Naomi Elias | Longreads | August 2019 | 24 minutes (6,573 words)
Bassey Ikpi remembers the Challenger explosion; she can recall the exact moment it happened, in 1984. She can remember, in exquisitely painful detail, how she felt watching that tragic accident unfold on live television, in 1984. Yet Google and the history books tell us it happened in 1986. “What is truth,” Ikpi asks, “if it’s not the place where reality and memory meet?”
The blurry line between emotional truth and fact is stylishly captured in an optical illusion of a book cover (designed by Matthew McNerney) for Ikpi’s new memoir-in-essays, I’m Telling The Truth But I’m Lying. The Nigerian-American author takes up the project of remembering, with great dexterity and compassion for herself. Ikpi opens up about living with bipolar II; “Imagine you don’t fit anywhere,” Ikpi writes, “not even in your own head.” We experience her life pre- and post-diagnosis; her adolescence in Stillwater, Oklahoma; her early twenties touring as a spoken word artist with HBO’s Def Poetry Jam; her sleepless nights; and her hospitalization.The latter proves to be a turning point, one that finally gives her a name for her mental illness and — as the book demonstrates — a framework for understanding the story of her life.
The diagnosis is clarifying; it allows her to see how mental health impacts her relationships to her family and friends, and to herself, often determining what she feels and remembers, and how she remembers it. In this way Ikpi also uses her book to interrogate the nature of memory itself — how fragile it is, how it can be colored and recolored by trauma and guilt and self-preservational drive. “I learned how to take the truth and bend it like light through a prism,” Ikpi explains in the book, “I learned to lie beautifully.” Rather than present readers with a sanitized cluster of biographical data, Ikpi offers a memoir that places the reader inside her mind, conflict and all.
Ikpi currently lives in Maryland with her son Elaiwe. Last month I spoke to the author about her blisteringly honest new book and being a mental health whisperer on Twitter.
Naomi Elias: A version of the titular phrase, “I’m lying but I’m telling the truth,” appears throughout the book. What does it mean?
Bassey Ikpi: It means a couple of things. Sometimes it means that, despite how honest you want to be, there’s certain things you can’t express, whether it be to protect yourself or to protect other people. Other times it means that you’re telling as much truth as you know at the moment; this feels like the right answer, this feels like the truth, but I know that there is something else, there’s another layer, there’s another level.
I know in one of the essays I was too afraid to uncover [something deeper] so I told the truth as it stood at that moment. The entire book is this idea that what is true to us is only as real as what we allow. The book is true as far as the factual [honesty], but the emotional honesty varies depending on what essay and why it’s told.
I think that we have a very odd relationship with truth as people; how we define it varies depending on who we’re talking to and what we’re talking about.
In the book you write about how your brain protects you “by disowning the dangerous memories.” You even have a term for when your brain manipulates a memory as a form of self-defense — “the survivor’s edit.” How do you write a memoir when you can’t quite trust your own memories? Is it freeing or does it just add a layer of difficulty?
It depends on what the memory is. What I tried to do was be very honest about the things I couldn’t remember. When I say that I remember in feeling, [I mean] I know that this thing feels a certain way, I know that there’s a reason why I get anxious when certain things are brought up; and I may not know what those things are, but because I’ve always been very attached to emotions, it was easy for me to tell it in that way. What was difficult was, the first book that we actually sold was supposed to be this — now that I think about it, I laugh — this self-help book, like a ‘this is how I got here’ kind of thing; and it was just impossible to do. Where am I? I didn’t get anywhere. In order for me to get to the point where I wanted to write this self-help book, I had to acknowledge the fact that my memories are very — as far as the facts go — very scattered, but as far as the emotional history that I’m trying to piece together, pretty accurate.
There was a review that came out like last week that was like ‘well you can’t trust her memories because she’s lying’ and I was like, well, no. That’s not what it is. She’s not lying. She is being as honest as she knows how to be. I think a lot of times, when people are writing memoir or writing about their life, they can’t admit that they don’t remember. You’re three, of course you don’t remember every detail. But you do know enough of the family history, enough of the lore; you know that you got from point A to point B, and based on what you already know of yourself, you know how you got from point A to point B. You can imagine. You can imagine how you got from one place to the next. You draw upon what you know of yourself, how you probably got to where you were, and then you craft the story from that perspective.
The first book that we actually sold was supposed to be this — now that I think about it, I laugh — this self-help book, like a ‘this is how I got here’ kind of thing; and it was just impossible to do. Where am I? I didn’t get anywhere.
You spend the majority of the book narrating in the first person, but there are occasional shifts into second person. Why did you decide to split perspective like that? Was it helpful to write about yourself with some distance?
Yes, it was very helpful in order to prevent lying. There’s stories that you tell yourself about who you are and why you behave in certain ways or things that have happened in your life. As a matter of fact, what switched the book from the one I was writing previously to what I ended up writing was giving myself permission to write in another perspective and just get it out and say ‘ok i’ll switch it back to first person when I’m done.’ But what I realized was that trying to go back to first person made me want to hide again, made me want to tell the story from a place that was a little prettier and cleaner. It just didn’t work.
A lot of the second person narration was based on the dissociative qualities that came on during certain aspects of my life when I just didn’t feel connected to myself, where I didn’t feel like I was in my own body. I felt like I was watching things happen from a distance, and being able to tell the story from that perspective is the reality of it. There’s an essay toward the end where I’m almost reminding myself like this is what happened, you don’t remember being in it because you were so numb, because you were so grief stricken, because you were so completely shut down, but this is what happened; and I know that’s what happened because I’d written it down in a different way before. Being able to piece it together enough to string together the memory and put things into perspective — I needed to step out of my perspective to do that. It just felt like a more honest way to tell these kinds of stories.
In the past when I’ve read memoirs about living with mental health issues, it’s always done in a very clinical way. That’s how people [write about] the things they know they had to protect themselves from or they weren’t present for [at the time]. The way they enter those conversations are to get very clinical. I’ve read this is what happens and I’ve been told this is what happens when someone goes through A or B, these are what the triggers are as opposed to this is what it feels like to be triggered by those things which is I think the overarching point of [my] book: to go beyond the symptoms, to go beyond the clinical and really understand what it looks like and what it could possibly feel like when somebody is hypomanic, or when somebody is living with depression, or how excruciating it is to go through a 24-hour period of intense anxiety. I wanted that to be the story and not so much some sort of biographical, you know, “these are the life and times of Bassey Ikpi.”
In a recent episode of Big Little Lies one of the children, Amabella, has a panic attack because she is overwhelmed by all the news she’s hearing about the impending end of the world. It made me think of the anecdote you share in the book about how in elementary school you watched the Challenger explode less than two minutes after its launch in 1986 and it gave you one of your first anxiety attacks. You write that the tragedy (which left no survivors) “triggered something that I wouldn’t have the language to identify for more than a decade.” It feels like that’s a real formative memory for you. Why do you think that particular historical event impacted you so much?
That was the first time I was confronted with death on that level. Once I understood that these people weren’t going to survive this, there wasn’t going to be a happy ending, it brought forth all the times that earlier I had been like ‘well, no one died’ or ‘it’s okay’ — ways I had learned to talk myself down. It was so out of my hands. There was nothing I could do to fix it, so I became a little obsessed with ways that I could’ve prevented it; which now, looking back, doesn’t make any sense, but at the time made all the sense in the world, especially since I kind of looked away because I was so excited about it. One of the memories I don’t think I really put in the book was that I felt like my excitement might’ve created it. I was looking forward to it too much and I didn’t understand how to control my excitement, so I looked away, and looking away meant I chose my comfort over the comfort of those who eventually died.
Now, it doesn’t make any sense. But, at the time, it felt like the only way to explain what I had seen. It was the first time I was confronted with chaotic death; not a peaceful, you know, ‘this person didn’t wake up.’ It was an explosion, it was a literal explosion that I had no choice but to deal with. No one asked me if I wanted to deal with it. I wasn’t expecting it. It’s not like I saw it on TV an hour later and I already knew what was going on. As a matter of fact, to this day I read spoilers about everything. I don’t like to be surprised. I need to know what I’m getting into so I can prepare myself, and that’s when it began; I mean, not that I read spoilers in the fifth grade, but just needing to know how things end so I can prepare myself for it.
In the book you share that there was a period shortly after your diagnosis when you were reluctant to open up to friends about what you were going through and now you have this memoir that very explicitly lays it bare. At what point did you decide to open up about your mental illness in your work and what motivated that decision?
I decided shortly after I left the hospital the first time. I’ve been hospitalized twice but only wrote about the first one. This essay didn’t make it into the book, but at the time I was a working spoken word artist with Def Poetry Jam and a bunch of other things and it was the Tuesday after I had just come back from the hospital. I hadn’t told everyone where I was except for the four or five friends who came to visit. I was watching this show that used to be on called Girlfriends with Tracee Ellis Ross — I used to watch it every Tuesday — and for some reason, divine intervention if you believe in that, there was an episode about one of the characters, Lynn; about her biological mother coming back, and she had bipolar disorder. I remember sitting up straight on my couch in Brooklyn and I was like OMG this is the most popular show in black households. Everyone I know watches this. Are they going to make this make sense to people? Is this going to be easier for me now because I can point to this episode?
I was really excited about it and I ended up very disappointed because the character, Lynn, she was really flighty, she couldn’t keep a job. I thought the storyline was going to be that Lynn genetically had it, but what they showed in the mother was — the symptoms they gave her were kind of like emotionally and developmentally delayed, some elements of multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, just all over the place. It didn’t make any sense. There was a scene later on in the show where Lynn is worried she has genetic blah blah blah and I remember Tracee Ellis Ross’s character saying ‘no you’re nothing like that, you’re not crazy’ and I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I was just sitting there like ‘wow, is no one going to talk to me about this? Is there nothing I can read?’
I remember when I was diagnosed going on Ask Jeeves — I don’t know if Google existed back then — and trying to find narratives of people of color who were sharing their stories and their experiences and I didn’t see anything, and then I see this episode. I had a blog at the time and I went to the blog and I just spilled it. I realized that I had already lost my job and I didn’t see myself ever working like a “normal” personal in a 9-to-5, I didn’t have anything to lose, I had lost a lot. I figured if it’s just gonna be me and like one other person in, I don’t know, California, and we were the only two black girls or only two people of color in the world who had bipolar disorder, then it was just gonna be me and her, I was gonna find that person.
A lot of the second person narration was based on the dissociative qualities that came on during certain aspects of my life when I just didn’t feel connected to myself, where I didn’t feel like I was in my own body.
To my surprise it opened up a lot of conversation. Once I started doing shows again, I would end every show with a commentary on my mental health. I had written a poem about it and it just started from there. But I was also very careful, I was hedging my bets. I think I focused more on the depression part than anything because I feel like depression is the part that people get. They understand that. They can wrap their heads around that.
But it wasn’t until this book that I had gone into depth about some of it. I’ve had friends who’ve read it and are like, ‘ok that time you disappeared at that party or that time when this thing happened and we thought that you were just being a fucking bitch like we didn’t know that this was all the stuff that was going on in your head.’ This book was the opportunity for me to really explain what it felt like, what I’d been going through, why it wasn’t as easy as ‘oh just come.’ My best friend since the eighth grade, I was completely out of it at her wedding and I was a bridesmaid and she was like ‘I didn’t understand and now that I’ve looked at the dates it was the time when you’d just gotten out of the hospital, I didn’t know that.’ So, now they know things.
But I was very strategic about the way I spoke about it before. Like I said, I focused on depression. I was very into being this like face of mental health where I was like ‘yes I may not look it but underneath all this’ — you know, that kind of bullshit. 2018 was when I decided to just get really raw with it and be as transparent as I possibly could so there’d be no more questions.
Why was it important for you to challenge the concept of “normal”?
Because I spent so much of my life chasing it. People are like ‘well there is no normal’ and I’m like ‘no, there’s a normal.’ We know what the baseline is for a lot of things and we operate from that standpoint. What I had to do was stop wanting that; stop searching for it, stop running towards it, stop chasing it. It would be infinitely easier for me if I were a normal person with a normal 9-to-5 job and a husband and two kids and we went on vacation every summer and, you know, all these different markers people have for themselves that help them quantify success or quantify okayness. It was important for me to disabuse myself of the notion that that kind of reality would have made me well, would have prevented the breakdowns or some of the things I’d experienced. It was very important for me to be clear about that in the writing, for myself. You live a life and you have these memories and you have these experiences and you think about them from time to time, but when you’re writing a book you have to look at it all in one sort of bulk; and when I looked at the work, even for the pieces that didn’t end up in the book, when I looked at what my life looked like from that perspective, I understood better how it was completely impossible for me to have ever wanted that.
It’s not something that I would want now. I fall back into it when things aren’t going great but the reality is that my normal is this life that I created. Could I have done it better? Absolutely. I’ve made some really dumb choices in my life. But based on what my normal is, I’m doing pretty okay. It was important for me to remove what normal meant to me and the feeling like I was never gonna measure up to it. I just changed the measuring stick.
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In “What It Feels Like” you do an exceptional job of describing hypomania for someone like me who was unfamiliar with it. Part of what brings that to life is that it’s one of the few chapters in the book without major paragraph breaks; large chunks of text appear on the page as if the words are all part of one endless thought and that felt like a very intentional visual complement to the episode unfolding in the chapter. Was that a conscious style choice?
Yeah, I wrote most of it during a hypomanic episode and all I did for the book was — I’m telling you all the secrets — flesh it out so that the experience made more sense once I saw that that’s what it was. The beginning part came from something I had written years ago trying to explain it. The best I could do was put you in the middle of the hurricane, put you in the middle of that storm. It wasn’t just describing the experience, it was entering it. I would love to say it was a style choice and I did it on some like genius literary stuff but it wasn’t [laughs] I wrote most of it while I was in one and just edited it to draw that out even more.
Did you ever read it aloud to see how closely the writing matched up to your inner monologue?
Yeah I actually recorded the audio book about a month ago. I’ve read it out loud [in] bits and pieces before, but reading it for the audio book really drove home the frenzy of it. How often I have to try and catch my breath, and just imagining all of that. The whole Oprah thing and the buying thing, are things that actually happened. They’re not things I made up.
The online shopping?
Yeah that was… eBay and I were [exhales]… Actually I took out a part about eBay bidding. It became like a game, like gambling, where I was buying things I didn’t want because I wanted to win the bidding. That kind of compulsive, impulsive type thing was something that I wanted to bring across, but I found other ways to do it. Reading the audio book, especially now from the standpoint of the last year-and-a-half, two years, being the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life, it’s amazing; having to read it aloud really kind of shook me like goddamn that was your head for months, for hours on end. It’s excruciating to just read this little section. I think I might’ve cried during the audio book reading because I had to keep going back there. The fact that I made it out alive was shocking to me. My friends and my family are very like ‘omg the fact that you’re alive’ and I’m like ‘calm down, y’all are being real extra.’ But then, having to read it, the fact that I’m alive is kind of a fucking big deal because I did my best to live really recklessly.
Were you ever hesitant to do your own audiobook? Did you want someone else to do it or were you sure you wanted to be the voice of it?
I was sure I wanted to do it. I come from that performance background. I knew that if the book was shit at least the audio book will be decent. That was like the one thing I was very confident about.
I’ve made some really dumb choices in my life. But based on what my normal is, I’m doing pretty okay. It was important for me to remove what normal meant to me and the feeling like I was never gonna measure up to it. I just changed the measuring stick.
A significant amount of your experience as a touring poet with HBO’s Def Poetry Jam happened pre-diagnosis and you talk about how difficult that time was because you were experiencing the symptoms of bipolar II — insomnia, anxiety, mood swings — without knowing its name. It seems like the people around you knew you were struggling but didn’t know how to help and maybe you weren’t sure how to ask. What do you wish non-neurodivergent people knew about people with mental illness? Do you think there’s a way to make performance spaces more inclusive environments for people with mental illness?
I think giving people the space to say ‘I’m not okay, I don’t know what that means, I don’t know what to do about it.’ I’ve learned to be very open. I did a talk at Yale a couple of months ago and I knew when I woke up that my anxiety was completely out of control. I knew that I was gonna have a very difficult time. So, when I got to the venue that morning I found the person in charge and said ‘look, I know that I’m supposed to give a talk but that’s not going to happen, my anxiety is too high, I would like to do something different. Is it possible to have a conversation with somebody? Is it possible for you to sit and me just talk and then do a Q&A afterward’? Actually, let me backtrack, I didn’t say ‘is it possible.’ I said this is what I have to do in order to get through this. I didn’t ask a question. I told. And they were open to it. I couldn’t tour in a stage show like that, I couldn’t go to Def Poetry and say ‘ok today instead of me performing can I just sit here?’ that’s not gonna work. But I made the choice to do other things and be very clear about it. I can’t do back-to-back performance, I can’t fly in on a Monday morning and then fly out Monday evening. I think being flexible to what people’s needs are, asking what those needs are.
People used to only have handheld mics and I had to start asking for a stand because I’d be shaking so bad that the microphone would shake and it would be difficult which would make my anxiety worse. Putting a stand in front of me meant I didn’t have to touch anything and I could fake it a little bit better. If there was a body tremble, things like a podium so I can stand behind it. It’s minor, but just being flexible and understanding that a lot of the time people aren’t just being difficult to make your life difficult. There are certain needs that they have that they may not feel comfortable expressing to you but knowing that dismissing people and saying ‘well we can’t do that because we don’t want to do it’ is different than maybe ‘it’s just not possible logistically.’
So yeah, it’s not a great answer but I think remaining flexible. And hearing people beyond what they’ve said. So, if someone comes to you and you kind of wonder, even if it crosses your mind for a split second that there is something else going on, asking that question: “How can I support you?” That’s what I tell people to ask. Don’t ask ‘how are you?’ or ‘what can I do?’ Ask, “how can I support you?”; “what is going to help you either at this moment or in the long term that I can do physically right this second?” That question opens up so much for people and it gets a truer answer than “how are you?”
In the book you write, “Social media is the worst and the best thing to happen to you because someone else is always awake.” Do you think the Internet or being online generally has a positive or negative effect on your mental health?
I think it’s neutral, depending on who you are and what you’re using it for. I’ve had to curb my usage of it because it can be unhealthy for me, but I do relish and am grateful for relationships I’ve made and the community that I found. But I also noticed that it can be detrimental to what my definition of healthy is. I think earlier when fewer people were on social media it was a bit of a safer space. Now, you could say anything and you’ll find a troll who will make you feel bad about it. A lot of times when I’m online, Twitter specifically, I’m like the mental health whisperer. I can tell when someone is tweeting in concerning ways and I will DM them or tweet them ‘hey could you DM me? I want to talk to you’ and nine times out of ten I’m right.
I think that I would have been a very different person had I had a community online that I could turn to just before I was diagnosed. Like, ‘hey i’m not sleeping.’ I was blogging the fact that I was not sleeping, I was blogging the fact that I wasn’t eating, I was blogging the fact that I was something that I didn’t know was depression, but not a lot of people were sure what that was either. If I was doing that now, it’d be a whole different story. I think that I wouldn’t have had to crash as hard or as often because somebody, I hope, would’ve reached out and said ‘hey this is what this sounds like’. So, I try to do that as much as possible because I know that I wouldn’t be here if people hadn’t protected me and had I allowed myself to go unprotected. It’s good in that regard; but I think that once you’re in the process of getting help or needing it you should get off for a little bit and then come back when you’re able to use it more responsibly. I have friends who know if it’s four in the morning and I’m tweeting and I’ve been tweeting for ten hours straight, they have to call me and they need to ask me whether or not my meds are okay. So that’s good.
In “It Has A Name,” the chapter devoted to the period when you receive your official bipolar II diagnosis, you explain that one of the reasons you resisted the diagnosis is because you had never heard of any Black people with the illness. As a professional mental health advocate, what work do you do to destigmatize mental health discussions in communities like the Black community that have historically shied away from the topic?
I talk about it. I’m very upfront about it. I’m very open. I try to be as open as I possibly can while also protecting myself. I’ve seen over the last decade so much has changed. People are a lot more open with their own experiences and at least attempting to be more understanding of the people in their lives. There’s moments that people just really can’t grasp; for instance with the whole Kanye West thing, people are determined to be like ‘ok well he’s bipolar and he’s going through this stuff but he’s still an asshole’ and I’m like ok, yes, however a lot of, especially bipolar II, what that looks like is an asshole. You look like an asshole. You look like a bitch. You look like somebody who is just thoughtless and irresponsible and arrogant and completely unable to justify their beliefs and that’s what it looks like. It’s still difficult when people are only okay with it when they can feel sorry for you, when the concern is packaged with pity. When they’re able to do that, then it’s easier. What I hope to do is [explain] it sometimes makes you look like a jerk.
It’s not easy. I’m not an easy person to love. I’m not an easy person to like when I’m not okay. When I’m kinda not okay I work really hard to be likeable but when I’m not answering the phone, when I don’t want to speak to you, when I’m irritable, I will disappear. That’s my choice. I choose to disappear so I don’t affect the people around me. I try to explain to them it’s not always going to look… you need to empathize. The empathy will have to come with some work. That’s the piece that I think is missing right now where people are still… they’re empathetic as far as it’s not inconvenient.
It was a comfort to me because I knew that it was out of my control. I couldn’t un-make the sun come up. I couldn’t talk myself out of the sun coming up.
This all ties into why you started your nonprofit The Siwe Project. Can you talk about that and explain what #NoShameDay is?
The Siwe Project is named after Siwe Monsanto. The eight-year anniversary of her death was actually just a couple of days ago. I’d known Siwe since she was four years old. I used to babysit for her and her brother when I moved to New York and I became really close to the family. I remember after I was public with what I had been going through her mother called me and asked me to lunch, and she was talking about how Siwe at six was exhibiting some signs and she didn’t know what to do. I remember just feeling so overwhelmed with just the fact that she had noticed. She was six but she noticed that there might be something and she wanted to get ahead of it. She did everything right, everything that you would want a parent or anyone in your life to do when you’re struggling in that way. Siwe was so loved and so protected. I had actually seen her about three months before [she died] and I pulled her aside and said ‘how are you doing?’ and she was like, ‘I’m good, I’m really good, I feel good’ and two months later she was gone.
More than anything I wanted to memorialize her, I wanted her to be remembered. But I also wanted to give people the opportunity who didn’t have mothers like Dionne or fake older sisters like me to be able to talk to someone. I knew that because I’m a writer and being able to tell my story was hugely important, I wanted people to be able to tell their story in a space that’s safe or as safe as I can make it in a twenty-four hour period which is what #NoShameDay became.
For twenty-four hours, there are people who are dispatched — not professionals — but if you’ve been thinking about making an appointment to go see a doctor let that be the day. Talk to people. Tell your story. Read the stories of other people. Understand yourself. Understand your cousins, your ex-boyfriend who was an asshole, help them understand a little bit better. What I realized that first year is that all that stuff, all the plans that I had, didn’t matter because people just wanted to tell their story. That’s it. They just wanted to talk about it.
Another thing with the whole ‘no shame’ concept is that it’s okay if people didn’t want to tell their story right now. A lot of times people would be embarrassed to get help, so giving people an opportunity to tell their diagnosis stories and their medication stories… I’ve been very honest about how medication has been an up and down path. I’m good now, but it’s been rocky. So, give them the space to say, ‘you don’t have to talk about this, but here are some people who are talking about it, and I hope you can find yourself in these stories, and I hope that this will inspire you to go and seek treatment, whatever that means to you.’ Remove the shame of going to get help, remove the silence that comes with shame, the immobility that comes with shame. That’s what No Shame Day was. It was originally the first Monday in July because July is Minority Mental Health Month but we moved it to the second a couple of years ago because it kept falling on July 4th and we wanted to give it it’s day. Now it’s the second Monday in July.
Aside from the first year I didn’t do a big push because people really just remember, and at the end of the day it’s not about getting all these different news outlets involved. It’s about people just feeling comfortable enough that day to tell their story and remind themselves that they’re still here or they have work to do or they deserve to be here. That’s the overwhelming thing that people want to hear, that you’re worth fighting for, you’re worth going through the process of getting help, you’re worth it, your life is worth it. There are people who you don’t even know who are looking at you and fighting for you and rooting for you. That’s just what it is: we’re a huge cheerleading section.
I think that’s probably one of the things I’m the most grateful for because it’s helped me. It’s helped me remind myself to take my medication, or to get back on it, or to call my doctor, especially three years ago. I was in a really really bad place. I was pretty much one foot out the door and I had chosen that to be my last No Shame Day and sitting there reading the stories, going through the hashtag, I found myself falling into the purpose of it, which was seeing myself. I was seeing how important it was for me to fight a little bit harder. I gave myself another two months and then another two months and then it’s three years later and here I am.
In the book you share a mantra that helps you, “Allow yourself morning.” What does that phrase mean and why did it work for you when others like you are loved or you deserve to be here didn’t?
Because I could dispute ‘you are loved.’ No, I’m not. You don’t know me. You know what I mean? If you knew the real me you wouldn’t love me. I don’t deserve to be here. I’ve fucked up so many times in my life, I’ve messed up relationships, I’ve hurt people. I’ve done these things that in my mind are so terrible but [with] “allow yourself morning” all I have to do is wake up. That’s it. The only thing I can count on is tomorrow the sun is gonna come up — barring any kind of nuclear disaster — the sun is gonna come up. It was a comfort to me because I knew that it was out of my control. I couldn’t un-make the sun come up. I couldn’t talk myself out of the sun coming up. I could always count on the sun when I was in a hospital and I was lying in that bed and I didn’t want to be there. I would stare out the window and sure enough, here comes the sun. I’d be awake all night but here comes the sun. I’d be in a hotel room awake all night but here comes the sun. I could count on that. I could count on the morning. It became the thing that existed without my input. It existed without determining whether or not I was worthy of it. It existed despite the fact that I had done something that I was ashamed of, or done something that I was embarrassed about — [like] spending all the money in my bank account on Oprah sweaters. Morning still happened and it was comforting to me as opposed to daunting because I had nothing to do with it. It was completely out of my control. I allowed myself like a sliver of hope and a sliver of maybe things could be different tomorrow; and that sliver of hope, I would throw myself into.
Something that I actually edited out of the book was I used to go to bodegas and buy jugs of water because a) you have to drink water. But, even if I wasn’t eating, I knew that I’d have to get up and go to the bathroom and that physical act of getting up and going to the bathroom, knowing that if I did that enough times at some point I would head to the bathroom, get out of the bathroom, and then maybe I’d go to the living room and then maybe I’d go to the kitchen or maybe I’d just open a window. I would focus on the fact that it always gets better at some point, I just have to make it there.
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Naomi Elias is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared online and in print at a variety of publications including New York Magazine, Nylon, Teen Vogue, and Brooklyn Magazine.
Editor: Dana Snitzky