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’m supposed to be doing readings right now, but I’ve been so distracted by my emotions and my thoughts (on topics I won’t discuss here) and have started writing to distract myself, hopefully with the intention of clearing my mind. Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to keep a diary, but was never able to write in one consistently. At the same time, being a 10 year old, I didn’t have much to say, since my day consisted mostly of going to school, seeing my friends, learning things, seeing my parents, etc, all of which were so quotidian they didn’t, in my mind, warrant being written down. They were as monotonous as breathing, or waking up, or blinking; activities which provided the background for my everyday life, the details which were often omitted from the manuscript because they added nothing of substance, because human beings themselves have come to take them for granted. When I got to college, I started journaling as a way of addressing a mounting issue in my life; my anxiety disorder. Unable to speak to anyone, feeling stupid for feeling so uncomfortable in public space, I turned inward, went inside, through writing in order to get to the central question: “Why are you anxious?”
“Why?” A question which has no true answer, which proves the existence of the small, interior realities in which we all live, isolated, distanced yet nevertheless influenced by the world around us. The “rooms” of headspace, unpopulated countries comprised of regions and provinces which are often frequented and avoided. Perhaps not unpopulated; peopled with memories, shades of loved and hated ones, shadows of ourselves. “Why?” A verbal question whose answer is never satisfactory, for we can never adequately fit ourselves into another person’s headspace and therefore understand the context or lack thereof which feeds its dissatisfying response. A question which when spoken aloud only furthers the rift between interlocutors in its affirmation of the notion that one’s thoughts are distinct, are unintelligible, are irrational, that one’s mind operates differently, that one’s reality functions differently than another’s. “Why?” A command of a question; it demands an answer, is imperative in its unanswered disbelief and distrust. A question which forces the mind to translate rabid thoughts, mental gibberish into language which cannot and never has been able to support it. Meaning is lost, details fall by the wayside, for language is not enough. A question whose answer is never enough.
I’m working on becoming a more selfish (autocentric) person, and it’s a long process with no end in sight.
I have been getting better at dealing with my image this summer. I suppose this has been the best summer I’ve had in a while, and this is mostly because I have felt almost entirely in control of how things pan out. There are no unaccounted-for variables, bugs in the code, missing semicolons, unbracketed while loops, to throw off the whole program, report only a blank, anxious screen. I had been for weeks haunted by the memories of previous summers, almost as if my body can tell that at this very time last year I was in great distress over things I could not understand until they happened, weird whispers in the allegedly empty corridors of my mind, telling me “things are not as they seem,” dismissed as irrational until things were indeed not how they seemed. Bumping into ghosts who refuse to materialize, who would rather stay shrouded by the memories which sustain them than realize that their ghostliness, their ghastliness, is itself an illusion. Looking up whether or not I can hypnotize myself into forgetting someone. Trying to distract myself from my thoughts, from the inquest of my memories, using other people’s voices, Black women podcasters, even when they are talking about things I don’t care about (celebrity gossip), liberal alarmist pundits, squawking like stir-crazy parrots, BBC reporters speaking in received pronunciation tinged with pity and notes of guilt about mudslides killing hundreds in Sierra Leone and a massacre in British India whose memory is only remembered by the very old, whose trauma wrote itself and writes itself, today, into a people’s genes. As I flip the pages of a book I’ll never read, turning its yellowing sheets, careful not to tear the tome as it sits in the German scanning machine in the moist room in the basement of a library that resembles and feels as dour as a church, I can’t help but think about the partition in my life which I have built, the constant tug-and-shove between the two versions of the self which struggle with one another to fit within a body which seems never to be enough – the self which exists for itself, and the self which exists in relation to, and for the satisfaction, approbation, of others.
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.