A Black Woman Takes Us Into the Swirl of Bipolar Disorder in New Memoir, I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying

Photo: Maxine L. Moore

Bassey Ikpi’s I’m Telling The Truth, But I’m Lying, the 43-year-old’s journey into her mental health struggle, is not a traditionally written memoir—neither in its structure nor in its nonchronological narrative. It is poetic, it is revelatory, it is distressing; it is, at times, exhausting. It is a literal entree into the mind of someone in deep emotional distress. It is sometimes a rough read because Ikpi put words to the all-encompassing despair that so many face and how that can sabotage, or at least strain, those relationships closest to us.

Alas, psychic pain is never pretty. And the newly minted New York Times bestselling author did an amazing job in bringing us into this swirling dervish of the mind; she, a young black woman living in Brooklyn in the throes of manic depression (or Bipolar II), a diagnosis the poet and writer has been dealing with for a very long time.

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Ikpi says the way she wrote the book was the only way she could be true to her story.

“A couple of years ago, when I was toying with the idea of writing a book, the kinds of books that I had read with people documenting either their mental health or traumas were written in ways that didn’t feel true to my experience—they were very clinical and filled with facts and statistics and very academic language to describe things themselves they were going through and nothing really encapsulated or brought you into what that full experience was,” she says.

Ikpi clarifies that the book she sold was self-help but that her process felt very “dishonest on many levels”; the first iteration of the book did not even begin to scratch the surface of her lived experience as a Nigerian-American woman with a serious brain illness.

“So much of [Bipolar II disorders are] nonlinear, is gaps and stops and huge sections that aren’t clear, factual, historical, chronological...it’s these very intense emotional memories, and the only way I could be realistic about that was to take the most unconventional road to get there,” Ikpi explains. “I wasn’t trying to go too far left into like writing emojis and memes and what have you; I wanted to make it as realistic as possible while taking in the fact that people reading may not know anything about the experience, and I didn’t want them to get lost and frustrated.”

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There was, however, one chapter in particular, “This Is What Happens,” where Ikpi says she wanted to frustrate the reader so that they might get an inkling of what just one night of mania might feel like. Her editors wanted to cut some of it or edit it out completely, but Ikpi was insistent. The deeply disturbing, heartbreaking, powerful chapter remained.

“My editors wanted to cut it, people wanted to completely edit it out because it was four or five pages, and I said either it all stays or it all leaves. There’s no editing this. The reason I wrote it like this was to show how painstakingly frustrating and uncomfortable and exhausting a night like this [can be]. Now imagine having nights like this for weeks and months on end, so by the time people get to that 3 a.m. they’re like, ‘Oh My God, I’m so tired of this.’ You’re supposed to be tired. It is exhausting. This is what it feels like. This is the frustration. You can’t really escape it. You have to just keep going until it decides to subside and you can continue on with what you can fashion out of a normal day. People were frustrated, they wanted to stop reading it. Good.”

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Ikpi says that she laid herself bare so that others going through it know that they’re not alone, and those who love them might understand just how difficult the journey is.

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“It was for people to see themselves, and have a connection to another person who may feel the same way and I am just lucky enough just to have been able to write it down and put it in a book. It was also an explanation and an apology to the people in my life. I keep talking about 2016, but 2016 was the most difficult year of my life. And I was ready to go. I was done. I was tired,” she says. “I knew people in my life who had taken their own lives and their letters always felt so insufficient, like I didn’t think the people around them understood how hard they tried and how much work everyday living was for them. I tried so hard, and I still can’t do this and I need you to understand. This is how hard I’ve been trying.”

The good news is that Ikpi is a survivor; she made it through that year and says she’s now the healthiest she’s ever been, through a combination of intense therapy and medication.

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“What I went through in my past and knowing how difficult it was, and knowing it was in the past, it was an amazing feeling. Looking back, if I were ever to fall into a depressive episode or manic episode or high anxiety episode is that I survived it. That I made it.”

Ikpi also wanted to note that in this age of “cancel culture,” that she didn’t want people to walk away with ill feelings towards the people she writes about, her mother, her lovers, her friends and family. It is that nuance, that grace, that is perhaps one her illness’ greatest gifts to her.

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“I’m very protective of the people that I write about it, and I don’t want people to walk away with ‘This person was abusive’; I don’t want that. I want to as much as possible to juxtapose how one undiagnosed person runs up into another undiagnosed person and the kind of friction or toxicity that creates. I think it’s too easy, especially now, where people know all the academic jargon and they know all of the words that they use them so freely, so for instance, ‘ghosting’…but if you decide that you need to separate from somebody, then it’s self-care,” she says.

“And I want people to really look at the fact that there’s never black or white. It’s so complicated and I want people to understand that this book is about how complicated life is period, but how much more it is when you’re trying to battle your brain for space and time and all of these other things. I just want people to be very kind to people, not just the people you love but those you can’t stand; the kind of empathy that where nobody is a victim and everything is more than what we see.”

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Bassey Ikpi is currently on tour for I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying. For dates, click here.

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About the author

Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.