less intense manic episodes than Bipolar I disorder, but often even deeper depressions than those with Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar I. I was diagnosed in 2009 after over ten years of battling what I thought was “just” depression. The diagnosis came after spending a week in the psychiatric ward at Stanford hospital, after I had a hypomanic episode followed by a deep depression and suicidal thoughts. I was in the middle of the second year of my joint degree.
Since then, I’ve had other deep depressions with suicidal thoughts. I’ve done intensive outpatient therapy where I went to group sessions every day. The last time I was 9 months pregnant with my third child, attending sessions up until I went into labor. I’ve seen over ten therapists over 20 years. I take 3 mood stabilizers/ anti-psychotic medicines every day to stay stable. I’ve persevered.
Part of that effort has been doing this on here: refusing to allow myself to be ashamed. Of course, many days I do feel ashamed. I’m so sad that I don’t do things with my kids, I feel bad when I sleep more than I “should,” when the papers aren’t coming out right or I have an off day teaching. Right now, I’m lonely on the inside even with so many lovely folks coming out to support me here in LA. That sucks and I feel silly and I feel ashamed. Most people don’t have anywhere near the support I do.
But I remind myself — and I’m reminding you — that mental illness is that — an illness. I have nothing to be ashamed about. I didn’t choose this. It’s not a part of my character. But it has made me more determined to stay healthy. And to have a passion to help others who are struggling.
Innocence: freedom from guilt or sin through being unacquainted with evil; freedom from guile or cunning; lack of worldly experience or sophistication
We often speak of the innocence of children. We consider them to be unaware of the evils of our world. Their brains are growing quickly in sheer size but also in connective pathways. Childhood follows us into adulthood as we realize many of our mannerisms, ideas, and ideologies are formed while we are still growing. We imagine children as vessels to be filled, hopefully with happy memories of carefree days and footloose freedom.
If there is one thing that all children should have is the inalienable right to belong to a family, where adults love and protect them and children can be innocent. Where they can be children.
But we do not allow innocence for all children equally. As per usual, the good things about living are often only obtainable for whites. Google “innocence” images, and almost all of the first 20 photos are white children. White children who we fear have lost their innocence are grieved for; White children abducted are given wall-to-wall coverage of their disappearance, causing a national anxiety about their innocence. On the other side, news media likewise scour the earth to find innocence information about white teens who commit mass murder. They interview neighbors who recount tales of kindness and respect and lament that the parents of the killer have also now “lost a child.”
Black and brown children killed or removed from their families are rarely allowed to be innocent, even when they are clear victims. We need only remember the violent death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer, and how the New York Times focused on how 18-year-old Michael was “no angel.” Our children attend schools where their guilt is predestined; they are treated like inmates with bars on the windows, metal detectors at the doors, and officers “patrolling” the hallways. School “resource” officers violently arrest black and brown children for doing the things that kids do.
An AP investigation found in 2016 that more than two dozen unaccompanied children had been sent to homes where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work for little or no pay. At the time, many adult sponsors didn’t undergo thorough background checks, government officials rarely visited homes and in some cases had no idea that sponsors had taken in several unrelated children, a possible sign of human trafficking.
Of course, as many, many, many, people on social media have pointed out, this habit of treating black and brown children as less than innocent is far from being an American aberration; it is an American tradition. During slavery, children were ripped from their mothers to toil in fields like adults and sold as commodities on an open market. During Jim Crow, young black boys were arrested and placed in chain gangs (for a beautiful historical fiction account, read this). Native families — and nations — were destroyed by a government policy of removing Native children from their homes and tribes and placing them in boarding homes where they were unable to retain their culture, including their language. In the 1970s, the National Association of Black Social Workers argued that removing black children from their families and placing them in white foster homes was too a form of cultural genocide.
Destroying families by denying childhood innocence has been a key part of the enduring power of white supremacy. White supremacy relies on the reproduction of the state-enforced inability of non-white people to behave as people. It denies to non-whites the most foundational experience of personhood: to birth and raise their children in community, and to allow children to be children.
Two police officers stood in front of the school. They seemed to be doing something close to nothing, chatting with a parent. The parent seemed to know them, but the conversation also appeared…strained. I know this parent; her body language suggested discomfort, annoyance, and a little anger.
I was walking with my 12-year-old son and his friend, both black boys, as I passed by the officers and the mom. One of the officers briefly looked at me, but beyond that none of the three acknowledged me. The situation didn’t seem to warrant my intervention, although I was a bit concerned about why police officers were outside of this majority black private school. But I needed to go about my day, so I ignored them and continued to think about what I was going to buy at the supermarket to feed the six hungry children that I was taking home and caring for.
I was lost in my thoughts (“pizza? or maybe hotdogs and chicken? They’ll want chips and popsicles too . . .”) when I hear my son’s friend say, “… well if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you don’t need to worry.” Then my son says, “Yeah . . . and you should look like you aren’t doing anything wrong.”
Their words immediately put my supermarket daydreams to an end. Wait…what? How did we get here? How did we get to the point where these two black boys living in Chicago — the same Chicago that killed Laquan MacDonald, the same Chicago where racial segregation is palpable — are parroting such myths as “the only people who should be worried about the police are criminals?”
As common in Black families as the conversations about the “birds and the bees,” The Talk explains to black children the reality of being black. The Talk tells black children that people will treat them differently for the simple fact of the hue of their skin, the shape of their nose, and the texture of their hair. The Talk tells little black boys that even when they are innocent, they are guilty. Even when they are children, they are being perceived as adults. Even when they are “just playing,” they are being watched, judged, profiled. That even if they are doing nothing wrong, even if they look like they are doing nothing wrong, it may not matter.
Just a week ago in my seminar, I showed my students a video of police officers rolling up on a group of boys and pulling their gun. The boys were walking home from playing basketball. As the police car rolled up to them, the cops jumped out and immediately told the boys to get on the ground. One boys seems to be shocked, and doesn’t immediately get down. GET DOWN ON THE GROUND! SHOW ME YOUR HANDS! A boy starts to cry, wailing as his face presses against the concrete. The boys shout – What did we do?? What did we do? The crying boy’s brothers tells him to stop crying, it’s going to be okay. I don’t want to die. Unbelievably, the police officer, gun still drawn, softens his voice, telling the boys it’s going to be okay.
The video fast forwards to the children’s parents confronting the police. As the police attempt to justify their actions, saying they didn’t know if the boys with basketballs in their arms had guns, one mother yells and cries at her child. “THIS IS WHY I DON’T LET Y’ALL GO NOWHERE!” As the boy protests, says that he did nothing wrong, his mother: “IT DON’T MATTER! IT DON’T MATTER!”
I weep every time I watch that video, as I imagine my son on that ground, face pressed into the sidewalk, crying. But then I realize why even if we’ve had The Talk, he’s never quite heard The Talk, why it doesn’t feel real to him: I don’t allow him out of my sight.
These two boys are sheltered, for the exact reasons articulated by this mother: because it doesn’t matter that they are 12-years-old, that they still like Pokemon, that hide-and-seek and tag and infection and four square are still a part of their play repertoire. They go nowhere without us, their parents. Not to school, not walking around the block, not wandering in a store, not to the park. Because I don’t want them to be the victim of a hashtag: #GoingToSchoolWhileBlack. #WalkingAroundTheBlockWhileBlack. #GroceryShoppingWhileBlack. I don’t want anyone to be SayingTheirName.
But now I can’t have him not understanding the reality of his world. That so many little boys just like him are pulled to the side by the police for no reason other than living and being a kid #WhileBlack. That he needs to be overly compliant with police officers even when he’s done nothing wrong. That he needs to press his face into the concrete if they tell him to do so. That crying won’t help, that only doing exactly what they say might save his life.
I hesitated before saying those words. Because just for another 30 seconds, one minute, five minutes, I wanted him to remain that little boy, believing in the ultimate justness of the world, that men and women in blue are always only wanting to help him and not hurt him. I wanted him to remain my baby, the beautiful black boy that I loved before he was even born, now 12-years-old but still a boy. Not a man. A boy.
But I did it because it needed to be done. And afterwards, I cried.
While I do not dare to dictate to these men who experienced the humiliation of a racist arrest, I wonder why we, black people living under the veil of white supremacy and racism, are constantly expected to forgive.
Are white people are so incapable of taking full and absolute responsibility that when we, as black people, are harmed, we must show them what a sensible, humanistic response looks like?
This battering, always doing it again, that is the nature of the beast. Systemic racism pervades all of our institutions, from the police to schools to our local, state, and federal government. Our president is the very embodiment of white supremacist systemic racism as a man who has zero political experience and who trafficked and reveled in white supremacy, whose “base” were not afraid of economic losses but rather the loss of white privilege.
Despite the evidence of systemic White Supremacy, its most genius manifestation is convincing us that it exists only in hearts and minds. That there are something called Racist People out there who harbor hate in their hearts and that as soon as those people die out we will become an ideally post-racial society where opportunity is equal. Even liberals embrace a version of this argument, pointing to implicit bias as the science of White Supremacy. Thus we praise places like Starbucks, who will close its stores for one day this month to engage in anti-racist bias training, for taking a seemingly systemic look at its policies, even though it is widely known that these trainings often have no effect or can be actually detrimental.
Michelle Obama famously implored us, as progressive minded folks against racism and bigotry and hate, to “go high” when they “go low.” Perhaps she is right, but we need to reevaluate what “low” is. At the time of the 2016 election, “low” actually had a pretty low bar: folks openly deriding President Obama with vile, racist language, calling on the other candidate to be locked up and championing draconian measures to keep America white. It was easy to go high there.
I’ve finally made it to what I’ve been working toward for the last 11 years. I will be a tenure-track professor. Studying what I want. In the place I want to be. Around colleagues I like and that I can learn from.
But What’s Next?
Publish or perish. If you ask someone with a more than cursory knowledge of the profession what one must do to be successful in the profession, they may tell you this: publish or perish. The idea is that if you want to thrive (i.e., not perish) you must find a way to get your work published. Ideas are not actually ideas worth contemplating unless they are on paper and other people are reading it. The perish part is easy, straightforward.
Avoid perish by writing, submitting, publishing. Repeat. The more the better.
But not really “publish or perish.” Before you submit and publish, you must write. Really “write AND publish, or perish.” Anyone who says that to be a writer all you need to do is write is wrong.
Writing starts with an idea. For the last paper, I had a big idea. What’s Next? Do you have anything interesting to write about? Is it interesting to people other than yourself? Can you articulate both why it’s interesting and why other people should care? “Come up with a topic AND write AND publish, or perish.”
I have an idea, an idea I’ve been thinking about for months, a topic really. Because it’s born out of events happening around the country, I know the topic is important. The topic, when I bring it up, shocks some, makes others shake their heads. They say, oh wow, that’s fascinating.
But topics are not papers. The Next Idea must be bigger than the topic. It needs to involve fundamental problems with law, social structure, stratification, and inequality. Okay. “Come up with a topic AND an idea AND write AND publish, or perish.”
But if the problems are fundamental, haven’t others already written about them?Novelty. You cannot publish something that isn’t new. So What’s Next?
Now you need to read everything that’s ever been written on said topic. Have others addressed the topic? Who are these others? What about the idea? Have they identified the same fundamental issues you have? How have they treated those issues? What about their solutions (if any)? “Come up with a topic AND an idea AND make sure no one else has written this AND write AND publish, or perish.”
Inevitably, I’ll come across the Cursed Article that seems to be saying EXACTLY what I want to say. I throw the books to the side. Cry. Drink. Obviously I’m not supposed to be doing this work.
They say no, we’re waiting for someone, we aren’t ready to order. Well, you need to buy something. Why? We’re waiting for someone. Their voices deep, powerful. But not aggressive. Who are we bothering? She gets mad, as their refusal triggers — fear? anger? resentment? Again, it doesn’t matter.
The story is old. She saves face. Used to be she would call her daddy who calls the lynch mob. You’ll learn your lesson.
The story is old. The police arrive. Full uniform. Including handcuffs, badges. Guns. What’s the problem, the cops ask the men. Why are you asking us? Ask her. I asked you. But we didn’t call you. She did.
Ain’t this some shit? But even the white man who you were waiting to meet can’t get the officers to back down. Nor the white patrons. All they can do is be a witness, tell the story afterwards. Show the video. Because the police have to save face too. They’ll say you refused to obey an order. The story is old. You didn’t jump off the sidewalk quickly enough.