Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian-American writer, ex-poet, constant mental health advocate, underachieving overachiever and memoir procrastinator. She lives in Maryland with her soccer superstar son. www.basseyikpi.com.
Bassey Ikpi’s book, I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying, is heavy with ripening “truth.” Truth that is difficult to articulate—but a truth that becomes more and more clearly a sum of its parts as one reads. This collection of essays confronts readers with the reality of Bassey’s mental landscape as she navigates life with Bipolar II. As she ages, from a self-governed little girl in Nigeria to the flapping exhaustion of a young adult in Brooklyn, we see how the stories she tells herself change. We see how “truth” blooms and un-blooms depending on what serves her, and how date-time-weather-like details do little to affect memory’s emotional palimpsest. This collection of essays hauls readers back into their centers and hums a song we all carry inside of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
In the interview that follows, I had the privilege of asking Bassey about I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying—one of Bitch Magazine’s most anticipated books of 2019 and a work that almost instantly became a New York Times bestseller.
Hallie Haller: There were moments in this collection where I wasn’t quite sure what I was reading—if it was a memoir, or just a stream of consciousness, or a kind of wish list. I wasn’t sure if it was a memoir of you or a memoir of the thing that you struggle with. What made you write this?
Bassey Ikpi: It’s interesting because my memory sort of folds and blends into itself in order to protect me from trauma—or just the way life is. Yesterday I called my best friend, who I’ve known since thirteen, and told her I made the New York Times bestseller list. She started crying. And she told me that she was so overwhelmed because three years ago, when I was going through one of the worst depressive episodes of my life, I’d told her that I was done. That I didn’t want to live anymore. But I wanted to write a book so at least I’d have a book that would help my family, perhaps, or help my son. She said that she was watching the writing process and she was terrified that by the time I finished the book I wouldn’t be in a better place. And I completely forgot that I’d said that. It folded into my mind somewhere as I was going through treatment, upping my medication and going to therapy and steadily getting better. So that’s the truth, of why I wrote the book, quote unquote.
HH: That’s such a testament to exactly what the book is about.
BI: Exactly. I remember writing and wanting to make people understand what it is that I’m going through—what I had been going through for all of my life. I’ve had friends who have made decisions to not be here anymore. And I remember feeling that their letters and goodbyes were inadequate in that they didn’t let the people that they left behind know just how hard it’s been. And how difficult it is to try so many times.
The reason people grieve so hard is because they don’t understand. And so if I were able to write them, I wanted to say, “This is what’s been going on for years. This is where I am now. This is why it’s so difficult. You did everything you could.” I wrote the bulk of the essays with that in mind—thinking that they were notes and letters to my friends and family.
When people hear anxiety, they think, “Oh my God, I’m so nervous.” When they hear depression, they think, “Oh, I’m so sad today.” I wanted to place people inside the experience so that you feel just as disorientated as I do.
There’s an essay in the middle of the book that’s super long. All of the advice given to me was to edit it down to five pages—cut this, cut that. And I said, “Either the whole thing goes in or none of it goes in.” Because the point of it is to show how exhausting twenty-four hours can be when you’re having a mixed episode and you can’t talk yourself down. In that part in the book, early readers were like, “I was exhausted and begging you to go to sleep,” and that’s exactly what it’s like for me. I’m exhausted and begging myself to go to sleep. But unlike you, I and other people who experience this can’t just close the book and come back to it later. We have to keep going.
Once I rejected the idea of this whole motivational self-help thing I thought I was supposed to write, as a mental health advocate, I started thinking about when I was first diagnosed. I was searching for books or writings of any kind that would help me feel less alone; help me understand the process; help my loved ones understand that process. And I didn’t see a lot of that. Especially not from Black women. So remembering all of that from when I was first diagnosed and knowing that I was in the place to do it now, that was the motivation.
HH: It’s incredible how these truths that you had swallowed—we feel them bubbling up and feel you trying to grapple with them. How did you write the essays on your childhood? They’re so vivid. You change your mind on details, out loud, in your writing. When you fluctuating from “it’s Wednesday” to “no it’s Tuesday”, you remind us that memory is inaccurate anyway. What was the process of moving through that very distant memory like for you?
BI: One of the things that I emphasize in the book is the idea that emotional memory exists—emotional facts exist. And this idea that historical, chronological memories are the only ones that are valid is something that I just don’t agree with. When I was writing the first version of the book, I read a lot of advice on how to write a memoir. One of the first pieces of advice was, “If you don’t have a good memory, don’t write a memoir.” That’s so unfair because we remember things differently. We have different experiences.
I had flashes of memory to draw from as I was writing. But those memories were attached to real, solid emotions. I talk about being the youngest cousin and the cousin who was getting all these gifts from America and how isolating that was. These are things that you always remember. You don’t forget things like that. But you don’t know the details. The only way that I could write a book—or a book like this—was to be very attached to those emotional memories.
My recollection isn’t any less valid just because it’s different.
HH: There’s a theme that comes up early in the book, when you recognized your dad coming into the room to pick you up. That was one of the first times your character recognizes that you use your behaviour to illicit a desired reaction. It was the first time we saw you learn to perform.
BI: That’s a large part of why that story was included—to show that the ability to perform for other people started much earlier than when I was a performer on stage and getting paid for it.
HH: Have you stepped out of that? Out of feeling like you need to perform for the right reaction? As opposed to letting go with the truth a little bit more?
BI: I think it’s changed. I actually have a week long break between the next book event and then the tour. And every event is emotionally taxing—for me to relive a lot of it and have these conversations and dig really deep with the questions. But then there’s also this thing where I’ve written a book that connects with people on an emotional level and triggers their own memories and the way that they process things. So during the signing or during the Q and A, there are people who are very emotional and who want to share their stories and connect on a level that is helpful to them.
I think it’s important to have that moment with people because they’re responding to something that I presented to them. Even though I am exhausted, it means that it exists in me somewhere. I just have to keep pulling it out. And there’s a level of performance in that.
HH: You do the rare work of describing the shapes of both depression and anxiety with an acute accuracy that really resonates. And I’m sure that the emotional response you’re getting from your readers has a lot to with that. But, in articulating anxiety and depression so vividly, you also take the time in your book to caution the reader against trying to reach out to you on social media—against trying to save you. Why do you do that?
BI: There’s a need for people on social media to cut themselves—just so others can rush to bring bandages and take care of it. And I don’t want that. That inspires a level of co-dependency that I’ve seen in my life and that I don’t want to encourage. I don’t want people to put down the book down and think, “Poor Bassey.” I want it to be more of a reflection for people to see themselves in and see how they process things. It’s also why I didn’t go into detail about my career. That’s not something people can relate to, number one. And number two, if I were a nurse or a doctor or a teacher, my symptoms would have presented themselves in the same way. And I wanted to keep that very clear.
HH: You’re talking about mental health. And you reach a point in the book where you get a clear diagnosis. As the reader, there’s this expectation that once you’re diagnosed, things might all work out fine. But you speak about having to perform for the doctors—having to behave in a way that will get you your freedom back, rather than being cured. And later, when you become a mother, you do something unusual—which is to admit that it is incredibly hard and that you don’t always feel competent. At both points you don’t give your readers the idea of an easy out. You don’t allow us to slip into that bias of perfection through titles or life phases—like motherhood can only mean joy or diagnosis can only mean solution.
BI: I wanted to be clear that it was an ongoing process. One of the critiques of the book that I saw was that there is no clear ending. There’s more. It’s a constant. I’m always working on this. And about my son—people have this idea that once you have a purpose outside of yourself, something else or someone else to live for, it’s supposed to be easier. That’s just not true. It’s just difficult in a different way. I wanted to be as honest as I possibly could about what this journey looks like and what it feels like. The fact that I’m still alive, to experience anything is what I consider a happy ending. The journey and the work and the continuous maintenance that it takes—it’s not a one-stop shop. The happy ending is the fact that I’m still alive.