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Bassey Ikpi On 'I'm Telling The Truth, But I'm Lying'


"I'm Telling The Truth, But I'm Lying." As phrases that can stop and startle you, here's just one. My mother loves and hates and heals and hurts with the same hands. The noted spoken word artist has written a book of essays that perform a memoir - childhood moments in Nigeria, adolescence in Oklahoma, abuse at home, what she calls the pain and fog of a bipolar disorder and her hard work to make a real life for herself.

Bassey Ikpi, the author of "I'm Telling The Truth But I'm Lying," joins us from our studios in New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

BASSEY IKPI: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: I want to begin with another arresting phrase early in the book, the lie I tell the most is I'm OK. Did you have to tell that to survive? Do you still have to say it now?

IKPI: Absolutely. As open as I am about where I am with my emotional and mental health, I still think that the easy answer of I'm OK helps alleviate any guilt or pressure for other people to try and make me feel better. I often say it out of consideration. I'm hyperaware, especially now, that the people in my life are very worried about me. And in order for me to just sort of get through my day without having to worry about worrying them, I'm OK is the easy and accessible answer.

SIMON: Help us understand an episode in your life you write about, which I don't know might be an early sign of what you were going to wind up contending with, like, a lot of other school children, really around the world that day in the 1980s...

IKPI: Yes.

SIMON: ...You saw the U.S. space shuttle blow up in the sky. You seemed to blame yourself.

IKPI: I did. For some reason watching the shuttle explode, one of the things that I did was I was so excited by it. And I was looking forward to it so much, that when it started the ascension, I looked away. And then when I looked back, that's when it exploded. And for some reason, my brain connected that the fact that I was so excited that I chose my own excitement over whatever safekeeping measures that I could have had I kept - I mean, it's - you know, saying it out loud, it seems ridiculous. But as a child, it made so much sense. And seeing the amount of pain and despair and just sadness that filled the classroom it just entered my body and made me feel like I could have done something to not only protect the people who didn't survive that explosion but also the people around me. My teacher, if she fell over, would I be able to pick her up? Can I help Jennifer get over this? Can I help, you know, Timothy get over this?

SIMON: I read your book on a plane. I was very moved by it. I got to a line where you told a therapist opening my eyes every morning is a disappointment. And I thought, oh, no, this is not going to wind up well. What did you have to do?

IKPI: Another phrase in the book is allow yourself morning. That's...

SIMON: I love that phrase.

IKPI: Yeah, that's all I could do. I could only give myself the next day because I had to believe somehow knowing that it had gotten better in the past that it would get better again. I was running out of ways to create the better. I was running out of ways to accept the mornings. I'd fall asleep at night thinking, OK, the morning is better. It's just - it has to be better. But I would open my eyes hoping that I would, you know, pass away in my sleep. Like, it would just make it easier on me just not to wake up.

In the book, I also write about my first hospitalization for passive suicidality, which basically just means you've lost the will to live. And that's what I was experiencing. I would wake up, my eyes would open and I would see, you know, whatever it is I - the last thing I saw before I fell asleep. And I would feel this deep, this deep sigh like wow again, you know? And I just had to keep moving through those days. And being able to say that to that therapist for the first time was so significant because I hadn't even really admitted that to myself.

SIMON: How does that affect the way you live? Are there certain kinds of people that you have to avoid, certain activities, certain foods, certain drinks?

IKPI: Yeah, it's just a matter of boundaries when it comes to people. That's something that I've had to learn very quickly over the - last year, knowing that because I've stated that I need certain things to take care of myself, it's not a slight against anybody else. It's not. People tend to take it very personally when you say, I can't talk about this thing or, I can't be involved in this other thing. I have to be very careful being around people who are very negative because that affects the way that I see the world around me.

SIMON: Like that bad boyfriend you write about.

IKPI: Yes (laughter). Oh, God, yes. Yes, exactly like that. Exactly like that.

SIMON: What was your phrase? We were together for four months.

IKPI: I was with him for four years, but I don't know how long he was with me.


SIMON: You've written a brilliant memoir.

IKPI: Thank you.

SIMON: Did you ever worry that getting better might dull your brilliant insights?

IKPI: The easy answer is yes, but I've told myself countless times, and I've told others it's not romantic. It's torturous. I would trade every so-called talent I have for a brain that mends and processes things the way that it was meant to. I would trade it. It's not worth it for me. I think a lot of creative people who live with mental illness create despite the illness and not because of it. As far as volume goes, as someone who was, you know, an insomniac and hypomanic, you know, I can write 47 essays in one evening but only one of them would be any good. And then when I'm healthy, I can still write that one good essay. It just - without the 46 other ones around it.

SIMON: You know what I have to ask don't you?

IKPI: No (laughter).

SIMON: How are you doing?

IKPI: I'm doing great. Thank you. I am the healthiest that I've ever been in my entire life, and I am - I can say that has been the case for the longest I've ever been in my entire life, which is about a year and a half. I went through one of the worst, if not, the worst depressive episodes I've ever had three years ago.

When I started writing portions of this book, I didn't expect to make it. So a lot of the stories that I told were very deliberate. There were letters and notes to my family and my friends because I thought that there would be no more mornings for me. And the fact that I'm sitting here three years later with a collection of essays I wrote through, you know, very difficult times in my life with proof that I made it through those times and as healthy as I possibly can be at this moment I feel fantastic and I'm grateful. Thank you for asking (laughter).

SIMON: No, thanks for writing this.

Bassey Ikpi, her memoir "I'm Telling The Truth But I'm Lying" - thanks so much for being with us.

IKPI: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKE FOR FREE'S "BEYOND DAZED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.