A Brave, Heartbreaking Look at a Life with Mental Illness

Book review: I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying, by Bassey Ikpi (Amazon / Book Depository)

It’s difficult to distinguish which lies from my childhood are my own and which belong to my family. Which lies I told myself to close the gaps in my brain and which were told to me to silence my questions. Which lies were the only things that could quiet my brain and allow for sleep. Which lies sparked my brain alive and allowed me mornings worth waking for.
I also wonder which truths I refused to accept and paved over with more glittering, fantastical stories.
I edit conversations and situations as they happen. People tell me that I only remember what I want to, that my memory is selective. They’re right.

Nigerian-born American poet and spoken word artist Bassey Ikpi’s memoir is a harrowing look inside living with bipolar II disorder, depression and anxiety. It’s written in prose but her poetic background is evident and enhances her storytelling brilliantly, adding a rhythm to her word choice that makes this somehow lovely to read despite how dark it can be. And she knows when to play with words to great effect.

These are labeled essays, but they didn’t read that way so much as a loosely structured, creative and impressionistic memoir. It could’ve gotten lost in that, but it’s so well done and careful that even though she changes tack quickly and often in topics, scenes, and time, it works effectively for the most part. It ends up feeling like the story she’s telling — the chaos of mental illness, the confusion and the way it uproots a sense of normalcy and plays havoc on memory, how hard it is to recall the past with any certainty.

One of the most impressive elements is Ikpi’s focus on her own behavior. She often lashes out at those close to her when she’s in a dark place, and her storytelling is starkly honest in portraying this. It’s raw and painful, and conveys what she was going through or recalling when she wrote each scene. That’s not easy to sit with, but it’s much harder to live with, and the window she’s allowing into her world is extraordinary.

I need to prove to you that I didn’t enter the world broken.

The beginning of the book, as she recalls what she can remember of her childhood and family in Nigeria, is stunning. It’s dreamy and exceptionally observant, sometimes almost stream-of-consciousness in style.

Then she moves through time, leaving behind Nigeria and hazy recollections of her grandmother, to the stressful period after immigrating to America and settling in Oklahoma. She struggled in school and had conflicts with her mother, who was fighting her own battles: “After a day of school, I would wonder who I would see at home: the sullen mother who, when upset, would barely speak to me or acknowledge my presence for days, or the one who I wished would ignore me.”

This family dynamic was one of the hardest parts to read, as it’s impossible not to feel devastated for her: suffering something that she doesn’t yet have a name for and only knowing that she doesn’t feel “normal,” while enduring a home life that sometimes borders on emotionally abusive. “My mother mistakes questions for attacks and accusations. She weaponizes her silences.” There is so much that engenders empathy here, and I can only think it needs to be read widely, including by those who aren’t immediately affected by mental illness, to better understand those who are.

The narrative uses her work and career only peripherally, taking a narrower focus on the powerful emotions that play tricks on her reality, the erosion of her functioning when an episode sets in, the effect of her family’s slights, and her fractured adult relationships. She eventually moves to New York, and there her troubles finally gain the upper hand, but also begin to be tamed.

She describes low points in meticulous detail, like anxiety attacks and an extended depressive episode that results in hospitalization. Although this is rough subject matter, she manages to maintain a sense of humor and to convey something of who she is underneath the illnesses. Like when she summons her best Oprah during her hospitalization: “I imagine what Oprah might look like if she was in this situation and I offer a small, endearing smile.”

As powerful as it is painful, this could not have been an easy book to write. But it’ll speak to those who have similar illnesses or people in their lives who do, and for that it’s a treasure. She doesn’t shy from acknowledging, truly, how hard living with mental illness is, and lets the gravity of the lifetime diagnosis be felt, not to mention how clearly she portrays the myriad challenges of things others take for granted.

Because I know how that dog-marked page persists and insists you return to it. I know how the brain and the heart and the spirit fight daily to stay in the book and write themselves out of the story. I know. I know. I know.

There’s not an uplifting message about how the problem is ultimately solved and demons vanquished never to return because there is no cure, only lifelong treatment and maintenance. It’s blunt and remarkably candid, but sugarcoating anything about this topic only does it a disservice. Ikpi is a mental health advocate and delivering her message about her experiences this way — brutally honest and unflinching — was the right choice. She returns often to the ideas of truth, reality, and the fallibility of memory, which excuses gaps in the narrative, but I was still curious about much more. In the acknowledgements she mentions something for the next book, and I already can’t wait.

I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying: Essays
by Bassey Ikpi
published August 20, 2019 by Harper

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

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16 thoughts on “A Brave, Heartbreaking Look at a Life with Mental Illness

  1. Your review took me back to Marya Hornbacher’s two memoirs, Wasted (about her life as a bulimic and anorexic) and Madness (about her bi-polar disorder). At the end of Wasted, you feel a little hopeful, but when you get into Madness, you see that Hornbacher’s life doesn’t keep up with the happy path she set, and instead she forgets wide swaths of time because her bi-polar disorder was completely untreated (many people don’t realize that they’re bi-polar and think everyone lives the same as they do). Madness was hard to read because she’s so unbelievable unreliable about her own life, but your review, especially that opening quote, helped me understand better.

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    1. I haven’t read hers but I know of them. An unreliable narrator can make for tricky storytelling but the author in this one makes good points about how hard it is for her too, to establish where truth is between memory and reality. It helped me better understand a lot about bipolar as well. I think she did a great service in that.

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  2. Excellent review! I’ve read nothing about bipolar disorder but do appreciate examinations of mental illenss. It sounds like the author delves into the topic in a thoughtful way- one for the TBR! I’m glad it hit the mark for you. 🙂

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    1. Thanks! It really was an interesting way to look at the topic. She discusses her medication and its effects, some things like that, but it’s not particularly clinical, just a very through-her-eyes look. I really liked her method and it was kind of terrifyingly effective in showing what it feels like to her. Glad I could convince you to add it, it’s definitely worth your time 🙂

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  3. Normally “Essays” would put me off but your review (where you explain there is an ongoing story) changes my mind. And that you say her prose is enhanced by her being a poet. I have read two books this year dealing with mental illness – My Lovely Wife by Mark Lukach and That is When People Started to Worry by Nancy Tucker. The latter looked at different mental illnesses as told by the sufferers. The changing narrators and topics made it less involving; I think the book you are reviewing here will work better.

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    1. It was a bit strange that these were labeled essays, they hardly read as stand-alones to me at all. It’s not a clear-narrative, totally linear memoir but reads much more like one than essays, in my opinion. The prose was really lovely and beautifully crafted, I thought especially in the sections describing her childhood.

      I’ve heard of My Lovely Wife but not of That is When People Started to Worry. Did you not particularly like it? It does sound really interesting, but I think there’s often the risk with multiple narrators/topics that it feels less involved.

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      1. That is When People was actually excellent, it is unfair of me to compare it with a first person memoir or My Lovely Wife, where the husband tells the story of his wife’s illness. That Was When is based on the author’s interviews with different young women suffering from mental illness, so is a totally different style and the author is not in the story. It is a sort of casebook look at the most common illnesses and it is insightful and compassionate, and not without humour – helps to show that people with mental illness are not “others” they are all of us. Having said that, I cannot honestly remember much about each story but that is me and my middle-aged brain fog and trying to read too many books in attempt to avoid spending my time in less productive ways (spending £ on cr*p online mainly!!)

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      2. Lol I completely understand…I always have a hard time separating or clearly recalling stories when there are a bunch told in one book. I like the idea of a casebook look, that sounds really interesting. Sometimes books like that are better read one story at a time, maybe I would try it that way. Thanks for putting it on my radar!

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