Streets Are Hot: 3 Vignettes of Accra

When a Ghanaian tells you streets are hot, you know they’re not just talking about the temperature. Every vignette in this post is a lightly embellished retelling of a very true story.

Note: Each vignette first appeared as a Twitter Note. Each one is hyperlinked in a heading.

Vignette #1

A man sits on some steps in the shadow of a shop’s roof extension, hungry and sheltering from the threat of his own sweat. He is probably hungry. He is probably broke. Streets are hot, and he probably knows that intimately.

You don’t even see him, at first. You are thinking about how you would rather be at home, asleep. Alas, it is primetime to be “in town” on a quick but necessary errand. You’ve found yourself a rare, sweet spot within the rhythms of a bustling Accra, during which the facilities you require are open, even as the streets on which businesses are squished like irregular sardines are unusually free. This part of town is unusually quiet at this time. Just as well, because you only came to town to do one thing, which ought to last five minutes and which, today, will not take two hours.

You are tired, hungry, and very close to broke. But this does not matter to the man in the shade, because you are driving a car, and as far as he’s concerned, that makes you potentially the biggest business opportunity he will have today.

Therefore, as you approach, his droopy eyes perk up. He jumps to his feet, donning a reflector jacket that seems to have materialized out of nowhere. He has eyes for you and only you. He rushes to direct your parking as though you are royalty in distress.

This is about the least distressed you have ever felt in this part of town. You are about to be only the second of two vehicles in a car park that could easily hold over twenty more. But from the enthusiasm with which the reflector jacket man runs and gestures, one would think you were attempting to park in a space so packed that an inch in the wrong direction would result in the most disastrous of scratches to the most unforgiving driver the city has ever seen.

You sigh at the fellow’s theatrics and park in one swift move, perfectly within the white lines. On another day, parking in this same spot would have taken you five moves—or five minutes.

You cut the engine and emerge from the car. The man in the reflector jacket beams at you with all thirty-two and greets you with a colloquial honorific you suspect you are too young for. You greet him back in a flat tone, partly because you are exhausted, and partly because you are secretly envious of how much energy he can muster up for his hustle, even on a day like this.

You go off to attend to your errand, which you complete well within five minutes. When you return, the fellow in the reflector jacket is nowhere to be seen, which is just as well, because even as a self-appointed parking attendant there really isn’t any work for him to do today.

As you pull your car out with utmost ease and start to accelerate away, you catch a glimpse through your mirrors of the reflector jacket man dashing out of a streetside not too far away, where he was apparently ingratiating himself with the driver of some other lone car.

You wince as he starts trying to run after your car, but you are already too far away and accelerating too much to bother turning back now. Still in the mirrors, you can see a total reversal on the man’s face from the beam with which he greeted you earlier. Now, his expression, which you only glimpse for a second, suggests that you just might be the rudest and most ungrateful person he has ever met in his life.

As his figure shrinks in your view, he performs a number of rude gestures towards you, the thrusts of his hands packed with vehemence. You wonder if he genuinely believes that you owe him; that you’ve cheated him by leaving him without paying for something you did not need him for. Eventually, you conclude that what he believes is likely not as important to him as it is to you. All that matters is that streets are hot, your paths crossed, and he still got no cedis out of you, which is the greatest affront imaginable to him in this economy.


Vignette #2

A man stands in the shadows of a bank at the corner of what was once an exclusively residential street. You turn your car gently into that street, vaguely noticing the fellow, but paying him no mind as you cruise past him to park halfway down the road. You cut the engine, right beside the gutter of your partner’s house. You text your partner that you’ve arrived. The text delivers but is not immediately read, and so you wait.

It is a cool night in Accra, and this evening, you are driving in more comfort than usual. You have borrowed your mother’s car for the night: a sleek, recently-washed Nissan that surrounds you with an air of affluence you do not fully possess. The historically bourgeois street on which you find yourself probably adds to this aesthetic. You do not consider how these factors may have influenced the events to follow, until a much later post-mortem. As things stand now, you see no harm in getting out of your car to wait for your partner to let you into the house.

In the time it has taken you to park and exit your car, the man from the shadows of the bank has walked down the street. He now approaches you with an intentionality that makes you wonder if you are supposed to know him.

He stops before you and greets you with an exceptionally polite gesture that is a little too self-conscious to be a full-blown bow. It’s an impressive paradox, how well his intentionality is combined with bashfulness. You greet him back cautiously, in a measured tone, certain now that you do not know him.

The man, infusing his slightly accented voice with generous amounts of supplication, apologizes for bothering you at this time of night. It’s just that… well… “It’s so emba-razz-ing,” he bemoans.

He proceeds to spin you a barely comprehensible tale about how his car has broken down. (There are no other cars in the vicinity, broken-down or otherwise.) Now his unusable car is at some place. (Is it a workshop? You’re not sure, but there are no workshops close by. How did he get here, then? You don’t ask.) He really needs to get to some place, and the place is far from your current location. (Ashaiman? Ashaley Botwe? You’re not sure, and he’s not good enough with the nuances of Ghanaian pronunciation to make it clear.) Now his wife is waiting for him at some other place you can’t catch the name of, and, well… “It’s just so emba-razz-ing,” he repeats. “So emba-razz-ing.” But he really needs to meet his wife and get to the place, so if you could please assist him with transport…?

It must be a slow day for your brain because you think he’s trying to ask you for a lift. You let him know that unfortunately, you are meeting someone, so you don’t have the requisite time to take him anywhere. In hindsight, you will wonder if this man thought you were stupid as he repeated, with extra careful deliberation, “No, I mean transport. Transport.”

And that is when it finally clicks for you.

The man continues, “So if you can spare something, anything…?”

Earlier this very day, you mentioned to your partner your intentions to be much more intentional about how you spend and give away money. The latter is particularly relevant because several acquaintances who have you in their Contacts list seem to consider you their resident bank; the person whom they call to ask for money because they know you are kind enough to give it, even when their communication with you is largely limited to their moments of financial need. Despite your own humble finances, you always give when you have enough to spare, because you subscribe to the philosophy of kindness, and because you understand: streets are hot.

But streets are hot for you too, and you’re not convinced that you have enough to spare for a complete stranger. You tell the embarrassed man, regretfully, that you have no money on you, which is… almost true. You’re barely carrying any cash; certainly not enough to spare.

The man is undaunted by your declaration. While never once dropping his demeanor of abashed determination, he informs you that he will accept mobile money. But please. Something… Anything.

You release a sigh of resignation. You have never been good at shrugging off a person in need. Your partner has still not come out of their house. Besides, you can’t see any smooth way to get out of this—and so you bring out your phone and begin a mobile money transaction.

“Is twenty cedis okay?” you ask, tap-tapping on your cracked phone screen.

The man barely misses a beat before imploring you, “Make it thaarty, make it thaarty.”

You hold back another sigh and change the figure you have already typed in. It is around this moment that your partner comes out of their house, slightly alarmed to see you looking like you’re doing a shady business deal with some guy they’ve never seen.

You acknowledge your partner’s presence, and the man does as well, not bothering to explain who he is or why he’s there. Your partner waits in silent confusion as you complete your transaction. You ask the man for his number and enter it. A many-lettered Yoruba first and last name appear on the screen within a prompt asking you for confirmation. You show it to the man who eagerly—but bashfully, always bashfully—verifies the number.

You complete the transaction, and the man proceeds to thank you with a quiet profuseness. You do not notice, in the moment, how the man strategically avoids eye contact with your partner, who is clearly suspicious.

A few moments later, when you are finally inside the house, you find it increasingly difficult to shake the uneasy sensation in the pit of your stomach. You tell your partner that you fear you may just have gotten scammed. You recount the events in full, including as many details of the man’s very confusing story as you can. By the end, your partner’s eyes are full of doleful amusement.

“Yeah,” they drawl. “You just got scammed out of thirty cedis.”


Vignette #3

You have had a long and stressful week, with most of your frustrations proudly sponsored by the country you call home. The inefficiency of your bank, the too-sluggish progress of your work, the increasing prices of fuel and food, various family-related stressors, your bedroom ceiling being clawed apart by vengeful crows that you must have offended in some past life… The list goes on.

But it’s the weekend now, and after taking care of your various washing, dusting, sweeping and scrubbing chores, you are ready to enjoy what’s left of your Saturday. You’re about to meet up with some friends at an arts event which, thankfully, does not cost money.

Accra’s heat is unrelenting at this time of afternoon, and you drive to the event venue with your windows rolled up and your AC on. For the moment, temporary escape from Accra’s oppressive heat takes precedence over saving money on fuel.

Sometimes, you wonder how everyone else stands it, especially those who make their living on the streets—walking, hawking, running after cars while carrying loads… Their hustle is relentless and, while admirable, it is another reason you prefer to keep your windows rolled up. Whoever you give a chance will get as close to your face as they can, never knowing or caring about your resolution not to spend a cedi on anything you haven’t pre-determined to spend money on, including their wares and services. Streets, after all, are hot, and you splurge enough on fuel as it is.

All you are trying to focus on today is getting to your destination, hassle-free… and then you hit a red light. The people who must, some way and somehow make a living, descend on the stopped cars.

If there is one brand of hustle that you hate, it is the rush to provide services unasked-for, fast enough to blindside you and therefore trap you into an obligation to provide compensation for work that cannot be undone. You hate it because it works too well on your emotions. You’re begging me for money now that you’ve already done the thing; how am I to refuse you now, without feeling like a wicked person?

And that is why your whole body tenses up when one of such legendary hustlers, a window washer boy, runs up to your car. Before you can blink, he has splashed filthy water on your windscreen and started to wipe. Your reaction is visceral. You wave your hands, clap your palms, bang on your steering wheel, shake your head, glare at him, say “no” and “please leave me alone” in as many ways as body language will allow, with the barrier of your car’s sealed windows between you.

The window washer begins to beg and plead, saying words you can’t and don’t want to hear. He moves from the front of your car to the driver’s seat window, leaning on your car, getting as close to your face as the glass will allow, and increasing the profuseness of his supplication. Through it all, you stare steadfastly ahead, trying to make your face a mask of stone. All the cedis you tend to dash out to people on the streets, they accumulate, and you’re tired of it.

You expect the window washer to move on to his next victim in the time he has left, but for some reason, it’s like this young man has meant you paa. He remains beside your window throughout the duration of the red light, and his response to your lack of response is that his pleading transitions to insults. Determined as you are not to look directly at him, you observe all his vehemence from the corner of your eye.

He continues his rant at you for as long as it takes for the traffic light to turn green, and that is when he makes his move. As the cars ahead of you gear up to speed off, the window washer splashes the remainder of his filthy water all over the left side of your windscreen—the side that you have to look through as a driver—and runs away.

You are shocked out of your mind, but you have no choice but to obey the traffic and move along.

It takes you another few moments to conclude that you should probably do as much as you can about your abysmal visibility while driving.

You try to squirt water onto your windscreen, but none comes out. Great.

You resort directly to the windshield wipers, but fate is not on your side today. You are forced to remember that one of the stressful things that happened during your week was that the rubber portion of the wiper on the driver’s side fell off onto the street as you were driving in the midst of a rainstorm, and you never had the time to get the wiper fixed. Now, the plastic of the left moves impotently over the windscreen, never making contact with the screen itself. You turn the wipers off, defeated. There is nothing to be done until you are parked at your destination, with access to soap and water.

For the rest of the journey, you are a hazard on the streets, struggling to navigate the road through a view of crusting, murky brown water. You are forced to admit it: the window washer won this round.

🕸️

-Akotowaa

How I Lost My Nose Ring (and Other Related Events)

This, unfortunately, is my disability origin story.

The Buildup

It is November 2018. I’m going in and out of the most intense mental health meltdown of my life, and, like any self-respecting young person in a psychological crisis, I decide to alter my appearance.

For the past few months, I have been studying abroad at UCT in South Africa, the country in which my best friend at the time is also living. On this day, in the middle of November, I have one final exam paper to write. Once that is over with and I’m back in my Cape Town apartment, I head out with my now-ex-bestie into the town with two agenda items:

  1. Dye my hair.
  2. Pierce my nose.

In a matter of hours, both goals have been achieved, and I am belatedly freaking out about what my parents and grandparents are going to think when they see me. I eventually calm down because I am a badass, and because if they had no choice but to deal with the tattoo I got earlier that year, they will find a way to deal with this other stuff as well.

Self-portrait, featuring the nose piercing and the half-bleached hair, circa November 2018

Speaking of telling my parents things, something I have told them is that there is no way I am going back to school in California next semester. If they send me back to school without the mental health break I need, I assure them I will not come back alive. They agree to let me stay at home for a semester, and I make arrangements with my California school accordingly.

Sometime after this decision has been made, a commission comes my way. A singer/actress I know has recommended me to a producer she’s worked with, who is looking for a writer to do some screenwriting. I accept the job, because I’m going to be back in Ghana for several months and it would be cool to have something to occupy myself with, right?

Unfortunately, there are several factors I fail to properly consider.

Before November is out, I’m back in Ghana, in my parents’ house. One would think, now that my semester is done, and I’m on break, and I look like a righteous badass, that my mental health would improve somewhat. Alas, imbalanced chemicals can be extremely stubborn, and I am as bad as ever, for several weeks even after I return. I often sleep for close to 20 hours out of every 24. When I am conscious, I am often crying. It’s as if, by the time I wake up, I am already in tears. I consistently interrupt my mother’s affairs with tearful declarations that I do not want to be alive anymore. While all this is happening, my screenwriting project is sitting there, waiting for me to get myself together. The client wants it done by end of January, or perhaps February. The new year is approaching, and I still can’t bring myself to want to exist, much less write.

Deep into January, when I am still showing no signs of improvement, my mother coerces me into psychotherapy, and the therapist, in turn, nudges me towards a psychiatrist who puts me on antidepressants. With concurrent therapy and medication, I start to slowly feel like a human being again, as opposed to a dead thing in animated flesh.

Maybe, I think, I can try to be serious about this screenwriting gig.

It is so much harder than expected.

First of all, I am a complete novice to this storytelling form and related software. New things take time to get comfortable with, and besides, I am a slow, deliberate writer. But there is so much pressure. Some of it is from the client. They want the thing by the fast-approaching deadline, and my pace prompts them to frequently check in. I already have anxiety. Every time I get a message from them, my heart falters. Every request for an update is interpreted by my brain as a blasting, even if it is requested in the kindest possible tone. Each set of notes I get on a script makes me think, “Oh God, they think I’m not good enough. They think I’m a trash writer and it’s probably true.” These thoughts come to me regardless of how positive their feedback may be.

Once I start working in earnest, I realize how much I underestimated the amount of work it takes to write an entire season’s worth of a web series by oneself. Goodness, people have whole writers’ rooms for this sort of thing! And here I am trying to do this all on my lonesome—apart from my client’s editorial input—during my first experience with the artform, no less! Hectic.

Through my depression-corrupted thought patterns, it is impossible for me to see that these conditions are among the many reasons I should give more grace to myself. Instead, all I can think is that the reason I’m not doing this work as easily or quickly as my client desires is that I’m deficient and useless.

The slowness of my pace drives me up the wall. Never mind that 13 episodes is plenty, that the revision process is long, that I am fighting for clarity of thought through a fog of mental illness each time I sit down to write, or that I’m unfairly comparing myself to the lightning-quick brain and production rate of my client, who is a veteran in this artform and industry and is simply a very different sort of creative worker than I am.

My self-reprehension filters down from my attitude towards this professional writing assignment and further into my feelings around my own personal writing habits. My portfolio is scant—if we’re talking about writing that I consider even close to professional-grade quality—and I hate it! I think of all the brilliant ideas I have that I rarely manage to turn into completed pieces of writing because my work ethic is basically nonexistent. Indeed, I am always using the busyness of school, or demands of work, or the incapacitation of mental illness as excuses. None of these would stop me if I were truly serious. I say I want to be a professional writer, but here I am sleeping and crying because I’m tired and sad. Tiredness and sadness don’t get you published, idiot! Here I am taking at least three days each to produce 15 pages of screenplay because I’m agonizing about “taking my time” and “doing it well.” Lame cop-outs from an incompetent writer.

I chastise myself: If you want to be a writer, you will need to do the work, no matter what your mind state or physical circumstances. You will need to be ruthless with yourself, show no mercy, work like you’re on crack. And you deserve to be punished for all the life and time you have wasted so far. Your punishment shall double as your atonement. You will translate stories in your head onto the page until you are either done, insane, or you drop dead. Don’t ask me any questions, just start writing, you useless, lazy maggot.

This dangerous self-talk, fueled by years of pent-up anger and frustration at myself leads me to pick a story idea—there, I have one—and decide to put it to paper in the most merciless writing process I have ever subjected myself to.

I start to write words down: a vomit draft of a brand-new speculative fiction story, the idea of which has been simmering in my brain for at least two years. My vomit drafts are almost always traditionally written, in longhand, with a pen and a notebook, and this story is not an exception. I break in a new notebook just for this undertaking. I write. And write. And write.

I am hungry, but I do not eat. Only writers who can actually write well and produce finished stories deserve to eat, therefore, I do not deserve to eat. I am exhausted. I do not sleep. Only writers who do a sufficient day’s work each day deserve to call themselves “tired,” deserve to sleep. I do not deserve same, and thus, must write until my eyes bleed.

I am sure I get headaches. I am too mad to pay attention to them. Who cares if I am physically miserable? Punishment isn’t supposed to be enjoyable, and I tell myself I do not care if I burst a whole blood vessel, but this story must get written. The era of starting and stopping without finishing is over.

I lose my mind. For several days, I am in some sort of trance. My body is decaying, my mind is deteriorating, all I can think about is that I must finish a story for once in my life, and if it hurts, it’s because I deserve it, and if it kills me, it’s only because I was never a cut out for my own dreams.

At this time, my house is not conducive for any intensive writing or studying. I do not have a desk; the closest thing to an adequate workstation is the dining table, which is often scattered with baked cakes, paper and rubber packaging, and other paraphernalia my mother needs to run her solo baking business. Besides, the blender and radio are constantly running, and it is a hassle to hear my own thoughts from the dining room.

But I must write, and so I write, everywhere I can. On my bedroom floor, on my bed, on the TV room couch, on the living room sofas. Everything is uncomfortable or requires some weird contortion of my body so that my right hand can continue peppering page after page with feverish words. When my right hand gets so strained that I can hardly use it for a while, I switch to my left hand. But my left hand’s writing is not as developed, and the slowness worsens my frustration, so I can bear it only briefly until I force my right hand back into torturous action.

Some part of me recognizes through the mental frenzy that I need a writing desk. I ask my parents for one, as a “birthday present,” but it does not arrive before June.

Interlude: Related incident. Flashback to Class 6.

I am ten or eleven years old, still in primary school. Perhaps I am too old to still be messing with the new monkey bars on our school’s playground, but I do not particularly care. And, as with everything I do, I am intense with my playing. I swing and swing, throughout break time, straining the muscles in my arms and stressing the skin of my palms on the metal rods as I pivot with my feet dangling above the ground.

I don’t even realize how much damage I am causing until the bell rings, signaling the end of break time, and I finally get off the bars, look at my hands, and my palms are rubbed raw and bleeding. They sting badly, but I’m a tough kid, and I hurt myself all the time.

I think I wash my hands quickly in the bathroom before returning to class for French. But, back at my classroom desk, I try to hold my pen in my hand and hiss as it makes contact with the sore rawness. I try to hold the pen in my left hand, and though that palm is suffering too, the pain is much more bearable.

It is in this moment that it strikes me as completely absurd that I can only write with one hand. Why are we socialized to be so dependent on a single hand? How are we supposed to take notes when the monkey bars tear up our right palms more than our left?

I resolve to fix this problem for myself. For the remainder of my pre-teen years, I stress myself and nearly all my teachers out, with my insistence on teaching myself how to write with my left. I am intense with this too. I force myself to take as many classroom notes as I can with my left hand, and it makes me dreadfully slow, to my own chagrin. The frustration only fuels me to try harder. I submit assignments that were written with my left hand, teachers complain of illegibility. I do not stop. By Form 2, at least one teacher is telling me that he likes my left handwriting more than my right. (“How the turn tables,” as the Tik Tok generation says.)

In the present day, I can write quite fluidly with my left hand. Some people call me ambidextrous, although I would not use the title on myself, since my right hand is still better and faster at nearly everything than my left.

End of interlude.

Back to 2019 and my self-inflicted punishment.

It is now about June or July. My screenwriting commission is obviously way past its January/February deadline, and I am sure my client is tired as hell of me. I get a new writing desk, but my body is so used to its bad habits that they persist.

My story is not yet complete, but I have made so much progress and written so much that the notebook I broke in is nearly full now, from cover to cover. I have, perhaps, one scene left, and I know exactly how this story is going to end.

I am still not at ease, and I still have my screenwriting project waiting for me, but I am beyond spent, and so wired that I can neither sleep nor continue to write, and so I recline on the TV room couch with my Kindle and try to read. The book is A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas. I don’t yet love this fantasy-romance series, of which this is the first book, but by book 2, it would have thoroughly sucked me in. For now, though, I am reading passively enough to recognize that something strange is happening in my body.

The muscles in my legs are twitching. I feel them. Calf. Thigh. Left leg. Right leg. Different parts of each leg. A twitch every 10 to 20 seconds, on average. The twitching isn’t abrupt. It is slow and, for some reason, sinuous. I don’t understand it. It creeps me out. I decide to look at it while it’s happening. I put my Kindle down and sit up a bit to observe.

I am watching my own body do things I have not commanded it to do, and it makes my skin crawl. The twitches in my legs look like animated earthworms living inside my flesh, making humps, sliding forward a few millimeters at a time, flattening, then reappearing elsewhere on my legs to repeat the motions. I have to wonder if I’m going mad.

I don’t want to think about myself going mad, so I go back to reading. But it’s only a few moments later that I notice something else that has, in fact, been going on for a while: my fingers are twitching, too!

From time to time, without my permission, a finger lifts itself off the Kindle and returns after a second or two. I can see it happening, but I can’t feel a thing. The fingers of my right hand do this more often than those on my left. I am flabbergasted at how any of this could be happening, and I can no longer concentrate on my book.

My next action is hazy in my memories, but I think I decide to distract my thoughts from my body with something more cognitively demanding: a return to my personal punishment. This is not a good idea.

An hour or so after I continue to strain my already stressed body, the twitching is no longer periodic. It is continuous, and now I have totally lost the ability to keep my fingers still.

My ten digits have decided that I am bloody Beethoven, and now they are moving like they are playing some symphony on an air piano, and they are not stopping, and at this point, I actually cannot tell if this is reality or not, and I am silently freaking the eff out.

Is it time to repent for daring to usurp God as judge by meting out punishment to myself?

I push the pause button on my purgatory. It’s about 2 a.m. I shouldn’t even be functioning right now. I finally permit myself to go to bed, at least for a little while.

Sagaa. I can’t sleep. And for the love of God, my fingers won’t stop playing air piano! To make things worse, I now feel this buzzing in my brain that could be anxiety, or sleep deprivation, or none of the above. It’s like Brownian motion, making it impossible to calm down enough to go unconscious, despite my exhaustion. I rise from my bed and pace around my room.

It’s 3 a.m. I am on the verge of a panic attack, and whenever I am not consciously moving my fingers, they are moving themselves. In that moment, this is the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me.

I’m crying. I go to my parents’ room and wake them up.

My father books an appointment for the next morning with the only neurologist he knows in Accra. Neither of us trusts my twitchy body to drive, and so my father commits to taking me to the hospital and tells me to sleep until morning. I can’t. He gives me a sleeping tablet he claims will knock me out for at least four hours. I’m barely out for three, and when I open my eyes again, it feels like I never slept, only that I blinked out of existence for a second, and have suddenly reappeared. I’m unrested. And my fingers are still playing air piano.

I try a few things, like submerging my hands in cool water. Submerging my hands in warm water. Putting ice on my hands. I’m still Beethoven and still losing my mind. Eventually, it is time to go see the neurologist, and my father comes to drive me away.

I cannot trust my hands to fill the patient registration forms at the hospital, and so my father fills them for me. When it’s my turn, the doctor sees me and tests my reflexes, finds things lacking. He asks me several questions and tells me that my problem certainly looks like a nerve problem; what he is unsure about is whether it is a brain problem.

Naturally, as soon as I hear this, I conclude that I am probably on the verge of death. Ever since I read Michael Grant’s BZRK series as an early teen, I have harbored a persistent, somewhat irrational fear of getting an aneurysm and not knowing about it until it explodes and kills me. I don’t know if aneurysms can make your fingers and leg muscles spasm out of your control, but at this point, the doctor is literally speculating about brain damage, so I am one hundred percent freaking out regardless.

The doctor orders that I take some tests, including an MRI, so he can analyze me properly. My father takes me to a medical imaging facility. If you’ve ever had to do medical imaging, perhaps you will recognize, at this point, how my nose ring comes into the picture.

The medical staff inform me that no metal whatsoever is allowed into the MRI machine. The watch comes off. A staff member points to my nose, and I am genuinely startled; it has been about eight months since I got the ring put in, and I am so used to it that I often forget it is there. I’ve never deliberately taken it off, and it’s just classic that the first time I have to perform this delicate process, it’s when I can barely control my own fingers.

I try, multiple times, in multiple ways, to unscrew the stud, and fail. Some aunties in the waiting room/reception of this medical imaging facility watch me struggle and they seize their chance to moralize about piercings to me, their words coated in kindness and concern. One of them expressly tells me that once I get it out, I should never put it back. In the context of a potential medical emergency, I see her logic, but I still don’t like it.

Eventually, I resign myself to asking my father for help. He returns to the reception from wherever he went, and in about five seconds, unscrews the stud—something I had not been able to accomplish in fifteen minutes.

I put the stud in my wallet and go in for the MRI. I have to wait a day for the results.

Hours after I get back home, I need another sleeping tablet to fall asleep. I am so shaken, so anxious, so close to being convinced that I could die at any second once the unconfirmed thing in my brain bursts open. My purgatory is suddenly the least important thing in the world. How can I think about my story when I’m literally dying? Ei, God, when I said I would write until I dropped dead, why did you take me so literally?

So I don’t write—but I also don’t put my nose ring back in. After all, what if further tests are needed?

The next day, I get my results, and my father takes me back to the neurologist. The neurologist mounts my medical images on the wall and explains my results to me.

I do not have a brain tumor—thank you, God! But here’s what I do have: decayed spinal cartilage.

Here’s what I understand from the doctor’s explanation: Years of writing longhand, anywhere and everywhere, in atrocious posture, and overworking my hands, have led to the decay of the cartilage that separates the bones in my spine from the nearby nerves. The cartilage is frayed from individual vertebrae rubbing against each other too often. Now, with little cartilage to serve as a buffer, the bones of my spine are making contact with the nerves in my neck where they should not, and now the nerves in my hands, which are directly connected to the nerves in my neck, are receiving signals when they should not. Hence the involuntary movement.

The explanation is followed by recommendations, solutions, and prescriptions. I will have to allow my body to re-grow the cartilage in my spine. This can be aided by eating a lot of green things, including kontomire and seaweed, plus daily calcium supplements. In the meantime, I will have to ease up on my hands, especially my right. The doctor thinks it’s great that I am able to write with both hands, tells me that I must try to use my left whenever I can and allow my right to rest more often. Henceforth, I am forbidden from doing any writing anywhere and in any position that isn’t a proper, flat desk and chair. (“You see, that’s why I went to buy you that desk,” says my father in front of the doctor, as if it was all his idea.) The neurologist also recommends that I resume regular swimming. It is an excellent way to exercise my neck without the pressure of the weight of the rest of my body. In the meantime, some nerve medication should help to put my hands back under control.

I enter a daze that will take me days to come out of. I have written my way into corporal degeneration. Even for me, that is a new level of intensity.

My father and I stop by the pharmacy to fulfill my prescriptions before we go home.

Physically and emotionally, I am beyond exhausted. Perhaps that is why I wait yet another day before I even think about putting my nose ring back in. But when I try to put it in from the top, it goes only a little way before it stops. I am baffled. I try to put it in from inside my nose, but I can’t even find the hole from inside. Impossible!

I try again, several times from the top, where I can, at least, still see the hole, but I press until my eyes start to water, and the ring continues to be blocked by tough flesh, never breaking through to the other side.

I can’t believe it, but it’s true: a healed, 8-month-old piercing closed up in 3 days because nose skin is, apparently, miracle skin.

I am furious with my traitorous nose. So furious that, even when my father sees how upset I am about the closing and offers to take me somewhere to re-pierce it, I refuse. After what it’s just done to me, my nose doesn’t even deserve to be adorned. I withhold from it that privilege.

Epilogue: Conclusion of events, as of 2022.

The screenplays eventually got finished, seven or so months past the deadline. I disrupted my client’s production schedule so thoroughly that the window for producing and shooting it passed, and they were forced to move on with their schedules for other, more pressing projects. Now I am not sure if the scripts I worked on will ever turn into anything concrete. Alas, I am past caring. I’m just glad I made it out of that commission alive.

The story I wrote during my purgatory frenzy was eventually finished and painstakingly revised, and is, to this date, one of the best pieces of writing I have ever produced. It gained me an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future awards, 2021, 3rd quarter. I am still hoping to sell it somewhere, and so I don’t know when it will finally be available for public consumption.

These days, I write almost exclusively at desks. I still do vomit drafts primarily in longhand, because that is just how my brain works. I swim (almost) regularly. My nerves still twitch from time to time, very occasionally, when I forget to regulate my tendency to over-write and abandon my swimming practice for too long.

And I still have not resolved to get my nose re-pierced, because I’m still lowkey kind of upset.

The end. 🕸️

-Akotz the Spider Kid

My Journey With Medication (Transcript)

This is a transcript of an IGTV video posted to my Instagram account on 13th March 2021. The video itself was recorded on 10th March 2021.

Disclaimer #1: This is not eloquently written at all because it is literally a (very lightly edited) transcription of my speech. Apologies for any headaches the colloquialisms & tense inconsistencies may cause a reader.

Disclaimer #2: My (admittedly politically-incorrect) use of the word “normal” is meant to signify, “not mentally ill” and nothing more. Again, apologies for any offense caused, no harm intended.


Hello, hello! It is your girl Akotz, also known as The Spider Kid, coming to you live from my bedroom in Accra.

A few days ago, I asked via Instagram Stories if people would be interested in a video about my journey with medication, and the answer was a unanimous yes. So, this is that video. I am going to be talking about my journey with medication.

Timeline

Just to start, here is a brief timeline:

My depression started in 2012. That is as early as I can remember the onset. I did not go on antidepressants until 2019, and this year, 2021, is when I started coming off the medication. As of right now, I’m less than a week free entirely of medication and I haven’t been doing too badly, so that’s a good sign.

Why is there such a long gap between when my depression started (2012), and when I got on medication (2019)? It’s because I resisted medication for a really long time. I didn’t like the idea of something messing with my brain chemistry. Because I felt like if I put strange chemicals in my body that changed the way my brain would work, then it would change me as a person. I didn’t want to not be myself in any way.

Here’s the irony: I didn’t want to change my brain chemistry because I didn’t want to become unrecognizable to myself. But without medication, my depression worsened, and I did eventually end up becoming unrecognizable to myself. Long story short, I am really glad I got on board with the medication thing, because frankly, it’s possible that without the medication, I wouldn’t even be here today. When I tell you my depression was severe, I’m not lying. Just believe me. I’m not lying.

What Changed My Mind?

Hhow did we go from “I don’t want to change my brain chemistry” to “Okay, I’ll do the medication thing”? Well, I had a massive breakdown in the latter part of 2018. At that time, I was studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. After my massive breakdown, I basically told my parents, “If you make me go back to school for the next semester, I am going to kill myself. No bend, no curve. Like, it’s just… I’m not going to come back alive.”

So, my parents agreed to let me take the semester off. I’ve written about how I felt about that in a blog post called “Terror + Taking A Semester Off.” And the idea was that being home would make me feel better, and I wouldn’t have the demands of school upon me, and I would get or behave healthier.

But that wasn’t happening. I wasn’t getting better, and a month or two into my semester off, it got so bad that I would go to sleep crying, I would wake up crying, and I would go to my mummy’s room and be like, “Mummy, I don’t want to live anymore, I don’t want to do it anymore.”

I think my mother was really scared for me. She has been scared for me for a long time. But she decided at this point that, “You know what? My daughter needs help, I don’t feel that I have the capacity to give that help, let me get her professional help.”

So she contacted this therapist who eventually ended up seeing me for the remainder of my time in Ghana during my semester off. And I was lucky enough to get a therapist who treated me for free. It’s her way of giving back to the community, according to her, and I really appreciate her for that. But she was immensely helpful.

Honestly, this was not my first therapy attempt. (That’s an aside.) And not even my first therapy attempt with this woman. I had tried her before, although not very regularly. I’d seen a number of other people as well, but none of it ever seemed to work for me. So, at this point, me, I didn’t really believe in the ability of therapy to help me. I think the only reason that I agreed to my mother’s recommendation was because, well, I felt like I had nothing to lose at that point. It was like, “Well, if nothing is going to help me, it doesn’t make a difference whether I do it or not, does it?” So I was like, “Okay, I’ll go and see the therapist… again.”

So I did.

Now my therapist treated me with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. But she insisted on this two-pronged approach. So there’s the behavioral side of things, and there’s the brain chemistry side of things. She directed me to a psychiatrist that she partners with, and it is that psychiatrist who diagnosed me once more with severe depression, mild anxiety and basically determined that my case was severe enough to warrant medication.

Note: Medication is NOT compulsory!

I just want to add that medication is not compulsory for any depressed person. Unless your diagnosis determines a need for medication, you will not have to be put on medication. That’s one of those things I want to throw out there.

See a psychiatrist! If they tell you that you need medication, you might want to go with it. I wouldn’t recommend going on any medication if you have not been expressly told to by a medical professional.

Therapist/Psychiatrist Meeting Rhythms

I was seeing my therapist biweekly, I was seeing my psychiatrist biweekly.

For two years, 20mg of Fluoxetine daily was my dosage. I was taking the medication, I was going to therapy biweekly. When I started improving—and I did start improving—my psychiatrist meetings ended up becoming more sparse. It was like, instead of every two weeks, it was every one month and so on.

Note: Your Medication Depends on Your Diagnosis!

Another thing that I want to add is, the medication that you are put on is also dependent on your diagnosis and the way your mental illness is manifesting. For me, my illness was manifesting in the form of low energy, perpetual tiredness, oversleeping… There was this constant lethargy, like I feel like I couldn’t be awake. My brain was not alert. And that was the reason my psychiatrist deemed Prozac to be the right medication for me. Because according to him—I’m just quoting him here—Fluoxetine has a component of alertness. So that was supposed to counter all the lethargy that was coming about as a result of my mental condition.

The 2-Week Delay in Effects

So, here’s what happened: When I was being put on the medication in the first place, I was informed that it’s common for antidepressants to take up to two weeks to actually start doing what they’re supposed to do, which is anti­-depressing you. What I mean is that, you will be taking the Prozac every day, but for two weeks, you might not see a change in your moods. It doesn’t mean it’s not working. It’s just a delayed release, your body getting used to the medication, and so on and so forth.

However, medications have side effects. The side effects vary from person to person depending on how your body receives things, and even though the actual anti-depressing can take two weeks to start working, the side effects can start immediately. Changes in appetite, changes in sleep—which could both lead to weight gain or weight loss—mood swings, stuff like that… All these side effects. They can start immediately, even if you don’t start feeling better.

I was there taking the Prozac for two weeks daily. I took it every night. And the reason I was required to take it in the night was because of the things I just mentioned: the lethargy, the oversleeping, and so on. Because Prozac had an element of alertness, it was supposed to be helping me to be less tired and sleep less. I took it closer to my sleeping time so that, you know, I could hopefully sleep for like 8 hours—you know, a normal amount of time—instead of like, thirteen, which is the kind of thing that I was doing quite regularly.

When I first started on the medication, I was as bad as ever. Things were going exactly as they had always gone. I still felt like there was a weight in my chest, that the world was dark, that I was sinking in a pit…

And then the miracle happened.

Rapid Improvement After Delay Period

The miracle happened in the third week, as was predicted. My goodness. I could not believe the change in myself. I became normal. And when I tell you that I had been depressed since 2012—I didn’t know what normal felt like. It had been years—like, seven years—of not knowing how to function like a normal person, and suddenly, I felt normal.

Let me tell you something. I have had chronic headaches for pretty much my whole life. As soon as I reached adolescence, these headaches started. And they would be triggered by different things. Sometimes, it would be staring at a screen for too long, because I have photosensitive eyes. Could be staying awake for too long. Could be PMS. Basically, anything and everything that could possibly give me a headache gave me a headache. It was the sort of thing that could incapacitate me for days. As in, like, an entire weekend, you’ll not see me because I’m stuck in my bed, because my head dey bash.

So I had all these problems with watching TV or watching movies or what not, because I know that if I spend too long looking at the screen, I am going to have a massive headache. But I started watching a TV series—multiple TV series, actually—and I would binge-watch them. Let me tell you, binge-watching is not something I can, or I could, comfortably do, because of the whole headache business. Like, unless I want to be incapacitated for a week, binge-watching anything is a terrible idea.

But I started watching TV—five or six, seven episodes a day, which was unheard-of for me, and I felt absolutely fine! For seven years, it was rare for me to even go three days without a headache. And here I was, counting the days like “Eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one…” I was like, “This is not possible. This cannot… How… How is this happening? How am I functioning like a normal human being?” I was so happy. Herh. Is this how the rest of the word lives?

Because my brain was now getting accustomed to this new thing that had been introduced to its chemistry, the effects were very, very strong, very noticeable, very strange to me. That’s what happens when your body is introduced to something new. It’s like a shot of adrenaline kind of thing.

Good Effects + Bad Effects

I began to even out in the coming weeks. I started to feel less superhuman and more human. I was able to recover a lot of my energy in the coming days and the coming weeks.

And then I stopped being able to sleep.

Basically, the Prozac was doing too good of a job at combating my depression lethargy. At my meeting with my psychiatrist, I mentioned the changes I was going through. He instructed me to stop taking it in the night, start taking it in the mornings instead. So I wake up, and hopefully, the alertness lasts me through the day and then I’m able to sleep normally at night. And that is exactly what happened.

I started becoming more stable, more functional, more normal…

Self-Rediscovery + Mourning Lost Time

It felt like I was re-discovering myself. It felt like I had been the wrong version of myself for the last seven years and I was only now starting to discover who I was. Because the last time I felt like I knew myself, I was a child. So it was a kind of bittersweet thing. It was like, “Oh my God, thank God I’m finally normal” and also like, “I’ve never been a normal teenager. That is tragic.” That’s time I will never get back. Sometimes, I still regret that I was depressed my entire teenage life, because nobody wants to waste all those years, you know?

Anyways…

Regular Life & Regular Depression

Once I became stable, my therapist and my psychiatrist declared me fit to return to academia. I went back to school, and I was meant to continue on the Fluoxetine daily, every morning, until at least graduation. So that would be two full years of medication. And that’s what I did. From 2019 to 2021, from February to February, I have been on Fluoxetine daily.

Something happened that drove me back into a terrible depression, and that thing was the slow, agonizing process of breaking up with my best friend of four years. But at the very least, that depression had an identifiable trigger. It wasn’t like, “Oh, nothing has happened, and I’m sad.” You know, it was more logical.

Aside the whole best friend thing, there was also a lot of drama happening with my family. You could say it had been going on my whole life, but it worsened significantly the semester I was off from school.

I kind of dreaded coming home, for one because I felt like my whole social circle had shattered because of my separation from my best friend. And also, I didn’t want to come home because I didn’t like the state of my family. I felt like it was going to be oppressive, unhealthy, and toxic… In the end, I only had to worry about one of those two things, and that thing was my family, because it really was bad… Ahaha.

And then, there was a pandemic. Hm-hmm.

The pandemic affected my mental health the way I assume it affected a lot of people’s mental health. The idea of uncertainty, being kept in all the time, separation from your loved ones, the lack of physical intimacy, all of those things, you know. They were taking a toll on me.

But then I started to get significantly worse, even though I was still on the medication. So about seven months into the pandemic, it felt like I was getting close to losing it again. It was that sort of thing where I’ll just be there, then I’ll start crying, and I don’t understand why I’m sad, that sort of thing.

I was stranded/quarantined/being generously housed in my family friends’ home in Maryland. (Shout-out to the Amate’s!) My uncle thought that it might be homesickness. I don’t know if it was, but I did know that being at home had worked to restore my mental health before.

Once Kotoka opened its borders back to travelers, I was able to return home. And then I felt better, and then I graduated, finally!

One day I will talk about the stress and what a miracle it is that I actually graduated at last, because it’s not a trivial thing. If you know me, if you know anything about me, the fact that I graduated from college is not trivial at all. But that’s for another day!

Fear of Life Without Medication

I graduated. And, having achieved what I was meant to achieve on the medication, it was now time to reach out to my psychiatrist and be like, “Hello! Yeah! I’m done—what do we do next?”

But then, fear set in, and I procrastinated reaching out to my psychiatrist for at least a month. Because I was like, “Okay, I feel okay. I graduated. But I’ve been feeling okay because I’m on medication, right? So if I go off the medication, I’ll probably return to the depressed state, right? So maybe I shouldn’t go off the medication. Maybe I should just stay on it forever. Ooh!”

Of course, I didn’t like this train of thought either. Because I never want to be dependent on anything—not even if that thing is “good for me.” I don’t want to be dependent on medication, but it didn’t change the fact that I was terrified of what might happen if or when I got off it.

I procrastinated reaching out to my psychiatrist, but my mother kept being on my case. Up until this point, she had been the one collecting my prescriptions from my psychiatrist because I was in the abroad. She would collect my prescription and fulfill it, and then send it with whichever family member is coming to America. (When the pandemic set in, she sent my medication through FedEx.)

Weaning Off + Withdrawal

I finally reached out to my psychiatrist in January. And then, throughout February, I began the process of weaning myself off the Fluoxetine. I switched from daily to alternating days. So, every other day, I would take the medication.

The most obvious side effect of the Fluoxetine for me has been the changes in my sleep. There have been times where I have missed a dose by accident, either because I had missed a dose, or I had run out and hadn’t received my replacement. But, whenever that sort of thing happened, it was my sleep that was first to go haywire.

What happened when I started weaning myself off the Fluoxetine is that my sleep, energy, and mood levels went all over the place. The lethargy started coming back full force. Once, I slept for like, thirteen hours. Another time, like eleven? Twelve?

I started working out less, you know… Sleeping ridiculous amounts. And I would have these mood swings. Like, I’d be super exhausted, and I wouldn’t sleep, but two hours later, then I’m suddenly full of energy, and then not too long after that, I’m back to the exhaustion state.

I’ve generally been sadder than usual… I’ll just be sitting there, then I’ll start crying. This happened at least three times during the month that I was doing alternating.

Here’s something that I noticed about the alternating days. I felt better on the days when I didn’t take the Fluoxetine. I think the reason for this is that the Fluoxetine has a slow release. When I take it, it doesn’t work until the next day; I would be happier or more energetic on the days that I didn’t take the medication, rather than the days that I did.

Since last month, which is when I started weaning myself off the medication, there have been a few tragic events in my life, in my family. And that has contributed to a lot of sadness in my whole demeanor. But to a large extent, that sadness is rational, because, you know, there have been sad things happening.

Warning: Going Off Meds Can Be Initially Tough!

My psychiatrist in agreement with myself [decided] that we will try to see what I am like when off the medication entirely. So, last week was my last meeting with my psychiatrist. Since Sunday, I have not taken any Fluoxetine, and I seem to be doing well.

Once again, there was a warning that for the first two weeks or so that I go off the fluoxetine completely, it might be rough. Like, I might experience a serious downhill turn and it might be frightening, but I should be prepared for it. Hopefully, it should even out in the coming weeks and days.

Surprisingly, I haven’t had that low dip yet, and it’s been a few days. But I still feel okay. I still feel stable—thanks be to God.

But I still feel kind of scared that it is going to happen, that it might happen. And I won’t lie, I am still absolutely terrified that I will return to the unrecognizable version of myself, the depressed version of myself, whom, frankly, I never want to see again.

So Far So Great? 😊

But, so far, so good. And I am out here telling myself, trying to make myself believe what I think is true in this moment, that my God is bigger than my depression. I keep trying to tell myself that and banish the fear, because I don’t want to be afraid, much less of myself. I don’t want to be afraid of myself.

Yeah, to anyone who might be considering the whole medication thing, here’s my story. Hopefully, it helps you in some way. If it doesn’t… sorry?

Spider Kid out!