From the outset of I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, the stunning essay collection from poet, writer, mental health advocate Bassey Ikpi largely themed around living with bipolar II disorder, we are made aware that while this body of work is presented with a clear intention, some of the stories told may come by way of fraught or reconstructed memories.
“The problem is that I don’t remember much about my childhood and have only fragments of everything else,” Ikpi writes in “This First Essay Is to Prove to You That I Had a Childhood.” The admission is appreciated, but what matters most to me is Ikpi is able to bring us into her world and capture how the moments she shares with us made her feel. So, while Ikpi is correct in that what she does remember is presented with “stark clarity” in select essays, as far as the details that are scant to her, where they may lack in specifics they make up for in beautiful prose on what life with mental illness looks like in all its facets through powerful stories found throughout her debut book.
“I need to prove to you that I didn’t enter the world broken,” Ikpi writes. “I need to prove that I existed before.” If such is her intention, Ikpi exceeds that goal in the very first pages that follow. That existence before the diagnosis begins in Nigeria, though, where she describes coming to America as a young child to rejoin her parents who settled in the country before she joined them. Upon her arrival, she enters a home where “a father loved his parents” and “mother did not love hers” how that imbalance gives way to its own household tensions. As a child of the 80s, it’s interesting to read her recollection of the Challenger disaster on television as a very young child. The same can be said of living in the city of Stillwater, Oklahoma as a young immigrant child from Nigeria.
The stories highlight how a lot of life happens for Ikpi long before she moved to New York much less when she comes to learn she has a mental illness — including the very start of her early career as part of the cast of BET’s Teen Summit. But as we are taken into her 20s – namely working as a Def Poetry Jam performer while living in Brooklyn – Ikpi writes in great detail about how life changed before the diagnosis. From the weight of the anxiety attacks to how depression can result in a week of hospitalization or how a misdiagnosis (in Ikpi’s case, it was chronic fatigue syndrome) prolongs proper treatment, Ikpi provides immense insight into what so many people living with bipolar II disorder – including those we love – have to grapple with.
In “What Bipolar II Feels Like,” an excerpt of the book recently featured in the New York Times, Sunday Review, here Ikpi asks readers to recall the first time they rode a ferris wheel and experienced “Your entire body tingled with the intersection of joy and indestructibility and fearlessness and that good anxious recklessness. So damn excited to be alive at that moment. You could do anything.” Before considering: “Now imagine feeling that every day for a week, or a month, or a few months. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, without a break. So that everything you do feels like THE BIGGEST MOST AMAZING THING YOU HAVE EVER DONE IN YOUR LIFE!”
Ikpi provides other examples – including references to Citizens of Humanity and Oprah – but they all lead to the same pathway: “Imagine you don’t fit anywhere, not even in your own head.”
Ikpi is not the first to write about mental illness, but I can’t say I’ve ever read a narrative about it like this. For those who’ve followed Ikpi’s work as a performer or her words as a writer or musings on social media, we know that her writing is yes, poetic and lyrical with tenderness and thoughtfulness but also funny. She’s just so damn funny and her wit often makes her essays as humorous as they are heartbreaking.
This book chronicles how one woman learned to face her troubles and overcome them. You want to root for her well being. You want to be more understanding of others. And, for some of us, by the end of I’m Telling The Truth, but I’m Lying, you might find yourself realizing you are no less guilty of telling yourself certain stories in order to deal with trauma, secrets, and shame. The hope is that you’ve taken such troubles on even half as mightily as Ikpi has.
I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying is available for pre-order and will be released on August 2oth.