How I’ve been navigating my mental health

Long before I came to England, I had no notion of isolation. Coming from a pretty large family, school holidays meant everything to me. It was where my cousins and I reunited over laughter, joy and love – something which was never in short supply. When the holidays were over, and school began in late spring, my peers were still getting used the idea of not being the youngest kids in school. I was different. I missed school; I missed having friends. I was excited to go back. But when the first day of school finally came to an end, I knew it was going to be some fuckery from there on out. 

The teachers and students alike ostracised me. They congratulated my ‘good English’, utterly oblivious to their country’s colonial past. The kids asked me if I had ever seen a lion or had an elephant in my backyard. They asked me if this was my first time wearing shoes. It seemed like all they want was to torment the “new Black girl” from Africa. My so-called teachers lingered long enough to hear my responses. 

I found out later that the girls in my tutor group had started an email group on AOL dedicated to spewing hate about me, even plotting ways to stop being ‘friends’ with me. I remember, one of the girls’ mum started honking her car horn at me continuously each time she saw me walking to the school gates. Her cold eyes and sinister smirk has forever been seared into memory. 

If it wasn’t bad enough being at school was uncomfortable, so was being at home. My parents’ ignore a lot which, made it harder for me to be honest with them. I remember thinking “this was my life now, and I needed to learn how to navigate it”. My sister was younger than me and was able to assimilate and fit in more natural than I ever did. My cousin’s experiences measured to mine were completely different; they were practically English. Not only did I not fit in at school, but I now also didn’t fit in at home. The loneliness consumed me until it became my only friend. 

The person I was at school was not the person I was at home. Nor was I the same person when I was alone. I became obsessed with the idea of death, mines to be exact. I would spend hours planning my FUNeral because, in my head, I didn’t want a cloudy function. The stillness of night amplified the darkness and weight of my loneliness. I often cried silently and slept in a puddle of my tears most nights terrified that I had to do it all again the next day. Those tears also carried an element of relief; relief that the day was over. Some nights, I used to stare at the ceiling, praying for some incurable illness to befall on me and end me. I was Catholic, so ending my life myself was not an option. Sometimes, I wished I would vanish into thin air. 

By the university came around, darkness was my closest companion. We were Bonnie and Clyde; I was the only casualty each time we got together. During my second year, my dad got very sick. Being that I am a daddy’s girl at heart, even though we argued, the man got me. I grew up genuinely believing no harm could ever come to my dad. To be faced with the reality of my father being connected to machines via wires, I was forced to face mortality head-on. At that moment, my knees went weak. My trusted friend came and held me up as the weight of my heart made it impossible for me to carry myself. Something in me died. The darkness inside took full control. 

Everything irritated me. I started to drink to feel, to correlate to my peers, to eat, to sleep and even for dutch courage. What began as an innocent weekend drinking binge turned into vodka mornings. I could no longer contain it. My housemate was spreading rumours about me to our friends and family to feed her insatiable ego. I was painfully indifferent to it all as long as I had a drink. I would laugh at the irony, but once the glass was finished, I was ready to fight everyone. 

Before my first period came, I used to get pains in my stomach so intense I would curl into a ball. My mum would take me to the GP every other month, and each time they said there wasn’t anything they could do. This set a level of distrust of GPs to me. I was on edge so much that I bit the bullet and booked an appointment with the university GP. I told her about my lack of appetite, my insomnia, my tiredness and that I didn’t feel much. I remember her vividly telling me that this was normal; all I needed to do was have a goodnight’s sleep. 

On my way home from the appointment, I got a drink as I pondered at the ridiculousness of her comment. If I could, I would sleep. I became fixated on the fact that everyone had hacked life, and I seemed to be unable to. All this affirmed the loneliness, and I felt. To everyone I was a hard-working fun-loving person, my reality was the inability to leave my flat for days on end, terrified of leaving the cocoon of safety I had created in my room. 

Until last year I had mastered walking with the world on my shoulders and darkness by my side. I worked in an open plan office with artificial orange light and double glazed windows. It felt like a fish tank under a desk lamp. I wore that toxic work culture like decorative algae. Everyone was aware it was there but had convinced themselves this was how work was supposed to be. 

I needed to leave that cesspool, so I proceeded to apply for every job going in Hampshire. I tried to start my own cleaning company as nothing came out of any of the job search I did, and no one wanted to pay cleaners decent pay. I began to take these shortcomings. I hated going to work and had no energy for anything outside of work. 

I was signed off work for two months; for the first time, a doctor heard me. I told him my day was filled with fantasies and scenarios of my demise, it would start in the shower with visions of stray shower spray going up my nose and drowning me; on my way to work, I would compete with reckless van drivers to see who was madder. I told him of the deep melancholy and how I would shift from force-feeding myself to eating everything in my path. It was the random outbursts of tears at work that week and the graphic description of wanting to work a pen into a makeshift prison-style shank to stab into the neck of whoever ticked me off at work, that got me medicated. He said it would quieten a lot of the noise. 

The medication dulled the colour in everything; this was different from the melancholy I was used to. Everything became bland and dull. I had a yearning to go home. I went back to my mum’s house, the feeling persisted, as the two months neared the end my doctor suggested I 

don’t go back, we settled on a few hours a day three days a week. You can not heal in a place that broke you. I quit my job, booked a ticket and went home for a month. I spent time with cousins, aunties, uncles and people I grew up with. Yet this feeling of going back did not go. 

By the time I came back, I had learnt about slowing down and connecting with oneself. I learnt how to go inward by way of meditation, gratitude and reconciling my faith. Although I do not subscribe to any religion, knowing I am part of something bigger than what the flesh perceives, has helped me as I discover my true spiritual nature. Confinement is bringing up so many things; some days are HARD. Taking it day by day and moment by moment on days when day by day is unrealistic has been my saving grace. In a crisis, I fight the feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment, I try to make space for gratitude, some days are more natural, and I can be compassionate to self. I am learning self-care is essential and not selfish. I vocalise what I need truthfully to myself and do what I have to. I am learning that setting boundaries are a form of self-care. 

I celebrate my journey thus far and celebrate my growth daily, even on the days it may feel like regression. Through spirituality, I’m discovering I have never been alone, not even on the days I felt my loneliest. When you choose to see the light and love you find out, it is always darkest before dawn. 

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