At six years old, I wrote my first end-of-term examination of primary school, in Class 1. I emerged with the overall first position in my class. The same happened the term after that and the term after that. Then throughout Class 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Form 1, and two out of three semesters of Form 2 (the term I wasn’t first, I was second) before I transferred schools. Altogether, I’d been overall first 23 times, which is wild to me whenever I think about it now. My intense experience of the effects of ranked success at a young age didn’t leave me unscarred.
When I was 10 years old, my father enrolled me in a graphic design course over the long vac. Four times each week, I was taking lessons on Photoshop, Illustrator, CorelDraw and more, and all my classmates were adults between their twenties and forties. During one class break, I was talking to one of them, a man probably in his thirties. He expressed how impressed he was with my intelligence and my ability to keep up with the course. During that conversation, I remember telling him my fears that all my “smartness” was a succession of flukes with an expiry date, and that one day my ability to succeed with barely any effort would just… stop. He said it wouldn’t. I didn’t believe him.
That was a smart move, because it happened a few years later.
Starting approximately from my first year in high school, my ability to succeed with minimal effort began trickling away. I’d always known theoretically that this would happen, but as it was happening, I couldn’t help but feel defective. No logic could explain the sudden intensity of my struggle to me. In the transition from one level of formal education to the next, I’d lost my superpowers.
I don’t think I’ve ever regained them or that I ever will.
So far, I have spent five semesters in tertiary/higher education institutions. Four out of five have been difficult and depressing. For three out of five, I have been some degree of suicidal. The most recent semester, which began in July 2018 and ended in November of the same year, and which I spent in Cape Town, South Africa, was psychologically the worst of them all.
When I express statements like this to my mother, she always wants to narrow the problem down to something specific, logical and straightforward enough to attack. Trying to make her sufficiently understand me is always difficult, but in this season, it seemed particularly impossible to give her anything close to what she wanted to hear.
The combined elements that made up my Cape Town semester suggested that it should have been my most enjoyable one yet. I had escaped America—the country that had been trying to suffocate me—and was back on my own continent. I was living with—or a handful of minutes away from—my best friend in the whole world. I mostly enjoyed the subject matter of my classes and admired my professors. I had a wonderful mid-semester break trip to another African country. I was financially secure. I should have been killin’ it.
Instead, I wanted to kill myself.
There was the stuff I was relatively used to: days of immobility, not being able to shower or get out of bed. Constant crying. Interspersed insomnia and hypersomnia. Normal. A lot of things were relatively new: the violent and spontaneous effects social media had on me and my consequent, too-frequent deactivation (software, databases and algorithms didn’t take kindly to my erraticism, I can tell you that); trying to cut myself open with blades; feeling a terrifyingly clear division between two internal personas like a schizophrenic Jekyll-Hyde experience. But I still think the most awful new thing was my sudden inability to write.
I wish I could explain how deep and jarring this was. Writing, for quite a while now, has kept me alive. No matter how low I’ve gone, I’ve always been able to write. It’s been my anchor in nearly every storm. Many times, I can’t even pray, and when I can, I do so in writing. Naturally, not being able to write scared the living daylights out of me. I couldn’t help but conclude that if the spirit of writing had left me, then my breath and sanity were certain to follow. If they wouldn’t do so on their own, I was invested in making it happen myself. I decided I never wanted to see a day of 2019; I had to make sure I died before January.
My academic life during my Cape Town semester was difficult and challenging and brought me immense anxiety. I was late on a few papers, missed a lot of classes, spent inordinate amounts of time trying to just comprehend homework instructions, and had all but given up by exam time—but even I could tell that my reactions to my academic difficulties were disproportionate to the true intensity of the difficulties.
It was about school, but at the same time, it wasn’t. I just wanted to not be alive anymore. I wanted to quit everything. Including struggling so hard to succeed in an academic system I thought was BS anyway. Including trying to build a life of future stability for myself when I had already decided there was no point to my existence. But there were, in fact, real reasons why school seemed to be making me crazier than most of the other factors in my life.
Most of it goes back to my childhood and everything I have internalized about academic success, its role in my life and future, how it factors into my parents’ and other relatives’ pride in me, how deeply ingrained it is into my perception of my own self-worth. I was terrified—no, petrified—of failure, and I still am.
Above all, it is the mechanics of my upbringing that keeps doing me in. It often feels like there’s robotic programming within me that determines what I will do even if I don’t believe in what I’m doing, even if I don’t want to do it. It determines how I feel no matter how much my mental perception stands in opposition. I know that academic success doesn’t dictate my worth as a human being. But the mechanics of my programming render me unable to be any type of relaxed when I’m not executing, or at least attempting to execute, stellar performance. I can fix my mind, with as much determination as possible, that I’m not going to let some measly assignment stress me out—but mechanics make my whole body tense up when a deadline approaches, drive me to harm myself if need be, just to get the work done in the end. Mechanics have me constantly performing even when I want to let go, then constantly feeling wretched for performing because with all the counteracting evidence, how will I ever get people to believe that I’m not doing okay?
Add this all to my many other struggles. Anxiety, my relationship with suffering, my friendship struggles and heartbreaks, my relationship with my body, my refusal to take care of myself… I was tired, and the world/my life felt far too much for me. It was as if everything crescendoed into cacophony in my ear. I knew what I needed, if there was any hope of recovering my health or will to live, was for everything to stop so that I could work through things, a step at a time, without the anxiety-inducing threats of deadlines or mandated tasks. I was already dying, but school was accelerating the process several-fold. I knew, without having to be told, that if I simply powered on, attempted to “weather the storm,” or “hang in there,” and try to finish school uninterrupted, I would soon succeed in killing myself. Without a doubt. It was clear to me that my life was at stake—but would it be clear to anyone else? (The people responsible for paying my school fees, for instance.)
“How can I fail?”
I asked this question several times to myself and aloud, in the presence of my best friend. I just couldn’t fathom it. Me and failure? The two just didn’t go together. If I failed, my world would end. I felt like I would rather kill myself than fail—even if I believed that giving myself permission to fail was probably the only way I’d be able to make it through my Cape Town semester. I was burned out, but I had to make it out alive, to crawl out of the fire on my hands and knees. If I could just survive, giving up the worry that I had to be stellar, giving up the anxiety about how much money I’d be wasting if this semester ended up counting for nothing, giving up the notion that I was worth nothing if I couldn’t ace my damn semester abroad. I was so high-strung, I had to release pressure and relax—which meant not taking the “necessity” to succeed as seriously as I did. It meant giving myself permission to fail, if I just couldn’t do what was demanded of me without permanent damage to myself. But the thought of failure elicited a visceral and violent reaction from me. I might start heaving whenever I thought about it.
The day I texted my parents an essay explaining that I couldn’t take it anymore, I wanted to kill myself because I was already dying, and that I refused to go back to school the next semester, fear of failure was all I could think about. I kept wondering how my grandparents would react, if or how to explain to them what was happening to me. I thought about the consequences of possibly having my graduation date pushed back and what it would feel like to watch the people I’d started school with graduate and leave me. I thought about what it meant that I, and not them, was suffering to this extent, why I needed a resting/healing period and they could just carry on uninterrupted.
But then I was (and am) also afraid of rest. I don’t even know how to do rest.
The fear of failure is pervasive. It influences your relationships with time and with productivity. I always feel like I should be doing something “productive”, no matter my state of health. I’m not yet good at respecting my tiredness. Rest makes me feel like I am wasting my life and failing at something, and so even doing nothing gives me anxiety. (Highly ironic, since, when my life feels overwhelming, nothing is all I want to do.) The idea of taking a semester off terrified me partly because it meant resting, which, to me, was synonymous with being on the straight path to failure.
Even before I came back home, I knew that the concept of rest would be difficult for many family members and people back home to understand. I was perfectly right. “So, are you going to be taking classes at the University of Ghana?” “Are you going to find a job?” “Are you going to set up a business project?” “What are you going to be doing?” Every time I get asked any of these questions, I go into a slight panic. I want to scream, “I know how to keep myself busy, okay? Why can’t I just exist without all this wahala?” (How I’ve wished there was a way out of existence.)
Things have been relatively manageable at home over the Christmas + New Year break, because it’s a legitimate break. But when February comes and I’m still in Accra, dealing with the comments and questions might get harder. I feel the pressure of needing something more than “trying to stay alive” as a valid explanation for what I’m doing while off school. The pressure is murderous.
During the pre-decision, decision and now post-decision seasons, I’ve been wrestling with triggers about the value of my life. Are my life and health worth these attempts to preserve them? Shortly after I set my decision in stone, I was speaking to my favorite cousin, who said to me that he was happy it was just a break, that I hadn’t decided to quit school entirely—because he knew the value of a degree and how stressful my life would be without one. I have no doubts at all that he meant well (how could he not?) and was only trying to be helpful, but his “advice” felt so dreadfully violent to me that I began to cry when he gave it. Did he not fully understand that I was very ready to straight-up kill myself, or that trying to live this perfect, prescribed life would kill me? For me, his advice was just further “proof” that high performance and avoidance of failure were more important than my literal presence on this earth. I couldn’t be a Failure + Alive. My only options were to either be an Achiever + Alive, or just Dead (from trying to achieve).
Even after I’d declared my decision to my parents, I spent several days and weeks wondering if I was making the right one. And then, if I concluded that it was the right decision, I would be angry at myself for not being healthy enough to just go back to school and finish, like a normal person. In any case, my doubts about whether time off was necessary were cleared when my body tried to finish me in December. If I wanted to keep my life, powering on stolidly was not an option.
So, this is where I am now. In Accra, wrestling with rest. Watching my colleagues return to the groove of academic life. Trying to want to be alive. Knowing that my path is the correct one and yet still being uncomfortable with the fact of that. And writing, always writing, because this is how I know how to stay alive. The terror hasn’t gone away, but the acceptance will soon, I hope, be loud enough to drown it out.