Monday, October 18, 2010

{Bringing Up Boogie} Tantrums & Tears For Fears: Waiting For the Boogie Man

Bassey with Boogie in the belly. [Photo by Kimberly Gaines]


didn’t want to have children. I told people that it was because my life was too cosmopolitan, too six-inch heels and $200 jeans, too travel ready to tote a child about. I said I didn’t want to parent because parenting wasn’t for me. I had all kinds of reasons and excuses, but the truth was I didn’t want a child who would end up like me.

Don’t get me wrong, I love myself, but that took awhile. I didn’t want any child of mine to inherit these oddities and ticks that I grew up with. My memories of my early childhood are blurry. I have stories that I tell to amuse my friends and incidents that make anecdotes in conversation or writing, but there were a lot of scary parts. I was hyper. I couldn’t sit still. I was always doing something and moving and unable to stop myself from being too loud or too “wiggly.” I talked too much. I talked too fast. But there were other times that would come out of nowhere, where I was so sad, I couldn’t breathe. Normal things that would upset any grade schooler would devastate me. I would walk to school thinking about “What if my dad died?” and by the time I got to school, I’d be crying hysterically. When the Challenger shuttle carrying the first teacher in space exploded, I was inconsolable. Everyone in the class, including the teacher, cried, but I was wracked with such grief I stayed awake for days staring into the night, wondering if there was something I could have done to save them. 
For some reason, the world’s problems fell on my thin shoulders. I had to win races and spelling bees and parts in plays because if I didn’t, then something terrible would happen. I never knew what. 
I started getting stress headaches when I was around 9. Parts of my head would have these sudden flashes off pain. Sometimes on the left side near my ear, sometimes on the left near my forehead—the pain would move around. I didn’t realize then that it was stress. I thought it was brain cancer. My mother thought that I was on drugs. Nobody knew that I was suffering in other ways. It took two decades before I was finally diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder.

My son, Boogie, will be 4 in November. And every day of his life scares me. I watch him like a guard dog for any signs. I’ve taught him to tell me when something hurts and how it hurts. I’ve made sure he can come to me with anything. I’ve done all that I can to protect him. He’d been having problems in school for the past few weeks, but nothing like this. He was fidgety and couldn’t sit still and disrupting the classroom. He never went through the terrible twos, so I just figured he was getting on that late. She said that the typical acting out behavior she had dealt with before was heightened. She said he’d tripped a little girl. She said he spit in another child’s face. She said he threw a pencil at another child. She said, "I don’t know who this kid is." I could hear him in the background screaming and crying. It was a tantrum. I didn’t know who he was either. He throws those every once in awhile, but they stop within five minutes. She said he’d been like that for 30 minutes at least. And refuses to settle down or stop disrupting the class. I started crying immediately, I asked if I could speak to him and did my best to keep my voice even. 
I asked him if he was hurting in any way. He said, “no.” I asked him body part by body part. He answered no. Then I asked, “Baby, what’s wrong? Why are you acting up in school?” and he said, “I don’t know, mommy.” And I burst into tears.
I know he’s only a kid. I know that kids act out sometimes. I know that your sweet innocent little boy can be a terror in other places, but not my boy. I was so happy that I could take Boogie anywhere and he would sit still and amuse himself while grownups talked or I performed. I tell stories of Boogie Antics, as a friend calls them. He’s a good kid. And I’m scared to death that I broke him. I speak openly about my issues with mental illness. I’m not ashamed of what I have or what I’ve been through, but I don’t want it for my baby. I want him to be normal. I want him to live his life free of all the pain and heartache that I went through. All the confusion and chaos that was in my head. I don’t want that for him.

As a mother, there a lot of things that we have to be careful about. Especially, while raising brown boys to be good, alive black men. But on top of that, I need to make sure I raise a sane brown boy into an emotionally healthy black man. I don’t know how to stop it. I know he’s young, but on top of all the other fears that mothers have, this is one that scares me the most because if it happens, I gave it to him. And I will never be able to forgive myself for that. I know it’s early and I’m probably emotional and jumping to conclusions, but I didn’t realize how much this scared me until that phone call. He’s probably fine—just tired or upset about something or disappointed that they didn’t make it to the field trip due to the rain. I pray that’s all it is.

I pray with everything I own that’s all it is.

I would never be able to forgive myself if it’s anything more.

* * * * *

About our MyBrownBaby Contributor: Bassey Ikpi is a Nigeria-born, Oklahoma-bred, PG County-fed, Brooklyn-led writer/poet/neurotic who is the single mother of an amazing man-child, Elaiwe Ikpi. She's half awesome, a quarter crazy and 1/3rd genius... the leftover bit is a caramel creme center. A strong advocate of mental health awareness, Bassey is currently working on a memoir about living with mental illness and producing Basseyworld Live, a stage show that infuses poetry and interactive panel discussions about everything from politics to pop culture. This essay originally was published on her site, Bassey's World.

If you would like to be a featured contributor on MyBrownBaby, email your essays/ideas/blog posts/rants/musings to Denene at denenemillner at gmail dot com. 

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  1. Oh man, Bassey's writing just pierces my heart. I SO RELATE to everything, especially the anguish of fearing that you have passed on to your children mental health issues. It's bad enough to pass down physical issues--my son became Type 1 diabetic when he was 10--I had been diagnosed just years before. The guilt can strip your soul. But that doesn't even come close to the worries about emotional/mental health issues. I console myself with this--I tell myself that what I can do is share coping mechanisms. For my daughter, who is more like me (why couldn't she be more like my husband???), we often discuss "self-talk" options, physical releases (intense exercise, relaxation) and the passing nature of these intense emotions even though when she is feeling them she feels as if she will ALWAYS feel that way. And then I remind myself that she is not going through any of it BY HERSELF. Bassey is not emotionally abandoning her beautiful little boy, despite the pain. What a gift for him. He is not alone like she was.

    Sorry to go so long, but I am so touched and moved by her strength and inner spirit. My heart swells for you Bassey. You strength and love for your child is an inspiration.

  2. Oh I feel your pain. My daughter is frequently that kid at school. It’s… Difficult.

    As parents there’s always something to be guilty about. There’s always something you can fear and something you can pass along. Every family, every couple has their hereditary risks. At least you know what his risks are. If he does run into trouble, you know what to investigate first.

    I hope it was just a bad day. There are some days when missing a field trip would send me right over the edge.

  3. Mental illness runs in the family. I have an uncle who committed suicide. Two uncles with Bipolar I. Several with Major Depressive Disorder. A cousin who's schizophrenic. And now me with Bipolar II. And my two little ones. Chances are, one or both of them will have something. I knew that before I had them.

    But just because you have a mental illness, and this is something I hear from you Bassey, doesn't mean that you can't or won't lead a healthy, wonderful, productive life. That you don't deserve to live that life. Despite my illness, God found it appropriate to bless me with my children, and trusted that in spite of, or despite my illness, I would raise beautiful human beings. Instead of seeing our illnesses as a deficiency, I am trying to see it as a strength, something God gave me to contend with to make me a better parent, a better person. And if my children are tasked with the same, I can help them as well. No one taught me how to do this, I'm learning as I go, but I refuse to beat myself up for simply being me, mental illness and all, and bringing two beautiful souls into the world, whether or not mental illness afflicts them as well.

  4. I'm praying for you and your son Bassey. You are such a good, strong woman :)

  5. Sweet Lady -
    You know how I feel about the issue of inherited mental health problems from other communications, but I did want to add this:
    Your heart is breaking over potential future pain your child may suffer - all loving mothers feel this pain, but in my experience, not quite so acutely as this. Please consider the amount, and depth, of thought you expend with reference to your child's well being: if this is not absolute Love then there is no such thing. The strength of your feeling for him will get him through - given my experience as the child of an unusually empathetic and loving mother, I can almost guarantee this.
    Secondly, if what you most want not to happen, happens, and Boogie inherits a, and I emphasize this word, *genetic* as opposed to deliberately instilled condition, who better to see him through than a compassionate mother who out of necessity had to find her own way to and through diagnosis and treatment?
    Finally, please do this for me. Picture your closest friend: she suffers from a diagnosed mind health disorder. She has a child who she fears may have inherited this condition. She tells you if her child inherits her condition it will be her fault, and that she will never forgive herself. What would you say to her? I have a feeling you wouldn't agree with her.
    I beg of you to allow Bassey to provide the kind of compassion to Bassey she seems more than willing to provide to everyone else.

  6. Wow, your story almost brought me to tears. I can so relate to your feelings. My husband's family suffers from mental health issues. As each of my babies have been born, I have had that moment in the first few hours of each of their lives that I have held them and thought "please Lord, not this child. Spare this child the heartache of mental illness." This summer, that all came crashing down as my oldest child was diagnosed with Tourrette's syndrome, which is an anxiety disorder. As we sat in the Dr.'s office for an hour discussing different treatment options and medications, I wept. (The. Whole. Time.). As I accepted a medicated treatment plan for my child, and then saw his incredible improvement over the next few months, I have often revisited that day in my mind. While I found medication scary, I knew that wasn't the reason behind the tears. What i have determined is that I was heartbroken that not only was he not spared the lifelong struggle of mental health problems, but he is my oldest, so there is a very real possibility that none of my sweet babies will be spared. That may sound dramatic, but it was what I was feeling, and it was a hard truth to acknowledge. As I have talked to others with mental illness, they have all told me the same thing- at least you are facing it head on and without shame, and you are being open and supportive. If I can't cure my son, at least I can give him those things. As I read this post, I was thinking the same thing about the author. If (and it's a big if) this turns out to be something more, at least she will be providing a safe place for him to fall full of understanding. There is nothing more he could ask for, I'm sure. Good luck with your little boy!


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