Inside my head

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I’ve been trapped inside my head for a few months now. The events leading to this not being things I can safely articulate in writing, I have been spending my time reviewing them in my head, trying to count my luck, and estimate the lucky numbers I got left on the table before I run out and my breath slows down. I can almost feel the smell of the devil near my shoulder, trying to whisper to me things that scare me, as if he’s after me. That has made me go insane, wear paranoia on my sleeve and become restless. And every moment I decide to sit down and tap on my soft keys, I begin writing terrifying stories, stories that people kill others for. So I stop. I have stocked them, because I have to clear my mind of them so that I can be able to write anew.

Therefore, I have denied you the chance of getting entertained. I came across a short piece I had done for a certain anthology, one that failed to meet the cut. It is a story I wrote when I was sad, and sadness brings silly emotions in a story. uncontrolled emotions have no place in a space where seriousness is needed. I decided to share it with you so that it can be some sort of challenge to continue my writing journey.

This piece has me in it, and another person as well. I don’t know if you have experience in that. It is your job to find who is who.

Break your neck!

“Your friend is weird. Is he retarded or something?” Grace asked Anna.

“I don’t understand him too at times. One minute he’s well, another minute he’s all acting up,” Anna responded.

“How do you manage to have him as a friend? Me I can’t,” said Grace.

“When he’s himself he can be quite fun to be with. There’s a side of him that enthralls me. When I think of cutting him out I remember that side. It is the only sane thing in the whole friendship.”

Their banter continued into the night. I happened to be behind the draperies listening to them. The duo sat on the balcony, sipping their champagne gracefully while watching the sun get swallowed by the horizon and surrender its dynasty to darkness. It was not my intention to eavesdrop, I only happened to sit by. On hearing I am the subject, I had moved closer.

My battle with mental health started when I was young. No one knew what was wrong. And this was the beginning of my grief. I was suffering from things no one around me knew. This made it even extra difficult for anyone around me to understand how I should be treated.

I grew up with my father. I was only six years old when my mother passed on due to cancer. It had devoured her, making her a walking skeleton. One day when she’d suffered enough from sustained battles, she gave in. She had no energy in her to keep up with the fight.

All the years of my life I have always stayed with the memories of her last days. I was there, watching her die because at six years old I didn’t know how to treat her. I didn’t have even a clue of what she was ailing from. Her struggles started much earlier, when I was younger at around four I guess. In estimation, she had two full years to fight with her demons.

In the village, poverty ruled people. People often died of diseases because they lacked funds to get treated. So they spent their days languishing in agony until all their fighting energy was entirely drained. At such point, they bowed out of the bout and let the foe thrill in his victory.

To add to poverty, people were highly ignorant. Calling them foolish will only go beyond the fence of my respect. Their ignorance would whisper to them that people who fell sick were bewitched. I knew so because I was once taken to a witch doctor to undo my grief, not my mental issues though.  And I suppose my mother’s grief couldn’t be treated. People suffering from her disease were left to die. The cost of treatment was high, and most of the victims ended up dead anyway. So her people only tended her while they waited for her to die.

Life is funny, that you can be born, suffer most of your life and then leave as you came. Why be born just to suffer and then die? What is the essence of that kind of life? Is it necessary? These are questions that people like me ask on a daily basis. Is it worth living when all you know is constant grief?

Sometimes you learn to create and embrace your little joys. While everything around reminds you of whom you truly are, a mentally retarded person, you hone ways to have your joys in your own manner and level. To suppress that side of you that people use to define your very existence, you have to depend on taking medicines, making endless meet ups with your doctors and convincing yourself that you can be a normal person with a stable mental state.

 Most days, as it happens, the medicine becomes too much. It extremely bores you or it stops working. You want to run away from that kind of slavery and be like other normal people who wake up and go about their activities without popping pills. It is the kind of life you envy, it looks enticingly seamless, with a lot of ease and joy in its epicenter. You long for that kind of life.

When poverty and diseases join forces to attack your house, you pay for sins you didn’t commit. Paying for crimes your innocence knows nothing about. Handling grief that doesn’t belong to you but you are forced to own it. And you pay in many gory and perturbing ways. The two make you become a beggar. A beggar. They coerce you to beg for your survival because you have nothing else to your name, not even yourself because mental illness owns your mind, that part that controls you. You cannot think for yourself anymore. Something else rules your mind; it drives you crazy and makes you do bizarre things.

Poverty strips you naked. It ages the clothes that cover your only nakedness. It goes with it all your possessions, even those which you had busted your butt so hard to acquire. Even the little things that cost you an arm and a leg are bundled into its car and pulled away while you watch because something else is keeping your ability to act captive. So you can’t stand up, think clearly of strategies that can optimize that little amount of happiness that has not left you. Soon or later, it is bound to packs its bags and leave, only to board where greener pastures flourish.

You are made to become vulnerable to society. Until people know or understand what the magnitude of your fight is, they’ll term you as demented. And they can’t understand that fight. To better understand some other fights, you have to trade fists. You have to stand in the arena of gladiators, fight your way through it while sweat drops as huge as a tennis ball roll down to the dust from your tired face. You have to get hit. Hard. Harder. Hardest. Tears must come out of your eyes’ windows. Bitter tears. Tears that prick you to fight back. You have to fall again and again until you get the bravery of fighting back without falling onto your knees because then, the enemy will take his sword and chop off your head.

So there are so many ways that a single event can make you become part of many wars. You become burdensome to those around you. You face stigma. You beg for attention and understanding, become vulnerable to anyone who considers themselves  “have it put together”, get accused, endure harsh abuses thrown at your face and much more. There can be nothing to smile about. Your life is a terrible mess.

So I grew up with a father who was aloof. For all he cared, he was providing basic needs for you and your little sister. Both of you were fighting different battles. Unlike others in the village, there was money in our homestead. Everyone visiting or passing by could see all the signs of money. That money, however, was elusive. It dissipated to places I never knew. Instead of feeling its joy, what followed me was poverty.

My uncaring father knew nothing concerning childcare. He never knew what we wore or where we got it from. In my entire life, I only remember him buying me shoes thrice. I remember the shoes because they were girlish or ominously looking. He just got me anything because I needed it.

When I failed in schoolwork, he was the one acting up, accusing me of focusing more effort on devouring food rather than injecting it on my studies. It never occurred to him that perhaps there was something contributing to my dismal performance. He was like a man I only saw on television. So I was all alone, battling a thing I didn’t know about until I was in high school. Surprisingly, I did well in my K.C.P.E. to be admitted to a national school and later on make it to varsity.

His nature of parenting, if at all it qualifies, made me develop a tough skin. It taught me to learn how to fight my own devils. How else could I redeem myself and live the life that I dreamt of? I could see that life, away from constant pressure and acting crazy, through my window. Every evening I could stand by the window and admire the sun as it sunk in the west. I loved its weak yellow rays. They were a beautiful sight to behold.

I went to bed thinking of that beauty. Often, I wondered if life was that beautiful. Looking at people around, people who had grown up, their lives had significantly changed. They were happier and they often told me “one day you’ll grow to love life.” It is beautiful when you’re an adult, they told me.

This is to say that my childhood lacked the happiness that it should have had. It was bundled with moments of sitting alone or slouching myself at corners and trying to listen to my thoughts, watching other kids enjoy their childhood with ultimate happiness. I believed that my happiness was reserved for me so that I could relish on it once I grew up.

My childhood was void, devoid of good times that surround kids. This is to say I grew up like an adult in my childhood. I behaved and acted so. I matured way before others of my age. But this also denied me the opportunity to feel and act like a child. I don’t know the happiness that comes with childhood. I don’t know how to treat children.

The happiness I always thought was reserved for me when I grow up is yet to reveal its face to me. At 26 years of age, I think myself of an adult. Can it be that there was never to be any kind of happiness for me? The kind of happiness I envisioned for myself when I grow up has not unveiled itself to me. The only happiness I know is to trust my pills more than I trust people.

My pills don’t judge me. They don’t condemn me. They don’t scream or shout at me. They look at me with eyes of concern. They want me to heal. They know I deserve the best too. They never get tired of me even when I do. They never leave my side. They know my grief more than I do, that is why they try to provide the most therapeutic treatment to my grief. They know what that grief is doing to me. They know it drives me nuts, tortures my self-esteem, brings suicidal thoughts, makes me feel lesser of a human being, it makes me live in a jungle of isolation.  That is my happiness; trusting my pills.

People around me don’t trust me to make sound, logical or intelligent decisions. They know I lack that ability. For all they know, I am a retard, a crazy person who needs help which they’re not willing to offer. They think I am emotionally unstable. They take my decisions to be dicey. They judge my existence as if I chose to be this desperate. They abandon me when they go out because they’re afraid that I’ll embarrass them in front of their buddies. They loathe embarrassment. So they shut me out. They never talk about me to their friends. I don’t exist.

They pretend to be your friends. It is all they can do, pretend. They really pity you. They never ask what really life is like with your battles. They don’t understand your battles. They are never interested to know. They know something is not right, but they never ask. Asking will only make things worse. They will spread rumours that you’re demented. This will inflate your troubles tenfold. With inflated trouble, depression espouses you.

So I am not supposed to talk about my struggles because the world around me will treat me differently. I have known so because I have talked about them and seen faces changes, hugs reduce, interactions cease and negativity rise. I am supposed to bottle all my struggles inside me, nurse them and wait to visit the grave with them.

Some will tell me to talk about them, to champion for awareness, to be strong for myself, to be positive about life and all there is that they think will bring relief. I appreciate them because they want to help. Their kind of help has nothing to do with me. It does not have me in the centre of their extended courtesy, care, and concern. All they have is empty talk. They talk because they have to talk, not because they mean what they say. For a man who has known to rely more on actions than words, I find their words non-caring. Words that are not preceded by action. Words that can be said even by a child who doesn’t know anything about the burdens of this world. They just say them to be seen that they are contributing towards my wellness.

I don’t need pity, which is all they give me. Just like anyone else, I need to be loved, to be treated with respect, my dignity to be respected. I don’t want people to look at me longer than they should. They shouldn’t stare at me when my demons emerge from their slumber. I want to fall asleep on someone’s warm hands. I want to be cuddled, to be held not like a fragile egg but with genuine honesty. My prayer is to be given the right support not because I deserve it but because I need it in order to survive.

There are more men and women like me out there wallowing in this darkness. I know so because I have sat in rooms with them, sat around circles to share stories about our struggles and seen tears flow out of their eyes. Tears that reflect the treacherous paths their lives have been walking on for years and years of turmoil that has no end. Many have learnt to ignore the world that perceives them to be irredeemable lunatics awaiting their death and tried to lead lives like everyone else.

Others are not strong enough to handle that burden lurking in their mind. It is an insurgent burden that knocks any time even when you want to rest. When it knocks, you have to grapple to reach the bedside table where your weapon of medicine is. Seeing a psychologist becomes something you can’t avoid. He too, cannot entirely be concerned about your situation. It is a job for him. He will leave to attend to other ‘psychopaths’ who also need his help. Deep inside, he knows he can’t treat you; he can only give you insight on how to manage your burden. It cannot be lifted off your back.

The strong ones don’t give a hoot what the world perceives about their condition. They have walked into the inner thighs of their situation and seen how irreparable it is. They have been through worse, to the point of trying to kill themselves. Only that somewhere on the way to the destination of their end, they found hope that changed their minds. They came back, not to start afresh but to shift their paradigm. All they needed was that tinge of hope. It kept alive their dreams of ever becoming happy.

Hope can do miracles. It is the only thing that can make you long for tomorrow. It fills you with positivity and yearning, hinting that perhaps things can be better with time. It is hope that teaches you to be patient. It is patience that teaches you the art of consistency. When you combine all these, perhaps there is a chance for you to be redeemed.

The chains of your burden will never yank off. There is no way to freedom. You’ll be a captive. You don’t need to be in cells to feel captive. Your own mind is the biggest prison you’ll ever be in. Every day you’ll keep doing the same thing, to wake, enter the car or a bus (a small prison), go to work (a small prison), finish work, enter your small prison and drive home which is another small prison. It is a self-perpetuation circle full of prisons. But the prison in our mind travels with us everywhere we go.

With his newfound hope, he will begin to think differently. He will see the medicine as something that makes him feel better, he will learn that people will always talk whether you’re okay or a lunatic, he will cherish positive thoughts, he will wake up and find a job, he will try to find more help and basically strive to pursue a better life, perhaps to live that happy life he’s been dreaming of.

Without that hope, it is a chase of vanity. With hope, you find a purpose. A purpose makes you feel worth living. It is purpose that injects one with the tenacity to fight their wars with bravery. It may not be about winning, but making a change.

As at this point, I have endured all kinds of torture that come with losing hope. I have walked down many paths that murdered my innocence. I have walked down boulevards of broken dreams severally without ever finding a reason to turn back. I have courted isolation more times than I can remember. I have severally tried to take my own life unsuccessfully. The scars in my heart and body are enough evidence that these battles were not for joy, they were to break me every time, to beat me flat on my stomach, to tramp their feet on my back, to look at me with mean smiles, and say, don’t stand up.

Despite these warnings, misery, and tears, I find the strength to rise every day. I find my way out of my little shack where they threw me away to, where they abandoned me, to just bask in the morning polite sun that shines on us all.  I adore that sun. Unlike us, it shines on us all. It doesn’t discriminate. Its biggest worry is if at all it will shine that day. It has its own fights with the clouds and darkness and time, but when its chance comes to shine, it does so brilliantly.

I drag my stool to drink it. I feel its warm rays against my skin. I turn my back to it so that it can feel that warmth. It is the only organic warmth I have known my entire life. In it, I find solace. It teaches me things that people never teach me. People are not even interested in teaching me anything; their only obsession is to complain about their lives, jobs, cars, bosses, and gloat about their achievements when they have money. They forget some of us don’t have jobs to complain about, or money for that matter.

Why are they complaining? I often ask myself. But they have all the freedom to do so. However, my only wish is that they complain to other sane beings. I am not that strong to absorb the complaints when they dump them on. I am insane. I need a break, not more misery.

My existence is empty. In this emptiness, I have found a safe haven. It is an emptiness that only seems to identify with me. It is my true friend.

One day I’ll wake up a better person. A day when people stop glorifying my grief. On that day, my mental illness will be the new sane. Discussions to understand this burden will ripple across the cosmos. If scientists can find treatment to complex ailments, they can also find a cure for our burdens on this day.  It is a day that the lights of hope will shine on me. Tears and grief will be washed from my body. I will be set free from the prison in my mind. That day I will stop paying for sins I didn’t commit. That day I will stop suffering for a crime I didn’t commit. Right now, let me struggle with my jagged, graceless and multidirectional journey to healing.

Mzangila Snr,
Where shall we go, we who wander in this wasteland in search of better selves?

If you have not read our magazine, September issue, you can find a copy here.

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