When You Have Bipolar II, Some Days Are Fine

Essayist and spoken-word artist Bassey Ikpi shares what it’s like when the fog of mental illness lifts, even for just a little bit.

Some days are fine. I wake up determined to move through the hours like someone born with all their bones intact. Other days, I wake before the sun and lie in my bed staring at the ceiling, patiently waiting for the tears that have greeted me every day for weeks. Minutes pass and nothing comes to wet my face.

I know this place.

After months of slow descent, an excruciating decline to destruction, the fog has lifted. I am in that small slivered space of “better.”
Some days are fine.

I move through the world like someone born with all their muscles intact. Depression is no longer a thing that squeezes my heart. It does not threaten my life. It does not drown me. It does not try its best to eat me. This is when my brain knows the truth and reminds me of it.

This is when I’m finally able to hear the advice that people, kind but uninformed, offer. This is when you tell me to take a long walk to clear my head, suggest I eat something to get my energy up, tell me to think happy thoughts, and I can do it. This is when you ask how I am and I can say, better.

This is better.

People like to use the metaphor of darkness when it comes to depression. My experience is more like a fog. A thing descending slowly. A thick something that surrounds me, distorting my vision of myself and the world around me.

People constantly ask how I’m doing (now). The now is silent. They try to make it sound like they’re just saying hello, making small talk, being polite, but the worry always dots their foreheads like perspiration, the concern coats their skin with a sheen, the beads of sweat that appear when you’ve climbed one stair too many or when the summer heat is just a mild nuisance and not the drenched and wet affair of a heat wave. The worry is a slight rise in temperature. I can hear them wrestle with the questions, can see how their faces struggle to make their concern something more casual. I can hear the fear in the intake of breath before the questions. Like the split second of silence before an explosion.

My family spent years looking at me and not knowing that I was not okay. When they saw how bad the “not okay” could get, they rushed to treat me like glass. Not something broken— like I felt— but something they had never noticed was in danger of breaking.

I’m home from the hospital. We are in the kitchen: My father kneels between the island and the microwave, nervously opening and closing the cabinet below the counter, waiting for an opportunity to speak to me. I am filling my water bottle at the cooler in the corner. I watch as he pulls out a mixing bowl, then replaces it and then pulls out a colander and replaces it. When my bottle is dangerously close to overflowing, I know I cannot avoid him or his questions anymore.
I stand and focus all my attention on the bottle top. I am concentrating on this twisting and tightening like it will defuse a bomb or like it will keep the question from finding me. “How are you doing . . . ?”

My dad stands before I can figure out how to avoid him. I lament not bringing my phone along as a diversion tactic. He repeats, “How are you doing . . . ?” (Now.) His eyes quickly scan my drawn face, my sharp, pointed collarbones, the way my sweatpants hang despondent and fearful around my hips. He inhales and draws in his bottom lip and forces his eyes back to my face. He won’t ask if I’ve eaten. That’s my mother’s job. He waits for me to answer.

“I’m doing better.” I attempt a smile then change my mind and stare at the bottle I am twisting in my hand. The cold and wet feels like an acceptable sensation. I am trying to isolate the cold and the wet— feel one and then the other.

“Ups and downs,” I say to our feet.

My father’s feet point towards me and then away, his casual is filled with too much purpose to make me comfortable.

“The downs are still up enough to keep me moving . . .” I hope this sounds like a reassurance. I hope this stops the incessant opening and closing of cupboard doors. I hope this quiets the now. “These feelings don’t disappear overnight.”

My father grunts some encouragement. I use the pause after to flash a smile of “I’m good. I’m fine. Don’t worry” before I make my escape from the kitchen.

These feelings don’t disappear overnight. They can quiet. They can ripple. But they don’t disappear.

There are two sides to this— the fog and the hurricane. The fog has been my worry and concern because it is the thing that attempts to erase not just me, but my memory of it as soon as I’m feeling “better.” It’s like nothing happened, right? It’s like it never existed. Almost.

It must have passed Better in the hallway on its way out. Maybe they greeted each other with a head nod.

Better: Can I clock in now? I’ve been in the lobby waiting.

The Fog: You came up a few times.

Better: To check on her. Make sure you didn’t overstay. I brought some temporary smiles and reluctant laughter, remember? But then I left again.

The Fog: Cool. I’ll lay low for a little bit. You got this. Don’t get too comfortable though. I’ll be back.

Some days are fine.

Those days I need to monitor how much electricity is running through me. I need to make sure that my brain isn’t on a high- speed
chase with words, that I’m not leaping from idea to idea, dancing within myself. I need to make sure that my bank account isn’t drained at 3:00 a.m. because I needed to have every MAC lipstick mentioned in the dozens of YouTube tutorials I just spent hours obsessing over. I need to make sure that there is no paranoia, no fear that everyone might be angry with me so I need to send as many text messages as I can to clear up this invisible slight I may have caused. I need to make sure that the fog hasn’t been lifted only to welcome the hurricane.

That is a different kind of destruction.

Some days are fine.

Depression is easy. It comes as hard as thunder and destroys. Mania is the seductive one; the one you’re not supposed to fall in love with.

Then there is a switch. The space where they all meet: anxiety, hypomania, depression. It becomes more difficult to fall asleep, yet my eyes fly open an hour, sometimes two, before my alarm and I just lie there, staring at the blurred walls or ceiling of my bedroom. I am forgotten. My heart leaves my body. I am unimportant. My nothingness floods my chest, the list of my missteps over the last few decades pushes into my head and whispers, You are a failure.

I can spend hours and weeks on all the mantras: You are loved. You deserve to be here. You are needed. Necessary. I can chant these affirmations a million times in constant and consistent repeat until one day the record skips and no you’re not becomes the new song and I become limbless, I evaporate into nothing.

I’ve lived with depression my entire life, sliding in and out of it as easily as I do the size 2 pants that only fit when the fog has made its way back. Depression is like a rumor that grows quietly and steadily, causing no problems or distractions until, one day, I remember that time I left the stove on and the burnt food and the smoke and the chaos of the alarm that blares a broken jazz in my mind because this shame is the only soundtrack I have.

I take my medication faithfully. I do all I can to make sure that this thing does not eat my bones. I visit my doctor twice weekly. I am trying to stay alive.

One day, I wake and instead of dread, instead of the echoing, hollow sadness, instead of a stomach that lurches in disappointment at morning or at waking or at the twenty- four hours I need to occupy, I feel a calm, I feel a soothing. The sun appearing and allowing in the beauty that I have made it into morning. This happens every single time, until it stops and the fog comes again, like clockwork I wish I could smash into bits. And this, right there, is the one thing that I can count on— no matter how long it goes away for, it will always come looking for me again. It will always return.

I am so tired of this returning. I tell people words that fall hollow on my own ears. A friend told me once that each of us and our unique fingerprints hold up the universe, that any missing fingerprint is a loss the universe can neither regain nor afford to lose. I share this with people often. I give them the suggestion Allow yourself morning.

I tell them it means that today may have been a rolling ball of anxiety and trembling, a face wet and slick with tears, but if you can get to morning, if you can allow yourself a new day to encourage a change, then you can get through it. Allow yourself morning.

I do my best to remember this, but the older I get, the more I wonder what the point is. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I accepted that this thing would return. I treated it like a benign tumor that insisted on growing back. I still had my whole life ahead of me. I’m forty now, and I am tired of fighting this thing every single time it appears. And it keeps appearing, despite the twice weekly appointments and the twice daily rounds of medication. It keeps appearing.

You always wake up optimistic. Your eyes fly open, you lie in bed and you think, I feel okay. Maybe I’m okay. You get up and take your meds. You sit on the bed and collect yourself before you leave the room. You wonder why it’s so dark. Is it the weather? There was a storm all night. You reach over and turn on your phone— you turn it off at night to allow yourself silence. You wait for it to boot up.

It says 4:40 a.m. You slept for three hours. You try to go back to sleep but you’re awake now. You’re just awake. You grab your laptop to do some work. You don’t have any. You finished yesterday. You’re waiting for feedback. You lie back on the pillow, stare at the ceiling, and let the tears roll back into your ears. “It’s not always like this. You’re usually just fine. Just wait,” you say to no one. We will believe it again soon.

This thing wants to eat you. Don’t let it. It’s exhausting. Rest if you need to. It is a liar. Believe only that you are necessary and an important part of this world.

I know what comes with quiet.

I’ve learned to love so quietly that some people forget that I ever loved them at all.

I can be “too much.”

It is this “too much” that forces the quiet.

This bipolar. This many- sided creature. This life of mine. This brain I was gifted. This brain that drains. This brain that protects me even as it scolds. This brain that is mine, in all its broken and fractured and bruised and bullied. This brain constantly in conference with the racing heart, reminding me to slow down, stay calm. We will not welcome the hurricane.

From the book I’M TELLING THE TRUTH, BUT I’M LYING: Essays by Bassey Ikpi. Copyright © 2019 by Nyono MmaBassey Ikpi. Reprinted by permission of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Bassey Ikpi