Writing About Mental Illness from the Inside
Bassey Ikpi on her essay collection "I'm Telling the Truth, but I'm Lying" and why she stopped pretending to be "over" her bipolar disorder
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Within the first week it was published, Bassey Ikpi’s essay collection I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, a collection of personal essays illuminating and encapsulating the experience of having mental illness, hit the New York Times bestseller list. What Ikpi depicts in I’m Telling the Truth is a state of fragments and intense emotions, the feeling of something cataclysmic simultaneously with the deep desire to escape.
In her collection, and in her background as a poet who has toured with Def Poetry Jam, the language and rhythm of Ikpi’s work intensifies the reading experience and reveals a way to discuss memory—not always reliable—and storytelling in a way that’s immersive, constructive, and always breathtaking.
I spoke with Ikpi—a mental health advocate and former poet (as she calls herself)—about her experiences living with bipolar disorder and how to write from a personal truth for the Minorities in Publishing podcast, from which this interview is excerpted and slightly modified.
Jennifer Baker: What really hooked me was the first essay where you say you need to prove that “I had a childhood.” I thought about this need to prove upfront, and the word you use is “broken,” specifically. There’s something very specific you want to say even going through the act of childhood. So, when you’re starting out, how did that come to pass?
Bassey Ikpi: I think as much as I wrote this book for the world, I wrote it for myself as well. I am very clear in this book that I don’t have the most reliable memory. One of the things that people don’t understand or don’t discuss a lot about mental health is how it affects your memory.
A lot of the things I remember I remember in sporadic bursts, and there are chunks of childhood I don’t remember, and if I do remember I don’t know where exactly they fit. Was I four, was I eight? Four and eight seem to be the two years that jump out at me, knowing that I could have been three, I could have been nine, I could have been all these different ages, but for some reason 1984, the time before I came to the United States, those are the ages that I came from. So, it was more to prove to myself that I came from something. I’m not just these recent memories.
I started writing this book three years ago when I was in one of the worst depressive episodes of my entire life. And I didn’t think I was going to make it out, I’ll be perfectly honest with you. And I needed to remind myself that I came from something else. All of my memories were of that one time I had the breakdown, the time I was depressed, the time when not great things happened. I needed to tell myself and I needed to tell the world that all these recent stories aren’t where I started from. I wasn’t—and this is going to sound corny because now I know it’s a Whitney Houston lyric—I wasn’t built to break. I was this perfectly innocent child who just existed and had this history and people who cared about me. It wasn’t the most conventional upbringing, but it was mine, and there was nothing wrong with it at the time.
JB: I really do appreciate you talking about that because it just stuck in my mind that there’s this need to prove something to us, but your explanation makes so much sense.
I appreciate the fragmented nature [of the book], because I feel like I think about things in fragmented ways because it’s hard to pin down things after a while when you collect so much. As we get older, we collect a lot of information, theoretically. In one essay you spoke about the Challenger [disaster]—and I said, yeah when was that?
BI: I discovered just a couple weeks ago. I was reading something about the Mandela Effect, and I read that people have the Mandela effect when it comes to the Challenger. They don’t know what year it was—and I didn’t know that was a thing! I thought that I was just unable to place it, but yeah, people have no idea when that happened.
JB: But I also really love [this book] from the standpoint of teaching because that’s usually the concern writers have is “I don’t remember everything exactly.” And you come at this consistently saying “I think it’s this, and this, and this.” Even the essay where it’s “We were in Brooklyn or Chicago. We were in one of these places, I’m not sure.” There is such a confidence in being able to say this is going to be fragmented.
BI: I read books that tell you how to write a memoir or instructions or whatever, they always start with: if you have a bad memory, don’t write one. And I just don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think that memory exists the way we’ve been taught to think that it exists. So many of the memoir and autobiographical things we read, they couldn’t possibly be memories, they just couldn’t possibly.
But I think that people kind of give that some room, and say, well okay we’ll just smudge this. But I wanted to be very clear, especially because these are memories that involve other people, that this is my perspective, this is what I’m seeing, this is how it felt from where I am. And I know that because of these other things that went on in my head and went on in my life, I’m aware that it’s not going to be the same conversation, that if you asked my mom and my ex-boyfriend, that they probably wouldn’t see it the same way.
They’re not lying, I’m not lying, but it’s not the same truth, you know.
JB: I think that’s why part of why I latched onto this so much, because I felt as though this is one of the most honest pieces I’ve read. And because it’s gonna be what I can produce based on what is tangible in my mind right now.
BI: The things that I do remember I remember so vividly, and I tried in the writing to be clear, like “I remember this part,” “This part. I remember.”
And the stuff that came around it, what day it was, who was there, did I scream, did I yell, you know all that stuff. I don’t know, but I know I felt that way. And the emotional honesty, and the emotional truth, and the emotional memories I think are just as valid, even if they don’t appear that way to somebody who was in the moment with me.
JB: Did you choose to talk to a lot of the people in the book?
BI: I didn’t. And I was very deliberate about not researching it because I figured if I were to go into it—I mean there were certain things that I would call somebody and say hey. There was Derrick whose name I didn’t change because he told me not to change his name.
BI: I called him and I asked him if it was a kettle or if I broke a mug, and I thought that was important to know—and once I asked him, I said “Oh my god, I do remember,” and I could smell the smoke, and I was in my… I needed that to tell the story. But as far as whether we were in Brooklyn or in Chicago, I didn’t feel that was necessary to know. I felt like that confusion, that displacement was important, especially when it comes to other essays, especially the touring essays when I was with Def Poetry. That confusion about where I was and what I was doing was necessary to tell the story, but I didn’t want to research it. I didn’t want to turn it into a research project because that to me would be a different book. That would be a book that—and I struggled with this too—a book that needed statistics and facts, and a list of medical journals, and that was just not the type of thing I was doing. I was very deliberate about the fact that these are nonfiction short stories as opposed to essays. And the idea of it being an essay versus short story, is that a short story exists. You’re allowed to write it, and it exists the way that it exists and you can move onto the next thing. Whereas with essays, I feel like they need that research and they need all these facts to hold it down and I didn’t want it to be that kind of thing.
JB: Can we get into how the book came to fruition? Was it a proposal? Was it a completed book at that point?
BI: It was a proposal, but the funniest thing is it isn’t the book that I wrote. It had a different title, it had a different objective. It was a totally different book. It was still essays, but it was more self-help-y. Even the title—it was very much like “From the mountain top. Let me tell you people how I got to where I am.”
JB: Was that the title? “From the Mountain Top”?
BI: No. It was called Making Friends With Giants. It was this very self-help, very [much] telling the story of how I got “over”; and I was in the middle of, there was no “over.” It was full of lies, which is why this title was very important to me, because it was full of lies. It was the truth, but it wasn’t an emotional truth. It was very, very dishonest in that way. And I had a list of things that I didn’t want to talk about, and things that I wasn’t going to write about. And I wasn’t going to say this. And I wasn’t going to say that. I wanted it to be very inspirational, and gross, like Fix My Life, no, not that bad.
JB: Not Iyanla level.
BI: No, but pretty much very distant from the subject matter. Like I had cured myself or something, and I was going to tell people how I did it. It just was false. It was difficult to write. This, I started writing earnestly a year ago. Because I remember around this time the university that I dropped out of gave me an office. And I was on the floor well into the night writing and cutting and pasting, and trying to put these essays together.
But for three years there was another book that I was trying to write, and it was going very, very slow. It wasn’t coming out the way that I wanted. I would take all of these writing sabbaticals and go away for six weeks, and go to a retreat somewhere and I just wasn’t writing. And I realized I wasn’t writing because I wasn’t being honest and it was forced.
I told my editor that I needed some room to write differently, from different perspectives and POVs. I said let me just go ahead and write it the way it comes out, and I’ll go back and change all the pronouns to I’s and me’s. And once I did that it was so freeing because I was in the middle of it. I was inside of the things that I was writing about, as opposed to the outside looking in. And once I entered them and realized I was in this vantage point where I could explain to people what this thing felt like as opposed to telling them what it felt like for me at the time. I wanted to really bring people inside, and once I did that it just opened things up completely for me.
JB: Because it was originally self-help and inspirational, did that come about through a conversation of “Oh, this is what people want. People want inspiration, so I guess I can write about that”?
BI: Yeah. It’s the thing that comes with being a mental health advocate. It’s the thing that comes with knowing that people for years would email me, or later on tweet me or DM me and ask, you know “my son is this, and I want to talk to him about that,” and “I’m feeling this way, but I’m not sure if…” And I’m talking, and being very sincere about what it is I’m saying and what it is I want for other people, but I wasn’t internalizing that. I felt that that’s what people wanted. People don’t want to hear the sob story, especially not from a Black woman. I was very, very aware of that. I didn’t think that that’s what people wanted from me. The dark—ugh, I hate the word dark, but you know what I mean.
JB: They wanted the caregiver Blackness, not the real Black woman.
BI: Exactly. Exactly. And I was trying to write it from that point and it just wasn’t working.
JB: So once it became freeing, did you think about what was coming out [in the writing]? Was there kind of that fear of, if I’m going to this place and if I’m taking that turn, I actually have to talk about a lot of stuff, potentially.
BI: I learned so much about myself writing this book. This book has changed my life. My therapist said “you are a much different person. You see yourself much differently than when we started working together four years ago.”
As much as it did free me in a way, I’m also very careful to know that these aren’t just my stories. These aren’t my stories to tell, so I try to tell it from my perspective as much as possible. There are versions and drafts where I’m like “Well his dad had multiple mental illnesses and this is the only way he knew how to relate to people,” and I had all of that in there, but that’s not my story. I can’t talk about somebody else’s family, and I can’t talk about what I suspect happened in my own family because I don’t know. I can only say what I suspect and how those suspicions interact with how I was exposed to those people that showed up in my life.
I wanted to be very careful about that because I wasn’t interested in—and again, being a Black woman—white people can kind of just blow up their lives and be rewarded for it, and I had no interest in blowing up my life because I love my family and I love my friends sincerely, but I had to be honest, and I had to find that balance. That balance was to focus as much as possible on where I was, and to check myself, and to have other people who read the work be very clear that I’m not just a victim of other people.