On Suffering.

Warning: This essay includes highly problematic and partially-irrational thinking. The author is aware of this. It is, in fact, the point of this essay having been written. As such, there is no need to point it out to her.

I am still a dependent. There are many things my family cannot afford, but there are also many things it can. I am usually on enough financial aid to not be anxious about how my school fees get paid. I have never had nothing to eat as a result of anything other than my own laziness. My classically chaotic transition into adulthood, featuring my financially illiterate and irresponsible self, has been peppered with incidents involving too much wasted money and too much food gone bad. When I’m broke, I know it’s probably because I bought too many books that month. Materially, I am not suffering.

I am mildly inconvenienced in several ways, especially regarding my technological devices, their limitations, planned obsolescence, and simultaneous, relentless malfunctions. I don’t have the resources to replace them. Still, I manage to get a lot of things done, and many people get by on even more dramatically dysfunctional machines. While my material situation can be highly irritating, there is no real suffering involved.

There are ways I do suffer. The affairs of my physical body are responsible for some of them. It’s difficult to explain to satisfaction, but my body seems to be constantly trying to kill me. As far as my knowledge goes, I do not have a terminal or auto-immune disease. But my body is very weak, and it always seems to be malfunctioning in some random or dramatic way. Sometimes, the slightest intensity in my daily activities has it crashing for days. I don’t have to do much before my body starts feeling like my limbs are made of lead and turns me into a bed potato. My photosensitivity is a disability—I’m no longer shying away from calling it one, because it’s incredibly intense—which ensures that I cannot partake in many common 21st-century activities at regular levels, lengths or quantities without temporarily rendering myself an invalid. This affects my productivity and stability. It is inconvenient and a mostly-legitimate form of suffering to me. I don’t understand why I am designed like this. I often ask God, because I can’t see the logic in intentionally creating a human being whose body only functions at 20% of the capacity of the average human being, but He hasn’t given me an answer. Because I don’t have an answer, my physical suffering tends to feel baseless, purposeless and stupid for merely existing.

I suffer psychologically, and this is where my suffering is most intense. If my body seems to be trying passively to kill me all the time, my mind is trying at least four times as hard, and very, very actively. There are hardly three days in a fortnight when I don’t think of killing myself at least once in each 24-hour cycle, when I don’t beat myself up about the things I have (not) achieved or the state of my relationships and friendships (when they exist at all); when I don’t think about all the ways I am so far from normal and how that will surely be the death of me in some way; hardly a day when I am—if not happy—at least content.

Mental health and its associated problems and causes are at least as difficult to explain as they are to comprehend. I don’t understand why my mind works the way it does, and I don’t understand why I am often in so much pain when nothing seems to be causing it. (That is, if “the fact that I exist” can be equated to “nothing.”) I don’t understand why I am suffering so deeply, mentally, when I am not suffering materially and when I don’t have any identifiable chronic illnesses.

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When I bring my blades to my skin and try as much as I can at any given time to tear it open, it is always in the moments I feel like an irrational, crazy person, beyond the influence of reason, happiness, God or persuasion. I need to tear myself open, I need to see myself bleed. But the urges are not entirely irrational. I feel so much pain that doesn’t make sense because nothing identifiable is hurting me, and I want it to make sense, and it feels like the only way to make it make sense is to have something actually hurt me, which is why I decide to hurt myself. Cutting myself is a deliberate attempt to make myself suffer.

In one of my recent spoken word poems (unrecorded, so don’t try looking for it), I have a line about how I deliberately stay away from food even when it’s mere feet away. There have been instances when I have completely refused to eat and have had to be nearly force-fed by my best friend. It doesn’t happen because I am unable to eat. It happens because I am, in the moment, unable to accept that I have the privilege of access to food when so many others don’t—and that these “others” excel in many ways that I can’t because my brain and body won’t allow me to function like a normal human being. But since my malfunctioning brain and body don’t seem to me like legitimate excuses to be exempt from material suffering, I attempt to induce it.

That’s one reason. The other is that, since my mental and physical suffering don’t make sense to me, I try to make myself experience a kind of suffering that I think does make sense. Hunger is real. Hunger makes sense because it is a result of lack of food. Every normal human being who lacks food gets hungry. If I suffer from hunger, my suffering will be “normal” and maybe going through that can teach my “abnormal” suffering a thing or two.

Rationally, I know that forcing myself to suffer won’t suddenly “cure” my mental health problems, but in those moments, I am as toxic as anyone who thinks that telling someone with anxiety to “just not worry so much” or someone with depression to “just be happy” is helpful. I am essentially saying to myself, “You’re here with your false suffering while others are really going through things—aren’t you ashamed? Let me show you real suffering so you can stop fooling over there.”

I often think of suffering in the context of entertainment industries—specifically, “hustle” culture. I remember, some time in 2017, getting upset at how glamorized “hustling” seemed to be. Not only did I perceive it as being treated as the only way to rise legitimately within the industries, but I also felt it had gotten to a point where people were looking for disadvantages to experience so they too could partake in the glamor of the “hustle.”

Originally, I was opposed to the glorification of hustling because I feared it would lead to the acceptability and consequent embrace of the dysfunctional systems that made (and make) the hustle necessary for some people. Like, my dear, it’s nice and all that you “made it” in spite of a system that doesn’t work… but I hope that in future, the system that should have helped you works well enough to help someone else, the way it’s meant to. The way suffering is talked about regarding its role in the journey to “success” makes it become part of the aspiration sometimes, whether consciously or unconsciously. When people see their role model artists, they want to be like them—not just get to where their role models are, but to get there in the ways their role models did, suffering inclusive. I guess it can be “inspiring” when you already are from a similar background as your role model, but how complex is it when you aren’t?

I’ve read varying stories/rumors about American rappers who either lied about their childhood wealth (in order to seem like they came from destitute backgrounds) or intentionally got themselves convicted so they too could say they had experienced life behind bars or something equally ridiculous to me. And that’s how I knew, even if subconsciously, that what I have been doing to myself is at least as silly.

I often feel like my life and path are illegitimate because I haven’t suffered enough. Ask me to define “enough” and I don’t know that I’d tell you. Besides, I don’t think I’ve gotten anywhere substantial in my career yet, so that’s another layer of irony… and frustration. Because if I’ve suffered so little, why have I still achieved so little? If I’ve suffered so little, what’s my excuse? My physical and psychological suffering don’t count as excuses to me, regardless of the fact that I’m consciously suicidal on a near-daily basis.

I don’t know what to do with the (comparative) absence of (material) suffering. I don’t know what to do with the (superlative) abundance of (psychological) suffering. I don’t know what to do with the feeling that I need to make myself suffer, or the impulse to make myself suffer, especially in the moments when such impulses seem too strong to resist. I’m not sure why I’m so attached to the idea of suffering and filled with so much guilt by the idea of not suffering—especially since I do believe that not suffering is the point of our strife. Why do our predecessors—biological, professional and otherwise—struggle, then, if not to make sure their successors don’t have to struggle as much as they did? (I am aware that this is wishful, idealistic thinking and that in real life, there are far too many people who love to think, “I went through all this shit, so you ought to as well.”)

It’s okay to acknowledge my comfort and the ways I do not suffer. Not to do that would be wrong and hypocritical, whereas I believe doing so adequately acknowledges the success of my predecessors in providing for me before and during my lifetime; my elders and ancestors, every African woman who has ever written and published, etc. Learning how to acknowledge the ways I do suffer sounds like a healthy thing I should be practicing actively. The sense of deserving to suffer is probably something I should get rid of, but I’ve often had no idea where to start. I believe that writing this is, in fact, a pretty good starting point.

-Akotowaa

Underground: A Memoir from May 2018

It is approximately the middle of May 2018 and probably Wednesday or something. I wish I could be sure, but all the days have melded together lately, and I have no desire to pick up my phone to check; that machine gives me more anxiety than I can tolerate lately.

I have awoken shrouded in an invisible mist that I’m sure is real and that only I am conscious of. The sunlight forms an aggressively glowing yellow line close to the ceiling, along the top lining of the heavy, blue curtains. I want the sun to go away. Everything about my world is dark, and it’s extremely irritating how the universe consistently refuses to reflect this.

One of the few friends I have made in college lies next to me, still asleep. She sleeps peacefully in her own bed, and I feel like an invader, as I have felt every single day that I have woken up here. I wish I had been able to sleep a little longer so that I could have postponed the sentiment—assuming, probably erroneously, that I would feel less awkward if she had risen before me. But I have always been an early riser, even in phases of darkness like this one. The past few days, I’ve been able to send myself back to sleep shortly after waking, but I’m having no luck today. Thus, wakefulness it is.

As much as I hate to think when I am in this state, there isn’t much else to do. (I don’t feel like moving; besides, if I do, I might wake her up, and I’ve caused her enough inconvenience already by my mere presence.) All I can think about is death, though, and the only thing that provides temporary distraction from these thoughts is the itch on my left shoulder where my tattoo is still in the process of healing.

My tattoo, which is almost two weeks old now, is of my personally claimed Adinkra symbol, Ananse Ntontan (Spider Web). Its symbolism is obvious, I think, because I’ve been wearing the identity of “The Spider Kid” for about a year now. And yes, although getting a tattoo had been on my mind for ages, the sense of emergency that pushed me to finally get it, in the closest parlor I could find in the shortest time, is temporally specific.

I don’t think I have ever wanted to die more than I have wanted to die these past few weeks. Given that intense desire often translates into occasionally irrational action, I was convinced that someway, somehow, I would die very soon, even if I had to see to it myself. My incentive to get the tattoo was an overwhelming sense of emergency to prepare for my death, and I refused to die without a permanent symbol of my self-claimed identity visible on my corpse. I considered it to be one of my final acts of rebellion, assertiveness, agency. People always seem to assume they know why I got inked, but there is no reason more truthful than this: I wanted to have some control over the appearance of my corpse, some power over my death, to make up for the agency that keeps being denied me as I live.

Taking actions of potential permanence is always significant, whether getting dreadlocks, inking your skin, or committing suicide. I like to share significant moments with my best friend, but I suppose this only works when I am significant to my best friend. He didn’t respond to the messages I sent prior to my tattoo appointment. He didn’t respond to my messages afterwards. I remember how deflated I felt when, several days after the procedure, my tattoo selfies still floated unreplied in his WhatsApp, and I had to conclude to myself that my moment of significance probably hadn’t really been that significant after all. It made logical sense to me that my death wouldn’t be, either. If nothing, not even taking actions of permanence would be enough to provoke a response from the most significant person in my life; the indifference from the rest of the world would surely only be louder.

I do not scratch the itch on my shoulder.

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Impulse and habit simultaneously urge my muscles to reach for my phone, which lies on the desk beside the bed. But I have no business to attend to on my phone, for two reasons: first, my best friend is still not speaking to me, so there is no chance messages from him would suddenly have appeared overnight, and I have neither energy nor desire to speak to anyone else on the planet. Secondly, I have, for the millionth time, deactivated all my social media accounts.

This is the beginning of the third week my best friend is refusing to speak to me. I wonder what precise magic informed him that this was the perfect period of my life to desert me, how effective his absence would be if it coincided with me sinking into the deepest level of mental faeces my soul has ever known. This is so far the longest period since we became best friends that I’ve been the victim of his characteristic radio silence. He wasn’t with me as I panicked about all my finals (which I got through, but only barely); or about my passport and visa (which I still don’t have); or my impending homelessness (even though I’m being generously hosted now); dwindling funds; desperation to go home; uncertainty about whether or when it would be possible (I still don’t know); anger with my parents; all-round depression and disillusionment with life (as usual, but also worse than usual); exhaustion; still-growing desire to eliminate myself from the living world. Sometimes, he’s the only thing that seems capable of making anything significantly better. He’s always my last straw when I can’t find a reason to stay. But now he’s gone. I don’t know how to do life without him. He’s never been away this long, and I think he’s never going to come back this time. That wouldn’t be uncharacteristic at all. I don’t know how to accept that I’m alone. Every time I think about rebuilding this kind of relationship, exposing the ugliest parts of myself all over again to anyone else, when I think about the energy that would require (which I certainly don’t have), my breath halts for too long. I hate life all the time, but I hate it with several times more intensity when he’s not in it with me. There will be no messages from him on my phone.

A few days ago, as I sat on the edge of this very bed, I deactivated all my social media accounts. My online presence has no purpose if I am not engaging with art, and I have nothing to put out in the world, thanks to my best friend’s silence and inactivity regarding my (/our) next major project. Besides, social media is, for me, nearly nothing but triggers. It is full of excessive bad news and toxicity, and people are angry all the time. They also have this strange habit of talking about the same topic at once, creating a huge echo chamber about a topic I really wish wouldn’t attract so much attention. Even the positives of social media irritate me, because my life is stagnated. Why are my own feet mired in quicksand while one of my favorite poets gives another TED talk? When someone barely three years older than me has finished with her Masters’ and has just been accepted into a PhD program? Why does everyone have a publishing deal these days? Why is everyone suddenly releasing albums and EPs? All I ever did online was complain and articulate my depression over and over again like I’ve been doing since twenty-bloody-twelve, and I am frankly exhausted of interacting with humans, in and outside of DMs. My presence online is at least as irrelevant as my existence. It all had to go.

I still haven’t moved from my position on the bed, and I don’t know how many minutes (or hours) have passed since I first woke up. I feel like crying, but it might wake my sleeping friend up. I want to disappear, but no matter how hard I will it, my body remains as physical and as visible as it has ever been. Flesh is the devil, and being trapped in it is torture. Self-extermination is on my mind every second of my waking hours, and I feel guilty because I keep thinking about how woefully impolite it would be to die in the home of the generous family that is hosting me. I am annoyed at the idea of having to postpone my death, and this, in turn, makes me feel more like the horrible person I am.

I am grateful for being hosted for free in my time of homelessness, but I am also deeply saddened that this beautiful family has to suffer me. I am not a visitor; I am a burden. I am worse than a burden; I am a dead woman walking, poisoning the air with depression everywhere I go. I am a joy-sucking vortex in every room, burying happiness further underground than my own spirit. I wonder if anyone in this family has yet recognized that I am not fully within my body, that the most essential parts of me are buried where only dead things lie. I wonder if they can tell that I have trouble perceiving their words when they speak to me, that I am only receiving muffled sounds that have managed to penetrate through several feet and layers of dirt.

It is the middle of the week, so my stay is only half-complete. I ache with a dull-but-wide pity for my friend lying beside me, for having to suffer my presence this long in the name of kindness and hospitality. I can’t help but wonder how her experience of having a week-long sleepover would differ if it had been anyone but me. I wish, for her sake, that it had been anyone but me. I imagine things would have been much more eventful, comforting, exciting, far less shallow and awkward than my presence makes them. I wish I didn’t exist. I wouldn’t have had to be here if I didn’t exist.

I am still awake, and I am tired. I am tired all the time, no matter how much I sleep. The first few days she and I spent at home, neither of us officially got out of bed until well into the afternoons. We would eventually sit up and joke to ourselves about how badly the past semester had drained our energy. I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to explain that there is so much more than the tedium of academia that makes me never want to wake up again each time I fall asleep. In contrast, the “school was a lot” excuse is friendly and much, much easier to hide behind.

I sigh. I can’t just keep lying here.

Before she wakes up and finds me staring into space, I decide to go downstairs and find breakfast. As I descend the steps, I think about how I will be twenty next week. Or would. If I either live or survive that long. Either way, by then, I’ll be gone from this house.


Note: I thought for a while about including the circumstances that led up to this point, but a lot of it is logistical, personal, and hella complicated. I can never give a fully accurate description of the chaotic state all facets of my life were in, around May 2018, and I feel like no volume of words or explanations can ever do justice to the effects life has on my anxious/depressed brain, anyway. So, suffice it to say that there were ample real-life factors leading up to everything described here, and that this is only but a vignette of that season, a mere slice, not the whole, of my mental state at this time.

-Akotowaa

 

The Pen May Not Always Win Over the Knife

I am not the same person all the time. Both of us are mad, but only one of us is ungovernable.

One version of me looks on at the other; the latter can’t stop crying. Her thoughts are singularly focused on her tool of choice, which is only a few feet away. She wants to reach for it, but she is paralyzed. The paralysis is the only barrier.

There is too much pain, and no evidence of it outside of her mind. Ink is not heavy enough to paint its picture. Her wrists are not graceful enough to navigate its contours.

But the slices would not be swift. They would be jagged and unclean, just like every attempt at art she has ever made. She hopes blood will tell a better story than her unpolished words ever could, but even if it does not, the disappointment would not be hers to bear.

I am not the same person all the time. When the tears turn into crusty streaks on my face, I sit in silence and solemn wonder. I can’t believe you were ready to go. I don’t know that I am ready to go, but I do know that I am more numb than desperate. I am more depressed than insane. She is fearless in a way I am not.

I trace my thumb along the pen, so light and breakable, wondering how this object can support the weight of my heavy breathing. Just to experiment, I squeeze my fingers tightly together. As I expected, it bends.

When my other self returns, I may not be there. (Terror sounds like a woman I should know, but I have forgotten everything about her, other than her name.) The scars on my forearm are slowly vanishing, like the division between one self and the other. Healing does not always happen in only one direction, and I may soon be the same person all the time.

-Akotowaa

I Am Not the Problem

Content/trigger warnings for mental health and some of its associated demons. Not very explicit, so feel free to continue reading if you’re not extremely sensitive.

Part I

It is dangerous and destabilizing to be deprived of something or someone identifiable to blame. This is the kind of problem that gives birth to itself, and one that often serves to protect, rather than re-examine, the system from which it emerges.

The journal entry that would eventually turn into this essay was composed on my third day of suffering from a headache that had consistently followed me into unconsciousness at night and been the first thing to greet me in the morning. The headache had rendered nearly all my sleep for the past two nights ineffective and continued to resist every dose of painkillers I threw at it.  My brain felt like what I imagined sentient bacon would experience as it sizzles in a frying pan. My hands had lost the ability to be still, trembling as if I had recently overdosed on caffeine. Hyperactivity is so far the severest way my body has learnt to express extreme exhaustion, so all my symptoms on that day were a clear indication that my wellbeing was in the danger zone.

On the second day of suffering, my headache had been bad enough to incapacitate me for half a day. Here is a sketch of what my incapacitation looks like: I am locked in consciousness, yet unable to do anything with it. Sleep refuses to claim me, and I am stuck with the pain. I toss and turn in bed, and my mind is a mess of interfering signals. The ability to concentrate on any task is beyond me, and an action as simple as keeping my eyes open is impossible. It is particularly during moments of incapacitation that I see the tragedy of how micromanaged my life in college is; being unable to work for half a day screws me up for at least a week. But on that second day, I could only think about how screwed-up I was. It was only on the third day of suffering, when my brain could at least make space for other things alongside the pain, that I began to truly feel it.

The feeling came in the form of an anxiety attack, like a psychological cyclone that my body didn’t know how to process. Its only physical manifestation was a heart rate that reminded me of the thundering of a helicopter’s wings, and even that description doesn’t feel like nearly enough to do justice to what was occurring within.

I don’t often have identifiable triggers for my attacks, but this was one of the few times the triggers were clear as the most cloudless Californian sky. For one thing, I had expected my headache to disappear by the morning after its arrival, yet it had not. Then, the next day, I had been incapacitated. By the third day, it still hadn’t let me go, and my academic progress had been stagnated, causing me to panic because I couldn’t afford that stagnation in the face of a growing backlog of incomplete assignments. With every second that I remained non-functional, my to-do list loomed larger and more menacing in my mind, as did the fear that I was in danger of failing school outright. This was it, then: the headache that would destroy my future, and I was powerless to stop it. The cycle this produced was maddening: the paralyzing panic increased the panic levels, because my inability to work due to paralysis was the cause of my panic, and so on and so forth.

It was only the fourth week of the semester, but I already wanted to die. Again. This was neither the first, second nor third semester of my life where my will to live had plummeted into the negatives on a hypothetical scale. I disintegrated into tears.

 

Part II

Sometimes, when I am in intense emotional pain, I feel as if I am in danger of cardiac arrest – and in those moments, the unlikeliness of that occurring to a mere teenager is irrelevant to me. Nothing and no one can convince me that what I am experiencing so tangibly isn’t real. Out of concern for myself, a couple of weeks prior to the headache, I went to see a doctor for a physical check-up. When he asked me to explain why I’d really come, I told him only the amount of truth I believed was presently relevant. Even so, what he heard was enough to prompt him to tell me to consider returning to regular psychiatric counselling, and that there was a chance I would be prescribed some medication. Of course, to save time and trouble, I told him certainly, if my situation demanded it, I would recommence therapy, and if necessary, I would take the meds.

In truth, I had no intentions of sending myself to a therapist’s office anytime soon and wouldn’t even dream of conceding to medication. I couldn’t say this out loud, because I’d have had to justify why, and I didn’t yet have the words. Only later, on that third day of suffering, would I acquire the tools to articulate the roots of my antagonism.

The tools were unexpectedly handed to me through an assignment for my psychology class, contained in an excerpt of William Ryan’s book, Blaming the Victim. When we think of blaming the victim, what usually comes to mind is a more extreme manifestation; the kind that most remotely conscious people would be able to spot the logical faults in. An example of such is on Ryan’s first page: a suspicious inquiry as to what exactly Pearl Harbor was doing in the Pacific in the first place, anyway – because obviously it wouldn’t have gotten bombed if it hadn’t been there when the bombs hit, right? But the real subject of Ryan’s writing is later shown to be the more insidious, perhaps even more entrenched version of victim blaming that goes largely ignored; the kind that is so normalized that we are nearly blind to it. The quality that I think makes it most dangerous is how apparently well-meaning it is; it is devoid of malice and claims the betterment of individuals in society as its goal. Unfortunately, its ultimate flaw is that it is, in Ryan’s words, “a perverse form of social action designed to change, not society, as one might expect, but society’s victim.”

Blaming the victim works something like this: Akotowaa’s competence and resilience in handling the pressure of being a college student in an American higher-ed institution is faltering; it is affecting her ability to function like her normal peers. We could help her by providing her with psychiatric counselling or setting up a meeting to discuss support with a dean. In this framing, I am the victim, and no matter what good intentions there are behind it, it makes me the problem to be solved. The problems that caused mine automatically get a free pass when it is decided that I am the thing about which something needs to be done. Consequently, the conversation that is not happening here is the one that questions how healthy it is for an educational institution to demand so much from any single human being, to place so many requirements and responsibilities on anyone’s head. Surely, there must be a difference between creating an atmosphere of adequate challenge and overwhelming students to the point of rendering them dysfunctional.

 

Part III

I have never been drunk, and I have never been high. I do not even use substances – so it alarmed me slightly when I found myself suddenly wanting to abuse them. I have been almost desperate for something – anything – that at the very least can turn me off, shut me down, suspend my consciousness. I am aware that these thoughts are self-destructive, and probably should not occur to a mentally sound mind. I do not, however, believe that these thoughts occur to me because there is something internally wrong with me. I know that I often feel like I am living a life without adequate agency; people tell me where to go, what to be, how to use my time, try to get me to follow instructions robotically, and dump responsibilities on me seemingly without regard for my humanity. After all, isn’t the life of a college student in a prestigious institution meant to be rigorous? And don’t all low-income members of its society have to work their sanity off trying to make money to support themselves as well? And God help you if you’re an African international student, no less, and heavily dependent on financial aid. Heaven rescue you if you have a naturally rebellious, wildly creative, and usually uncooperative brain to top all that.

Once, I had a discussion with a fellow African international student who made a point about how it’s almost as if you need to have the excuse of being unwell – for example, presenting professors with a doctor’s note after having gotten into an accident – just to be treated as human. The point I am driving at is that sometimes it feels as though harm (both self-inflicted and otherwise) is the only way to snatch back, for a moment or for permanence, the agency, or even the humanity, that the rest of the world has been wresting away from you.

I care deeply about mental health issues and every individual affected by them. Nevertheless, I have begun, after perhaps three or more years since I was first diagnosed with depression, to reject being considered mentally ill. There are far too many circumstances outside of myself that are provoking my reactions, and most of the time, I just can’t see how the causes of many of my psychological problems are personal problems of mine.

Sometimes, when I talk to friends, the reassurance they try to give me is some variation of “You are not alone.” And I always want to reply, “Well, isn’t that the issue, then? That everything we are experiencing is so widespread and occurs so frequently that we’ve come to regard it as normal?” When they try to respond to my complaints with suggestions they honestly believe are helpful, I can’t help but notice that all the suggestions still involve doing something about me.

 

Part IV

It was almost – but only almost – shocking to me when I discovered in a psychology class two years ago that for ages, mental health medicine hasn’t really known what it’s doing. Explaining away depression as a serotonin problem is something I would call a crutch – and for those who need scientific explanations like this to believe in, I suppose it is comforting. For me, it has been primarily destructive.

For at least five years now, I have internalized so much blame. My first instinct, whenever I am struggling, is to start from the point that I am the problem. I tell myself that I am struggling because I am not as intelligent as my peers, and that I am weak. There’s lots of evidence if I’m looking for it: my mates are Resident Assistants and athletes and STEM majors with rigorous schedules, who get internships in Silicon Valley and attend conferences whose titles alone humble me intellectually, and they have stellar GPAs. I don’t do even half of what they do, so why am I still constantly exhausted, overwhelmed, and in pain?

Whenever something has gone wrong in my life, I have tended to be the first to jump to the conclusion that I am clearly deficient in comparison to “normal”. Now that I have decided that I am not, I refuse to settle simply for words of self-empowerment and affirmation, as important as they are for people who have truly internalized the idea that they are damaged. For me, nothing short of structural change – change in the societies that produce such ideas in the first place – is ultimately satisfactory. Those other solutions, though they may be easier, still commonly fall into that benevolent victim-blaming category of proposals that seek to change society’s victim rather than society itself.

I have said before that it is dangerous and destabilizing to be deprived of something or someone identifiable to blame. This is how my misery transformed into anger: in my personal quest to identify some target, I finally arrived at a semi-satisfying abstraction of people to blame: everyone who was trying to blame me. That is how, on the third day of suffering, I began, furiously, to write.

There are fires being lit under me, and I am getting burned. The whole world tells me to go and get such-and-such ointment for the burns. It does not seem to occur to anyone that if there were not a fire being lit under me, I would not be suffering from severe burns. It does not seem to occur to anyone to turn off the fire. Nobody believes they have the power, or the power to find anyone that has the power, to turn the fire off. It’s so much easier to blame, for instance, an individual’s serotonin deficiency, or call me ill for wanting to do something to/for myself that makes me feel less like a mindless marionette.

I do not understand why it took me so long to truly comprehend that it isn’t my weakness that is responsible for the skyrocketing suicide rates at many of the most reputable higher education institutions. I’m not at fault for my school’s mental health facilities being so overbooked that the only options given to the remainder of the student population seeking counselling is outsourced therapy. What is absurd is that the sheer number of students breaking hard each semester hasn’t yet seemed to spark an active, seismic revolution. The very foundations upon which these problems are built needs to be shaken up, but I’m not sure many others see this as an emergency.

Maybe we are scared that a revolution might cost much more than anyone is willing to pay, because the closer you get to the roots of some problems, the more colossal and impossible to tackle they seem. For example, if I am not the problem, maybe it’s my school. But how can my school be to blame, if it’s forced to be as “competitive” as other high-class schools to be considered in the same league as them? Maybe the problem is that there’s something institutions these days are pressured to live up to. But how is that anyone’s fault but the corporate, capitalist, promiscuously meritocratic societies the institutions want to keep up with? And can we really blame these societies for having become all these things, when, maybe, this is just “how the world works”? And more “correct” we get, the more abstract we get, and furthermore, the harder it is to pinpoint anyone we can call responsible for anything. In just this paragraph, I have gone from zoning in on an individual (me) as the problem, to the vast an abstract problem of “the way the world works”, and it is difficult to see this, at first glance, as a useful approach to solution, because of how impossible the task of overturning “the world” sounds. So, it becomes that much more appealing, for instance, to blame individuals for serotonin deficiencies. This is exactly how we fall into the damaging cycles: as long as our targets of reform are wrong, the problems will never go away.

One might say I am irrationally optimistic, but I genuinely believe the right kind of change is possible.  The status quo’s primary weapon of self-preservation is the ability to make humankind forget that the status quo itself is human-made. What human made, I firmly believe human can unmake. Unconsciously, we end up perceiving the status quo instead as “divine,” so to speak, and beyond our control or influence, thus resigning ourselves to thinking there is nothing that we can do about it, so we redirect our energies towards its victims. It’s like sprinkling a healing substance on a diseased tree’s leaves even though the source of the tree’s sickness is the very soil upon which it’s planted. Any system designed to get you trying to “fix” the wrong thing is a problem that gives birth to itself.

I will generally agree that I am depressed and have been for years. I insist, however, that I am not mentally ill — at least not in this regard. I should not be faulted for dying when something outside myself is killing me. To begin the process of generating useful solutions, I’ve had to train myself to start from the premise that I am not the problem. It has been important for me to write all of this because, until enough people come to similar conclusions, and finally decide collectively and individually to do something about it, things are either going to stay in these miserable states or get far, far worse. (In both cases, the capitalists win. And, especially since the depressed, suicidal billionaires don’t seem to be having much more of a good time than I am, I am certainly not here for that.)

-Akotowaa