Irenosen Okojie is a writer and Arts Project Manager. Her writing has been published in the Observer and the Guardian. Her debut novel Butterfly Fish published by Jacaranda Books won a Betty Trask award. Her short story collection Speak Gigantular is out now. @IrenosenOkojie
Content warning: assault, self harm
When my friend Rosa told me a spy had been attempting to steal memories from her brain, we were sitting in a hospital waiting room, creating false lives for every interesting looking person that walked in. Rosa had struggled with severe depression since she was randomly, viciously attacked in public a few years before, beaten and left bleeding on the pavement. Her attacker, another woman, was never charged but Rosa was left to contend with the aftermath from that incident; panic attacks, the feeling of drowning intermittently, insomnia. Some days, she found herself shaking uncontrollably, scared to go out, to know other people. Understandably, other days she seethed with a blinding rage that left a metallic taste in her mouth, twisting her naturally bubbly personality into something she didn’t recognise. Following a bout of psychosis, other entities entered her life. She confessed that these figures chose to create accidents in her world, telling her you will collapse in the supermarket today, on your way to that job interview you really want, you will suddenly have a punctured lung, you will be unable to explain how it happened at the A&E reception desk. Outside your house, there’s a man sitting in a dark blue Ford Mondeo, he’s holding your passport and a blueprint to another life, after you collect them from him, call the police. Each time her body followed suit, caught in an all consuming terror that held her limbs hostage and made her hyper alert. These occurrences weren’t isolated, they continued. Days became bleak passages of time to get through.
Tormented for several months, she eventually visited a local shop, stared at the row of knives in the centre isle, positioned above frying pans guaranteed to produce the perfect omelette or pancake. She bought one with a small handle her hand would grip steadily. The voices kept talking, telling her it would be better for everybody if she just ended the misery. She remembered it being so hot that day in July her t shirt clung to her skin. She remembered the jangle of house keys in her pocket, the recorder at the bottom of her bag she’d taken to leaving voice diaries on to ease the pressure in her head, she remembered she’d run out of space. By the time she hit the high street the noise had become one clear instruction playing on loop. Her head felt ready to split open. The weight of living inside it had become unbearable. If she listened to the instruction, that dark, omnivorous throbbing would stop. She walked to the park, sat down in an isolated area and began to cut herself. It was only after she arrived home, after the wounds talked too that she started screaming in her kitchen.
I was devastated when she shared this with me some time later. I couldn’t get over the fact that she’d kept it to herself for a long period for fear of appearing weak and incapable of functioning properly. I felt sad and frustrated. Despite how close we were, she hadn’t come to me early on. A feeling of helplessness lingered. I vowed to myself I’d do something to help. I wrote my novel Butterfly Fish partly to combat this feeling which centres on a woman struggling to maintain her grip on reality following a traumatic loss but also partly because we don’t talk about mental health issues in communities of colour enough. It is a silent, fangled thing amongst us. In Britain, African and Caribbean people are far more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems than their white counterparts. They also face high levels of discrimination in the quality of treatment and care they receive, forced to deal with prejudice on two levels.
It can be difficult getting someone struggling to cope to seek professional help. They can become untrusting of others and increasingly remote. We need to have spaces we can talk about these issues in supportive environments. When a young woman becomes a danger to herself through no fault of her own, she needs to not feel ashamed. We have to remove the stigma from mental health and consider alternative therapies to help people on their way to recovery. People who support loved ones with mental health issues get left out of the equation. It is a thankless, seemingly unending situation. There should be places we can go to for help and groups we can join with people in similar positions. It’s encouraging to see organisations like Black Mental Health UK, The Black & Asian Therapist Network, Time to Change as well as Mind and the Samaritans.
A few weeks ago, I went to visit Rosa. After some time in hospital she was better, back home on a course of cognitive behavioural therapy which was helping. She beat me mercilessly at table football. It was amazing to see the light in her eyes again, that zest for life I’d always admired slowly coming back. She told me she still had her difficult days, still wrestled with anxiety. There are no neat resolutions, but she was slowly learning to manage more, to reach out when she needed to. She told me that the man in the dark, blue Ford Mondeo watching outside her house had disappeared, that he no longer held onto her passport. And this at least, was good news.