Photo by Maxine l. Moore

Bassey Ikpi’s Literary Debut on Her Mental Health Journey Is a Call for People To See Themselves, and Others, With Genuine Empathy

We speak with the Nigerian-American writer and ex-poet about her book that challenges us to rethink mental health challenges.

Bassey Ikpi is the Nigerian-American writer whose debut book of essays is the epitome of vulnerability and honesty around the mental health conversation.

In I'm Telling The Truth, But I'm Lying, which has already landed a spot on The New York Times' Best Sellers list, we follow Ikpi as she takes readers on an exploration of her life from her formative years in Nigeria, moving to Oklahoma as a pre-teen, being a black woman, a poet, a mother and her multitude of identities through the lens of one living with the eventual diagnosis of bipolar II and anxiety.

Her name may ring a bell for those familiar with HBO's Def Poetry Jam—Ikpi made her mark with several appearances on the show and her way with prose and words still hold true with this book of essays. Pulling the reader into a gentle tide of her consciousness, truths and lies, Ikpi shakes our preconceived notions of how the mind works and what "normal" even means.

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The author exploring Spotorno in Liguria. Photo by Joan Erakit

How to Break Your African Parents’ Hearts

On life as a writer.

By the time you finish reading this essay, my father will have called me at least four times in 10 minutes and my mother will have sent me one of her guilt-tripping texts, demanding to know why I wrote this article. I will likely ignore all calls and texts until I can muster up the courage to face the two people I love the most.

I suffer from the same struggle as any other diaspora living son or daughter: the need to find your calling versus the need to satisfy your parents.

I grew up between Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Swaziland before moving to America, all the while reading The National Geographic and one day hoping to work there (I eventually did) and be one of the first black anthropologists to use research, photography and writing to showcase the voices of Africans outside the village (this never happened). My father grew up with a wanderlust like no other, often moving his family around in search of better opportunities and a better life—because of this, I wanted to write about the places my parents took us during the summer holiday, the conversations about conservation that happened between community organizers and teachers, and the way my mom and aunties created gardens in their city backyards to promote healthy eating and mindfulness. I wanted to be the one to show and tell, and not be the one shown.

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Photo via TONL

On Choosing Your Own Path and Chasing Checks

Balancing personal happiness with financial stability is not easy, especially under the gaze of immigrant parents

It's Monday. My direct deposit was supposed to be made a week ago.

I spent most of the morning making casual-but-frantic inquiries with my bank's customer service. Each time, I was told that there was no way for them to check if money was coming; they could only confirm if it was there or was being held for some reason.

This was a perfectly reasonable and efficient response to my anxiety driven question, but that didn't stop me from thanking her for her time, hanging up, and then calling again to speak to another representative. Later in my car, I reach for the phone at every stop light and lie to the pop up notification designed to prevent texting and driving.

With a quick glance, I check to make sure the light is still red and that traffic crossing the road is still moving steadily. I've rehearsed the next sequence: Swipe, open app, fingerprint, check balance and groan at the number I see. A black Toyota Camry pulls up behind me and immediately begins honking, shaking me out of my angst.


Over the years, I've had periods without work due to depression and other mental health concerns. There was no money coming in and needing to depend on others for help made me spiral further into the depressive state I was already drowning in. Lack of money didn't help my depression. Depression didn't help me work. In those moments, I questioned every decision that led me to this space.

I grew up watching how hard my parents worked. All children of immigrants know the story of how their parents left home for education and to provide a better life for their families. We also know that it is our responsibility to make those sacrifices worth it. I remember watching my parents work multiple jobs while going to school and raising a family. It was an example of what was to be expected of me: Do whatever it takes for your family. It was a lesson in how to persevere and survive, but it was also an early lesson of how I did not want to live my life.

At an early age, I knew that I was plagued with a heaviness that I had not yet discovered the language to explain. I was grateful for the sacrifices my parents made and I wanted so badly to be worthy of those sacrifices, but I was also terrified of what that would mean for my life.

When I was younger, I told every adult who would listen that I wanted to be a lawyer. As an African, the other immigrant option—doctor—wasn't my ministry. Math and I didn't get along well enough for me to devote my life to it. Perhaps if the internet was around back then, I could have researched to discover other career options, but back then, I was the oldest and didn't have any other examples. Lawyers are basically performers and since I couldn't fix my Nigerian born mouth to tell my hard working parents that I wanted to be on TV, I figured dramatic opening and closing statements were a good compromise.

I'm always concerned that anything I build can be toppled by one sleepless night or a morning I can't seem to welcome.

I used to believe that my parents wanted me to choose between happiness and financial security, but I've since learned they were worried about my future. They knew that struggling would be alleviated by steady work. My father told me once that he thought perhaps my depression came from idleness. Keeping my mind busy would help me ignore the weight of depression. We know that's not how it works, but I do understand why he would think that. He's always worked through any obstacle that came his way, but it didn't work like that for me. It couldn't.

I didn't know what the options were back then but I knew there had to be another way. I know that I made the best decisions for myself, but can't help but feel guilty that I didn't choose the path that would show my parents how much I appreciated their sacrifices. Sitting in my car—fiddling with banking apps, hoping the checks I earned found their ways into my account—I think about how I should have chosen a life with more concrete expectations and clearly drawn measures of success.

Despite my career, my parents still worry about my future and despite my successes, I always worry that I've disappointed them. I know that I could have gotten that law degree, but I can't tell you if I would have lived long enough to practice. The career I have chosen hasn't been without its pitfalls. I'm always concerned that anything I build can be toppled by one sleepless night or a morning I can't seem to welcome. Trying to find the balance between what works for me psychologically and what works for me professionally is a delicate balance. The instability and lack of guarantees has triggered self-doubt and treading a bit too carefully when leaping would have served me better but ultimately, the need to reconstruct and redefine what I call success has been the most helpful.

At the end of the day, chasing checks isn't so much about the hustle, it's about knowing that I haven't given up. It's about knowing that I've completed something and that thing has put me just a bit closer to the stability that I need. That said, if I'm going to run after invoices, I'd like the option to sit in the back with a driver watching traffic while I check my apps and ignore all the honking.

Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian born, American raised writer and mental health advocate. She is the founder of the mental health organization The Siwe Project and creator of #NoShameDay. She is currently working on her first memoir in essays for HarperPerennial. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram: @basseyworld

In April we're exploring "The Hustle"—the things people do to survive and thrive at all costs. Click here for more stories about all the ways people manage, make and squander money.

Photo via TONL

How to Prosper as a Nigerian Writer

We talked to two Nigerian novelists on how to survive and even thrive when you're a writer not named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

It's not unusual for Nigerian novelists to hold university degrees unrelated to their passions. For bragging rights, the promise of financial stability and the relative ease of gaining employment, many middle class Nigerian parents push their offspring to become doctors, lawyers and engineers. And if those careers aren't possible, well, accountant, architect and economist will do. For the lucky few who studied writing, chances are they have older siblings already pursuing professional courses, are the last born and definitely not the only son, paying their own school fees, or chose to combine majors to placate their parents.

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