Shame and Other Pre-Existing Conditions

Photo illustration by Elena Scotti/The Root/GMG; photos via Shutterstock
Photo illustration by Elena Scotti/The Root/GMG; photos via Shutterstock

I go to stores at 3:15 on weekdays.

Lunchtime is crowded with people rushing to squeeze in errands during the workday. Noon to 3 is for the stay-at-home moms killing time before they join the school-pickup lines. Anything after 5 is an absolute no unless I can get there an hour or two before closing. Thus, 3:15 is the most ideal time.


Today, when I pulled up to Target, I noticed that there were more cars than usual. I felt my stomach tighten with that familiar hum. Even when I’m well, when it has been days (or hours) since the last thrust and spin of anxiety, I still treat the possibility as gingerly and tenderly as a freshly scabbed wound or sleeping baby.

The store was empty as expected. The few bored-looking employees alternated between having casual conversations and making a production out of looking busy.

Target is a trap. Too many times I’ve gone in for toothpaste or tampons and walked out $100 poorer with everything from Post-its to sunglasses and no toothpaste or tampons. Today I shrugged off the baskets and carts. Determined to stay focused, I ignored the haphazard trinkets waving from the discount section and the call of the skin-care aisle.

I was there for the pharmacy.

I passed an older man squinting at the multiple bottles of painkillers on the shelf before him, a grimace of pain as he shifted his weight from one leg to the other. The next aisle held vitamins and a younger man trying to decide between the regular and the adult gummies. I mentally encouraged him to get the gummies.

There was an unexpected queue at the pharmacy drop-off and pickup line. I wasn’t sure if the woman at the end was waiting for her turn or just very interested in the foot powder and fungal ointment.

“Are you in line?”


I smiled at her in thanks and prayed she didn’t offer any further conversation. I always try to be polite, but I didn’t have the strength for small talk today. Thankfully, her attention returned to the foot powders. The line moved with just a few people ahead of me. When it was my turn, I looked up but didn’t recognize the man in the white coat in front of me. I was here fairly often and had a casual, polite relationship with the regular pharmacists.


I made sure to smile and laugh and say “Yes, please” and “Thank you”

But the man behind the counter was new.

I live five minutes from the store, so often I would just throw on a hoodie over my yoga or sweatpants and leave my hair in a haphazard ponytail-cum-bun. Despite the fact that this was my daily uniform, I suddenly felt dirty and dingy and disheveled. And crazy.


“Pickup or drop-off?” the pharmacist asked.

My eyes darted to the back, hoping one of the three regular pharmacists would emerge and recognize me.


My stomach began to hum again as the silence deepened.

“Pickup or drop-off?” He repeated.

“Pickup, please.”


“Ikpi ... uh ... Bassey.”

He turned away and surveyed the alphabetically ordered bags behind him. I found a smile somewhere and pasted it to my face. There are very few last names that began with an “I” so mine was usually the only bag in the basket. He read the medications to himself; looked up at me and then back at the bags and then again at me. I felt my body tense, but I held the smile.


After 10 years off and on medication, I left shame years ago, but it sometimes bubbled up at the worst times. I knew what was coming next, and sure enough, when he returned to the register, he dropped his voice as though we shared a secret.

He named them in barely audible tone: “Wellbutrin. Xanax. Ambien. Lamictal.”

I heard: “Depression. Anxiety. Insomnia. Hypomania.”

He meant no harm. He was new and just doing his job. He was protecting my privacy. He assumed that I wouldn’t want the man and his painkillers or the woman and her fungal ointment to know about me.


Any other day, I would have challenged his whisper with a clear voice.

But today, after a morning that required an extra bit of work to welcome and an afternoon watching a group of men celebrate the fact that in a few months, it would be difficult for me, and people like me, to save our lives with these pills he whispered about, I didn’t have it in me.


I was tired.

I said nothing and handed him my license, signed the digital screen when instructed and waited for the computer to buzz asking me to remove my card.


I walked away with the bag and the hum building in my belly, and on the way, I stopped in the skin-care aisle.

I needed something in that bag that wouldn’t be whispered about..

American-Nigerian, ex-poet, current writer, constant mental health advocate (The Siwe Project and No Shame Day), underachieving overachiever and memoir procrastinator (Harper Perennial 2019).


Thotline Bling: black girl supremacy

Bassey, I always enjoy your pieces here. Thank you for writing about your struggle with mental illness and your general advocacy for others with behavioral health issues. It means a lot to me as a black woman who suffers from depression. I’m sure I am not the only one.

I totally relate to this piece on so many levels. Target=my personal Vietnam. I go in without really knowing why. Get stuck there in the trenches. Leave with way more collateral damage than I planned. And live in denial of my purchases.

However, I go to the Walgreens a little farther from my place to get my prescriptions filled even though the service kinda sucks. Because it’s open 24 hours.

I’m more of a 9-10 p.m. pick up girl myself. That’s how long it sometimes takes me to motivate myself to go there. Plus, it’s generally less crowded at night. And I almost always hit the drive through to really limit my interactions. Wellbutrin. Cymbalta. Lunesta. Klonopin, Depression. No, really. Depression. Insomnia. & anxiety about my insomnia.<3

ETA: Wait. Ex-poet? How’d I miss that? When you did you stop writing poems?