How I’m Really Doing

I set out to write a funny post about a [literal] goddess going to the salon to get her hair braided because I’m tired of the intensity in my writing (and life) lately, but instead here I am breaking the social media contract and “over-sharing,” rather than posting selfies and cute holiday updates.

***

The therapist I’ve been seeing for about two months keeps reminding me that people will never be able to read my mind, and that if I need support or someone to vent to, I need to say so directly. I’ve realized that I’ve become resentful of having to “speak up” to be heard because I’ve spent so much energy picking up on people’s silent cries for help to the point where I expect others to do the same for me. I’m now realizing that this expectation is unreasonable, as unreasonable as the burdens that I carry for other people. At the same time, I’ve been struggling to explain to the therapist the most painful part of my reality, that most of the time even when I “speak up” the people who are supposed to care are only mindful of my situation so long as it doesn’t interfere with their need for me to listen or comfort, or advise, or make jokes, or whatever is necessary in the moment.

It’s uncomfortable sharing this not just for how carefully I’ve kept these things hidden, but because even as I write, I’m berating myself for being self-indulgent or entertaining an over-blown sense of importance, and for extending this to the point of paying for professional advice that my budget can barely accommodate. What I haven’t shared until now, is that this same therapist has confirmed that I have Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder, a condition that probably affects a lot more people than is documented because it’s easier to dismiss our internal suffering as hysteria and irrationality rather than addressing it with the seriousness it requires.

I started noticing what I now know are symptoms of this disorder in late 2013-2014 at a time when several other things were going on that could act as scapegoats for the terrifying depression that visited me every month anywhere from 7 to 10 (and sometimes even as many as 14) days before my period. I probably would’ve enjoyed my semester studying in Dakar much more, had I not been secretly miserable for most of the time I was there. The summer following my study abroad program I returned home to Accra, interning at a publishing house in the day time and staying up all night, almost every night, obsessing over how little anyone would care if I was no longer living, even going so far as to imagine how I could end myself. I would then leave the house in the morning with a smile fixed on like nothing was the matter. The most obvious cause for all this seemed to be a relationship that I ended in the fall of 2014. I felt isolated and misunderstood, but was trying to hold on to someone who was showing signs that he wanted to be let go. Of course, it was easier at the time to point at phone calls trickling into non-existence and the general decline of a relationship as the source of my sadness, than to face the possibility that what I was experiencing was more than me making excuses for being a terrible girlfriend who asked for too much and hid behind “I’m just really emotional but it’s something that I’ll have to work on.”

Despite how closely my symptoms followed my cycle, it has taken me this long to actually seek help partly because I was, and still am, fearful of being the selfish person I believed myself to be in that relationship, someone who expected unlimited leeway for my erratic emotions without any consequences or consideration for others. I know this isn’t true, but it’s hard to unlearn an idea that feeds on pre-existing anxieties, particularly when it came from someone whose opinion meant more to me than most. In the spirit of fairness, I have to point out that it must have been draining and confusing for the person I was with to deal with someone who needed more care than he was unequipped to provide, especially when I had no clear idea of what was going on and what I needed. It is possible that I am stretching the benefit of the doubt further than it should probably go, because there were things that may or may not have occurred that had little to do with my behavior. A writer and professor I admire greatly recently told me that I’m free to share anything I choose in non-fiction writing as long as I own up to the part I played in the events I’m describing, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

Even now, a lot of the old self-doubt is needling its way back into my mind and making it difficult for me to finish this piece, as though this account of my condition is an even more elaborate excuse for bad behavior that I’m trying to apply retroactively to make myself look better. There is also the fact that having time and access to resources to be able to take care of myself is a luxury that so many other people don’t enjoy, and it would be much better for me to keep it moving instead of wallowing in the depths of my diagnosis. Writing this and sharing it publicly is part of my attempt to disarm the effects of PMDD as much as is possible before I head down the much-dreaded route of medication, and to hopefully let others know that “keeping it moving” isn’t admirable or wise, nor does asking for support invalidate how incredible you are for surviving. I’m also trying to defy the fear that I’m standing on a podium addressing an empty auditorium because all the people I expect to show up had somewhere much more important to be. After all, there are far more frightening things happening in the world, need I re-cap the past year?

Here I am, anyway.

If I’m restless and irritable at home but have no desire to go anywhere, it’s because spending time with people means pretending I wasn’t crying uncontrollably on the way there. If I’m unusually slow to answer messages or calls, it could be that I’m busy, but it’s also likely that I’m trapped inside myself too frightened to give an honest response to “Hey, how are you?” If I miss multiple dates, appointments or deadlines in a row, there’s a great possibility that I’m in bed ashamed for not being able to drag myself into the world to carry on the farce that until recently has been comfortable and safer than telling the truth. This is where my usual apology usually comes in, but I’ve done enough shouldering blame for something that is completely out of my control. I’m grateful for the people who I don’t have to lie to about how or where I’ve been, and for this blog that gives me full permission to speak my truth out loud even if it will go unnoticed.

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What I’ve been reading:

Image: Lloyd K. Sarpong the great, once again capturing me and the third housemate/my sister killjoy on a day I felt (and looked, to be honest) the best I have in a long while.

Support System

I’m supposed to be the white picket fence so you can be the chain gate with gaping holes in several places; rusty wire cutters lying on the ground next to battered sneakers, used-to-be-white once upon a time. How can your branches thrust themselves further into the sky, somewhere amongst the clouds, if the trunk that is my listening ear and open arms is rotting from the inside out? These hands are supposed to ease the tension clinging to your temples, and to dissolve your fears in a big pot of  jollof rice, or whatever you want to eat today. Let me know and I’ll make it for you, no problem. But my fingers are a paralyzed mess, condemned to an eternal state of arthritic immobility, and failure, and inertia. Nerve endings spark and short circuit, and die.
Please let go, I’m exhausted from the constant mending and molding. Frail-
you might break something if you don’t 
LET GO.
 I wanted to be a getaway, the sound of water playfully lapping at your feet- come in and play, the water’s nice and warm. I was going to be white sand nibbling at the soles of your feet; the smell of rain clinging to the ever-present red earth; blood orange juice dripping down your chin; the long-awaited embrace at the end of an airport terminal. But the water just turned into lava, the kind of terrible lake in which those who heaven shuns will be doomed to bathe for the rest of forever. The sand burnt your flesh raw and the oranges were crawling with maggots. You recoil into your cracked shell (a little or a lot worse for wear) and look at me with hurt brimming over in your eyes, what happened?
Please don’t touch, it’s not safe, I can’t promise that you won’t get burnt. I warned you. 
I offered you sunflowers and warm sunlight washing over your legs, as the grass tickled your back. Or maybe it was an ant? But ants can leave vicious bites, and I’m sorry I didn’t know these flowers had thorns, evil barbed ones puncturing your finger tips until they bled incessantly. My light turned into a naked fluorescent bulb shining directly into your feeble eyes, a naked bulb in an interrogation room, the blinding flash before everything goes black.
I would’ve loved to be your support system but *buzz buzz radio static* we regret to inform you that factory flaws and operator error have led to widespread malfunctioning within the system’s parts. This plant is henceforth shut down until further notice; you will have to find another way to satisfy your needs. We advise that you exercise caution when consuming products manufactured here.
Consume at your own peril.
Be consumed at your own peril.
Be consumed.
I warned you. 

People Like “Us”

It’s not your fault. You’ve lost your way. I imagine that now when you look in the mirror your reflection is a stranger, that prodigal son that emerged from the harmattan haze only to find a lone drummer and a one-legged chicken not yet slaughtered. A lackluster welcome.

You’ve forgotten who you are. You’ve traded in that sweet soul for dreams of rooftop views and designer labels, and success, no matter the cost at which it comes. And imaginary friends you pull out of the air; you take them to bed with you and you’re still cold. They adorn your vanity with insincere praise; abstract appreciation and tiny unnatural hearts crowning a head filled with hot air. (It’s great to be “liked” isn’t it?)

Are you not aware that people like us don’t suffer from this? I can’t even call this suffering. Your mothers toiled endlessly, and their sweat was the only moisture to kiss the unrelenting earth. They cracked their nails and spirits, trying to cajole something, anything at all to sprout from the stingy soil. And where were you? Lamenting a supposed loneliness you have created for yourself. You barricaded yourself in a palace of haughtiness, held up by the beams of your superior intellect and all-round virtue, and you scorned any visitors, accusing them of jealousy. Anyone that tried to reach beyond those walls was met with the sting of thorns, barbed wire, fingernails filed to a point.

Lonely? Depressed? Child, people like us are all too familiar with these emotions. They are states of being rather than transient moments of feeling and experience. Your mothers’ leathery skin thickened to contain the void of disappointment and meaningless futures within, and to keep the useless promises of hope out. Theirs was a grim fate, a funeral shroud used as a baptism gown. The threshold of their worlds began and ended at the entrance of the homestead. Meanwhile your horizon remains limitless. What is there to cry about?

People like us don’t do this. Wipe that ungrateful face and suck in your belly, round and satisfied with too much meat. Straighten that back, and watch that slovenly swaying of hips. You don’t need that rest you take everyday, “to clear your head.” People like us are more useful, more instrumental and less ornamental. What a disappointment you have turned out to be.

The Last Affirmation

(an ode to all those shrinking violets who have outgrown the dark)

Have you ever heard the expression “painfully shy?” Are you familiar with the words “uptight”, “stuck up”, “introverted” or the crowd favorite, “not even all that?” I’m more than positive that all these words have been used to describe at least one person you know at some point in time. Or maybe it’s you? I was once told that shyness was actually a form of arrogance, not a distant relative only linked out of convenience, but rather a direct derivative, one state of being extracted and distilled from another. Think about it. Are you just scared of social interaction with large groups of people you don’t know? Or are you so convinced of your own superiority that you don’t find it necessary or worth your time to come into contact with anyone whose dusty feet wouldn’t dare to brush even the base of your pedestal? Listen to reason. Aren’t you flexing your ostentatious self esteem, polishing the trophy of your spectacular being in the face of others’ dullness? Of course you think you’re better than everyone; that’s precisely the reason you keep to yourself, holding up one corner of the room with your hunched shoulders, a sign of your silent judgment and disdain.

I see you.

The truth is that the look on your face is not a signal for others to stay away, warning them that you’ll be bored beyond death into the afterlife by their platitudes. It would be better for them to conserve their energy and take their politeness elsewhere. The real truth is that your expression is a poorly disguised plea for everyone or anyone (anyone at all) to see you, and to cast aside first impressions, what do they mean anyway? These are all stale clichés overused and pounded to a meaningless pulp. Let me put it this way. It’s like having two warring sides trapped in one whole. There is a well-adjusted, self-possessed, and confident presence, someone who radiates ease, drawing others effortlessly into her force field. As she fluffs out her hair and gets ready to leave the house, a shriveled imp with a disturbing eye twitch and a hacking cough sneaks up behind her, “Where do you think you’re going like that? Who do you think you are? Not even that smart, kind, pretty, hardworking, funny, spiritual, even God is disappointed…”

Not even that smart, kind, supportive, organized, popular, humble, God himself made you and He’s looking down wishing he hadn’t bothered.

Is this making sense?

Alright, imagine that you have a dark room somewhere in the furthest flung corner of your mind. That dark room has a door with rusty hinges; termites have feasted on the wood panels leaving obscene gaping holes throughout. You push the door open, and you see a strange shadowy creature stirring in the corner. It’s the little imp, with an evil glint in its one good eye,

Not even that special, or wanted, or important. Not at all important. Not at all…

You slam the door shut and it is immediately reduced to dust. But the imp’s chant is playing in your mind in a loop, over and over and over…It ricochets off the walls in empty corridors, and hides under the voices of acquaintances that are not as happy to see you as they claim to be. It manifests itself in the blank stares of people who couldn’t possibly remember that you had met just the other day. It disguises itself as heartfelt words of encouragement from a trusted friend whose real aim is to ensure that the dreaded loop isn’t broken; your continued insecurity is like a footstool for their swollen pride. The chant echoes in the scolding of anyone you have ever loved, the only one you have ever loved, the people you grew out of loving: it’s not them, it’s you. You care too much what people think. You care too much.

I care.

How could anyone know about that dazzling personality? You are certain it exists, but it lights up only on your insides, providing temporary warmth, a paper shield for your quivering soul on those days when the attacks on your character are too sharp and threaten to rip your skin to shreds. Is anyone ever born self-deprecating? Did you come out with your head already bowed, or averted, or tilted back to avoid the tears from burning through your carefully created mask? Nature versus nurture. Were you taught to turn this mask into a default setting, welding it on to conceal your natural God-given radiance? Your very existence seemed to cause people’s eyes to narrow, blood lightly simmering to a boil as they watched you. Even they couldn’t explain why. And so the training began.

Your daughter has come on top.

 She’s rude.

 She thinks her hair is long, and so what? Tswwww.

 She thinks she’s pretty aaahma.

 You know she said this about her body- what, really? Her?

 I know she cheats on tests.

 She was posting Bible verses just the other day, but we know what happens behind closed doors.

Imagine the imp sits on your shoulders; it has a front row seat to your life. Keeping a close eye on you, making sure the show goes the way it should. Imagine your reflection is an indeterminate haze in a mirror stained with spit and tears. Imagine the mirror is cracked. Imagine it is whole but you don’t ever lift your head to look at it. Imagine your own “self” is so malnourished and lacking of love, that it hides in that dark, damp room in the unsearched recesses of your mind. Imagine that you’re so worried you’ll meet another empty glance, another mean-spirited whisper, another mangled text conversation, signals distorted in translation, so worried that you barricade yourself in that room. You decorate it with the false happiness of self-sufficiency and paper chains and flowers wilting fast. Imagine your fear of that chant, that loop, that refrain that punctuates all the better moments in your life; imagine that fear paralyzes you. And now the imp is hungry and you have no self-worth left to spare. So maybe you feed off others who appear healthier than you, spitting out unnecessary comments here and there in muted tones loud enough to make them feel a fraction of the discomfort you live with.

Picture your life, vast and largely unknown, stretching before you in a flurry of diplomas and babies and love and lust and contentment and grief and satisfaction. Now try to fold it over on itself as many times as you find possible, so tightly that it can fit in your pocket as you peer through the cracked window of that gloomy room. Anxiety? What are you anxious about? People are dying and starving and starving to death and burying babies and dreams and memories. If you want some real problems I can give you some.

I love you.

 For being confusing and frustrating. For that soul that is beautiful in so many unexpected ways, for that voice that is loud at all the wrong times, but still quiet when it’s absolutely necessary. For that fierce determination, even when it is hidden behind a curtain of unstoppable tears. For not feeling the need to compete, because you’ve already won and you’re the only one who doesn’t know it. Trust me, all the other contestants are very much aware that you’re worthy of gold medals, and laurels for your head. This is part of their game plan. For that fragile shell of sarcasm and biting wit and sass, for that truth that scatters the shell into a million shards, I love you.

Not even important, not at all, you should be sorry-

 Unapologetic. This is the last justification. Waste no more of your precious words.

“You are terrifying and strange and beautiful, something not everyone knows how to love.”* I won’t tell you to love yourself. I won’t sprinkle affirmations around your desk, scribbled on fluorescent sticky notes. I won’t tell you that even the combination of Chaka Khan, Pippi Longstocking, Yaa Asantewaa, Tina Turner, and Mary Magdalene has nothing on you. No inspirational quote or Buzzfeed article can capture your essence. You’re more than just a reformed wallflower, a loneliness addict in rehab.

Have I revealed too much? Have you not become vulnerable?

No dear, I think this is what I call freedom.

This is the last affirmation.

 

*Warsan Shire, “For Women who are ‘Difficult’ to Love”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trouble Sleeping

Please answer yes or no to the following questions:

Do you…

Have trouble sleeping?

toss and turn for hours on end?

long for sleep but fight it because you are terrified of the dark?

crave a human touch during the wee hours?

find comfort in strangers’ voices and last year’s top twenty hits while your alarm ticks closer and closer?

claim to need sleep but secretly dread the loneliness that lies on the other side of dreams?

 

Are you…

having difficulty staying awake at work?

losing interest in things you used to love?

scared, but secretly wishing you would fall asleep behind the wheel?

holding on to misplaced guilt and misunderstandings never resolved?

using uncertainty as your favorite stuffed toy?

frightened that the minute eyelids close is the minute you cease to exist, to someone, to that one, to anyone;

or worse, the second eyelids close is the second you spring into deadly action *don’t blink*

 

weeping angel

manic-depressive

moody

difficult

insomniac

crazy

 

Do you see yourself when you read these words?

You are desperate, aren’t you?

On a scale of one to ten how desperate would you say you are?

Fifteen? Yes?

Do you have trouble sleeping?

If you answered yes to the above questions, please follow me. An appointment shall be made for you immediately. You are in need of something-

an answer

a prayer

a piece of paper and a pen almost out of ink

a printer cartridge with a few more words to spare

a text message

a remedy? I do apologize; those are not currently available.

If you answered no to the above questions, come this way. I’m afraid you need to be quarantined.

 

You are the cause.