Former Poet Bassey Ikpi Opens Up About Depression and Bipolar Disorder in Candid Essay Collection

"I want people to open up a chamber of empathy," Bassey Ikpi says of her collection of essays I'm Telling the Truth, But I'm Lying

Bassey Ikpi
Photo: Antonio Thompson

When she first put pen to paper years ago, Bassey Ikpi thought she knew what she wanted her first book to be about: self-help. But in time the former spoken word poet decided her first literary offering to the world should be more honest, more vulnerable.

I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying is just that.

In the collection of essays, Ikpi, of Maryland, explores her life through the lens of her mental health struggles with anxiety and bipolar II disorder using visceral snapshots of memories from her childhood to her adult years.

In essence, the collection paints a personal picture of the normalcy of mental illness — what Ikpi, 43, calls “a mirror and a window.”

“I want people to open up a chamber of empathy,” she tells PEOPLE.

Bassey Ikpi

She explains it this way: “It’s easy to empathize with people when you feel sorry for people or when you feel better than them, when you feel distant from them. I want people to be as empathetic to the person they love as they are to the person in the office who never speaks.”

I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying, then, is a kind of guide on looking both inward and out.

“I want people to see themselves and others in this book and in these experiences, to feel seen and feel heard, [and] then be able to use what they read in this book to help them navigate their own lives,” Ikpi says.

The essays chronicle Ikpi’s childhood in Nigeria and coming-of-age in Oklahoma, see-sawing between deep depression and extreme euphoria. With pieces including “Young Girls They Do Get Weary” and “Searching for Magic,” she challenges what it means to be “normal.”

Bassey Ikpi
Bassey Ikpi.

The collection is filled with lines, paragraphs and passages that both intrigue and shock, including the first piece: “This First Essay Is to Prove to You That I Had a Childhood.”

“I was hoping that people would walk away saying, ‘This is a continuous process.’ It doesn’t end. And instead of it not ending — being a horrible, daunting life sentence — it’s actually just a part of life,” she says. “It just is what it is. There’s no judgment placed on it.”

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Ikpi began her career on BET’s Teen Summit before moving to New York and performing with Def Poetry Jam. Ikpi’s awareness of her mental illness grew as well. She went through a years-long depressive episode and a suicide attempt, in an ordeal that overlapped with her cementing herself as a mental health advocate.

“Imagine you don’t fit anywhere, not even in your own head,” she writes.

Her candor in the book is only an extension of her efforts at The Siwe Project, a non-profit organization promoting mental health awareness in the black community. Ikpi founded the project in the wake of the 2012 death of her close friend’s daughter, Siwe Monsanto, who died by suicide, according to the organization’s website.

“I get emotional when people say, ‘I didn’t know how else to put this into words, I didn’t know how I could communicate this thing I felt, and now I can show my mom and say, “Page 91!” That’s what it feels like,’ ” Ikpi says. “That was important to me.”

I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying is available at major retailers and through Ikpi’s website.

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