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.