When I was in Senegal, I came down with my first bout of chronic gastritis. I am able to name that mystery ailment of stomach cramps and perpetual nausea only in hindsight. When I was there – not to the discredit of the fine Senegalese doctors I saw – I had no idea what was causing me everyday distress in my bowels. From the moment I woke up until I glided into sleep that night, I bore discomfort in my chest, my stomach and my throat. The first few weeks were awkward for me. I was the only boy in the program, but was no longer able to perform the quintessentially masculine mastery over my body. I was distraught, constantly uncomfortable, belching slow, endless burps from an empty stomach, all as I gripped my stomach and responded to questions in my practiced, if a bit inflexible, French. The other students in the cohort pitied me and would offer me anything they had that might soothe my problem. Before the first week was through, my parents and I were discussing the possibility of me withdrawing from my program in Dakar. “I’m not mentally present,” I told them, almost crying as I clutched my distended belly on the red leather coach in the back of our school building. “I don’t think I can do this.”
As you may know, I didn’t withdraw from SIT Senegal. Rather, I sank into a paranoiac life. I began hoarding spicy ginger candies that I could buy for 15 CFA at a little stand around the corner from our school. I would eat at least five or six of these everyday, at any moment when I began to feel queasy and uneasy. I never didn’t have one with me, and I knew exactly which ones I liked (I did not care for the pineapple ones). I wasn’t as adventurous as I would have liked to have been, mainly because I was young, anxious and undeniably foreign, but also because I didn’t know when my body would suddenly turn on me and start calling the shots. I often lived vicariously through the freer women in my program, half-wanting to go with them to eat sandwiches prepared at the dodgy sidewalk café, but always content, nevertheless, in my croque monsieur, my dried mango and my digestive cookies.
There was a girl in my program who left Senegal. Unlike me, she came down with something while we were there. Perhaps it was from food she’d eaten; an apple or orange she hadn’t properly sanitized with eau de javel or an ill-placed, ill-sipped glass of local water served at a restaurant, or her own body rebelling against her because it could. Needless to say, this girl had the fortitude to leave Senegal in the middle of the program, much to the shock of the employees of our program. The director shook his head in disbelief when he told us that no one had ever left the program, not even years prior when the ebola outbreak struck West Africa and stalled study abroad applications. I won’t go into the details about this girl, but I will note that nearly everyone had grown tired of her literal belly-aching by the time she actually departed. She complained ceaselessly about her perpetual nausea, her inability to name and thus fix her problem, and her unending fear of eating anything. She wanted, desperately, to be home with her parents, not because they could fix the problem (her parents, if I recall, were therapists) but because home is where comfort lies. Being sick abroad is absolutely terrible. You can take my word for it, as someone who felt they would vomit any minute while sulking about the Panthéon.
I bring up this anecdote for a couple of reasons: 1) to give some context for what I’m currently dealing with (or trying to deal with) 2) to underline a key point which I’ll make in this post 3) to draw a picture of what it feels like to be in this body.
I bring up this anecdote – of Senegal and the girl who left – because I remember being asked by one of the students after the girl left halfway through our program, whether or not I had overcome my own gastric woes. The question was posed to me after everyone (myself included, I must concede) ragged on the girl [in an admittedly harsh manner] about her endless complaining. I told my friend that my condition hadn’t improved, a response she undoubtedly wasn’t expected. Her face lit up with shock and pity, but I did not accept it.
“My condition hasn’t improved much at all. I just stopped talking about it.”Continue reading “The Chicken and the Egg”
I began 2019 on a plane to Paris. I was going to conduct some archival research, or at least this was my excuse. In hindsight, I didn’t really do much research, although I did spend most of my time in the belly of the BnF. I went for the purpose of pushing myself to do something I found kind of frightening. The prospect of traveling to another country unaccompanied made me a bit too aware of how free I truly am. I write this two days after leaving the infantile protection I still enjoy within my parent’s presence, having returned to New Haven where I’m entirely an adult, like it or not. A year ago, the notion of my independence, much coveted as a child, filled me with an unanticipated kind of dread. Even though I had technically been living on my own as an adult during my first two years of grad school, I hardly felt as if I really was independent. Yale had taken over my guardianship, was paying me an allowance, taking me to my doctor’s appointments while giving me enough space to think I was doing all of these things myself (all that’s changed is my awareness of this). Yet, I still found myself frightened by my own freedom. The existential cliff of being autonomous and ungoverned, finally cast off into dark and ominous waters. I could go to Paris and have experiences I think I need. I could stay and wonder what would have happened had I gone. In both scenarios, I would be forced to bear my own consequences.
I had to acknowledge that it was me who controlled the tempo and key of my life.
That this frightened me so much, as I was forcing myself to apply for the grants, come up with the project description, get the letters of recommendation, buy my tickets, and book my lodging, told me one important thing about myself: I did not trust myself. I had my freedom finally, but I did not know what freedom meant or that freedom could possibly feel so undesirable once it was attained. The burden of choice, the threat of repercussions. Placed atop my feigned belief in being able to handle anything the world or God threw my way, my mental composition seemed unfit to handle the everyday crisis of being. At times I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, that things were too hard. Like most people my age, I leaned into the web of lies that tells us that other people can steel our resolve, that things like love and companionship can illuminate the sea’s darkness. I grew lovesick for love I’ve never had. The notion of friends having social connections to which I was not firmly attached bothered me, because I perceived of their activities together, as friends among themselves, as based on my exclusion. How absurd, but one cannot really be aware of oneself when they are so preconditioned to silence reason when feeling takes the mic. I expected people to just “get me” and for me to just “get people,” because it all seemed so easy when I looked in on other people’s lives.
My voyeurism told me that I was insufficient in some way. I had convinced myself that something out there could fix the aching lack, and I was disappointed when I could not manage to find this something.
All the while, I had not been able to name what was ailing me.
I was too naïve to realize that my pain wasn’t any different than anyone else’s, and that for most it was a tolerable, perhaps even permissible, pain. A pain for which the word pain may seem even too harsh, too acute. Not a pain, but an ache. Not an ache, but discomfort. A bit of gas Indigestion. Nausea.
I started wondering at 14 if, when I was being assembled at the plant, someone had fastened something a bit too tight
Added a bit too much of a strong ingredient.
Overcooked, overstuffed, ruined it?
Had someone let the pot boil dry?
And if so, must the boy be thrown away?
I haven’t been doing well this year. Lots of things have happened (that’s intentionally vague) and I didn’t have any time during the semester to sit down and process everything. Perhaps this is why the summer is always terrible for me; I suddenly have all of this idle time to think about the previous semester, to unpack statements, review glances, scrutinize past decisions. And it’s only coincidental that my summers are always full of idle time to just sit around and think, instead of busy doing things, being places, focusing on something more present. Anyways, I have been trying to write a post reviewing my first year of graduate school. Each time I sat down to type it out, I was disappointed with what I produced. It is not wise for me to begin writing when I am already anxious or sad, and while that may have worked in the past, I find it only makes me feel worse, while also making me self-conscious about the language and syntax I am using. The first draft was okay, but I lost it. The second draft was awful, and I haven’t looked at it. I am feeling optimistic about this one, although I know that it will take multiple posts to really doing the work of isolating and growing from the past year.
I’ve been having a hard time these past few weeks. This is why I have fallen off my pledge to write a blog post every week. I am sorry for this, and sorry to anyone who has been in some way impacted by my manic behavior. I am unsure of the source of this malaise inside of me, this feeling of momentary dread. My IBS has flared up, and everything I eat accompanies discomfort and nausea. I don’t have much motivation to do anything, find my reading uncompelling, have been going to the gym sporadically. I have been very sensitive and prone to jealousy, have felt at times too isolated in a once-beloved solitude, yet suffocated by the presence of others. Everything seems to bring me a kind of disquiet, I cannot pay attention in class, my research has become a chore, and I’m slipping into the kind of “sensory” dressing that haunted me when I was younger. And none of this is new, but the inability to locate the source of the discomfort, the thing-which-is-not-right, is bothering me. I will likely not know what it is until the moment, however long it will be, has passed. And so I stumble around, still, in this momentary darkness, unsure of how momentary, as always, it will be.
I have been living with an anxiety disorder for four years. That’s to say, I’ve known about my anxiety disorder, was able to name the monkey on my back and recognize it as my own, for four years. My undergraduate studies will forever be colored by a apparently perpetual state of anxiety whose description seemed only to confuse people. My parents were disturbed when I told them about it, thinking that something had happened to me, that I was sick. My mother in particular would continue to use the cooing phrase “don’t stress yourself out” for the next two years in hopes that the repetition of that phrase would have magical, incantatory properties. My father simply withdrew a bit, as men are prone to do, unsure of how to help, unsure of how to mitigate the insatiable fire of rage which we call masculinity in the face of what seemed to him to be another parental failure. And this was all a narrative which was thrust upon me, for I never understood my anxiety to be a disease or my parents to have failed me because of it. Sure, it was painful, and the attacks unbearable, and the possessions unsightly, but when the episodes of deep introspection and guilt and self-pity subsided, when my mind cleared after would seem an eternity, I never wanted them to stop, so much as to bend them to my will, to use them. I never wanted my anxiety disorder to go away, to be ‘normal’ or ‘healthy,’ likely because I was of the opinion that it would never cease. From the moment I knew that something was not normal, that I was not like everyone else, that my bouts of “overthinking” were chronic and inescapable, I knew I was strapped into a car I was now forced to drive, regardless of whatever other motorists believed of it or my fitness as a driver. This has been my coping mechanisms for the past five years, living in this body, and it has gotten me this far.
I began writing this post a week ago, and it was essentially done when I wrote it on Thursday. A week has gone by, and now I have more to think about and reflect upon. Unfortunately, this week has not been as blithe as last week was. Updates written today (July 6) are in red. 7/9: This must have been really confusing the first two days this was up, because I actually didn’t remember to highlight these sections in red in WordPress, although they’re in red in Word. Lol, my mistake.
Every night before I go to bed, a compulsion to check the door comes over me, typically before I brush my teeth. I go to my front door and check the locks, make sure it’s closed, and then go to the back door and do the same. I must do this, although I automatically lock the door behind me when I come inside or leave. Sometimes I do it twice, or three times.
It’s taken me eight semesters of college for me to realize that I don’t like the spring semester. My emotions are all over the place because of my seasonal affective disorder, and I have a hard time being focused. I described to my friend today that fall semester is usually imbued with this excitement, and charged by the prospect of new beginnings. New friends, new classes, new experiences, new adventures. Yet, the spring is more or less biding time – waiting things out until the weather gets warmer, or until I have concrete summer plans. I am less inclined to make new friends, and feel almost ambivalent about maintaining the relationships I’ve built. I have these light therapy lamps (they’re not; they’re LED lamps which I was told “are just like light therapy”), and I sit under them often, but it doesn’t help much.
Time for some updates.
I have not been writing as much I had hoped. Lol, New Year’s Resolutions. I wish I could tap into that fount of creative energy from junior fall, when I first started this blog, and posted something every other week. It’s not necessarily because I have a lot going on right now. This semester, as I said, has been a little odd emotionally, but it is what it is. Right now, I’m fine, which is why I am writing to you all, and not to myself, as I had done last week. The manuscript project(s) I’ve been working on have been put to the side, although I do occasionally glance over it/them when I have the time. I have been rereading old work in between studying and writing my thesis, which is productive, and my ability to read without trying to change everything has gotten much better. Nevertheless, I feel creatively stifled right now, and I’m not sure why. I have all these cool ideas for blog posts, like this one I’ve been mulling around for a year now on race as a visual culture, or other posts which would be a little less monumental like a piece about Marxism / Marxist cultural studies, a piece about cultural ideology, and more posts about doing research & being a student, but I haven’t sat down and said “Let’s write this thing.” Hopefully in the coming weeks, when I am not so busy working on my thesis, I’ll be able to focus more on this, but that’s what I was hoping for for this semester, since I was done with grad school apps. Hm, I’m sure the spark will come back.
I’ve been having a hard time being by myself for a few months now. It started out as this sort of weird feeling, an uncharacteristic thirst for human contact.
I haven’t always been this way, either. I remember my junior fall (September – December 2015) as a time when I truly felt at peace being alone, in no one else’s company but my own. I had forced myself in ways to develop a decent rapport with my other selves, and in a way I had begun to embrace parts of my identity I had thoroughly but ineffectively tried to stow away. Nonetheless, as the semester drew to a close, and as my stomach began to knot up around itself, I started to have this sort of weird desire to be around people. It was I suppose when I was in Senegal when I began to become aware of it. Set adrift in a new country ruled by a foreign tongue, I began to find the presence of my American classmates oddly refreshing in contrast to the sensory bombardment all around me. I at first moaned about having to get up every morning at 7:45 in order to make it to school on time, my mind remembering in small the agonies of high school, but I found the subsequent eight hours I would spend at our house-cum-campus nice and comforting. Even if at times I was distant or removed from class, my mind elsewhere, I still found solace in the presence of other Americans, with whom I could speak freely without pre-thinking, without rehearsing a list of cultural and linguistic considerations.
I would not say that I clung to my friends in Dakar, but I would say that the amount of time I spent around them was markedly different from the amount of human contact I had at school the semester prior. I could go a couple of days without spending a large amount (more than a half an hour) with someone, and I was fine with it. I woke up alone, went to lunch alone, went to study alone, and went to bed alone. I had grown accustomed to this routine, and it had been beneficial for my mental health, to such an extent that I began to wonder if I really was this sort of reclusive hermit of a person, the kind who cringed at the touch of a familiar, who found nothing more loathsome than being in a room full of drunk people of their age.
For about a year, I’ve had my anxiety under control. For a brief moment sophomore year I was on medication for it, but I stopped after realizing the medications weren’t really doing anything. I had to, at the moment, find an alternative way of fixing my crippling anxiety attacks, bouts of mental turmoil which I could sense coming like a storm. I cannot describe my anxiety attacks, and I’ve spent a long time trying to write my feelings into existence, only to realize that human language can only do so much to describe the nebulous, undefined spaces of our minds. After a tumultuous sophomore year, I spent the summer tending to my developing stomach issues, seizing in silence about my life and all of my decisions. Junior year was remarkably quiet – for half of it, I was at school, although I knew that my mind was really elsewhere. I was biding time, waiting to go abroad. I found it increasingly difficult to be present at Swarthmore, and when I was abroad, I found it just as difficult to be present in Senegal. I have described my abroad anxiety as a constant noise in the background, something I could tune out most of the time. It seemed to have solidified into a general malaise that my mind channeled through my GI tract. Now, I’m in North Carolina, working on a research project, and my anxiety is slowly mounting again.
I was talking to a friend that I made in the program about my conduct and my behavior and I expressed to her that I feel as if my anxieties are related to the ways that I orient my life around the acquisition of certain goals. I’ve been somewhat aware of this since high school, when my English professor would call me a “grade monger” almost as an insult, and I would smile, because I didn’t understand how “grademongering” could be seen as a negative characteristic. I have found great satisfaction in being a high-achieving student; I have very few other metrics other than my academic accomplishments to determine my self-worth, a horrible reality I am still in the process of correcting. I find that my mood is greatly impacted by my grades and the responses I get on my papers. When my comments in class receive minimal acknowledgement, I become insular, I cut myself down, and say “You are no longer allowed to speak because you were wrong.” A destructive desire to please others, for I have never been taught to determine my own value, mixes disastrously with an unhealthy sense of perfectionism and a dangerously disparate self-perception; my mind is a persistent calamity of self-affirmation and self-deprecation.