Naomi Jackson talks 'losing and finding my mind' : Code Switch "Three springs ago, I lost the better part of my mind," Naomi Jackson wrote in an essay for Harper's Magazine. On this episode, Jackson reads from that essay about her experience with mental illness, including how she has had to decipher which of her fears stem from her illness and which are backed by the history of racism.

Naomi Jackson talks 'losing and finding my mind'

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NAOMI JACKSON: (Reading) Three springs ago, I lost the better part of my mind. I remember it starting with my feet. I woke up one February morning, and my feet were so swollen I could barely fit them into my roomiest sneakers.



You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm B.A. Parker. And that voice you're hearing belongs to Naomi Jackson.

JACKSON: So I'm Naomi. And I'm a writer, born and raised in Brooklyn.

PARKER: A few years ago, she wrote an essay for Harper's Magazine titled, "Her Kind: On Losing And Finding My Mind." She wrote it as a way to come to terms with her mental illness.

JACKSON: I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2018, and it really upended my life. I wasn't sure what it meant for me. I didn't know if I would be writing anymore. I lost my job. Just a lot of the things that I had assumed about myself and the way that I was moving through the world really were transformed by that moment.

PARKER: Bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition. It causes intense shifts in mood, from periods of mania to episodes of depression, and it often runs in families, which was true for Naomi. Now May is Mental Health Awareness Month. So for this episode, we asked her to come in and read from her essay. And just a heads up - her essay contains some intense experiences with mental health, and it does mention rape, so listen at your own discretion.


PARKER: All right. I'm just sitting here staring at you. I'm so sorry.

JACKSON: No, I like having the audience. It makes me feel less like I'm talking into the void, yeah?


JACKSON: All right.

(Reading) "Her Kind: On Losing And Finding My Mind."


JACKSON: (Reading) I was once someone who people would describe as steady - the kind of friend you turn to for advice on buying an apartment or negotiating your salary. The year before I became sick, I started tumbling. From February to May of 2018, I felt profoundly unmoored, alternately joyful and inconsolable, fearful and invincible. I had never felt so free or so impulsive. My whims and emotions led me. My feelings were snakes that whipped me around. Some days, having a cigarette and a cup of coffee from the bodega, light, with milk and one teaspoon of sugar, was the only thing that could cheer me up. What the world saw most was my rage.

I'm typically a mild-mannered person who's slow to anger, patient to a fault - a pushover, even. I hate confrontation. But that spring, I was furious. It was as if the weight of every unsaid thing and every unaddressed slight had built up in my body and was being released in one intense burst. I was mad, and I had a lot to say. A wrong look or word was an invitation to spar. I cursed people out across boroughs.


JACKSON: (Reading) I was angry, but also afraid. I started having panic attacks almost every day. As winter turned to spring, I slept less and less - sometimes only 3 or 4 hours a night. My husband was at a loss for what to do with me, how to keep me safe, so he sent me to spend time with my parents in Brooklyn. When I wasn't talking on the phone, I sulked, watched basketball and skulked around the house in a white nightie. I took long walks to the mall, where I got into arguments and one-sided conversations with strangers. I tormented my parents - demanded that my father, a deacon, pray for me.

One night, I babbled nonsensically and crawled on the second floor landing of the house, wanting to stay low, lest the police see me. I heard my family start talking about taking me to the hospital, which unraveled me further. I lit a cigarette in the living room - an act of war in their tidy West Indian home. My father, who rarely raises his voice, yelled at me to get in the car. I tried to jump out as it was moving.


JACKSON: (Reading) My parents, stepbrother and cousin drove me to an emergency room in downtown Brooklyn. As we ascended the steps to the entrance, I jumped with joy and clicked my heels together, telling everyone within earshot that I was pregnant with twins. I wasn't. The last thing I remember is a nurse with dreadlocks asking me questions and then administering medication that knocked me out.


JACKSON: (Reading) I woke up the next morning in a different hospital. My husband and stepmother were in my room. I joked this wasn't how I'd planned to spend Valentine's Day. It was either during this hospitalization or during one of the three that followed that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I wasn't sure what the diagnosis meant or what it had to do with me and my life. That morning, I was furious that no one rode with me from the emergency room to the hospital a few neighborhoods over - that they'd left me alone with strangers. When my sister visited, I asked her how she could be certain that the medical staff hadn't raped me. She said it was unlikely, but admitted she couldn't be sure.


PARKER: I read in another piece you wrote that one of racism's subtlest legacies is to make it harder for Black people to know when our fears are rational. And I can imagine, when you woke up in this strange hospital and had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, that you were probably really disoriented. And as a Black woman, those fears you were feeling are backed by history. So what was it like for you trying to decipher what were fears based in the reality of racism and what were paranoid thoughts that were symptoms of your illness?

JACKSON: That's a fantastic question, right? A friend of mine says the function of racism is to make people feel crazy.

PARKER: Listen.

JACKSON: And so I think, like, what I talk about in the essay is waking up in this hospital room on Valentine's Day and just being completely unmoored - just not having any sense of what happened to me, how I got there. I'd been knocked out for over 12 hours by that point. And I write then, in the essay, about wondering like, well, what if someone assaulted me? And my sister is like, well, we don't think that happened. And I'm like, how do you know, right? And so I think that it was difficult to decipher that. And I think, at several points in my illness, I was trying to present my professional self, even as I was unraveling, because I was convinced that that was the way that I could protect myself.

PARKER: That kind of shameful survival instinct of respectability?

JACKSON: Yeah. I mean, and I have a critique of respectability - right? - in my life. You know, I talked to someone recently. She was like, I always dress well when I go to the doctor because I want to be treated fairly. And I'm like, well, if a doctor is racist, they're going to treat you poorly even if you show up in a tuxedo. But we have to try to be treated well. And the legacy of racism teaches us that we have to employ these strategies in order to be treated well. When I was in the hospital for the longest period - for two weeks - I think I felt like maybe if the doctors knew that I'd published a book - maybe if they knew that I was smart in some way, then they would speak to me with some respect and treat me well, and maybe I'd even get out quicker.


JACKSON: (Reading) In 1972, my beloved maternal grandmother was admitted for the first of many times to the psychiatric hospital in Barbados known colloquially as Jenkins, after the former plantation on which it sits. Everything that is old is evil in Barbados, someone once told me. Nowhere is the truth of that statement more evident than at Jenkins - officially Black Rock Psychiatric Hospital - where patients in varying stages of distress and dissociation wander the same grounds their ancestors may have toiled.


JACKSON: (Reading) My grandmother was a loving, generous woman who doted on me and my older sister. She was always the first person to call us on our birthdays and insisted that people traveling from Barbados to Brooklyn bring us her exceptional Bajan sweet bread. She was also intense. On an intake interview for a nursing home, she described herself as aggressive - one of the many reasons why her stay there was short. Granny called my father and stepmother's house at all hours of day and night, looking for somewhere to park her worries.


JACKSON: (Reading) My sister and I didn't have a name for Granny's ailment until after she died. On a visit to Jenkins, we met with a psychiatrist who had cared for her, and she showed us records that stretched back nearly 40 years - to the early '70s. My mother has the same diagnosis. Her stays in American psychiatric facilities began in the '90s, not long after she lost custody of my sister and me. In her best moments, my mother was an attentive parent with serious ambitions for her children. She sewed Black dolls, assigned summer book reports and took us to the library religiously. But she struggled through a contentious divorce from my father in the early '80s, and the stress of raising two children alone in New York City and her emergent mental illness eventually caught up with her.

By the time I was 8 years old, my mother was no longer herself. Sometimes, she was a carefree spirit who blasted Peter, Paul and Mary and the "Amadeus" soundtrack while we cooked on the fire escape of the small apartment she'd bought in Crown Heights. At other times, she was catatonic - a present absence who barely responded when we needed her and occasionally disappeared for days on end.


JACKSON: (Reading) That summer, my mother lost custody of us. I will forever feel guilty for telling the family court judge the truth when he asked which parent we wanted to live with. My father, I said, hoping my mother would never know that I had betrayed her. At Daddy's house, the fridge was full, and there was always an adult around. My mother would cycle through homeless shelters, group homes, the streets and the occasional apartment for the next 30 years, traversing Atlanta, Seattle, Boston and Barbados in search of something or someone - I'm not sure exactly what. I do know that I inherited my mother's hot foot, and that Mommy, Granny and I all belong to the same strange club of the severely mentally ill.


PARKER: Coming up, more of Naomi Jackson's story.

JACKSON: All right, girl, you are here losing it and stripping and running into people's apartments and messing with people's children. But at the end of the day, we're trying to make it out of the day alive, right? And so when the cops came, something in me switched on.

PARKER: Stay with us.


PARKER: Parker. Just Parker. CODE SWITCH. We've been hearing from Naomi Jackson about being Black and having bipolar disorder in America. Here she is again, reading from her essay called "Her Kind: On Losing And Finding My Mind."

JACKSON: (Reading) One day in February 2018, I almost lost myself. It was unseasonably warm. I left the house in the early afternoon, the front door wide open behind me. I wore a black dress coat that I bought in France on top of a matching soccer jersey and pants that my husband had given me. As I walked up the Bronx's Third Avenue, I became taken by the idea of trying to prove how difficult it was for a woman to use the bathroom. I asked to use the toilet at a dry cleaner, a day spa and a State Farm agency, making scenes each time I was refused, sometimes claiming I was pregnant to see how far I could push the experiment.

When I grew tired of the game, I stopped for a slice at a pizzeria, where I met a nice Black woman and her little girl. The woman had just picked up trophies for a soccer program she ran with her husband. She told me all about it as we walked 20 blocks north into a neighborhood I'd never visited before. Along the way, I yelled in French at a Togolese man. I could tell that the woman was worried about me and perhaps a bit afraid, but she was kind. I bid the woman and her daughter goodbye. I had what felt like an endless fount of energy. I wanted to play. I saw a pit bull I liked and followed the dog and its owner into a building that I later found out was a homeless shelter.

I walked to the top floor and rang a few doorbells. No one opened up. I ran outside, where I saw a few kids. I introduced myself to one of them who looked to be about 8 years old. Within a few minutes, we were shadowboxing. I asked him whether he knew about Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, quizzed him between feints and jabs until we both grew bored. I told the boy that President Obama was going to officiate my wedding that evening on the Harlem River and that Rihanna would be performing. I told him he should come along and bring his crew. A dozen kids amassed to follow me. Then, they realized that I was lying.


JACKSON: (Reading) The mood changed. One of them - the oldest - cursed me out and chased me. I ran, weaving between parked cars, yelling back at him. I avoided a fistfight only because someone mercifully called the kids back inside. I headed to the Cross Bronx Expressway. I thought that the United Nations was in session, and I was convinced I saw Robert Mugabe.

Suddenly, I was unbearably hot. I stripped, peeling off my layers until I wore only a white tank top and green sweatpants. In doing so, I had become my grandmother, who'd been known to stand on the road in Barbados in her slip until an ambulance came to take her away. That night in the Bronx, I waved my blue hoodie at a helicopter circling overhead. I was tired. And though I didn't want to go home, I knew I needed help. I sought refuge at a community center with a lactation station just above the highway, the woman with her babe a beacon. A man there called the police.


JACKSON: (Reading) I had enough presence of mind to know to be afraid when the cops arrived. I knew that when mentally ill Black people spiraled, sometimes they didn't make it out of encounters with the police alive. In 2012, Shereese Francis took her last breath in her Jamaican parents' Queens basement after she was tackled by four police officers. In 2013, Miriam Carey, a Black woman with postpartum psychosis, was killed by police officers after driving her car into a restricted area near the White House. Her 13-month-old was in the back seat. In March 2020, Daniel Prude was pinned to the ground and died of asphyxiation after the police stopped him as he ran naked through the streets of Rochester. And that October, Walter Wallace Jr. was gunned down in Philadelphia while his wife tried to stop the cops by telling them he was mental.


JACKSON: (Reading) By the time the police arrived, I was cold. February's chill was wrapping its arms around me. I spoke rapidly in what I learned later was clinically known as pressured speech. Though I'm unsure now of what I said, I remember putting my hands up to show I was unarmed. I told a female officer that I had once wanted to attend medical school but had quit a pre-med program to follow my dream of becoming a writer. Even as I unraveled, I tried to present my most well-mannered, professional self, hoping that my credentials might protect me. I got into an ambulance and talked with the medic the whole way there, grateful for the way he treated it like a taxi ride.


PARKER: In that moment when the police were called, you were aware enough to understand that your life was in danger. Do you think that awareness was sewn into your mania, or was it a piece of reality piercing through?

JACKSON: I think that was reality showing up to be like, all right, girl, you are here losing it and stripping and running into people's apartments and messing with people's children. But, at the end of the day, we're trying to make it out of the day alive, right? And so when the cops came, something in me switched on. I don't think that that's people's experience, actually, for the most part, who are experiencing episodes. I think, actually, the arrival of police can really activate them in ways that make them agitated and maybe lash out because the police are scary, right?

But this was in the era of increased public activism about police brutality, right? And so I was hyperaware of what this could become. And so even as I'm falling apart and not well, I'm also aware, like, I got to be well enough to try and make it out of this situation alive. And, I think, how terrible is that, that even in our most vulnerable, terrified moments, we have to be wearing this armor of professionalism in order to ensure that we make it out of these encounters alive?


JACKSON: (Reading) In March 2018, a month after the first hospitalization, my therapist, my sister and a friend convinced me to admit myself to the psychiatric ward of a hospital on the Upper East Side. I arrived with a stuffed overnight bag, shaky and afraid of nearly everything. In the spare intake room, a Black girl, a high schooler, was brought in for fighting. I was afraid of her. I saw in her wild eyes and hair the girls who bullied me when I was a chubby kid in Brooklyn. I worried that she would beat me up.

That night I sat with the other patients in plastic chairs and washed down my meds with ginger ale and graham crackers, which I'd gotten from another patient in a trade for a PB&J. One of the patient care associates sat down next to me. He asked me whether I was a frequent flyer at the hospital, whether I'd been there before. I didn't know until that moment that I looked deranged to people outside my family. Finally, I had a sense of how far gone I was. I think I frowned and shook my head no, but it's possible that I didn't say anything. At last, I understood the line that ends an Edwidge Danticat story - shame is heavier than a hundred bags of salt. That long winter into spring, shame sat atop my chest, heavy and unmoving.

Shortly after I was released from the hospital, my mother came to visit. She had moved back to New York City the year before, leaving a stable but imperfect living situation in Boston to start over again in the city's Byzantine shelter system. It had been months since I'd seen her, a year since she told me, over lunch I could barely afford, how little she thought of my yuppie novel. We walked in circles around my block. We shared a cigarette. She was the first person to accurately describe the way that a coffee and a smoke takes the edge off the emotions swirling inside me.

When we spoke that day, we didn't say the word bipolar or mention the diagnosis that belonged to her. I'd never acknowledged my mother's illness to her directly. She is fiercely proud and private, like my grandmother and my sister. There is dignity in allowing ourselves to be more than the clinical language that describes how our minds work. I believe she asked me how long I was in for. We knew, without saying it aloud, how much being on a psych ward felt like being in prison. Since then, I have been on a steady, slow journey back to myself, or, more precisely, towards someone new who resembles the person I was before.


JACKSON: (Reading) I stopped taking psychiatric medications when I got pregnant in the summer of 2019, and I have remained off them while I breastfeed my child. I'm somewhat in awe that the postpartum months have not plunged me into another crippling depression or sent me flying into another bout of mania. Feeling better makes me wonder what's changed and whether and how the sickness will come for me again. Although I hope there won't be a next time, I'm not naive enough to believe that I am so exceptional as to be spared. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry indicates that the likelihood of relapse within five years for people with bipolar disorder is more than 70%.

When the next time comes, as I know it will, I pray for the patience and presence of my beloved community. I pray that I will not alienate my friends and family, that they will still want to walk with me, sit with me, listen to me. I know that what I needed the most when I was sick were compassionate, alert witnesses, people to listen and help keep me out of harm's way.


PARKER: As you're going through all of this, you have a baby. How do you think about the future for you and your child now?

JACKSON: I feel extremely committed to my own wellness in order to be a good parent to my child. And so I think that I feel a profound responsibility as a parent to not tap out because I think a two-week hospitalization, like the one I had in 2018, was hard, but that could be catastrophic with a small child involved, right? Certainly when I was contemplating having my own child and even now having a young child, I worry. I think, is this something that I pass down to him? Is it responsible to have a child when you know that you have this family history of severe mental illness? Will I be up to the task of getting him help if it does turn out to be something that he has to deal with? I don't know. All these questions are certainly a part of my life. He's so young that I don't have language to talk to him about what my illness means.


JACKSON: But I imagine one day we'll have to have that conversation, and I'll figure out age-appropriate language to have it. But that feels important to me, too - right? - to raise a child who is both aware of their mom's situation and aware of what it means to have a mom with a disability and kind to other people who have disabilities, right?


JACKSON: (Reading) Recently, a friend asked me how I came to be doing so well. The answer is deceptively simple - rest, child care, therapy, meaningful work, healthier relationships. It matters that my therapist is a Black woman to whom I don't have to explain certain aspects of my selfhood. The cultural shorthand that we share affords trust, intimacy, efficiency. Most importantly, I'm writing again. What was disconcerting about being sick was that it robbed me of my focus, attention and creativity. Now I'm reacquainted with myself as a writer, which is to say that I'm reacquainted with myself.

Since the birth of my son in February 2020, I have been writing with ease and urgency for the first time in years. I am almost scared to say so, lest I jinx it, but I am even more scared to stop writing. I have been working six days a week. I know that just below these heights of creativity, there is a winding staircase that leads to mania. Still, I write as if I may never write again. I want to get it all down in case my mind betrays me. Let me say one last thing.


PARKER: Naomi, thank you so much for telling your story.

JACKSON: Thank you so much for having me.


PARKER: And that's our show. You can follow us on Instagram at @nprcodeswitch. If email is more your thing, ours is And subscribe to the podcast on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts. Just wanted to give a quick shoutout to our Code Switch+ listeners. We appreciate you and thank you for being a subscriber. Subscribing to Code Switch+ means getting to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor breaks. It also helps support our show. So if you love our work, please consider signing up at

This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan. It was edited by Courtney Stein. Our engineer was Robert Rodriguez. Episode art was designed by LA Johnson. A big shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive - Dalia Mortada, Jess Kung, Christina Cala, Gene Demby, Steve Drummond, Lori Lizarraga, Veralyn Williams and Leah Donnella.

You might have noticed a few names are missing from our credits this week. We've had to say goodbye to a couple of people who have meant so much to our team. Karen Grigsby Bates is a founding member of CODE SWITCH, and her voice and charm have been such an influential part of how we sound. Episodes like "The Women Behind The Montgomery Bus Boycott" or "What's In A Karen" are just a glance at what will be missed. And a huge thank you to Alyssa Jeong Perry, who spent the last few years being an integral part of CODE SWITCH, reporting out and producing valuable episodes like "Screams And Silence" and "One Korean American's Reckoning." We thank you for everything, and we're going to miss you very much. I'm B.A. Parker. Hydrate.

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