I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying: Essays by Bassey Ikpi (Harper perennial 2019)
There is an entire library full of memoirs, one that grows greater every day, concerning issues surrounding mental health. Over the course of my twenty years in nonfiction book publishing, I’ve acquired, edited, and ghostwritten numerous such books, all of which I hope have contributed to the robust dialogue and much-needed de-stigmatization of this topic. Nothing I have worked on or read over the years has accomplished in quite the same way what Bassey Ikpi does in her memoir essay collection, I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying: Essays.
The Nigerian-American writer, ex-poet and mental health advocate, who in her early twenties performed as a spoken word artist traveling with HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, takes readers on an ambitious journey: to express the highly personal, complex, and physical overload of cycling between extreme euphoria and unexplainable depression, sometimes within the course of one day. This emotional tumult is also known as Bipolar II disorder. Ikpi accomplishes this feat beautifully by transforming her struggle into art by experimenting with form. Essay writing gives her the breathing room to use language and form as a representation and embodiment of mental illness.
In response to the question, “What does it feel like to have a mental illness?” Ikpi offers an unexpected answer: “It feels physically uncomfortable.” Her essays bear witness in real time to the ways mental illness evolves over a lifetime. Reading them felt like her taking my hand, putting it over her heart, and vibing her sensations, until I couldn’t discern between her anguish and my own. The effectiveness of this book is that readers vividly experience the physical and emotional discomfort associated with a “broken brain.”
Ikpi writes about her childhood blurrily, as it is in her mind, with just enough back story to understand bipolar’s genetic origins. Creating a feeling of reaching for “it,” while succumbing to her disease’s traps: internalization, self-blame, self-loathing, self-medicating, failed relationships, self-sabotage. There is just enough description of family dynamics and media events beyond her control to illustrate how she internalized tragedies and decisions other people make, an early symptom of the yet unknown disorder. When the Challenger exploded in 1986, leaving no survivors, eight-year-old Ikpi thought,
“If I had run faster. If I tried harder. If I was better. If I was better there would have been survivors.” (29)
From there the subsequent essays flesh out these early childhood underpinnings and unleash them into her adult world, calling upon form as eclectic as the moods and swings and episodes she experiences. Using a controlled experimentation in points of view, from second person in “Yaka,” to third person in “The Beauty in the Breakdown” to a literal minute-by-minute timeline in “This Is What Happens,” readers meander through the minefield of years of unnecessary suffering due to lack of diagnosis.
Ikpi is careful to document how her mental illness affected her intimate relationships in myriad ways. “Tahuti” left me breathless. The most painful to read, Ikpi’s humiliation and the chipping away of her soul as she sacrificed her dignity throughout a four-year facade of a relationship, feels universal and familiar, regardless of mental health.
“I was with him for four years. I have no idea how long he was with me.” (65)
Ikpi gives a validating gift to those struggling with bipolar or any mental health issue, but later essays will grab hold of those who support and love those with mental illness. “Side Effects May Include” and “Life Struggle” wrestle with the pain that emerges after the initial horror: the let-down that a diagnosis does not equal a cure. Instead a different kind of struggle emerges, one sometimes more dangerous and more erratic than the disease itself–the frightening nature of medication cocktails and becoming a human pharmacological experiment.
In “Life Sentence” she writes, “‘It’s all about balance,’ Dr. Goodman had told me. But really it was all about bartering, attempting to figure out what side effects I could live with–the ones that didn’t make me gain weight and didn’t make me lose weight and didn’t make me drowsy and didn’t make me nervous and didn’t make me stupid. We had gone through the ones that made me vomit, the ones that made me feel nothing, the ones that made me feel too much, the ones that made me forget things seconds after I did them, and the one that made it difficult for me to speak, the words catching in my throat like a bullet in a jammed gun.” (181)
In the end there is clarity, which brings hope and inspiration to journey within the way this poet does, with words and rhythm and choreography beautifully constructed from beginning to end. She even helps loved ones put their own feelings into words,
“My family spent years looking at me and now knowing that I was not okay. When they saw how bad the ‘not okay’ could get, they rushed to treat me like glass. Not something broken–like I felt–but something they had never noticed was in danger of breaking.”
At the crescendo of Ikpi’s breakdown, the one which led to her turning point and ultimate diagnosis, she attempted to put her feelings into words: “I try my best to focus on one thing. I can’t. I need to tell someone about this. But who? What? What is this? How can I tell someone when I don’t even know what this is?” (126) This book is a bold and brilliant answer to that anguished question, one we are all privileged to read.
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