“I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying”: A troubling but poetic expose of mental health – Adaora Nnadi
In her lyrical debut , Bassey Ikpi creates a fragile portrait of mental ill health as she lets us into her mind to explore the details of living with bipolar II disorder.
The former Def Poetry Jam spoken word artist uses deft and evasive language to capture her state of mind through her early childhood in Nigeria and later years in the United States. We watch her journey through denial, diagnosis, then further denial, hospitalization and finally, acceptance as she recalls half-forgotten events in her life which have shaped her.
In the second essay “This First Essay Is to Prove to You That I Had a Childhood” — the first being a short description of a middle aged woman’s face–, she describes those insignificant early memories that lack detail but are filled with unforgettable emotion. In the final memory in the essay, she recounts a memory she can barely remember that left her with scars on her hands and on her feet. Her parents assume that her grandmother must have taken her to a healer to treat an unknown disease; this is the first sign of the issues she will face later in life.
The next few essays describe middle-class life in post-civil war Nigeria and her family’s immigration to the United States. Headaches caused by seeing the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 and inexplicable bouts of sadness in grade school are the first encounters she has with her bipolar disorder.
“Yaka” is the first essay where we see the domestic abuse she faced in her childhood and adolescence from her mother. Ikpi glosses over the abuse in her memoir, only mentioning a few times and ignoring its effects on her life and subsequent mental health challenges.
In an earlier incident in Nigeria, she is beaten by the friend of a relative for disposing of his gin. Although her father was always there to pacify her and explain the abuse away, we see how it caused the author to make excuses for the other forms of abuse she received in her later relationships.
Ikpi’s book is an accurate portrayal of Nigeria’s relationship with physical abuse of children. In our country, hitting children has been normalized by certain cultural and religious beliefs and the narrative of physical abuse affecting children positively. This creates a culture that associates love and care with violence and, in turn, breeds broken people and broken relationships with partners and authority figures.
In “Young Girls They Do Get Weary,” Ikpi finds out her maternal grandmother was dealing with dementia in years leading to her death through a slip from a relative, years after her grandmother’s death. Her parents had hidden the information from her because of the stigma of talking about mental health in Nigeria.
In another essay, “The Hands That Held Me,” she hints at her mother facing abuse in her great uncle’s home and lying to her about it. This denial of mental health illnesses is so cemented in her, that upon hearing her diagnosis, she is unable to believe she has bipolar II disorder and she tells herself that she has never heard of any black person with the disease. Combating this stigma is a key goal that Ikpi hopes to achieve by publishing this book.
In a country where, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in four citizens are suffering some sort of mental illness, it is necessary that we start to raise awareness on these ills. Hiding behind religious beliefs and superstition is hardly going to alleviate the mental health crises in our society, but sparking conversations about it is the first step we must take as a nation.
Towards the middle of the book, it’s setting moves to Brooklyn where Ikpi finds toxic love and a community of poets then lands a job with a group of spoken word artists going on tour where she hones her skill for wordplay and tells her story to millions. Despite this newfound success, she distances herself from family and friends and begins her downward spiral into her fractured mind.
In “What It Feels Like,” she details the intricacies of a bipolar high that often has ruinous effects on her finances and health. The lows that proceed leave Ikpi helpless with nowhere to turn to as she constantly questions her sanity until drastic choices force her to confront the possibility of medical help.
At its core, the book is about the relationships she forms with the personal stories that shape her reality. She constantly plays these memories in the background of her mind and allows them to influence every decision she makes. In the essays, she explores the ways in which these memories have both saved her and harmed her despite the fact that some of them aren’t completely true. The use of the third person narrative in certain essays depicts the disassociation she sometimes feels when she recalls certain memories. Often, this feeling is as a result of regret or forced forgetfulness.
I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying is an examination of abuse, trauma, society’s perception of normalcy, and mental health that encourages us to examine our own minds for cracks we might have ignored and pain we need to let go of. Bassey Ikpi is now a major mental health activist in Nigeria and is coming to terms with her condition every day in new ways. The poetry of her twenty-four essays, despite the troubling images they describe, will hold you captive from beginning to end.
Adaora Nnadi is a budding teenage writer who came second place in the Channels National Book Review Competition.