Outside, a knock sounds on my door. I heard it clearly through my headset but I ignore it. I increase the volume of the music playing on my phone so high that it drowned out the sound of the persistent knocking because I will need an excuse for when later the person knocking on my door will confront me. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you. I had my headset on”, I will lie. Plausible deniability except that it is a clear, intentional lie. But sometimes a lie is easier and kinder than the truth. It is easier to deny than it is to say, “Oh, I did hear you but I wasn’t ready mentally, emotionally, psychologically to host you. I wasn’t ready for the mindless chats and the constant strain of being around a human being.” After all, who needs to prepare emotionally and mentally just to say hello to a friend? It's just something you do.
My housemates think I’m weird. They tease me. “You know you will die inside your room one day and no one will know until your body starts rotting and smelling.” one of them says all the time. I giggle with them on those rare evenings when I step outside the veranda to watch the sky just as the sun travels home. On those evenings, the gentle breeze slapping my face, the fire trails in the sky and the cacophonous sounds of the evening rituals – the students returning to their lodges at the end of another stressful school day, the swirling wind carrying the sound of their reckless chats softly, the okada men speed-driving down the untarred road raising dust into the air and the okpa evening sellers, calling out to their buyers with their high-pitched sing-song voices– is all the company and medicine I need.
“But isn’t it boring? Being holed up inside your room all day without ever going out or meeting new people. How do you do that? I’d go out of my mind if I ever stay indoors for a full day” an acquaintance asked me once. I wish I can make him understand. I wish I can make him understand that it strains and exhausts me to interact with people, all that chatting and ceaseless effort one puts in just to get to know another person is exhausting. I wish I can make him understand how hard familiarity sucks, too. And that subsuming myself in bottomless silence is therapeutic and relaxing to me. But words sometimes fail me and can never suffice so I causally reply, “It’s real easy if you think about it. I get to read all the books I can, watch all the movies I can, and write as much as I can. I like being alone, that way its better off for everyone.”
He stares. “You are not normal, you know that right?”
“Being normal sucks. Being human sucks harder”, I reply.
The lover extolls me for being what he calls “self-contained”. He doesn’t understand that I push everyone away because I don’t think I deserve them; that I am scared they will see through me and realise that I am not worthy of their attention and love so I reject them before they even have the chance to know me. He doesn’t understand that “self-containment” is just a synonym for “loneliness”. He doesn’t know that I bury my head in books because I am trying to escape from the suffocating reality. But, I smile and listen to him praise me for dying slowly within. He doesn’t get it.
In school, I hide. I hide from everyone and everything. My friend invites me to a pool party and I turn it down. “I am going to be busy on Saturday”, I tell her. But, what I don’t tell her is that I am going to be busy sleeping, watching movies and reading Jhumper Lahiri and Orhan Pamuk’s essays.
In class, I sit at the back. “I am farsighted.” I tell classmates who noticed and want to pry into my affairs. Indeed, I do have hyperopia but the Asian doctor with the receding hairline who examined me said I am just into the early stage and I can see clear enough from the front seats but I find excuses anyway because it is easier. It is easier to lie than it is to say, “I like sitting at the back because it gives me a sense of invisibility. I sit at the back to hide.”
I lie because I am running away from the questions that will follow if I dare say the truth. Questions like: “what are you hiding from?”
I re-read Purple Hibiscus again. I feel a kinship with Kambili. I claim her as mine because I see myself in her. I know what it feels like to have words stuck inside your throat and underneath one’s tongue.
I hate presentations in school. I hate standing in front of the entire class and making a fool of myself. I practice in front of my mirror endlessly and somehow standing in front of the entire class and lecturers makes the words I had so carefully rehearsed vanish from my lips.
“You are socially awkward.” An acquaintance accused me once.
“More like socially retarded.” Another diagnosed.
I’ve thought of myself as a lot of things but socially retarded isn’t one of them.
I fold myself into tiny, malleable layers to make myself inaccessible to others. I occupy very little space wherever I find myself and I wish people would realise how valid that is.
I have anonymous social media accounts where I share my opinions. On Facebook and Twitter, I share my thoughts on issues that bother me like religion and the patriarchy and Nigerian affairs. It’s easier to be bold when you are anonymous. It’s easier to create a new version of oneself online with strangers. On my Facebook page, my slightly large number of followers percept a bold, loud-mouthed, angry, vivacious girl when they read my posts when in reality my stomach knots and tightens in strange anticipation after sending each post. I am waiting for those insults from strangers. I am waiting for those who will misconstrue my posts and those who will be offended by my truths. I am waiting for them to invade my comment section and my DM with their ill wishes. After years, I’ve learnt to be immune to those assaults but sometimes a new message in my messenger app like a sharp knife tears through my ‘thick’ skin until finally I deleted my messenger app.
“Why don’t you ever post your pictures on Facebook?” my school friend asked. We were on our way returning to her hostel from school “Why don’t you ever take pictures when you have such an awesome camera?” another asks, taking selfies with my phone. “I am not photogenic.” I reply. A half-truth.
To be invisible is to lose oneself slowly in secret.
On twitter, a follower extolled Yiyun Li. He suggested I read her works. “I am sure you’ll love her.” he tweeted.
So I went hunting for Yiyun Li’s works. I found her collection of short stories “Gold boy, Emerald girl” first. I loved it so I looked for some more. But, it was her collection of essays “Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life” I read recently that broke me, opened up old wounds and gave me courage to finally put my feelings down into words.
“There is this emptiness in me. All the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing.” Yiyun writes.
I am lying in bed mourning the loss of the two men in my life. To one, I gave my heart and to the other, my body. I had to cut out my heart, put it in the hands of my first love when he started playing with it while it still beat inside my chest. When I couldn’t take the pain anymore, I sliced it off and gave him, “here, have it” I said but that didn’t reduce the pain slithering its way through me.
I still call others his name.
To seek comfort and keep loneliness away, I invited the other into my bed. To me, it was an adventure and a crazy experiment when I kissed him in the studio that day but I started wanting more – someone to claim. The echoing emptiness inside me needed to be drowned out but he’d still be thrusting into me and answering the call of the love of his life. I lay there and watch him love another and the emptiness in me whispers: you really are nothing.
5: “DYING IN INSTALLMENTS.”
“How could you have thought of suicide when you have people you love? But love is the wrong thing to question. One does not will oneself to love, one does not kill oneself because one ceases to love. The difficulty is that love erases: the more faded one becomes, the more easily one loves.” Yiyun writes.
The lover scolds me for being selfish. That day, I lay on him feeling the riotous emotions rising and falling inside him. He keeps telling me to think about my family and “loved ones”. He said I should consider the pain I would put them through. He also suggested I think about those who “look up to me” and all the people I will “inspire” in the future.
It baffles me. In order not to be selfish, I have to swallow and carry my pain silently inside me.
“Would it be less selfish if I wait for my parents to die first? Would it be less selfish if I live out the dreams they’ve mapped out for me? If I give them a degree, an In-law and grandkids, would it then be less selfish?” I ask him. He stares. “No, because then you have a family of your own. And it’d be evil to do that to them.”
“And so the pain continues? So I have to live a life I have no interest in so as not to be selfish. I have to contain my madness, dying slowly so I won’t be selfish?”
“One’s wish to die can be as blind and intuitive as one’s will to live, yet the latter is never questioned. Is the wish to escape suffering selfish?” Yiyun asks.
I bury my face into the hollow space between his neck. “If I die today, no one will mourn me. No one knows me...the real, true me. I don't even know the real true me. My family will mourn the dearth of their dreams and all the plans they hoped to achieve through me. My demise will scatter their perfectly laid plans.” I reveal my worst nightmare, my voice sounding a little muffled.
“I’ll mourn You, baby.” He replied, I can feel the sadness in his voice.
“You’ll forget me.”
“In between time spent with other people is the time to prepare for their disappearance.” Yiyun succinctly puts it.
“Stop it!!! You are here for a reason. You just gotta find your purpose.” His dismissive tone irks me a little.
“There’s really no such thing as purpose. We're born, we live, we die. Why is Living a choice but choosing not to live anymore not considered as such?.” I retort.
“No one thinks of suicide as a courageous endeavour to kill time.” Yiyun gets my madness.
“But god wouldn’t have created you if it wasn’t for a purpose.” The lover tries again, his voice a little subdued because he is aware of the silliness of his own comment. I chuckle, “alright, dude.” And the conversation ends there. My heart and mind went on breaking from the heavy weight I carry within me.
“Harder to endure than fresh pain is the pain that has already been endured: a reminder that one is not far from who one was.” Yiyun further writes.
My friend, Ademola gets my madness too. I’ve read his essay, “Dying in instalments” and a sentence stayed with me, haunting me. “I have learnt to wear my pain around me like a cape, to carry a phony smile around my face like life is all good. But then, I know that there is nothing interesting about housing pain. Living with grief is dying in instalments.”
I text him and we talk about his essay on WhatsApp. He tells me about the people who have been trying to ‘heal’ him since the essay was published. “Doesn’t it hurt you when they try to?” I ask him. “It depends on who is trying. I hardly let people in.” He’s a kindred spirit.
“So, what’s been happening lately?” He ask me. “Nothing. Mostly, I’ve been trying to breathe and…pretty well live” í type back to him.
“Don’t stop doing that please. I’m here. Always, just know that” his message notification pops up on my phone screen. It should warm my heart. Here’s someone who sees me, finally. But, the emptiness echoing inside me makes me want to reply: I am the one carrying the pain and there’s nothing interesting about housing this pain. Living with pain is dying in instalments. This pain is killing me slowly.
But courage fails me. I don’t want him to start worrying about me, again. So I let it go. I keep my self to myself and my grief and pain to myself because it belongs to me alone. I alone who knows how to carry it around and within me. No other person will get it.
“It’s alright to die cause death’s the only thing you haven’t tried. But just for tonight, hold on” Ed Sheeran in his song, “Even my dad does sometimes”.
Sometimes, I am suffocated by the stillness, bleakness and dullness of my life. I am suffocated by the bottomless silence I often throw myself into. But, I am learning that it is okay to not be okay sometimes. I am learning to go to places where I can feel seen and loved. I am learning to cut off toxic ties that makes me question myself, and my sanity. I am learning to realise that I matter. I am learning that keeping the pain inside me silently is not brave. Facing it, letting it all go, and feeling it takes a lot of courage to do than hiding it. I’ve accepted that I need help.
I am learning how to live and breathe for myself; to realise that my life completely belongs to me and that I owe nobody ‘legacy’. I am learning how to see beauty in the little things that make up life. I am learning how to sit in the front seats and how to meet new people. I am learning how to open my door more and play less music. I am learning how to find joy in interacting with new people. I am learning how to stop making excuses.
I am battling the persistent urge to slide into a painless non-existence. I will die someday but of natural causes. I am learning how to wait. I know I will wait.