We understand through stories. We listen, and we read, and in the hands and voice of a skilled storyteller we slip into someone else’s skin and live and learn anew, if only for a little while. Sometimes those hands and that voice are our own. What happens when we cannot trust them? When the stories we tell ourselves twist inwards on themselves and cut parts of themselves away, so we’re left with fragments and ruins?
It’s difficult to distinguish which lies are mine and which belong to others. Which I told to close the gaps in my brain and which were told to me to silence my questions. Which lies became the only things that could quiet my brain and allow me to sleep. Which lies sparked my brain awake and allowed me mornings worth waking for.
In this collection of essays, Bassey Ikpi provides her truth about living with bipolar II and anxiety, going all the way back to flashes of childhood in Nigeria to her experiences with medication and being institutionalized. Her father was a caretaker, a warm and solid presence; her mother was sometimes kind but often cruel, with a short temper and a sharp tongue. With precision and grace, she takes us through a lifetime of neurosis that is bold but not overwhelming. Lovers, friends, and family cycle through the scene, witnessing different facets of Ikpi that she interrogates with every breakdown, every shopping binge, every bout of dissociation.
Even with modern mental health awareness, a diagnosis of mental illness carries an undeniable stigma in many communities. It is easy, sometimes, to be unable to connect the dots: lack of impulse control, racing thoughts, mood changes, disordered eating. Being pathologized can be terrifying. A rueful smile crept on my face as Ikpi described how she talked around therapists to convince them she was fine. Even when help is right in front of you, taking it can feel impossible. But works like these help to shine a light on those experiences and empower those of us who identify with it to take a step toward our own healing.
Bassey Ikpi’s author blurb may say “ex-poet,” but I argue that she has as much poetic prowess as ever. She effortlessly conveys the fog of depression, the breathlessness of manic episodes, the distance of dissociation. Perfectly placed quips settle you after an intense passage and set the stage for more. I saw a lot of myself and many whom I know in its pages, prompting me to reflect on the winding journey mental health often is. I walked away with a new perspective on mental illness from a fellow black woman and a fierce desire to read similar memoirs. This book is essential for anyone and everyone who’s ever had questions about the story they’re living.