that n**ga’s crazy but ain’t a damn thing funny
“You know I’m crazy,” Saidah said to me. Her eyes were full of mirth and she chuckled.
I laughed, too, but then noticed a touch of sadness that came to her expression as she tried to get serious. “No, really I am,” she said as she continued smiling, keeping her voice light. “I’ve been dealing with being bipolar for a while now. ”
I kept laughing more from nervousness than anything else. Saidah couldn’t be crazy. I’ve known her since elementary; she was always one of the smartest in school. Saidah was popular and her mother was our school librarian. Back then her name was not Saidah, it Heather Hopkins or Beverly Bates or Angie Anderson –something generic that doesn’t matter because I made up the name Saidah to protect her privacy.
Although I’m not sure if it makes a difference now.
She had locked her hair, taken up wearing African clothes and eating holistically but that was before she found out she was bipolar. Or at least I think it was. I don’t know. I just smiled as she told me she had broken up with her daughter’s father, he had moved to Atlanta to finish college and her mother had taken custody of her daughter. She was trying to live healthy, her mother didn’t understand but she wasn’t in to taking the pills, but she wanted to be better.
I didn’t know what to say or how to offer comfort. I thought what she said sounded right. I agreed her mother needed to ease up and she could prove she was a fit mom to get her daughter back. I wanted to be supportive but I couldn’t find the right words? I had heard of people being bipolar but my image of them was someone always on edge about to go off and Saidah didn’t seem like that at all. Maybe the doctors were wrong and just wanted to push pills. What did I know? We were in our early 20s and it just didn’t seem fathomable.
Whenever I ran into Saidah she always seemed to be stable. Once she was working hard on overdue essays from the school year before, determined to get back into college but then decided she couldn’t do it, it was insurmountable. It was the illness, she said. A few months later I ran into her with her new boyfriend: a tall, deeply dark, incredibly beautiful Kenyan man who had about 10 kids and a few wives. He drove a cab here in the states but wanted to go back home and take Saidah with him.
10 kids? That solidified it for me that she was crazy. “Are you sure it’s what you want to do?” I asked her. “It’s so far away, what about your daughter? What about the meds?”
She was at a place where she had given in to taking the meds. She was in a good place and living on her own. She would go to set up a household then come back for her daughter. She was sure she could do it.
But then she couldn’t. When a mutual friend Sybil returned to town she asked me if I had heard from Saidah; I told her I hadn’t since she left for Kenya. She said she had asked other acquaintances and they said that Saidah was crazy; they said they heard she was running around the jungle naked.
“They laughed,” Sybil said, deeply hurt. “They treated it like it was some kind of a joke.”
I told Sybil what Saidah’s parents names were and that I suspected they still lived in the same place. Sybil gave them a call and came back to me with the story: Saidah’s daughter was living down south with Saidah’s sister; Saidah had gotten pregnant while living in Kenya and decided to stop taking her meds which the mother warned her against. Saidah lost the baby, but by then the sickness had taken hold and she was acting up so much that the head wife kicked her out of their communal home. Saidah’s mother asked her to come back but Saidah wouldn’t. She hadn’t heard from her in a few years.
“Her mother sounds like a bitch,” Sybil said.
I thought back to the woman I remembered. I couldn’t see her not caring for her daughter. I figured she was probably exasperated and frustrated that she couldn’t force her child to take the medicine she knew could bring her back to her. “No, she’s not a bitch,” I said.
Then Sybil told me her idea to fly to Kenya and put up fliers around the area to try to find her. She mentioned the idea to the mother but was asked not to do it. “But then she said if I did to it she wasn’t going to be a part of it.”
I had to agree with Saidah’s mother that it didn’t sound safe for Sybil to go someplace like that and hang up fliers for a person in a city like she was going around the neighborhood looking for her lost pet. What if the wrong people saw the fliers and thought that rich Americans had come for their wild child and tried to kidnap her for ransom? What if Sybil got in trouble herself there? And who was to say Saidah was still in that town and hadn’t moved on to another village or a bigger city? Or maybe she really was running wild through the jungle with the zebras.
“If her mother doesn’t want you to go then don’t go,” I said. But I still wonder if Saidah ever made it back home, live and sane or otherwise. I want to call her mother but I’m afraid to find out the answer.
“People are in denial about having it,” the late writer Bebe Moore Campbell said in a July 29, 2005 interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “And people are also in denial about family members having it. So I have been on this journey with my loved one for about nine years we noticed the behavior and then the diagnosis came in 1999.”
She was speaking of her daughter Maia Campbell, an African American actress who is best known for role on the TV show “In the House”. Moore Campbell’s book “72 Hour Hold” is about a mother’s attempt to save her daughter from a life of mental illness. Because of Moore Campbell’s work about mental illness in the minority community it helped to raise awareness with July being designated National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.
But even with all the work many were still unaware about Maia’s condition. When a video surfaced of her last week many people laughed and gossip blogs spread the uninformed rumors that she was on crack.
But the truth is Maia is sick. It’s nothing she did to herself, it’s not something that is catching and it’s definitely not funny. If she is on drugs it might be that she’s trying to self medicate.
On September 6 Maia’s father and grandmother released the statement:
We ask that you not only pray for Maia”s wellness, but also commit to understanding this insidious disease, which is devastating our loved ones and community. Help erase the “stigma” of mental illness, which is a very serious barrier to treatment, so that we can help those with the disease to live wholesome lives. Call for more treatment options and prevention strategies, have compassion for those stricken with this illness, and help guide those who have been unable to find their way to appropriate treatment. Additionally, support those families who are struggling to cope with loved ones with the disease because mental illness affects the entire family.
III. All of Us
Looking back on growing up in the hood I often think of it as a nuthouse. Not figuratively, but literally. Because when you think of it how can those who are left behind not be sick after undergoing so much. So then the question comes down to degrees of “how sick are you?” Do you cuss your kids out, well that’s functional illness. Are you quick to anger or kick someone’s ass? Well, that too can be excused. All the while we tick off symptoms and laugh them away; the lower we go the funnier it becomes and most outlandish behaviors become legends we share over and over again. They become our culture and our culture is funny to us. Hell, it drives us. A young woman put a video on YouTube of her mother wickedly brushing her sisters hair, all the while the mother was cussing the young child out while the kid screamed. The teen laughed and said, “We should send this to TV’s Funniest Home Videos”.
But isn’t our insanity comedy? In 1974 Richard Pryor recorded the legendary comedy album “That Nigger’s Crazy” which most people thought was funny but six years later fans went into hysteric peals of laughter when Pryor set himself on fire when he free based cocaine while drinking rum. He ran down the street aflame until the police caught him. He was burned over half his body, spent six weeks in the hosptial but was lucky enough to find the humor in it to make a comedy routine about it.
We like to laugh. We laugh because it stops us from crying. We laugh because we’re scared because if we think long enough about it we’ll realize that maybe we’re crazy, too, because shit ain’t right. And we don’t know how to make it right. We take it to God in prayer because for one, we don’t need a medical card to make an appointment to see him and two, it would mean we are weak to admit that we can’t handle life. That maybe we see things that aren’t there or we aren’t feeling right or can’t shake the blues. And how could we be weak as a people to come through all this? How could a people who can dress this fine, buy the finest things, flash this much dough be sick? Those people aren’t really crazy they are just playing crazy and it’s funny so we laugh. And laugh so much that tears begin to pour. Laughing and crying are very closely related.
I don’t laugh at it anymore; I just don’t get the joke.